04 June 2009

Coffee and cocktails

Since becoming a parent, two rituals have become very important to me; my morning coffee, and my evening cocktail.

I love the coffee for several reasons, chief among which is that it tastes so delicious. The caffeine is nice, but secondary; when I was pregnant with Sacha, I could not metabolize caffeine very well; one cup and I felt like a speed freak. So I switched to a half decaf blend, and have never bothered switching back. It is the ritual that is most sacred to me, and while I would notice a difference in the taste if I switched to decaf, the ritual would still sustain me. I love the silence in the house when I come downstairs, all the kids (hopefully) still asleep, and those few precious minutes alone; with my thoughts, the newspaper, my warm mug, before the chaos of the day begins.

And then there is the evening cocktail. Once you become a mother, and spend great amount of time alone with small children, it becomes clear why so many women were popping tranquilizers half a century ago, and why many mothers drink today.

Again, the ritual of my evening drink is sacred. I start my dinner preparation, pour myself a small glass of wine, or an apertivo, and start cooking. Just as my cup of coffee signifies the start of the day, the evening drink signals that the day is winding down.

So when I read Lisa Belkin's column, A Mother Gives Up the (Wine) Bottle this morning, it gave me pause.

It is about Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, a mother of 3 young daughters, and a blogger and author. Wilder-Taylor writes a blog on Mommytrackd.com called Make Mine a Double: A Tale of Twins and Tequila. Yesterday, she wrote an essay entitled My Sobering Secret in which she held the mirror up to herself, and publicly admitted she has a bit of a drinking problem, and that in late May, she stopped drinking.

Because my evening cocktail is so important to me, I have asked myself on many occasions; do I have a drinking problem? Most nights, I have something to drink while preparing dinner, and maybe a half a glass of wine with dinner. If I've had no wine with dinner, I will sometimes join David for a bit of wine (usually with a piece of chocolate) after the kids go to bed.

For me, the answer to whether or not I have a drinking problem is no, for several reasons. While I look forward to that evening drink, I do not need it, and do not feel deprived if I don't have it. I am none the worse for going without it.

The other reason is that I never drink to excess. Since I have had children, I can remember one occasion, when Sarah was a baby, when I got drunk, and was hungover. It was so unpleasant, I haven't done it since.

The other reason, for me, is that I am always aware of how my behavior, both conscious and unconscious, affects my children. We are extremely powerful, Godlike, in their eyes, and they are watching our every move. There are times when I think I've seen my children whip out their metaphorical notepads, making note of some important bit of evidence, for future reference.

I am not about to offer my children a drink, but I think that if they see me drinking, but not to excess, it will help them to learn, as they get older and begin to experiment with alcohol, that drinking responsibly is not a big deal. I am sure before they leave our nest, they will get good and drunk, and David and I will know it--I can't imagine that a hungover teenager is a very good actor--and we will have to have a TALK, and there will be CONSEQUENCES.

I don't think my either of my parents had a drinking problem, but I can remember many occasions when I knew my father was hungover. (My mother may have been drinking as well, but she was so depressed, it was hard to notice anything else.) But at some point, Mommy explaining that Daddy doesn't feel well this morning no longer rings true. From this, I extrapolated, that unless my mother had not been drinking, and drove home, my father had driven them home drunk. (I also recall, at one point, when I hope to god I was past the age of 21, my father giving me this advice: if you ever have to drive home after having had a bit too much to drink, put your hazards on, and go slowly and stay in the right lane.) This is not the kind of sage parenting advice I hope to pass on to my children.

My father was also a pot smoker, and by the time I was a young adolescent, before I could even conceive that I would ever do such a thing myself, I knew something weird was going on with him. Why did he leave the house for a drive, and come back shortly thereafter looking so odd, with a shit-eating grin on his face? I asked him directly about it, and after skirting the issue for several months, he eventually had a talk with me. I remember his exact words: "Every so often, just to relax, I like to go out and smoke a joint." I believe I was twelve or thirteen when we had this conversation. It was when the scales began to fall from my eyes, because while he may have believed he was doing me a service by being honest, this heart-to- heart did not endear him to me. Instead, I was filled with an uncomfortable, squirming feeling, which I now recognize as one of wild confusion because he was supposed to be an adult, the role model. Needless to say, any further advice he gave me about not doing drugs did not have much authority behind it.

One of the defining moments of my adolescence came shortly after my family moved to New Jersey, from Staten Island. I was a sophomore in high school, not an easy time to move, and I was chronically depressed. (As were, I believe, my parents. But since they did not know this about themselves, how could they have recognized it in me? All they knew was that I was unhappy, and they were desperate to make me happy again.) I spent a weekend back in Staten Island with my old friends, where I proceeded, to literally drown my sorrows by gettiing rip roaring, puke-spewing drunk. I also happened to sleep at the home of some family friends, who saw me come home half-conscious, and alerted my parents.

Once I was home, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table for a talk. I don't remember exactly what was said, but I do remember when my father told me he knew I'd been drinking, that he slapped me across the face. I mustered all the self will I could summon to keep myself from crying at the blow. Certainly, I was shocked, and the punishment clearly did not seem to fit the crime. Discovering that your teenager has drank to excess is an unfortunate rite-of-passage, that in this day and age, parents must brace themselves for. But I do remember thinking very clearly, at that moment, about my father, "You fucking hypocrite."

Raising children is hard work, and lord knows it can drive you to drink. When I was a child, my parents were very unhappy people, and it is hard for unhappy people to raise happy children. My parents are divorced and remarried now, and I think they are both considerably happier, and my children are the beneficiaries of their happier, better-adjusted selves.

A key part of becoming an adult is realizing, slowly, over time, that your parents are not gods; they are imperfect, and all too human. I have my flaws; I could give you a long list of them right now, at the top of which is that I am very judgmental; can't you tell? I am sure I am giving my kids many, many reasons to put themselves on the couch someday. But our children learn by the example we set, and it is our sacred obligation to them to provide the very best example we can.

Life is hard and pain is inevitable, and uncomfortable. We will try to do anything possible we can to avoid it, to anesthetize that pain. Having children brings us face to face with the unresolved pains and conflicts of our childhood, whether we are aware of it or not. If we are blessed to be aware of it, we then have a choice as whether to confront that pain, or run from it screaming. But when we do not confront our pain head on, it comes to haunt us in other ways. Other ways which may, at some point, hurt our children, either directly, or indirectly, in the form of bad habits and negative qualities that we do not want them to inherit. So I have to hand it to Stefanie Wilder-Taylor for being brave enough to hold the mirror up to herself, confront her uncomfortable truth, publicly, and do something about it.


  1. I think it's all fine, even your father's joint, in moderation. Taken to excess, it's all bad, but I have no interest in being a puritan and banning all substances from my life.

    And ps, I'd work on your judgment. My mom was so judgemental (and super religious), and honestly, it damaged me to where I have a hard time trusting ANY woman. I'd have preferred if she chilled out a bi.

  2. Pamela,

    "But our children learn by the example we set, and it is our sacred obligation to them to provide the very best example we can."

    Perfectly said. My father also smoked pot, but openly fromt eh time I can remember until I was 13-years-old. The fear and confusion a child suffers from having a drug-addicted parent is awful.