As a kid, I couldn’t wait to be a “grown-up.” Adulthood came with autonomy and freedom; the possibilities felt endless. I wanted to be in charge of my own life, make my own choices about everything from when to go to sleep and wake up to what to eat and how to spend my time. I wanted to be like the people on TV who hung out with friends, laughing and playing games, going on adventures, and not having to listen to someone behind them dictating their every move.
To some degree, I think all kids feel that way — adults get to drive and stay up late and go to R-rated movies and drink alcohol. And I certainly wanted all of those things, but more than that, I wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing. I wanted to be self-assured and not feel like I was always walking a few steps behind or flying by the seat of my pants. It never occurred to me that wine would be the tool I used to get there, the thing I turned to that made me feel like I wasn’t an imposter.
The irony is that I started doing very adultlike things when I was eight years old, right around the time my family fell apart.
The irony is that I started doing very adultlike things when I was eight years old, right around the time my family fell apart. While I grew up in the era of kids parenting themselves, a proud “latchkey kid” with my house key on a length of yellow yarn around my neck, I was also responsible for taking care of my younger sister, starting dinner, packing our school lunches, getting her up and dressed in the morning, and talking to her teacher when she got mad and bit someone in class.
This all came on the heels of a tumultuous three-month period in which one of my brothers was taken away, my parents divorced (and my dad remarried quickly and moved thousands of miles away), and my mom descended into a deep depression. I became responsible for myself and my younger sister, but I didn’t dare ask for help from any of the grown-ups in our lives for fear that we would be split up.
Fake it til you feel it.
Never let ‘em see you sweat.
These were my mantras, and while I repeated them incessantly, they never made me feel competent. I was terrified that the decisions I was making were wrong, that it was only a matter of time before someone realized what was going on, or that at some point, disaster would strike and it would all be over. I lived in fear every moment that I would be found out for the fraud I was.
While I had a repertoire of slow cooker recipes, knew exactly how my sister liked her sandwiches (dry, no mayonnaise, three slices of paper-thin lunchmeat and a pickle on the side), and had grown the antennae that let me know when she was courting disaster, I waited in fear, waiting for someone to acknowledge that I had no business raising a child.
Somehow though, we survived those years. I went off to college and thought I’d left that chapter in my life behind me.
I didn’t expect the feeling of gross incompetence to come back to haunt me in my 30s when I was parenting my own children. More than once, I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen, watching my kids play, and wondering who put me in charge. Who trusted me with these small children, this house, this life? I wasn’t qualified to do this. I was making shit up every single day, pretending my way through meals, household repairs, conversations with other parents and school administrators and physicians.
My sister and I made it to adulthood by the skin of our teeth — what made me think I knew anything about being a grown-up?
I had never planned on being a stay-at-home mother, but with my husband traveling two or three weeks out of every month, it felt like the right thing to do while the kids were young. I was invested in being good at what I did, and it was important that my husband trusts me to raise our kids. I wanted him to think I knew what I was doing.
I had fooled everyone when I was a kid, so admitting now that I didn’t know what I was doing would mean destroying the narrative of my entire life thus far.
Despite all the books I read and my job history in the medical field and the fact that our kids were healthy and happy and our house was in good working order, I was rarely confident that I was making the “right” decisions. Who could I ask? My husband hadn’t ever parented before, and my parents weren’t a resource. I had fooled everyone when I was a kid, so admitting now that I didn’t know what I was doing would mean destroying the narrative of my entire life thus far. I hadn’t expected to be this age and still not feel like a grown-up.
As a kid, I had assumed that adults knew what they were doing. As an adult, I still felt that way; and felt I was the only one who didn’t. All of those scenes on TV that showed adults doing things together — the things I wanted to be doing like camping or playing charades or throwing dinner parties — accompanied by wine or beer or top-shelf bourbon. When mothers on TV were frazzled and overwhelmed, they relaxed with a glass of wine. Those strong female characters unwound with wine, indulged in “self-care” with wine. The affiliation lodged itself in my head and I grabbed it like a life raft.
As it turns out, that expensive glass of wine I sat down with after the kids were asleep did make me feel grown-up. Someone who was faking it wouldn’t have dispensed a perfect 5 oz. pour in the right wine glass for this lovely Cabernet. Someone who wasn’t a “true” adult would be drinking a wine cooler or wine from a box, or tequila straight from the bottle. But I had used my sommelier-approved wine opener to crack that $50 bottle of red, selected a long-stemmed wine glass, poured and aerated to perfection, and savored that first sip of adulthood like a pro.
Wine’s ability to make me feel like I was legitimate was beyond my wildest dreams. Selecting a bottle to take to book club was a serious affair. I became known for my unusual and delicious offerings, solidifying my status as a grown-up, in my own mind. Friends asked for my opinion when we met for dinner as we perused the menu. I often took a moment to look at the scene from outside myself — a group of women sitting together, sharing a bottle of wine, and enjoying themselves. We were like those women on TV. We were grown-ups. We were legitimate.
It seems astonishing to me that it took over a decade for me to realize that alcohol didn’t impact my parenting in a positive way. It may have helped me cloak my feelings of inadequacy by offering me something I was “good” at, but it certainly didn’t make me a better mother. It didn’t make me more compassionate or give me wisdom. It mostly meant that I spent a lot of my disposable income maintaining this façade and pushing aside my feelings of inadequacy, all of which came rushing back every morning as I got up to face another day.
When I quit drinking, it was these strange vestiges of the association I had with drinking wine that blind-sided me. Every night when I pulled ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry to put dinner together, I reached for a bottle of wine. In my mind’s eye, I saw sophisticated women on TV chopping vegetables and sipping a cold glass of chardonnay. I thought about whether white or red wine would pair best with what I was preparing. Breaking the habit of drinking while cooking was harder than I expected.
Somehow, standing in a group of people drinking wine and cocktails while I held a glass of iced tea made me feel like I had been exposed.
The first time I went to book club without a bottle of wine, my friends were shocked. They all looked forward to my offering that month, how disappointing (“LOL, but no, really, why didn’t you bring a nice bottle of wine?”). When I explained that I wasn’t drinking anymore, there was a mix of intense curiosity (“ooh, is there a salacious story here? Are you a closet alcoholic? Do tell!”) and some women who immediately lost interest and walked away. Barbecues and dinner parties when I showed up with a jug of iced tea to share or a gallon of kombucha elicited reactions of, “Still? You’re still not drinking?” Somehow, standing in a group of people drinking wine and cocktails while I held a glass of iced tea made me feel like I had been exposed. Again, I felt as though I wasn’t a “real” adult and didn’t belong here with these people.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to change the narrative in my own head and expose those stereotypes and assumptions for what they are: Marketing slogans. I have begun to acknowledge the good work I’ve done raising my children, building my business, and I’ve found other adults who readily admit they feel like they’re flying by the seat of their pants much of the time.
I haven’t had a drink since October, and it turns out that I don’t feel any more incompetent than I ever did. I’m happy to report that I am really enjoying the part of adulthood that I once longed for — making my own choices and living my values — especially when it means demonstrating to my kids and myself that being a grown-up has less to do with what we see on TV than it does with understanding what’s most important to us.