Point A: Myself

Early in my first pregnancy, an undercurrent of steady anxiety flooded my life. In those nine months, I checked that doors were locked on an hourly basis; I suddenly became afraid of the pan-rattling thunderstorms I adored as a child. Postpartum, I couldn’t blow dry my hair because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to hear… what? Her cries? An intruder? I didn’t know. As my baby grew the fear eased, but it never completely went away. I learned to damn the rushing in my mind the way many stressed mothers do: I drank wine as I cooked supper, and continued sipping until well after her bedtime.

Eight years and another baby later, the combination of anxiety and the liquid sedative I’d made a near-daily habit of consuming had sunk me into a deep depression. There were times I felt like the alcohol had dissolved my heart entirely, but other nights, I could still hear it beating as if it were trying to telegraph to me: no more, no more. Finally, I decided to listen. At 30 years old, I permanently removed alcohol from my life.

When you make a habit out of something as socially and recreationally promoted as alcohol, it’s amazing how many things you forget how to enjoy without it. That first year, everything felt noteworthy: the first time hitting the beach without rum coolers sweating in the bottom of my purse; the first time taking the kids trick-or-treating without red wine in a travel mug; the first time camping without a bottle of cherry whisky; the first Christmas morning sans Irish cream in my coffee cup. In these first-time moments, I was as awkward as a 13-year-old in the presence of her crush (which was, funny enough, exactly when I decided to start drinking). As I collected the days, weeks, and months of sobriety, I began to realize the insidious role alcohol had come to play in my pleasure; these perfect times were already made for optimal enjoyment. And, yet, I didn’t know what to do without a drink in my hands. Lucky for me, my children reached for those awkward hands every time.

The kids taught me how to play again, as if I were a child, too. Five and eight years old, my little girls pulled me into lakes and together we squealed as we jumped over whitecaps. We could barely catch our breath from laughing as they painted lipstick under my eyes and backcombed my hair until I was (a) fearless (witch) on Halloween. Camping, they each crept under an arm and we made wishes as meteors flew over a dark August sky until my littlest, Chloe, fell asleep where we lay.

There were times I felt like the alcohol had dissolved my heart entirely, but other nights, I could still hear it beating as if it were trying to telegraph to me: no more, no more.

I relearned my joy watching theirs, but that’s not to say I wasn’t doing my own work, too. The mere change in my diet—that is, its absence of booze—quickly gave me more energy than I’d ever had. On weekends, the mom who’d always been too busy cleaning, catching up on work, or sleeping off hangovers started taking them swimming and for long walks with the dog. We made a never-miss routine of Sunday library visits. Wide-open evenings meant long, lingering tuck-ins. There was time for picture books and early readers and children’s classics, too. When I wasn’t reading to them, I was telling them stories. Did they know how wise and wonderful their hearts were? All the answers in the universe are written on those hearts.

“But how do you know?” Chloe asked from her bed.

“Because I’ve seen them,” I said. “You and your sister’s flickering little hearts were the very first parts I ever saw of you, back when you’d only just begun to exist. I had to squint at the ultrasound screen, but I definitely saw a lot of answers written there. Your heart will whisper them to you, you know. You can hear it now if you really listen.”

Chloe put her finger to her lips and listened. “I hear nothing,” she said. She asked to listen to mine, instead, putting her ear to my chest. “It just says: Thump! Thump! Thump!” she giggled. “But that means, I! Love! Chloe!

I sought therapy to treat the anxiety I suffered and learned to ground myself through breath work and mindfulness techniques. I started devoting the first hour of each day to simply meeting myself in peace, journaling and meditating in (near) solitude. Cailena, my early-riser, frequently squeaked open the door to my candlelit office before the sun came up. She’d find her mother there before a mirror, cross-legged on a yoga mat with another rolled out beside her in case a little girl decided to join. On those occasions, we’d keep the practice short—10 minutes of stretching with a quick guided meditation track from Insight Timer’s Kids and Teens category. Once, rain poured outside our open window and we took turns reading to each other a selection of Rumi quotes:

Love is the bridge between you and everything.

Your heart knows the way, run in that direction.

We’d close our eyes as we listened to words on gratitude, compassion, or intention, but I’d always peek to see her face as she reached to hold my hand.

Point B: My Daughters

We were together in that office not long ago, she studying for a social studies quiz and I working on my book when Cailena broke our silence with a question.

“Mom, do you think I’ll drink alcohol when I grow up?”

I blinked. What to say? I’d been open about my own choices regarding sobriety, after all.

“I think that’s a choice you’ll have to make for yourself,” I replied. “What’s right for one person might not be right for the next. The first important thing to know, though, is that no one ever needs alcohol—not to dance, not to sing, not to tell jokes or fall in love or be wild or feel happy or relaxed. Sometimes it will feel like everyone drinks, but they don’t, not everyone, and there’s something very special in being different. The second important thing to know is that your heart is wise. You will have the ability to make your own choices. Wherever your decisions lead you, your heart will always bring you back to yourself if you listen close enough.”

“Yeah,” she said, completely ignoring my monologue. “I think I’ll probably drink sometimes with my friends. When I’m grown-up, that is.”

She smiled at me, Okay? I smiled back. “Okay.”

The conversation was over, but I thought about her question long after we finished homework and ate dinner and tidied the kitchen. Of course, children will make their own choices around alcohol. I’m raising intelligent, sensitive young women entitled and able to design their own lives. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fear. Will they inherit my anxieties and predisposition towards depression? Will they, like me, fall into habitual self-medication? If they do, will they know there’s another way to live, or will they scorn the life I modeled in their childhood? And then there are the more immediate concerns; although no woman is complicit in her own abuse, I know the truth in Aaron White’s words (as quoted to Sarah Hepola) too well: When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.

But these weren’t all of my worries. There was a last, niggling thought; shallow and petty; silly but sad enough to momentarily make me question the decision:   

If my kids become drinkers, will they stop hanging out with me?

Long before I got sober, part of me knew one day I’d have to make a choice. The thought of my kids coming to know the me I turned into after their bedtime was sickening. I didn’t want them to feel the sharp words I was liable to sling or feel resentment towards the belligerence, low energy, negativity, or embarrassing beer tears that inevitably showed up around drink four or five. My alcohol use would certainly have created distance between us; it was so defeating to think sobriety might cost closeness, too. I imagined a future scene: my adult daughters with me around a restaurant table, glasses of white wine in our hands, myself in pearls and a blazer, short hair done big and streaked silver and blond. We are laughing, leaning in, feigning shock at the secrets we confess. Wasn’t this what grown mother/daughter friendships are supposed to look like? Champagne at wedding dress fittings? Mother’s Day mimosas at noon? Wine and chocolate movie nights?

No, I quickly realized, it was just an image I’d been fed. There was a reason why I imagined myself looking suspiciously like Jane Fonda á la Grace and Frankie when, in actuality, I am way more a Lily Tomlin. It was because Fonda’s character, like myself, has two fabulous, fun daughters, and in scenes in which the women bond, drug and alcohol use are frequently portrayed. Like most media depictions of female friendship, the mother-daughter drinking trope has become requisite to signify a relationship actualized, a shared trauma mended. But this doesn’t reflect reality. In my own experiences and those I’ve been privy to, mother-daughter drinking quickly leads to stupid arguments and painful accusations; misplaced jokes and pierced wounds; words impossible to retrieve. It is much more warming to share a pot of tea… and yet another accepted trope is the stuck-up teetotaler, the woman denied friendship until she loosens her figurative (and severely-tied) hair by finally acquiescing to those who claim liquor as a symbol of empowerment, sisterhood, and reclaimed identity. Would my grown daughters see through this cliché? Could I?

If my kids become drinkers, will they stop hanging out with me?

Yes, my heart spoke. Yes, I can trust the women I am raising to know my truth. Yes, I am strong enough to make space for their journeys; yes, I am strong enough to I honor my own. Children will withdraw and return, as all things in life ebb and flow. My daughters will grow up knowing everything they need, they already possess. They will do what is right for them in perfect time, but that doesn’t mean their choices or struggles will reflect my own. It just means that no matter what, I can rest in faith that they have the power to find their own way home.

I went downstairs to begin the bedtime routine with my youngest. We read a few pages of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and listened to lullabies as I rubbed her back, drawing symbols of all the things I want for her with my fingertips: peace, love, wisdom, strength. “Can I listen to your heart?” I asked. She nodded and giggled as I put my head to her chest. “Oh Chloe,” I said. “This heart is so smart and so strong.”

I kissed her head and tucked blankets around her, dimming the lights before crossing the hall to her big sister’s room. Opening the door, I found Cailena sitting among twinkle lights she had unwrapped from her bed frame and taped around a corner of her room. She sat on a folded pillow on top of a white faux fur rug, another pillow propped in front.

“I made us another meditation space! I don’t have a mirror, so I thought we could face each other.”

I brought my hand to my chest and smiled, eyes blurring her golden lights into a sepia halo. “Caily, what a beautiful idea.”

I sat on the pillow and handed her my phone. She picked a track from our app and for three minutes we were together and silent, legs crossed and eyes closed.

I peeked to see her face as she reached for my hand.