Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Temper’s Parenting While Sober series running throughout September. Please come back all month long for more.
I spent the first year of sobriety not drinking. I know — you kind of need to not drink to be sober, but that really was the focus. Wake up. Don’t drink. That was where my energy was spent, and my energy for anything else was either low or nonexistent.
Getting and staying sober is really hard work and, when you are a parent, it can feel impossible.
As much as my early reasons to stop drinking very much included my children, being sober didn’t automatically make me a better parent. On the surface, I probably looked like a constantly angry parent. I was. I was also an angry parent who avoided social situations, school events, and jokes about the need for a drink because kids make you want to go numb sometimes. I did not have the strength to fight through rooms filled with parents with alcohol on their breath, so I avoided non-sober people and non-sober spaces.
During my second year of sobriety, it occurred to me that my focus is no longer simply on not drinking; this has become habitual in the way drinking had been. I am focused on living.
The newness was learning how to be me while most people around me were still consuming alcohol, either with healthy social drinking habits or signs of problem drinking. It’s so much easier to see yourself in others when you have finally worked yourself out of denial. I noticed how others used their kids as an excuse in the same way I had in order to open a bottle of wine, beer, or booze. There is a sense that getting buzzed or drunk is a reward. There is a very unhealthy acceptance that parents are not only given a pass to drink but are expected to because they deserve the escape and relief of alcohol.
There is a very unhealthy acceptance that parents are not only given a pass to drink but are expected to because they deserve the escape and relief of alcohol.
First of all, no one NEEDS alcohol to get through a day or evening with your kids. You don’t need alcohol to live. You don’t need it to do anything that can’t be done sober, even if it doesn’t seem possible. But it’s okay to need some tools, especially if you are struggling with substance abuse.
One of my first tools, or allowances, is to admit that I miss alcohol.
I don’t miss the regret, shame, or hangovers, but I miss the dissociation from life and my feelings. I miss the taste. I miss the social ease of sharing a beer with a friend. And I miss the distraction from what feels like death by whining when my kids are being complete assholes or emotional vampires.
Being a parent is a literal turbulence. One minute you are the smartest, most patient and loving parent that ever parented and the next you are standing in a puddle of pee while holding what you think is a chewed granola bar and being asked to explain why dogs lick their butts. Add exhaustion, financial stress, work deadlines, and ongoing flashbacks or waves of PTSD symptoms from past trauma and you have the ultimate test of sobriety. It’s okay to admit parenting while sober is hard. It’s really hard.
It’s okay to admit parenting while sober is hard. It’s really hard.
Then there is the boredom that comes with parenting. There is only so much “watch me!” and “look at this!” one person can take.
Never-ending stops at birthday parties, playgroups, school functions, and sports practices make for lonely and mind-numbing effort. I am jealous of the parents who can throw a shot into their coffee or have a drink or two to loosen up a bit. They seem to enjoy themselves a bit more; not in a way that is unsafe or unhealthy, just in a way that people without broken switches can benefit from a tasty glass of wine or craft beer. I am not capable of stopping at one or two drinks, so I stopped.
At this point, I don’t usually avoid being around alcohol. My friends know I am sober and have always been very supportive. Now that time has passed, I don’t worry so much about feeling left out or judged anymore. I am proud of my sobriety and no longer hide it. I did at the beginning, though.
I was embarrassed and didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable. But honesty is such a gift. So is vulnerability. I started to let people care for me. If they chose to not drink around me, I appreciated their compassion and stopped telling myself I was a burden. And more often than not, when I tell someone new I don’t drink because I am an alcoholic, they offer admiration or tell me about their own struggles and victories over addiction.
I am also able to set limits without feeling bad for leaving a party early. I am much more confident in my sobriety but it’s rare to be in a space (even kids’ soccer or Little League games) with other parents without alcohol around. If the smell is too much, I excuse myself. And to make the outing more tolerable, I make sure to pick up my own version of a special drink. I will bring an iced coffee or latte. I will buy ingredients to make a mocktail. I give myself permission to indulge in something that is not alcohol.
Most of all, I give myself permission to indulge in authenticity.
There are still days that I very much want a drink. I know I don’t need a drink, though. That’s what makes the struggle easier.
On those days and in moments of feeling completely overwhelmed and uncomfortable, I tell myself I will get through. But I can’t help but be drawn to those old coping mechanisms of numbing my emotions and ignoring something I know I need to work on. I let myself go through the memories of making a drink. I feel the warmth wash over me, and I can feel that initial detachment from myself, my screaming kids, and any other stress that feels unbearable.
But I keep the memory going. I see myself pushing the limits of my consciousness with alcohol. I let the drink turn actual feelings into replacement ones. At the end of each longing, I know I don’t want guilt, fear, and shame to keep me from experiencing life. Even when life means dealing with kids who have no problem acting like selfish jerks.
I still check out from time to time, but not with chemicals. I spend a lot of time sweating out my emotions, literally and figuratively. Exercise keeps me balanced and helps me stay in those uncomfortable feelings when I think they will break me.
I haven’t broken yet so I trust that, even as my kids try to suck the life out of me, I am finding new and better ways to live without alcohol.