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Friday, January 20, 2012

A jug of wine and thou, in the wilderness of parenting

I have to tell you a story which has absolutely nothing to do with childcare. Please, bear with me. I will wind it around to childcare eventually. (You know I always do, in the end.)

When I first came to this neighbourhood (alone) I knew NOBODY. I was invited to a few people's houses, was offered a glass of wine the moment I stepped through the door, and then looked at as though I was an alien life form with green fangs dripping slime when I politely declined.

Now, I must point out that when I was a young married woman I used to drink wine-  quite a lot of wine, actually- but when I got pregnant, my body suddenly decided that wine and I were mortal enemies; if I drank a single half-glass of any white and most red wines, I would immediately discover that I'd been stabbed in the back with a red-hot poker, and would retire to the smallest room in the house to writhe in agony for half an hour or so.

It's an unpleasant sensation. I try to avoid it.

Fallback position for the hostess was always to offer me a beer, but I just don't like the taste. And out here, that's usually the end of the drinks menu. It got a bit embarrassing after a while.

Well, I got through those first few visits drinking water and making an early exit. Obviously I wasn't quite fitting in, and my inability to share a glass of wine with the women was part of the problem; they probably assumed I was a prig, or judging them for their Bacchanalian enjoyment. But I hadn't had it really brought home to me how vital alcohol can be as a form of female 'social currency' until I revisited one of the houses where I'd been looked on as somewhat difficult for refusing a wine, despite my explanation.

Rather than put the hostess back into Awkward City by refusing a drink altogether, this time I'd brought my own premix G and T (yes, that's right folks, I'm a spirits lady these days and I do enjoy a drink), and I waved it at her gaily as I arrived. She immediately looked relieved.

"Oh, you drink spirits! Thank goodness!" she bubbled. "If you didn't drink, I couldn't see how we could be friends."

I suppose I should give her points for honesty, though her reaction effectively put a line through her number in my little black book. I've experienced lesser degrees of that reaction so many times, due to my wine intolerance, that it's made me think pretty deeply about the role of drinking in our culture- particularly in Australia. It seems that many people are completely nonplussed by someone who doesn't trade in the accepted social currency of alcohol, to the point where non-drinkers make them deeply uncomfortable. We don't give our society's drinking norms a second thought, really, until someone bucks the system or falls off the edge.

So how does that aspect of our culture fit in with parenting? (There, you knew I'd get to it.)

In the interests of full disclosure, and in case you think I'm about to launch into a guilt-trip alcophobic diatribe (yes I made that word up), I'm writing this with a neat bourbon in my hand. It's generous, but it's the first and last of the night.

In the interests of full disclosure, I spent 17 years of my life co-parenting with a drunk, and I really, really regret that. I wish I could find a way to use that for good.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm currently writing a book which deals in part with the destruction that parental alcohol abuse wreaked on the childhood of one of my dearest friends.

Do you parents out there dare come on a trip with me through the stages of drinking, from relaxation to degradation?

There's a whole world of mothers out there who freely advertise that they're desperate for their glass of wine at the end of the day, and many fathers are similarly unashamedly desperate for a beer. Or whatever. Choose your poison. (Many of these people are my friends. Many of them are your friends. Check the status updates on Facebook every Friday afternoon.)

I mean, it's the path to Paradise; ask Omar Khayyam...

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Some of them have one or two glasses, and it takes the edge off their anxiety or stress or wound-up-ness (that's not a word either but you know what I mean) without having any visible ill effects. They'll do it openly, in front of the kids, and probably quite safely. They might even be talking to their kids about alcohol already. They won't feel obliged to finish a bottle just because it's open. They use alcohol; it doesn't use them. They're unimpaired.

Some parents have more than a few glasses, and maybe they get a bit snippy or narky with their partners or their children. (A few eyebrows might get raised. Children raise their eyebrows too, though sometimes it's internal.) Maybe they get a bit impulsive on the parenting forums and blogs and Facebook, and make rather rash or intolerant comments. (I have no evidence for that, but some of the wilder comments I read do sound very like one of my exes when slightly sozzled- self-righteous and insensitive.)

Maybe it makes them somewhat less alert as parents. (I hope their baby isn't slipping out that door to the pool, where someone's left the gate ajar; there seem to be an awful lot of drownings despite the compulsory fences.) Maybe they don't get nasty, but forget they were meant to drive their kids somewhere till after the third drink in the hour, and then they think what the hell, I'm okay, it'll be alright this time, and pick up the car keys. (Is that child restraint done up?)

Some parents have many more than a few glasses. Most nights. (God help them if their child has an accident or gets sick, and they have to respond.) Over time their faces start to look flushed, their bodies start to look bloated, and they start to boast about how trashed they were last night, knowing that their friends will laugh with them. Some of them start to do inappropriate things in front of their children, like stripping off and throwing their underwear in the belief they're funny (seen it) or swearing copiously (seen it) or picking fights (seen it). (Their children will remember, even if they don't. Their ex-partners will, too.)

Some of them have so many glasses (probably nearly every night) they actually become someone else, or pass out on the floor, or throw up in front of the kids. (Seen it all.) Some of them become dictators of discipline, losing their kids' hearts for all time. (Seen it, and the after-effects.) Some of their children will adopt the modelling as normal, and become alcoholics too. Some children will go so far the other way that the rift will never mend.

Somewhere along this continuum of alcohol use, drinking ceases to be accepted, even by other drinkers, and this almost necessary social currency starts to be unacceptable, embarrassing, irresponsible, deadly serious. Nobody wants to tell a friend where that line is, because then they'd be a party-pooper- and besides, there but for the grace, etc, etc. (And who wants to try to reason with a drinker? They get defensive, they hate you for it, they tell you you're wrong, they sometimes get emotionally or physically violent. Been there, done that, waste of time.)

And so it's actually down to the drinking parent to look in the mirror, and to learn to stop at the right time, while they're unimpaired. That's not as easy as it sounds. There are few bigger taboos in many social circles than saying no to a drink, or to another drink. There are few things harder to admit than being out of control around a substance that people use all the time under your nose. Not drinking at all can make you feel like an outcast in your own society; not drinking to excess can make you feel the same way in some circles.

Harder still is the fact that when you're stressed out of your mind by parenthood, especially if you feel like you're bearing the burden alone, alcohol works. It makes you feel more relaxed. (At first.)

This is not AA. I'm not a counsellor. I'm not going to wave a magic wand if you've got a problem with alcohol, and I'm not going to lecture anyone (though I might refer you to my post on what makes a parent resilient, and suggest that you might need to deal with a few things on that list).

I just want you to think about where along that scale you want to be, and where you actually are. Because your children are watching you, dammit, and I've seen what can happen when children and alcohol misuse are in the same room, and it ain't pretty, and you don't want any part of it. If you got someone to video you, would you like what you saw? Would you like the look in your kids' eyes?

Respectful parenting. It's the key to everything you're trying to achieve as a parent- behaviour management, achievement to potential, healthy family relationships and all the rest.

That means that you need to be someone your children can respect. Your children's respect isn't your right. You have to earn it.

So if alcohol is maybe undermining that respect... maybe it's time you thought about that glass of wine, whether it's the first one or the third one or the one where you lose count.  I know you're trying to be a better parent, because you're right here reading about better parenting. And that's a damn good start.

Parenting can feel like the wilderness, but maybe the jug of wine isn't actually turning it into paradise after all. Maybe, for your kids, it's in danger of turning it into hell on earth.


  1. Thank you for this post and for sharing so much. I am basically a non-drinker due to health issues. I first made the decision years ago when I realized I was depressed and I knew alcohol would only make it worse. Over the years I was diagnosed with HepC, migraines and diabetes. I have always been upfront with my friends that I can't drink for health reasons. At first they seemed okay but over the years I could tell they were uncomfortable with it. I used to get together occasionally with high school friends and our gatherings always revolved around drinking. I am talking about women in their 30s and 40s with children at home. It made me so uncomfortable, watching them all get wasted..hadn't they been through that phase already? It's not just that I shouldn't drink but I dont want to...been there, done that. I have better things to do than spend the entire next day trying to recover from a hangover. Over the years I have had an occasional glass of wine but don't usually end up feeling so well. But I do have to admit: one time several years ago I decided to drink with a group of friends and I had several cocktails..I had fun, I felt good, lots of laughs, etc. Until the next day..ugh,never again. One of my friends said she hadn't seen me so relaxed and having so much fun in a long time...she was so happy I had decided to drink. I thought about it later on and realized I am okay with being a non-drinker but others weren't...and that is their problem. I am quite certain that some of them are alcoholics. I have since parted ways with a lot of those people..for a variety of reasons...and mainly I am okay with it. I would rather spend time with those who can accept me and my non-drinking ways. So I say: go ahead, drink up, enjoy that beer or glass of wine...I am happy here with my diet coke or glass of water.

  2. Ahhh... there, you see, it's not just me! :)


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