I Was a Drunk Mom
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This story originally appeared at Salon.
It’s winter 2009. I’m in a liquor store. My 6-month-old son scans the rows of bottles with his big eyes. He says, Tat-tat-tha-tha under his breath. It feels like I’m holding mine, but I let myself relax since I haven’t been in this particular location before, a wonderland of color and crystal. Usually, I make this errand run a quick in-and-out. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I think people tend to notice the stroller.
Five months ago, I started drinking again after being sober for three years. Since then, I’ve developed so much paranoia. I feel watched all the time, even in the dark. Walking home, I stay behind buildings, in alleyways, like a criminal, pushing the stroller as I take my discreet sips from a bottle of wine I’ve stored on the bottom of the diaper bag. I know I’m the worst of all villains: a mother who drinks. A mother who endangers her child. Part of me drinks to forget this.
We don’t like to think about drunken moms. But the subject came up recently with the tabloid story of 10-month-old baby Lisa, who disappeared in Kansas, Mo. Earlier this month, it came out that her mother, Deborah Bradley, was in a drunken blackout on the night of the baby’s disappearance. Bradley defended her drinking as “having grown-up time” and went on to say, “There’s nothing wrong with me doing what I want to do after dark.” I have no idea if Bradley’s consumption had anything to do with what happened to her daughter — but I know that story gave me chills.
I relapsed a month after giving birth to my son. We were having a party to celebrate his arrival in the world and people brought over alcohol. That night, I picked up a glass of bubbly and gulped it like it was ginger ale. “It’s a special occasion,” I said to my partner, who knew of my past as an alcoholic. One of our friends told him to chill, that all parents drank because babies were hard to deal with. The friend even brought up that joke about unpublishable books for children: Mommy drinks because you cry.
“Exactly. Baby cries, I drink,” I said. “Besides, I’m just going to have one glass.”
I had five or six, in secret. At one point, I tiptoed tipsily up to my son’s nursery to show him off, sleeping, to a happy guest, but I felt embarrassed to touch the baby with my drunken fingers. “Let’s just watch him,” I said, and as we stared and oohed, I marveled at how easily I just annihilated these years of sobriety. Then again, I was just celebrating. It was just that one time.
Except it wasn’t. As a new mother I was thrust into the daily routine of thankless tasks: changing, feeding, bathing, napping, burping, bouncing, dressing, undressing, changing, napping, feeding … It was so repetitive, and though I was so busy, it felt like I had too much time. Time with the baby kept stretching, and it dawned on me that this was for life, that I always had to be there for this tiny person. I became obsessed with the thought that I couldn’t just get up and go, slam the door behind me and come back when I felt like it. So I left the best way I knew how: I started drinking again.
I had to develop a routine. During the day, I would take my son for walks and I would go to different liquor stores close to where I lived and buy a bottle of wine and a mickey of vodka. Outside, I’d look at other moms and we would smile at each other passing with our strollers. I had a bottle of wine in my diaper bag and a mickey of vodka behind the lining of my purse. A plastic bag on the bottom of the stroller with a couple of empties that needed to be thrown out. Did other moms have the same cargo? I mean, how did they deal with the tiresome nature of motherhood? But their smiles looked genuine, and they often walked in pairs. I didn’t. I was lonely, afraid to make mommy friends because I worried that my secret would come out.