*BEST of mamazine.com* Mamaphobic: One Real Thing at a Time
I've been afraid of being the person I am for a long time. That's why I used to drink—a lot—from seventh grade through high school, college, grad school, and a few months into marriage and year 30. It's been over four and a half years since I quit drinking, and I became a mother only three years ago, so that short time has been crucial, and the sobriety of life and of mamahood has been strangely more real to me than many other eras in my life.
Because of their close-in-time proximity, motherhood and sobriety are closely linked in my psyche. I have never been a drinking mother; I have always been a sober mother who innately misses and longs for alcohol. I have had to feel each thing in sobriety, as well as in motherhood, which hasn't always been my preference in this sensate world. My old ways of coping by numbing up and checking out (in actuality or in terms of accountability) have not applied to this experience. When I used to drink, I used it not only to loosen up and let go but also to hide, to overshadow my pain and struggles, to feel good about myself, and, so I thought, to keep alive that truth and beauty that I believed alcohol awakened in me.
The "drinking me" said everything I thought (we have editors in our heads for some good reasons, you know?), acted bolder than I should have, and made choices that would come back to haunt me for a lifetime. I initiated my first "drunk" in the junior high bathroom before orchestra class, the same day in which I dropped and broke the school's violin without consequence. In tenth grade, I overdosed on peppermint schnapps at a high school dance, and at 21, I broke my wrist and a tiny leg bone in a severe DUI accident (I wasn't driving that time but could've been found drinking and driving regularly during that period). I said mean things when I wanted to be understood, I said nice things I couldn't fathom saying sober, I sought sex when I wanted love and connection, and I wrote about drinking and drank to avoid writing, to avoid learning, to avoid feeling. I threw rocks. I lost things. I fell down. I hurt people I loved deeply. Some shameful mornings I wanted to stick my head in the oven, but still I never wanted to stop. In France, they have a saying about drunks. "She drinks like a hole," they say. That's me. No matter how much I tried to fill that hole with the experience of drunkenness, in the end there was still just a gaping, thirsty hole.
For most of my drinking days, I would claim that alcohol brought me closer to the reality and relationships that I wanted to create and closer to my true feelings. I thought I was tapping into something real. I still hold memories in my mind of drunken conversations—with friends, with boys, with family members—as some of the most authentic conversations I have ever been able to have or feel. But then there were also the many things said and done that could and should have been left unsaid, undone. In the world of drinking, it didn't really matter what I said or if I said it correctly or truthfully or if I made choices without regard to anyone else. In a hefty buzz, I didn't have to think or be angry or question anything. I could just wriggle around in serene numbness. I could forget who I was.
Sobriety physically hurt for the first few years, and even now its urges can cause me physical pain and mild anxiety. I want to be able to drink for normal reasons or even just to relax, but the fact of the matter remains that I want to drink, and I want to drink to get drunk. I want to obliterate what's in my head. In a short story I wrote about drinking, the character said, "I saw too much, felt too much, tasted a little love in everything, smelled sadness in the trees, clenched my fingers into fists to ward off the life happening all around me." And that's exactly it. That is me. That is how life feels to me. I wobble between wanting to hold everything inside because nothing in the world is big enough to fill me and with wanting to smash it all to pieces with vodka. That is how it felt when I was a child and that's how it feels today. And now I am someone's mother.
Mostly, I always wanted children because I can still clearly remember the child I once was. She was curious, open, dramatic, funny, contemplative, imaginative, and free—and that was the person I thought I was capturing, as if in a time capsule, when I took my first drink. Soon after my first niece was born, the pangs of motherhood began to seriously creep into the person I wanted to be. When she came into our lives, I could barely contain myself. The love, the joy, the idea of creating more of us, of growing this family. The idea of learning from this tiny girl sent me reeling. I wanted with all my being to tell her that she could be who she is. That it's the best thing about being born. I wanted to teach her something I did not know. It was also during the first year of her life that the effects of the drinking began to make me feel less and less like the person I wanted to be. And I knew it. Drinking wasn't working anymore and yet I was more desperate than ever to hold onto it somehow. I remember having a few glasses of wine at a family dinner, enough to bring on a nice gauzy buzz. In that buzz, I held my baby niece in my arms and looked into her sweet, open face. And for the first time, the drink began to feel like it was closing me off rather than opening me up to the world and the people I wanted to connect to in it. I felt my first inkling of wanting to drop drinking like the dead, shameful weight that it was.
I don't remember ever consciously thinking about motherhood as a savior, the way I thought about alcohol, but I'm pretty sure I thought it possible. Being someone's mother could change me. That's the way I work. My magical kind of thinking makes me believe miracles will come into my life and instantly change the me that I am. You know, and make me perfect, loveable, and optimistically open to each new day. And just as I believed vodka tonics could fill the hole in me, I'm sure somewhere inside me I believed the well-known miracle of motherhood would rain over me like angelic little stars from God. Unfortunately, just as I learned that drinking could not, and although I've heard many mothers say it could and would and did, motherhood could not fill my soul.
Keeping up my sobriety during pregnancy (I was only a year in at that time) was the easiest since it gave me a two-fold reason not to drink. Then my birth experience, with the too-late epidural that never would take effect, was as crystal clear as they come. If the blast of baby shoulders through the cervix doesn't crack you open to real life, then nothing will. During those hours in labor, I got to apply the "one day at a time" theory with more vigor than I ever could with sobriety. Marrit Ingman wrote in an old blog entry: "Motherhood is like sobriety. If you look at it as the rest of your life, you will freak out. You have to just be in the moment." And she's absolutely right. However, labor is the experience that really drove this home for me. You can't possible consider the reality that the pain will get worse because if you do, you will lose your mind. As I labored, it was the only time that I worked my life one minute at a time cause it fucking hurt too badly to do anything else. Then through weeks of unsuccessful breastfeeding, that goddamn tubey formula supplementing system, my boy's bad latch, and breast pain that made me cry, all I know is that I felt it. I remember escaping to cry in the bathroom when visitors came to hold the baby (hormones, yes, and a lot of "Jesus fucking Christ, I own a baby now!") It was just like my favorite Jennifer Unlimited quote on Austin Mama: "I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once."
As the months passed and things got easier, motherhood still did not fill my soul, not in the way I thought it was going to. It's almost impossible to explain this and difficult to say "out loud," in fact, especially to other mothers. How does a grateful mother talk about this feeling of joy and love simultaneously rooted in emptiness and wanting? As a mother, I still wanted time to myself, probably more than ever, and I wanted to pursue my interests with a new vigor. It seemed critical that I hold on tightly and earnestly to the person I wanted to be rather than suppressing her as I had with drinking or by turning into the super mommy I couldn't even pretend to be. The selfless do-gooder wasn't welcome even though I thought somehow she would just magically take over. And even though motherhood seemingly gave me a purpose, I wasn't earning awards for my new project. It didn't give me power. It didn't give me love. I felt like the same drunk woman I used to be who tried to fill herself up with fuzzy searches for an ego boost that just left me yearning. Yearning for beauty, for intimacy, for love. When my son turned two, I quit my full-time, well-paying copywriting job and took a mindless part-time job on a medical study with full benefits not for the sole purpose of spending more time with my son, although that factored in, but to yield more time on my personal creative writing projects and to pursue a freelance writing career, for which I had spent the previous months building up a little clientele. I also needed to make the house of juggles a little more bearable to me. This leap made me feel even more confused and guilty. Who was I? A mother or a writer? Could I be both, which is what I wholeheartedly wanted, without shame? I knew for sure that at the same time that I would do anything for my son, I couldn't do everything for my son every minute.
So what I'm beginning to realize, maybe even right now in writing this although I've subconsciously known it for some time, is that my approach to the quest for self-fulfillment and self-acceptance has been all wrong. I have to quit trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. I have to be the person I am. I have to be the person I was born to be, and that means without the blurry goggles of booze and without taking on personas I think I'm supposed to fit into. I know I am a good mother even though I'm not June Cleaver or even June Cleaver on Valium. I do things the way that feels right for me, and if I'm walking through life and motherhood in this "body that stands for the soul," as poet Franz Wright says, then I don't want my soul to be drunk or shut down or dead.
My son, at almost three, takes his dishes to the sink, cleans up his sippy cups from around the house, and notices when I'm crying over Oprah (you'd cry too if you found out you'd been wearing the wrong bra size your whole life). Sometimes I can even say, "I need five more minutes to finish writing this sentence," and he will say, "Okay," as if he gets me. The other day after goofing around on the couch, he told me, "Mommy, you're not a princess; you're a monkey," and it felt good to be seen for who I really am. It's not every day I'm happy to make this discovery. I would much rather climb trees and swing freely from their branches than sit pretty in princess attire (especially without a vodka tonic).
I have had a hand in making a polite, mindful, perceptive boy. I listen when he talks and when he cries and tell him that he should go ahead and feel the way he feels, even if sometimes he feels mad because Mom won't come and play. I make time for my creative projects with the help of my husband, family, and yes, even sometimes at that mindless part-time job (shhh…). I play when I want to play, and that makes playtime extra fun for both of us, I sometimes go to the park even though I hate it, and I finally got over my zoophobia just in time to let Clyde's animal fanatic out of his shell. Sobriety has helped me endure and experience the good, bad, and uncomfortable in life and in motherhood. And every day I look at my son, and the one thing I know for sure is that this truth, this beauty is real.
Sheri Reed is the co-founder and co-editor of mamazine.com. She is a freelance writer and lives in Sacramento with her husband and two boys. You can also find her at today is pretty, this joy+ride, and The Stir.
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