Most people I know say that they can’t pinpoint when their drinking tipped over from ‘heavy’ to ‘problematic’.
I can. It was after my first child was born. When she was about three months old, her Dad took her out for a long afternoon so I could have some quiet time to myself; the first I’d had since she was born. I pottered around in the sunshine, did some laundry, picked up a book for a while. And drank two beers. I don’t really like beer, but it was there and it seemed more suitable for daytime. I didn’t drink any more that day – and I was pretty much sober again by the time LH brought the baby home – but it was the first time that I made a particular connection: this is me-time. Me-time is now a rare and precious commodity. I should make it count! How can I make it count? With alcohol.
This is a really ugly topic, because the last thing anyone wants to do is to admit to drinking in charge of small children. It would be nice to think that the sight of a sweet, helpless little face is enough for a drinking woman to turn her life around. But it doesn’t work that way. But I believe that it is far, far more common than is known. If you’re already someone who is prone to using alcohol to escape, to liven things up, to wind down, to feel more interesting, to pass the time, to get more energy and motivation, or any of the other myriad reasons people give to drink, then having a baby is going to put you right into the danger zone.
The AA acronym HALT? Don’t let yourself get Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? That pretty much describes early motherhood. It is a constant state of being hungry, angry, lonely and tired.
Meals are snatched when and where possible, and if you’re breastfeeding you are always hungry.
Everything is suddenly so hard and so confronting that it’s hard not to be angry. Where did my body go? Where did my life go? Why the actual fuck am I the only person in this household capable of washing out a bottle? IT IS 2AM GO TO SLEEP ALREADY.
Unless you live in the sort of enlightened society that priorities community and shared female labour above an atomised structure of individual nuclear households – and let’s face it, you don’t – then motherhood, early motherhood, is lonely. You’re tied to the house by a tiny screaming infant. Your partner has blithely returned to work after a restful couple of weeks of being at home changing the occasional nappy to the soundtrack of his own mother’s applause (“Oh, isn’t he good? In my day you wouldn’t catch the Dads doing that. We just had to get on with things. You modern women, you don’t know you’re born”), your old friends are still pursuing their old lives with their old intact waistlines, and there’s you. At home. With a non-verbal dribble machine.
In my case, I also didn’t have a car, and my access to public transport was very limited. I could go three or four days without interacting with another adult except for LH at the end of his work day. I would catch a bus to the nearest village in the morning, stand around in a park pushing my too-small-really baby in a swing, and then push her home in the stroller, having talked to nobody in the interim.
Tired. Well. Anyone who’s had a child knows that the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with babyhood, and the lack of respite on the horizon, is almost indescribable. Sleep deprivation is a torture technique. It has a serious impact on mental health. And it’s near-impossible to avoid with young children.
But it goes beyond HALT. Motherhood, and I think I do mean motherhood here, because even the most hands-on primary- carer fathers I know tend to have very supportive, hardworking, actively parenting partners. Also they’re not keeping another human alive with their boobs – pretty much rips up all of your identity, your self care rituals, your life, and replaces it with a new one. And of course usually you asked for it, so you can’t complain because you love your baby, right?
By the time my eldest was a toddler, I was pouring myself a glass of wine at lunchtime, and then breaking my own TV rules by letting her stare at Sesame Street for an hour so I could read. I was desperate for some alone time, some freedom, some anything at all that wasn’t the sheer mundanity of toddler-care. But when you have a young child, you’re very restricted as to how to seek that out. You can’t go to a gym (unless it has a crèche, but neither of my children tolerated that sort of occasional care), nice shops, anywhere at all in the evenings. Self-care is hard; drawing myself a bath seems to this day to act as a mysterious bat-signal to my children, who wait until the moment I sink into the bubbles to develop a tummy bug, a desire for toilet training, a sudden fear of their own thumb (really) or a realisation that actually they wish they had eaten their dinners after all.
So there you are, having lost your career, your friends, your life rituals (coffee with P on a Friday, popping out at lunchtime Thursday to pick up the best seafood, yoga before work three times a week) and told that everything meaningful is now at home. And you’ve already been laying the patterns down to associate drinking with reward, relaxation, excitement: things that you now have no other way of accessing. And you don’t want to make a fuss, after all.
One of my favourite books is Drunk Mum by Jowita Brydlowska, who writes heartbreakingly about just this. Finding breast feeding to be the most sacred connection she had ever experienced, and secretly feeding her son formula because she was drinking. Being overwhelmed with love and the sense of responsibility of being in charge of such a small being, and also drinking to black out so that she wasn’t safe in charge of him. To an outsider, it seems like utter madness that this charge that one is entrusted with makes one drink more. To a drinker, or at least to me, it doesn’t.
Surveys have shown that the better educated a woman is, the more likely she is to drink. Other studies make the same link between education and PND. You don’t need to have PND to become a drinker, but both things stem from the same sense of anguished loss, I think. How is this my life? How is this thing, this joy, this blessing, also the thing that has destroyed me?
When your options for doing something selfish are so limited, is it a surprise that women choose the one they can do at home, at night, in secret?