It’s 4pm on a Sunday. The weekend is almost over, passed in a blur of errands (This is booooooring, why do we always have to go food shopping?), attempted Fun Time for Children (Mama help me on swing? Mama help me on slide? I go on [enormous scary apparatus]!) and…I don’t even know what else, actually. Time, much like my toddler, just dribbles away recently. And now we’re home. I’m trying to cook dinner.
In the other room, the girls are fighting. Big Girl has taken out her camera and is trying to take photographs of Little Girl. This is sending Little Girl into paroxysms of rage, not because she doesn’t like her photo being taken, because she does, but because she wants the camera. Mutters escalate to shrieks. I take the camera away.
After the ensuring red-faced shrieking (Little) and moans of terminal unfairness (Big) have died down, Little attempts to change the mood by playing Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs is a game whereby Little growls menacingly and advances on Big, who – not acting – bursts into frightened tears and hides under a cushion.
I give up and turn on the television. Five minutes later, silence emanating from the lounge room, which is supposed to be an adults-only zone but never mind, I judge it safe to start the tricky, time-sensitive part of my cookery.
Mama. I need a poo.
Lovely Husband’s eyes meet mine. The unspoken words between us are: Large gin and tonic tonight, I think. Aloud, he says ‘Shall I make us a coffee?’.
It’s shorthand. It’s shorthand for ‘hey, today pretty much sucks and is exhausting, and I think my soul is permanently crippled from the unceasing mundanity of it all, but hang in there, it’s almost over. Three hours until they’re in bed, and then we can attempt to claw back the shreds of our true selves for an hour or two before collapsing into unconsciousness. One foot in front of the other, my love, and micro rewards on the way. We’ve got this’.
You can see why shorthand is needed.
The alcohol-as-reward idea, in parenting circles, is so widespread that the monolithic Mumsnet has a glass of wine emoticon. There are Facebook pages called things like Mommy’s Time Out Wine, which appears to be an actual product so I’m not linking to it, and the always hilarious Honest Toddler published this post today:
What is wine? Wine is a beverage that helps adults relax and forget how many children they can truly afford. Adults use wine to celebrate special moments in their life like sunset or walking to the kitchen. Wine is enjoyed with many foods but it pairs especially well with sadness. Parents like to drink wine while watching the theater or infomercials for Hip Hop Abs. “Wine o’clock,” as parents call it, varies based on time zone and number of children in the house 1 Child: 5PM or final school pick up. 2 Children: 4:45PM or final school pick up. 3+ Children; 4:30PM or final school pick up. Teething Child: Your call
It’s funny, of course it is. And parents are people, and people are allowed to drink, and I’m certainly, certainly not going to tell anyone that they shouldn’t joke about it. I just mean that it’s ubiquitous. I still, and I should know better, respond to anguished posts by my on line parenting friends along the lines of My three year old has eaten one of the buttons from the TV remote and the five year old is threatening to leave home if she can’t watch Frozen again and the baby slept for 34 minutes total last night and if I have to look at, let alone cook, serve, and clean up, another plate of sausages and mash in my life I may actually die with a sympathetic ‘Oh you poor thing. Glass of wine for you tonight, then?’. Because it’s an acknowledgement that this shit is hard, and we need help, and there’s not a lot of actual help around.
But it’s more than that, I guess. Why wine? There’s not a huge cultural shorthand around parenting and chocolate cake. It’s not just about comfort and reward. It’s about alcohol for a reason, and that reason is this:
It is easier to be a good parent when you’ve had a glass of wine or two.
It’s not easier to be a good parent when you’re drinking all the time. It’s certainly not easier to be a good parent when you’re hungover, when you’re sacrificing kid-time for drinking-time, when you’re spending family money on shed loads of booze instead of things that improve their childhood. If you’re drinking alcoholically, you’re not being the parent you could be, and you probably already know that.
Sobriety, in fact, is giving me all sorts of eye-opening moments about how different it is to parent sober. I don’t want any of you to go away from this thinking that I was mostly drunk in charge of my children before; that’s not the case. But Sober, as a permanent state, is different from Drinking With Periods Between Drinks. It’s more settled. It’s easier to appreciate the other tiny pleasures in life. Yesterday, I snuck into Big Girl’s room after she was asleep to retrieve my hairbrush, and then stood there, brushing my hair, just because it was nice to be surrounded by those pink walls and that soft light and her gentle snoring, and I was present in that moment in a way that I wouldn’t have been before. I am more patient, although this is not to say that I have transformed into Mary Poppins*; merely that I’m calmer, day to day. I’m healthier, with consequent energy. I spend more of my evening prepping for the morning, which makes the week flow better. And I’m more predictable. I think that’s one of the most awful things for children of alcoholics; not knowing which parent they’ll get that day, the happy silly affectionate one, the snappy one, the maudlin one…alcohol gets between parent and child and destroys the most important bond in life.
And yet, when you’re in the middle of a hard day, one glass of wine makes everything so much easier. Being a parent to small children – I don’t know what it’s like to parent older ones – requires an ability to be silly and funny and demonstrative. It also requires an ability to numb oneself from the constant barbs. Small children are vulnerable and hungry for love; they are also excellent at finding a parent’s weak spots and prodding them. The shriek of an angry toddler is more piercing than a fire alarm. The defiance of a three year old refusing to get dressed can drive even the most rational person to feelings of murderous rage. King Lear:
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
Basically – this shit ain’t easy. But you know what makes it easier to stay calm in the face of defiance (defiance which is itself desperately hoping to be met with calm), to be physically affectionate when you just want space, to play a mind-bogglingly dull game of I Spy with a child who can neither spell nor really has the concept of ‘Things we can all see vs Things that exist only in your head’ down? Being only partially there. Being slightly numbed. Cake doesn’t do that, and nor does coffee. And so alcohol becomes a powerful parenting tool.
I don’t have a neat conclusion to this, nor any answers. Motherhood pierces your psyche in ways more powerful than you can imagine, and not all of those ways are good. Drinking made me a worse parent than I should have been. But on a long Sunday afternoon, when my children want to play You Be The Baby And We Will Tell You Off, a glass of wine would really, really help.
*The film version. The book version is a terrifying gaslighter.