Mother’s new Little Helper is a stealthier lubricant than valium
Leaving the cosseted whir and hum of the high-rise office building where I work as an editor, pushing through the revolving doors into the cold night air, I think of it: my drink. I’ve got half a bottle of white open at home, I know, and I’m pretty sure there’s still a Brooklyn Ale in the refrigerator; there’s definitely some beer in the pantry, so I can always pop one in the freezer for a few minutes. But the delay—too bad I can’t call my babysitter and ask her to do it for me, but I’d never. She might think I need a drink. I want to be blithe, casual about my after-work libations: Oh, that little bottle of beer that somehow got into my hand, how did it get there?
On the subway, in the dirty yellow light, I keep working, nipping and tucking with my pen. Striking a word to save a line. Yes, perfect! Where am I? I know in my body how long it takes to get from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn, but sometimes I get too engrossed in my editing and miss my stop: smoothing out the rough patches, cutting, tweaking, making it fit, making it fit.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Excuse me.” Dragging my heavily laden purse and bag out of the train, I’m back outside. A block from my house, I pass the Cuban restaurant with the elegant wooden bar so smooth you could lay your cheek against it. Then, a few storefronts down, the real bar. Several of its windows are actually painted over. I peer into the blue-blackness when the door swings open. Who comes to this place? What are their lives like? Are they still single? Tiny white lights twinkle and beckon, and the bar itself is illuminated by a spotlight, the star of the show.
Around the corner and I’m home. “Mommy, Mommy!” My daughter runs into the hall. I crouch down to hold her. I’m squeezing her, asking about her day, but then I’ve got to get into the kitchen to bestow an equally enthusiastic greeting on my patient baby. Since I’ll pass by the refrigerator on the way to the high chair, I could stop and flick the cap off a cold, cold beer, but I won’t. It would seem like there was something really wrong with me if I opened a beer before I hugged both my daughters.
Wrong with me? Is that what this is? Let me say right off that the most I drink in an evening at home with my children is two glasses of wine, and if it’s beer, no more than one. But I’m obviously preoccupied with getting that first drink—I’m so relieved once I’ve managed to procure it. When my husband and I decided to stop using birth control the first time, we knew being parents wouldn’t be easy. It would limit the time we had together and the time we each had to ourselves; it would disturb work-focused identities that were 35 years in the making; blah blah blah. It’s a truism that you can’t really know what it’s like to be a mother or a father until you’ve got that small being breathing in your home, until you spring out of bed at the sound of a cry before realizing the wailing is just in your head. Only gradually do most of us begin to recognize—perhaps because we can’t bear it at first—the profound and myriad ways in which our lives have been transformed by parenthood, both the viscerally splendid gains and stinging losses.
At my all-mother book group, where, proverbially, swilling wine is half the fun, we joke about having to have our alcohol, but if I was to break the pact of bonhomie and ask anyone if she really “need” it, the answer would probably be, “Of course not.” Yet in more private settings, many of my mother friends have remarked, in voices a little bewildered, a little apprehensive, that they drink more since they’ve had children: “I feel like I’m a bad mother because all I want to do is sit in the glider with a glass of wine and watch him play on the floor.” “I wait until 10 each night to have a drink; I don’t want to waste it before then.” “Around five I start tasting that first chardonnay.” “I called my husband before he left work and said, ‘You’ve got to stop somewhere, we have no wine or beer in the house.’ He asked me which one I wanted, and I said ‘Both.'” “Since the baby, I definitely drink more than my husband does.”
I wonder whether we’re all actually indulging more as mothers or if we’re just more aware of it. Here’s a little ditty my husband and elder daughter came up with while I was pregnant with my second child: “Mommy’s 39, she’s pregnant, and she drinks wine,” they’d sing laughingly, gaily. (I did not stop drinking altogether during my pregnancies, which occasionally troubled my husband and inspired this needling, though I have to admit, pretty funny tune.) Now our second girl is 15 months old, and she’ll grab for my beer—she wants everything everyone else is drinking. No baby bottle for her! I keep holding on to my bottle, but I help her put the cold glass in her mouth. She’s delighted, until she bumps her new Chiclet teeth against it. Ouch! I extricate the beer from her clinging hands. She howls in protest. Mommy’s beer bottle (and morning mug of coffee) are as much a part of our lives as sippy cups and Elmo.
Remember those sappy cartoons from the ’70s, with that naked doe-eyed boy and girl, “Love Is Getting Butterflies Thinking About Him” or “He’s All You Need”? Maybe “Being a Mother Is Staying Bright-Eyed and Sober”? There’s a cultural taboo against inebriated mothers. As for inebriated fathers, that’s just what fathers do. In the worst cases, the family suffers, but not too horribly if the bighearted mother is there to sacrifice all for her brood. Have the mother join the father down at the bar, however, and the family members fly off into black, lonely space. “Drunk mothers” are so unspeakable that when I Googled the phrase, the first thing that came up was a porn site featuring porcine women performing obscene acts with beer bottles stuck in their mouths. (The fat signals motherhood, I guess.) There are self-help books that address alcoholic mothers and attest to the unique devastation of (barely) being raised by a woman whose head is emphatically elsewhere—”My mother chose alcohol over me” is a typical child’s-eye view—but again, my friends and I aren’t talking about getting blotto.
Perhaps my thoughts turn to stumbling, slurring mothers because I worry that it’s a slippery slope from seeking a pleasant tingle to wanting to go completely numb; on occasion, I do sneak in another quick pour of wine. But I’m not overly worried that I’ll return to the heavy drinking of my teens and early twenties. I’ve got too much that is compelling and sustaining in my life now—my family, my work—to waste whole days nursing hangovers. And yet, at the same time as it soothes, the bottle reproaches me. It seems to announce that I don’t like being a mother, or at least not enough of the time. Otherwise, when I’m with my daughters, why would I need to drink?
When I’m feeling lively and content or merely want to treat myself, I pour my golden elixir into one of the small, colorful Moroccan glasses my husband and I got as a wedding present. I keep these juice-size glasses gathered together on top of the kitchen hutch; I can always see them this way. They’re like Christmas lights, candies wrapped in pink and green and blue foils, friends. When I’m sullen or distracted or angry, I use the cheap stemware I got right after college, the ones you could throw at a wall, pick up, and use again. If I’m in a really bad way, I’m not so careful to make a smooth transition from mommy-happy-to-see-her-girls to drinking-mommy-happy-to-see-her-girls. I grab the bottle from the refrigerator and glunk, glunk, glunk, my medicine sloshes out.
This delightful nightly ritual, this fetishizing of tiny glasses, is a comfort, an escape, or more precisely, a comforting escape: I’m the woman and the girl I once was, the one who had infinite possibilities before her and could decide at the last minute to while away her evening in a bar. Since early adolescence, alcohol has been my breakout, my rebellion; I was a conventional girl—I did the right thing, grades, sports, mountains of extracurriculars—but I got “totally wasted,” as we used to say, on the weekends and, every now and again, before school (how did I stomach wine and lemonade at 7 a.m.?). Occasionally I got caught, which variously meant running the bleachers in track, getting benched in basketball, and being suspended from school (with my mother working at my high school, living a double life wasn’t easy). And I can still feel the “f–k you” frisson of adolescence when I’m standing, one hand (metaphorically) on my hip, the other holding a bottle or glass—especially in the presence of my new “authority figurer” my husband, a virtual teetotaler.
A mother hates her baby because “the baby is an interference to her private life, a challenge to preoccupation,” analyst D.W. Winnicott says in his famous list of 18 reasons why mothers “hater” their infants (his overarching message being that the mother must be aware of her inevitable hate so as not to lash out at her small child and to try “objectively” to determine whether her hate is actually provoked by the child’s actions—and should be addressed—or unrelated to him). The rebellion goes both ways, then: I’m the girl rebelling against her mother and the mother rebelling against her girl. When I’m drinking, I’m more than my daughters’ mother, I’m myself. Does a woman’s “self” ever fully absorb her new role so that there is no distinction between being her and being a mother? I wonder.
Then—did you think I would never get here?—there’s the buzz. I was almost 36 when I had my first child, almost 40 when I had my second, and I’d become accustomed to a certain level of quiet, a background stillness. With both children clamoring for me, grabbing at my clothing, with the baby in my arms rearing back and practically knocking the breath out of me while the older one ceaselessly chatters, my nerves get jangled. I’m old. Whether the effect is physiological or psychological, a glass of wine calms me: Okay, I can handle this if I just have a drink first. A drink is the modern (time-worn) “mother’s little helper”: our generation’s answer to Valium.
A drink is also a shortcut to turning off efficient, tough-minded worker, turning on pliable mother. The second I put the key in the front door, I must leave behind the staccato pace and intellectual demands of work (where, if you have any clout, you make requests and see them miraculously fulfilled) and embrace the bogginess of home, where patience, flexibility, and empathy are virtues. As Arlie Russell Hochschild pointed out in her excellent book Time Bind, for many parents these days, the office is far less emotionally taxing than home, despite all our clichès about home as a refuge. Sure, I could clear my mind by doing yoga or jogging instead of drinking, but who has the time for that stuff?
God, I hate comments like that, when I hear other women throw up their hands and groan with sitcomish resignation, “I don’t have a minute for myself.” Too often, they seem weirdly proud of their long-suffering state, almost smug about it, and I always think, If you want time, you’ll make it. But I don’t do it, I don’t make time. I’m probably as annoyed with myself as anyone.
“I had never met a [French] mother, working or otherwise, who didn’t have the ‘time’ to read a book, or have lunch with a friend, or go out to dinner once in a while,” Judith Warner writes in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, her book comparing motherhood in America and France, where her two daughters were born. It’s not only the vast array of excellent social services the French government provides that eases mothers’ burdens, Warner argues, but the cultural conviction that what makes for felicitous family life is the adult woman’s happiness. With a relatively content grown-up at the center, good things will flow. Back in the States, Warner runs herself ragged carting her daughters to (soccer, ballet) classes, planning the perfect birthday party, trying to find decent schools and affordable child care, and working for a few hours. Then, she writes, in a sudden one-sentence paragraph, “I started to drink Calvados in the evenings.”
In other words, not becoming frazzled and guilty owing to the way we construct motherhood here—with the expectation that women will both parent intensively and work intensively (the affluent woman, for selfish fulfillment; the poor one, to pay the bills and set an example of industry)—takes great reservoirs of creativity and strength of will. And most of us can’t get off the merry-go-round, at least not for very long. So we drink.
Finally, there is pleasure (which the French don’t seem to have much problem with either). Drinking gives me pleasure. Simple as that, or I wish it were as simple as that. In the abstract, I know there’s nothing wrong with needing pleasure and getting a drop of it from wine. And yet: You drink almost every night; the alcohol calls to you when the clock strikes six; you need it. I do need it. In our country, to need is to be dependent, noxiously needy. Okay, so maybe I only want pleasure, but that sounds suspect too. To want pleasure—it’s unmaternal somehow. The domestic woman receives, gracefully and gratefully. So again: What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t my children, my nice, tidy foursome, enough?
My children bring me pleasure, startlingly, when I least expect it. The other day, I took my five-year-old out for ice cream after school. We perched on high stools facing a bustling commercial street, sharing our Dutch chocolates with rainbow sprinkles. As we sat, she sang a new song she’d learned in her hoarse, childish voice, told me very earnestly about her love for a classmate—whom she plans one day to marry “if I don’t find another boy—and subtracted nine from 25 (“in my head!”) to announce that there were 16 days left until her birthday. And then she put her mouth down over the chocolate peak, her whole mouth, enveloping, capturing the milky sweetness. It flickered through my brain that I wanted to do the same to her, to put my whole mouth over her, to capture her sweetness. “[The baby] excites [the mother] but frustrates—she mustn’t eat [her]” is another of Winnicott’s reasons why mothers hate their infants. I’d say it’s also one of the reasons mothers love their infants beyond all measure. The desire a child invokes—desire, by definition, is never entirely satisfied—has to be one of the deepest, most stirring pleasures known to us. The feeling is not to be relied on, however, nor are any of the other moments when motherhood suffuses me with joy, leaves me almost swooning. To rely on them would be to kill them, in fact. Alcohol is much less powerful but much more dependable.
At 6 p.m. about 20 years from now, I’ll be sitting at my dimly lit kitchen table with my beautiful Moroccan glass. The pleasure of wine will have been mixed with the pleasures of motherhood, and the pains, the sediment of wanton feeling laid down year after year. I’ll still be a mother, but a mother whose children aren’t around anymore. I already miss them.
Excerpted from the anthology Maybe Baby, out next month, edited by Lori Leibovich. Copyright copy; 2006 by Laurie Abraham. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.