The Sobering Truth About Motherhood

By Rachael Brownell 09/12/11

Children are adorable blessings—but raising them sober isn't for the faint of heart. Here's what motherhood in early sobriety is really like.

Wine blots out the whine. Photo via

I have 60 days sober and I’m sitting in a women’s meeting. The room is plain but clean and smells like the industrial strength cleaner they use in daycare centers. There are 10 women sitting around the table sharing their stories. Someone is taking her one-year coin and sharing about how her life is so much better than she ever imagined it could be. I sit bathed in shame and guilt. I have a secret that is so big and powerful I fear it others will be able to hear its drumbeat. The secret is this: I don’t like raising kids sober.

When you first stop drinking, everything in your life is louder, harsher, realer, and much, much worse than it looked under the comforting haze of the checked-out booziness that guided me through these past few years. My kids’ screams seem louder, their manners non-existent. The household demands are ceaseless, the piles of unwashed clothes seemed to grow higher every day. Even the dishes seem dirtier. My husband’s quiet reserve now seems more like sullen depressed withdrawal—his daily naps previously tolerable, now filled me with murderous vengeful rage. And sober sex? With your eyes open? Not in a million years.

It seems a bit embarrassing to admit this, but raising kids is a lot easier when you're half-drunk.

I am Sleeping Beauty waiting in vain for my Prince to come, only to discover I’ve taken too much Ambien, overslept, gained 30 pounds, and stopped using birth control. I long to hear another mother admit that raising children sober is more difficult than doing so with wine glass in hand. If there are other mothers like me, I haven’t met them yet. “Keep coming back,” they say. And so I do.

Every day at noon, I start attending a meeting in the industrial section of town. Approaching the door of the meeting, I have to dodge large trucks as they deliver large steel beams and menacing-looking construction equipment to the company nearby—a fitting effort given my belief that everything is more difficult sober, even walking across a parking lot. Once inside, I find a perfect seat in the middle, near the back of the room, next to an old guy, who later introduces himself as Paul. Paul is very quiet, and has the exact number of days sober as I do. 

Over the next few months, I come to rely on his familiarity—the magnificent walking stick, camouflage jacket, and the smell of cigarettes mixed with Ben Gay. Paul assiduously avoids eye contact and discussion of feelings. His droll one-liners about living in his truck make everyone in the room laugh uproariously. Paul and I count the days together. “Today I have 61 days sober.” 62, 63, 64. Day in, day out, we sit together. And other than brushing my teeth, this is the first consistent thing I’ve done in years. 

I bring my youngest daughter to the kids’ room in the back of the noon meeting—a converted storage closet that is clean and warm, where she can watch Dora or Diego and eat her snacks. She’s getting used to it and our routine. Paul smiles and cheers us on from the sidelines. He smiles when he sees us. “Hello there, sweetie! Put your girl in the back and have a seat.” Sitting with Paul, I sometimes lean over and make jokes about all the unrealized promises of early sobriety. “You know, Paul, raising kids is easier drunk.” And he laughs and responds, “You know, sweetie, there’s a lot of wisdom in that statement right there.” I share, “I haven’t spoken with my husband for weeks and he’s sleeping downstairs now.” And he nods and offers, “Hm-mm... be careful there.” Paul has an ex-wife and a few adult kids spread around. Sometimes he looks at me and my daughter and offers, “You have a chance to do it right, kid” or “You’re doing great! Keep up the good work!” or “Man, raising kids is hard, in’t it?” 

Since motherhood and guilt go together like love and marriage, it makes sense that sober motherhood and guilt go together like white and rice, like bikini waxes and pain. As I accumulate more sobriety, I develop a habit of blaming my kids’ every bad behavior or unhappy day on my drinking. Kids have a bad day at school? Because I drank. Perform poorly on a test? Because I drank. Didn’t like dinner? Because I drank. Everything was my fault, my fault, my fault. The drumbeat of doom and mommy guilt nearly drives me back to the bottle.

But as I admit these thoughts out loud, next to someone who laughs them out of countenance, I’m given a reprieve. For 20 seconds, I can forgive myself. Then 30. Sitting next to Paul is like sitting next to a motherhood life coach—one who smokes and swears under his breath. When I sit down, I’m bathed in forgiveness, and this room becomes a safe place to share the blackness of my life—a mini spiritual truck stop where the coffee sucks, but the love is deep and real and easy. 

I have a Higher Power who is a mix of Erma Bombeck, Buddha and my husband, Paul.

Do  other mothers feel like I do? 

I start to ask them, quietly, nonchlantly, as if I’m talking about the weather. But despite mybest intentions, I'm not always too subtle. I slip into my conversations my fear that I’ve wrecked my children's’ lives. If the other woman pauses for more than two seconds, I quickly volunteer the lie that everything is better now, easier, less taxing. Later, I’m sitting around a sunny table in a local cafe—the simple, homey place many local recovery folks gather on weekends after the round of morning meetings. A group of sober women gather to celebrate a friend’s birthday and talk turns to life and kids in sobriety. Soon a woman confesses that her nine-year-old calls frequently when Mommy is away, at the grocery store, or at work. We all nod sympathetically as she concludes it’s probably “an attachment issue related to my drinking.” Another friend, bemoaning her alienation from her teenage daughter, states tearfully that her “years of drinking” (now several years behind her) are likely the cause of this current relationship crisis. We point out that even mothers who aren’t alcoholics fight with their kids and that God created teenagers to lower our self-esteem. She looks at us like she wants to believe that everything will be all right. She looks at us from the bottom of that pit of Mommy Guilt and we try and throw her a rope ladder. And in that moment of grace, all of us straining to pull her out, something is lifted and lightened. We’re no longer alone.

I’ll have four years sober next month. Paul moved to Oregon and I no longer hate raising kids sober (at least not always). I have lots of help and eat too much ice cream and confess my maternal shortcomings to my sponsor and the lady waiting in the grocery store line next to me. I have a Higher Power who is a mix of Erma Bombeck, Buddha, and Paul. Every day I try and tell the truth, talk to another woman, laugh, and keep looking for that rope ladder out of secret maternal shame. And sometimes, I have sex with my eyes open.

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her  boyfriend, her kids, her books and a closet that is no longer full of skeletons.

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Rachael Brownell is a frequent contributor to The Fix and the author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She has written about the importance of humor in sobriety and natural highs, among many other topics. You can find Rachael on Linkedin and Twitter.