What to Expect When You're Expecting a Fourth Generation Alcoholic

By Natasha Norris 11/15/15

Stopping the cycle of generational alcoholism.

What to Expect When You're Expecting a Fourth Generation Alcoholic

My grandfather died a few months ago.

I flew into town with my infant son, and the night before the funeral, most of my family went out and got hammered. I'm not the first to get sober, but I am the only one who has stayed that way.

I was feeling lonely in my hotel room after putting the baby down. I wanted to be with family. I’m embarrassed to admit that I really wanted to go out with them. At this point in my life, I only go to the bar with my family. It made sense to spend the night before a funeral—even at five years sober—in a bar. I called my mom and asked her to come be with me, and she said she would be there in a little while.

I was left thinking about my grandfather and the non-memories I had of him. He had never met my son or husband. His urn said "A loving husband" and nothing else. He had remarried in his thirties and pretty much cut off his four children, their children, and their children after that. Three generations with virtually no interaction whatsoever with their progenitor. 

The really fascinating part of this is that his biological father had been absent his entire life, and my grandfather resented him for it. My great-grandfather had been the son of the owner of the company for which my great-grandmother worked. They had an affair, she got pregnant, and he never recognized his son. He married and died effectively childless.

A couple of years ago my grandfather, in a rare real-life conversation with yours truly, told me about this “father” of his. The hatred was palpable: “As far as I’m concerned, he was never my father.” As he spoke, he swiped his fork through the air, slitting an invisible throat.

An air force pilot, he was a very strict parent. One day my 18-year old mother came home after being out all night. She had been with friends when their car had gotten stuck in the mud. Because it was dark and temperatures were dropping, they stayed put, and went to call for help in the morning. Most nights he stayed late at the Officers' Club, but on this particular day he came home early. As my mother ran towards him to explain what had happened, he slapped her so hard across the face that she fell to the floor. As he slapped her, he called her a slut.

My mom had a strange smile on her lips as she told the story while sitting across from me in our hotel room, our voices lowered so as not to wake the baby. She also told me how her father had left nothing to his children with a similar smile. It's the smile she wears when she asks me questions that are really criticisms. "Do you always eat that fast? Does the baby ever eat whole foods or always those processed 'Puffs' things? How is he going to learn to walk if you keep him strapped in a chair all day?" It's the smile she wore when we were arguing when I was a child, and she said, "I can't wait, Katie. I cannot WAIT until you have kids and can see what it’s like." As if it were a threat. As if I were a really difficult, terrible kid.

My mother turns her resentment sideways on itself, until it doesn’t even look like resentment, but more like an inside joke. Avoiding conflict at all costs, she dances around her anger. If I misbehaved as a kid, she never scolded me or raised her hand, she would sigh heavily and turn away, lamenting, “I don’t know where I went wrong.” 

I don’t know either.

For two weeks after I gave birth to my son, I could not stop crying. It was excruciating. It was painful to me to see how lovely my son was. How innocent and perfect. He held himself in a way that I recognized as my own. I think it was the first time that I truly recognized the brilliance of my own humanity, and how deeply I deserved to give and receive love. 

When I cry to my friends because I feel like an inadequate parent, I repeatedly hear, “You’re a sober mom. The buck stops with your generation.”

But does it?

I hate to ask this, but it is a sincere question. Of course a sober parent is better than a drunk parent, but who is to say that I have reached such a level of enlightenment that I would be capable of derailing what is likely many generations of dysfunction?

My great-grandfather was absent. My grandfather was overbearing. My mother was completely without boundaries. What will I be?

I already have an idea about that. 

The other day, I was playing with my son and reading a book with him. He wanted to close the book but I forced it to stay open. I wanted to finish the book. I thought it would be good for him to learn to sustain his attention. He surprised me by melting into tears. My son is not yet one, and I already see evidence of this all over our interactions. When playing peek-a-boo, he wants to be the one to lift the blanket. He likes to hold my hands and make them clap more than he likes for me to clap for him. He is preverbal, and yet his behavior is clearly begging me: “Stop, Mama! Stop being a control freak!” 

And it’s really hard for me to stop. 

I want my child to be happy and healthy. I want him to have a sense of self-worth. I don’t want to recreate this pattern of disrespect for the self and others, but I can’t help but react out of my own grievances over my childhood. I missed so many opportunities for good boundaries, and I’m making up for lost time. I am re-creating my childhood with the very person I want shielded from it.

So how can I change?

I think part of the secret involves making peace with the generations behind me. I need to search within myself for the forgiveness that I have withheld for so long. And I think it may take a long time for me to accomplish this, because it’s really fucking hard.

I have spent years of my life trying desperately to change my family. To change the way they behave with me and with each other. To change the way they drink. To change the way they express love, and especially the way they withhold it. 

To forgive would mean surrendering all of my efforts. I would need to recognize that I was wrong to undertake them. Admitting wrong is not easy for me. It’s not easy for anyone with low self-esteem. It’s hard for someone like me to discriminate between making a mistake and being one. 

But maybe that’s not a useful way to look at things. Maybe it’s not about right and wrong. Maybe I can release myself from my need to completely override my upbringing. Maybe by letting my parents off the hook, by acknowledging that they did the best they could, I can be gentler with both my son and myself. I could be a better mom. A better, truer person. 

And maybe that would be enough.

Natasha Norris is a pen name for a member of AA and Al-Anon living in New York.

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