Motherhood in Sobriety

Three years into sobriety, I gave birth. This is a letter to my daughter about her alcoholic mother.

Dear Lucy,

The second that doctor sliced me open and grabbed you, pulled you out and held you up to the light, I felt a bone-crushing, spooky love that I’d never felt before. My arms were splayed on either side of my body and I couldn’t move them, but they held your cheek up to mine and I felt you. I sobbed hysterically and so did you.

I am a good mother. Today, you are ten months old, so being good means that I read to you, feed you vegetables, build tall towers of blocks for you to knock down, keep you warm, and love you with a fierceness that you never, ever question. It also means that I never take a drink.

Since you’re half my soggy genetic material, I fear someday you might know what I mean.

Drinking made me feel like I fit into my own skin. I was born with a too big, too clunky, too awkward spirit, an amorphous thing, that a god I don’t believe in jammed into a disproportionate, human-shaped meat. Two arms, two legs, all the parts were there, but it felt all wrong.

Taking a drink was like easing into myself. The bitter taste, the slow burn in the throat, the warming in the stomach, and then the release of discomfort, passing in a slow howl, like puncturing a tire. I drank because it made the world make sense, and I made sense in it.

As a young teenager, I learned that drinking instilled in me the confidence I needed to talk to boys. Some of those boys took advantage of me in sickening, disturbing ways. I learned that I couldn’t control what happened to my body when I drank. The only cure for the bad things that happened was to drink more to help me forget.

There were thousands of mornings that I woke up and promised myself that it wouldn’t happen again. Each of those mornings was exactly the same: my eyes flash open; I realize I’m still alive; I check to see where I am; I try to remember how I got there; my head roars like a thunderclap; I tell myself this is the last time. As the hangover dissolves into day, so does my resolve. By six o’clock there’s a martini in my hand, all gin. As I take the first sip, all of the crashing in me starts to calm, nothing but little waves lapping at the shore.

While the first martini squeezes my brain back into my body, the second makes me giddy with excitement. Not only has last night’s replay loop vanished, but now I’m noticing how smart I sound in conversation, how funny my jokes are, how the puffiness and ruddiness of my face add a youthful quality.

Two drinks in and it’s time for dinner; wait any longer and I won’t eat at all. Dinner comes with wine, usually white, at least half a bottle. I feel good, socially apt, sophisticated. I talk about what region the wine is from, where the vegetables were sourced.

After dinner, there’s grappa, Irish coffee, an expensive liquor. I’m teetering on the edge of my chair, saying less now than before, spinning but not badly. I drink coffee to revive myself, because I need to keep drinking. There is an inextinguishable desire woven into my roots that tells me I need to keep going. I quickly think about how much alcohol I have at home: a six pack? Wine? How many bottle are left? One six pack for two people is not enough, because whoever I’m with might drink three. I try to think of a reason to stop at the corner bodega, so I can casually recommend picking up more beer “just to have.”

At home, I crack open the first beer. It’s early, maybe ten. I turn on the television and queue up whatever show I’m currently on. The first beer is ice cold and deeply refreshing. When the first episode ends in a cliffhanger, I push for another one, and then another. In this way, I can drink four or five more beers before heading to bed.

My drinking always had consequences. I drove drunk into a telephone pole and badly hurt my friends. Men abused me. I stopped trying to get anywhere with my life, because as long as I could afford to drink, I was okay. They say a functional alcoholic has a job, but no soul. I always had a job.

I used to wonder if I’d ever be able to have children, because I couldn’t imagine going nine months without a drink. Would I also have to stop drinking if I were just trying to get pregnant? Would that mean a whole year without drinking? Drinking just one or two was never an option for me; one only guaranteed that I would not stop until total obliteration. I drank so I wouldn’t have to feel my life.

One morning, a few years before you were born, I woke up. It was a morning just like all the other ones. I took a minute to figure out where I was (on my couch), how I got there (no idea), and who I was with (my friend Sarah). I noticed the front door to our Brooklyn apartment was wide open, another detail I couldn’t explain. Sarah left, and I dragged myself to the bedroom, where your Dad lay sleeping. I looked at him and said, “I need help.”

That’s what grace is.

By the grace of a higher power I call “whatever”, I made it through that day and night without drinking. I made it through the next day, too. As I sit here writing you this letter, I’ve made it through 1,540 days.

I had to earn those days, one at a time. I had to learn how to sit in my own skin, in all that discomfort, with the shameful memories that snuck up on me and pounced. I had to learn how to go to dinner without drinking, how to watch TV without drinking, how to talk to and relate to other people without drinking. I felt like a teenager again, noticing strange feelings and thoughts suddenly unobscured by the thick fog of a daily alcoholic haze.

After I became pregnant, I’d sit in my alcoholic meetings and cry. I used to not drink for myself, but now I also needed to not drink for you.

When I drink, nothing is more important than figuring out how to keep drinking. I don’t care where I am, who I’m with, how they’re treating me, or how much danger I’m in. I don’t care about anybody or anything besides drinking. I don’t love anybody more than booze.

I’m not going to drink today, and so today I will be capable of loving you. I hope, in this way, I can stack up the days every day of your life. I hope you never have to feel the sting of my absence, because I’ve chosen to disappear.

I love you fiercely. I love you with every deep down particle of myself that I spent years trying to squash.

I urgently hope you don’t share my disease. I hope you grow up knowing how to love, nurture, and take care of yourself. I hope you don’t feel the same pull towards oblivion that I do. I’ll love you even if you do, and I can teach you how to ask for help.

Love,

Mom

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A Letter to My 9 Month Old

Dear Lucy,

9 months and 6 days ago, I went for my last ultrasound. I was 41 weeks pregnant, so swollen and scared it was hard to walk, or sit, or lie down. I darkly, secretly hoped that some minor thing would be wrong, maybe I would have a little less fluid than they’d like, and they’d tell me to come in for induction. I was so tired of waiting for you. I was standing on the bridge between my old life and the new one, crushed by the weight of air, slumped from the burden of not knowing.

I was angry at my body for not even being able to do this one thing right. Why couldn’t you come on time? The mythology of a 40 week pregnancy held me captive, and made me feel all wrong. I weighed too much, worried too much, moved too little. I should’ve done more yoga, ate fewer scoops of casserole, done more squats. Instead, I sat at the dining room table all day alone. I asked people to send me poems. I collected them into a document called “Poems I Read While Waiting for You to be Born.”

I was lying loose from God. Strange is it not best

Beloved, in the New World, in this skinny life,

Intemperate with chance, my spirit quickens   
For the fall’s estate. In India, the half

Hour is the hour, we were like that then—
Jammed wrong & wrong in the diurnal

Mangy chambers of our carnall
Hearts, the rose robes rustling loose as velvet

Curtains at the stage prow, passing   
Into the strange salt air of an Indian

Ocean, hoarding kindling, heading   
West with hours, later than we might

Have known, counting tins of meats & oil left,   
If they should lose or last the night.

-by Lucia Brock-Broido, “Carnivorous”

After my ultrasound, your dad drove me to the indoor mall to pace between a Macy’s and the Gap. The midwife called and told me everything was perfect. I did not feel grateful. I was mad at you for already being stubborn. I sobbed outside the food court into your dad’s shirt.

The next day I got the call I longed for: they were going to induce. The next night I reported to the hospital, where I labored for 50 hours. You wouldn’t be born. At the end of it, they sliced my belly open and uprooted you.

The white light is artificial, and hygienic as heaven.
The microbes cannot survive it.
They are departing in their transparent garments, turned aside
From the scalpels and the rubber hands.

The blood is a sunset. I admire it.
I am up to my elbows in it, red and squeaking.
Still is seeps me up, it is not exhausted.

-by Sylvia Plath, from “The Surgeon At 2 A.M.”

Shaking on that cold stretcher, I tried to meditate to displace the fear. Paralyzed, with all of my insides out, I waited for so long to see your face for the first time in color.

I couldn’t move my arms, so they held your cheek up to mine. I gasped for breath, cried so hard I choked. I had you.

The surgery was a success; they removed my whole heart and handed it to me. We named it Lucy.

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Today, you are so much more than a slice of your mother. You have your own moods, your own language.

Everyday I want to scoop you up and hold you right where you used to be, but you don’t like to sit still anymore.

An ache will tighten
but not form.

Making impossible
even this upsurge of crows across our sightline.

The Mayans invented zero so as not to ignore even the gods
who wouldn’t carry their burdens.

Too slippery as prayer, too effortless
as longing.

-by Rusty Morrison, from “History of sleep”

At first, you were a shock. Feeding you every two hours, you bit down hard until I bled. I stopped sleeping. I kept granola bars next to my bed because I was always starving. I watched hours of TV and held you and hoped that you would stay asleep, or at least not cry. I loved you but I didn’t know what to do with you. I didn’t trust myself. How could I?

Now the weeks fly. You are not delicate.

You crawled quickly, and now you stand. You fall almost constantly, with a loud thud and no concern. You are tough, daring, fearless. You like to open drawers and pluck out their insides, knock down any tower of blocks or old tupperware we build, rip the Pat the Bunny book to shreds, with its old fashioned binding. You hate getting dressed and having your nose wiped. You made your own language, with a word that sounds a lot like “Mama,” which means “oh god please not this.” We have to work on that.

Every day you exhaust me, but every night when you’re asleep I miss you deeply. I look at pictures of you.

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Lucy, my love for you has cored me.

Every shred of my body and brain seems now to have been built so it could love you. I don’t know why I had all this physicality before. My hips were never useful until I learned how to perch you on one side, while you pull your knees up and use them to squeeze my middle. Certainly, my breasts never knew real work.

Before I had you, I almost never felt whole. I don’t have time for that kind of sentiment anymore, because my life is so full of you. The existential anguish was extinguished, replaced with the intricacies of your schedule, the feeling of your thin hair in my fingers, inexplicably blond. My mother said that would happen.

Thank you for teaching me about grace.

When the sparrows rise up for no apparent reason
And circle small and high against the pale vast sky,
What makes it so important?
As if my sadness was an endangered species;
As if my mood was a coastal wetlands area
In need of federal protection;
A place never intended for development,
Meant always to be useless.
This is what I left behind when I went forward.
When I feel good-for-nothing now,
I come back here to stand and look at it:
Wet and still like a footprint in the mud;
Hard to see inside the moving browns;
Lying low like an understanding.

-by Tony Hoagland, from “Grammar of Sparrows”

Love,

Mom