My kids’ father . . . my ex-husband . . . is an alcoholic. I suppose I knew this even when were dating. We would go out after work and drink. And he drank a lot. But we were in our twenties and hanging out with friends. I thought surely he would settle down after we were married. But it got worse. Of course, though, he would lay off the booze and stay home once I got pregnant. Right? Again, no. Instead, he drank even more. And he cheated. And he was abusive. I still wanted to fix it. I wanted my kids to have a dad around. I wanted that until I realized that for the safety of the children (and my soul) we could not be married anymore.
Nearly ten years later, I find myself a single mom with full custody of my kids. Their dad sees them sporadically at sporting events or school assemblies—if he chooses to come. But that’s about it. And my kids ask a lot of questions. I do my best to answer their questions. I tell them I want nothing more than their dad to be healthy and around them again. And I worry every day about how quickly their father’s alcoholism made them grow up.
They feel the hole that their dad’s disease created in their lives. Once, my daughter asked if we could invite another dad we know to come to lunch with us. She hoped that she could see what it felt like to have people see her eating and being happy with a mom and a dad. My son cries at night, “Why can’t dad just stop drinking and spend time with us again?” I’ve asked their dad this very question. His response? Always the same — “I’m just not ready yet.”
When his dad neglects to show up for a baseball game, my son asks if his daddy didn’t come because he was at home drunk. I am honest. I respond, “Maybe.” And we talk about that. When he does show up for a game but stumbles up the stairs, smells bad, and talks loudly, my daughter quietly pleads with me to make him go away. And what am I thinking during all this? Honestly? I just want to scream at him—if not worse. But I never do. Because he is still their father. And my kids, as young as they are, recognize that they are a part of him.
My kids worry about their dad. They worry that he is lonely and that he doesn’t have anyone with whom to talk at night. Concerns that he will not know about their latest report card or winning shot or piano recital plague them. They worry that he is going to die. I listen to their fears. And I tell them that I long for their daddy to get better and to be a safe and healthy person they can see more often. I reassure them that I will do everything I can to help him. But he has to be ready to accept that.
My kids also struggle to understand alcohol. When they go to a friend’s house and the parents have a glass of wine with dinner or a couple of beers while watching a game, they have a hard time distinguishing this behavior from what has made their dad so sick. I’ve been told by their therapists that I should have a drink around them from time to time if that is something I normally would do. They need to learn it’s not the bottle of vodka that is bad. It’s how their dad abuses it. But gray areas are really tough for kids to discern.
I wish I could carry every bit of this burden for my children. But I cannot. Part of their life story will be that their dad is an alcoholic. What I can do is talk with them whenever—and as much as—they need. And I can give them the respect of my honesty at age-appropriate levels. I also will be diligent in teaching them about drugs and alcohol and peer pressure. Their dad was not the first in his family to become trapped in addiction, and they carry those genetics. I will love them and do all I can to make them feel safe — despite the fact that one of the people charged with doing just that often does just the opposite.
Maybe alcoholism is a part of your story — either in your own childhood or that of your kids. I know that, like me, you are determined to be both a strong mother and a soft place to fall in spite of these challenges. Let me link arms with you. Trust that I am thinking of all of you as I write this — because so many of us have been affected by alcoholism.
There are great resources available for family members of alcoholics. I’ve spent many an evening crying in Al-Anon meetings. Maybe your local community center or house or worship offers a resource. Maybe you just need to start with identifying that one friend who will let you sit and cry on her couch for as long as you need when all of it becomes too much.
Just don’t bear this alone.