If someone were to make a “Real Dad”™ action figure, it might come with a little plastic beer cradled in its kung-fu grip. The fermentation of malt, barley, hops and water pairs well with all dad activities: yard work, grilling, sports, forgetting the awful spiritual wasteland of an unfulfilling job. But it’s also frequently paired with intoxication, depression, addiction and crappy outcomes for children. I think about this when I drink because I know the risks and because I know my drinking is building a future for my kids.
My two boys, aged 4 and 6, know that Poppa drinks. The boys know it’s called beer. They know it’s only for adults. Occasionally, pretending to be me, they will sip at their cups and say in small voices, “I’m having a beer!” This makes me deeply uncomfortable.
I’ve thought of quitting completely, but I really don’t want to. I like drinking. And, more to the point, I like the men I drink with, all of them fathers. In our tight-knit community on the outskirts of Cleveland, we walk or drive golf carts to one another’s houses, kids in tow. We stand in each other’s kitchens, or around fire pits and beat up grills, talking about the neighborhood, each of us with a beer sweating in hand.
Almost every garage in my neighborhood has a fridge dedicated to beer and the dads all greet each other with, “I brought beer” or, “You wanna beer?” It’s the liquid substrate of our social life. It flows underneath wakes, parties, and casual get-togethers. It helps bond the community that supports my kids. Dads drink beers as kids play. We drink in backyards or toy-littered basement playrooms.
And the beer is not merely the thing we happen to consume. It couldn’t be replaced by bananas or cigarettes. It loosens things up. If the adults were stone cold sober, I doubt our kids we would be so easy with one another. We’d be too focused on their shenanigans. Too ready to intervene the second someone took a header in the shallow woods. Our beer drinking time is their social learning time. And, as much as a drunk dad can be damaging, an amiably tipsy dad exhibits exemplary pro-social behavior.
We’re giving them something to look up to–kind of.
Last year at my annual pre-Thanksgiving party, the beer was flowing in my garage as a fire pit blazed in my driveway and the night turned cold. There were so many people that my wife and I lost track of our youngest for a moment. It was maybe a minute or two of yelling into the dark before we found him with a friend in the backyard. But it was long enough to wonder what could have happened. We shared the blame with the beer.
I find myself developing new habits. Every night I will slide a cool can into a koozie and sip my way through dinner. Afterward, I’ll crack another, and post-bedtime a third. I rarely have a fourth and I don’t feel compelled to have any, but the degree to which I’m conscious of that last fact is plainly indicative of the fact that I know there are risks. I also know that my boys have looked in the recycling.
Every year at Lent, as a kind of stress test, I will put down the booze and brews just to see if I am suddenly gripped by the DTs or feel the python of anxiety tighten around my chest (more than usual). I do this because of a fellow father, and drinking buddy, once did the same and nearly died from detox. He began hearing non-existent music, became confused, then fell into a brief coma. My fear every February is real.
Still, for now, the social drinking cements us into the community. That means my boys will continue to have good friends. My wife and I will have emergency childcare, should we need it. And we will happily give and accept casseroles and care in times of need. We’re reinforcing our cocoon of protection and support, thanks in no small part to that fermentation of malt, barley, hops and water.
It feels like a truly a precarious balance. And every evening around 6 pm I place myself on the scales, crack a beer in my kung-fu grip, and try not to think too much about it.