It’s 30 minutes until my kids’ bedtime and I’ve had a hell of a day. My wife has been in bed with crippling diarrhea. I barely managed to get my boys ready to leave the house in the morning and then I had to work late. Dinner was a fiasco. Clean-up was worse. I’ve had to turn off the TV and now both kids are having tantrums on the stairs. One is pounding the wall with his fist. The other is screaming at me that I’m the “worst dad ever.” And all I really want, more than anything, is a cold beer. Maybe three. But, too bad. I’m parenting stone-cold sober.
This is a new development. In the past, I would have been at least a beer or two in by the time we hit bedtime. I would have been carrying around a coozie-covered khaki can like a security blanket. I would have been slightly numbed, super drowsy, and yet still impatient.
I didn’t feel like an alcoholic, functional or otherwise. I didn’t need to drink. I wanted to. I felt it made outings with the family more fun. I felt it made a lot of parenting more fun. That, despite the fact that I wasn’t any more kind or loving with a few beers in my system. That said, I wasn’t mean either. I was just slightly anesthetized, a bit fuzzy around the edges. So I began to wonder: What if I just stopped? Could I actually parent sober?
There was also this: My kids were growing increasingly curious about this magic elixir I held so dear. That makes sense: They couldn’t drink it and there was deep disappointment from me if they spilled it. The stuff must be pretty special.
Going cold turkey seemed like a tough bet more because of habit and social decorum than anything else. After all, the relationships with my dad-friends in the neighborhood are built on a liquid foundation. If we’re together, we’re drinking, sampling one another’s whiskey or swilling beers around various backyard fire pits. It all very prime time. We are Homer Simpsons and Hank Hills and Al Bundys talking about sports while the ice clinks in our tumblers and the kids chase each other around the yard.
It loosens us up right? It helps us tell dad jokes and wrestle. Beer makes us more charming and patient. Until it doesn’t. And I didn’t want to find that line so I opted out — at least in part just because I was curious. Maybe I wouldn’t care. Maybe I’d shed some weight. Maybe my kids would, on some level, register my restraint and appreciate my efforts.
On the first day I stopped drinking, it seemed like my kids were determined to test me. They wouldn’t sit down at dinner. They ran wildly through the house instead of putting on pajamas. My nerves fraying, I wanted a beer. I realized I needed a new rewards system. So I stocked my fridge with sodas of various flavors in fancy bottles. They helped. The sweet kick gave me a rush and the carbonation and intense flavors calmed me. Still, I’d replaced one problem with another.
“What’s that?” asked my 5-year-old as I swilled peach Fanta.
“It’s a soda,” I answered.
“Can I have some?” he asked. My instinct was to say no. But then I realized this was something I could actually share with my kids. I let him take the heavy bottle in his little hands. He tipped it to his lips and his eyes lit up.
“Good, huh?” I asked. He yipped like a puppy in response, as is his way.
By the end of the first week, I’d hit my stride. I was feeling bright in the mornings and I’d come to realize that I had more energy in the evenings. It was nice to not fall asleep on the couch before dinner for a change. And because I was more alert I actually wanted to give my kids more attention. Instead of wanting to wind down, I was ready to play with them. And bizarrely, I was more patient, quieter, and more willing to talk.
But then the weekend came. A neighborhood dad friend invited me out to play golf. He offered beers. I didn’t accept.
“What’s going on? Not drinking?” he asked.
Nervously, I explained to him about my experiment. I told him how it had been going so far and how good I felt. He looked at me and took a long sip from a Coors light.
“Huh,” he said shrugging. “It’s good to take a break.”
And that was it. We played nine holes and had as much fun as we ever did. Sadly, being sober did not improve my game.
I kept at it for another week, finding ways for me to find some solace when the stress peaked. I’d do things like bliss out while practicing my guitar, or turn on music and do housework. Not only did those things help calm me, but my kids would participate and my house would be clean.
But then my wife got sick, and my day from hell happened, worse than anything since putting down the alcohol. And that desire crept up, growing in me with every yelp from my bed bound kids. But now, I can see it for what it is: a way of giving up.
So later, after the kids stop hating me and fall asleep, I’m not going to go downstairs and pour myself a beer or a stiff drink. Instead, I’ll sip a pomegranate soda in the front yard. Am I a bit self-conscious about it? Sure. Who wouldn’t be? Advertisers have spent decades reinforcing the internalized association of beer and relaxation. But I don’t need a beer to relax. I don’t need anything at all. Except, that is, for the kids to go to sleep.