Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Party Parents

By now most of us have heard the horrifying story of the deaths of eight people, including four children, when a New York woman drove her van the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and plowed into an oncoming SUV. The driver, a mother of two, was allegedly drunk and under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident.

Since the event, there's been no shortage of sorrow, outrage, and social commentary. Time Magazine alluded to the incident in its recent article, "Moms Who Drink: No Joking after the Schuler Tragedy," arguing, in effect, that the "three-martini playdate" is over. And that there's been some "backtracking" by the "white-wine swilling" moms, particularly those in the blogosphere.

Time appropriately acknowledges that the "boozey" books on parenting its article references represent more of a backlash against pressures to parent perfectly than a rallying call for moms and dads to get their drink on. Nevertheless, the author summarizes a wide range of reactions among writer-parents, from defensiveness to condemnation.

While it's natural for a tragedy involving an apparently loving mother, a carload of kids, and vodka to raise media speculation, I find myself feeling uncomfortable with this accident being used to draw broad generalizations--and slippery-slope connections--about parenting and alcohol.

For one thing, the incident seems a little too bizarre to be emblematic. The collision happened in the morning after Mrs. Schuler drove away from a campsite where she vacationed with her family. It's unclear how, where, and when she had an opportunity to smoke and drink before inexplicably getting in a car with children. She pulled over at one point and called a relative to explain she was disoriented. And her family members claim to have never seen her drunk. Based on these "facts," one might surmise she was a deeply troubled woman who exhibited few signs she was careening toward cataclysm.

Should we be concerned that there are scores of other mothers only one fateful offramp entrance from destroying several lives? Perhaps. Though I think the more widespread issues of drinking and parenting are subtler, and more complex.

There's no doubt that parenting and alcohol are intimately connected. Or contextually intertwined, at least, in conversation, and on Facebook:

"The kids are driving me nuts. I need a drink!" or "Hosting a birthday party with twenty children under eight," which prompts the response, "Have you started drinking yet?"

Parenthood apparently provides one with license, excuse, and entitlement to enjoy an adult beverage in the way a sucky workday used to. But there's added nobility, with endorsement granted like virtual toasts: "Mommy Martyrs unite!" "Cheers for Beleaguered Dads!" And from our deliberately kidless friends: "You're crazy; have one on me!"

In that way, drinking is more of a metaphor, an acknowledgment of both the proud moments of parenting as well as its less-than-golden times, when we're not loving it or making ourselves particularly proud. Pour yourself a tall one=give yourself a break.

It's also a weak link to our more free-wheeling, independent days. A bunch of thirtysomething parents reluctantly pushing forty at Happy Hour sigh as the caps and corks pop off the bottles as if to say, We still hang out. We still have a social life. We still have fun.

While the neighborhood kids run under foot, of course.

But it's been interesting--not to mention, sobering--to note the differences between the drinking habits of our 20s and our 30s.

In my 20s drinking was something I associated with Going Out. Out was where the alcohol was, usually, unless it was stockpiled at home for a party. My drinking was generally confined to weekend nights and to going somewhere, with a cab ride home. Drinking was social; drinking alone was weird.

Since having kids, I--and my friends--don't go out like we used to. Making plans to venture beyond the front yard is a logistical and financial commitment requiring forethought, what with getting a sitter, and determining who's going to drive.

Therefore, drinking becomes just as likely--or more likely--to be associated with staying in as with going out. And if drinking is associated with staying in, and staying in is what we mostly do, when is it drinking time?

Well, it's always 5:00 somewhere, huh?

So suddenly the drinking horizon is broad and flat and stretches as far as the eye can see. Except often the only eyes that can see are one's partner's. Which begs the question, if a mother passes out on the couch and no one is there to hear her sink into the cushions, is she really drunk?

Perhaps it's the monotony of our predictable, structured lives (often lacking in spontaneity outside the occasional unprompted tantrum) which creates companionship out of the cocktail, particularly when one parent gets home late from work: make dinner, play with kids, clean dishes, help with homework, read stories, brush teeth, tuck in, clean dishes, do laundry, prepare lunches. Lather, rinse, repeat. The beer or glass of wine falls in line like one more habit, one more "check."

What so easily becomes daily routine ("just one more...") give us pause. Is it possible some of us drink more than we did in our 20s? We recalibrate and talk about cutting back, compare our drinking habits with those of our parents and their friends as we grew up. Is our generation really any different? Some of our parents were lonely ones and late-night drinkers and some gave up alcohol altogether along the way. So it goes.

In the meantime, it occurs to me that for some parents, light suggestions to enjoy a drink can be heavy prospects. The ones for whom drinking doesn't take the edge off; instead, alcohol is the edge, and there's real fear of falling off.

It helps to remember there's a grey area between the occasional empty wine glass and the oft-vodka bottle. That somewhere en route to the wrong way on the freeway there was likely a parent who needed to talk, who needed reassurance, who needed the real break and not just the happy hour.

It's easy for the media, and for other parents, to point to one extreme case with horror and judgment and relief that wasn't us. But more honest dialogue about drinking in our culture--and acknowledgement that discomfort, disapproval and shame seem to drive it underground--might save a mom, a kid, a family or two.

I'll toast to that.

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