The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

The Challenges and Blessings of Being a Sober Mother

How to find healthy balance and support

As a new mother who is in recovery from alcoholism, I have gained an enormous amount of first-hand experience into the unique challenges that motherhood brings for those either trying to get sober or intending to sustain their recovery.  However, there are also many positive reasons for alcoholic mothers to get or remain sober that are unique to becoming a parent.  These challenges and blessings of motherhood are not unique to alcoholics, as other mothers experience them.  However, the risk of relapse for sober mothers is always present and therefore, we must prioritize our recovery so that we can be the mothers that our children deserve. Some challenges may include:

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  • It can be challenging to find time for self-care without the support of loved ones (ie, alone time, massage, exercise, nap, read)
  • Mothers may experience “mommy guilt” for leaving their babies in order to take care of themselves
  • Hormones are fluctuating during pregnancy and after, especially if a mother is breastfeeding.  Therefore, mood and energy can be effected and difficult to regulate.
  • The extreme change in routine with a baby can through off the recovery plan a mother may have had previously
  • Many mothers report that it is difficult for them to get to mutual-help group meetings (ie, A.A., SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety) due to a lack of childcare coverage
  • HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) is an acronym for possible triggers that lead to relapse.  These 4 triggers are sometimes hard to avoid as a new mother and it is important to stay aware of how vulnerable they can leave you towards relapse.
  • Mental health issues (ie, anxiety, depression) can be exacerbated during early motherhood for reasons that include: stopping psychotropic medications due to pregnancy, hormone fluctuations, sleep deprivation, post-partum mood issues, stress.  For those women who used to drink to self-medicate mood issues in the past—this can be a difficult and triggering time to learn to cope without turning to alcohol
  • Loss of freedom:  drinking alcohol can be an escape and lead one to forget about their responsibilities for a short time.  Parenting can become an “anchor” that can lead some to feel trapped and to romanticize “the good-ole carefree days” of drinking without responsibilities
  • Mothers put their child first and this can lead them to ignore recovery suggestions and to avoid taking the time to fit their recovery program into their new busy life
  • Motherhood is constant and mothers may long for time to “check out”.  Alcohol can offer a quick escape and sober mothers need to find other alternatives that may require support from others
  • Stay at home mothers in particular may feel socially isolated and for those who tended to drink alone—this may be a triggering scenario.
  • Marriages and partnership dynamics inevitably change after a baby enters the family, and there may be an increase in tension as a new equilibrium is formed
  • Acting out:  for many alcoholics, drinking was a rebellion and way to experience excitement.  Motherhood is the opposite of that lifestyle and feeling responsible for another human being can lead some mother’s to long for a time when they could be irresponsible and spontaneous
  • Motherhood involves delayed gratification and patience in the process.  For those who crave immediate gratification and rewards, they may look to other sources (ie, alcohol, food)
  • Many alcoholics crave excitement and stimulation in their life, and becoming a mother requires a quieter existence that can lead some to feel a sense of boredom

But don’t be discouraged—there are many protective positive factors that motherhood can add to one’s recovery or desire to get sober:

  • Taking care of a baby is the ultimate act of sharing and can increase our selflessness—therefore, decreasing selfish addictive behaviors
  • Being with a baby is the ultimate “mindfulness” exercise of being in the moment—not worrying about the future or being sad about the past—just BEING.
  • Being a mother may increase motivation to get and stay sober, so that you have something to offer your child
  • Being in recovery can prevent feelings that parenting is “getting in the way” of your drinking life
  • Motherhood brings new meaning to your life and can fulfill you in a way that you may have been searching for through alcohol
  • Motherhood can inspire you to plan for a healthy future—and alcohol would not fit into that type of lifestyle
  • Mothers want to set good examples for their children, and being a mother in recovery is an admirable trait
  •  Genetics account for 50% of the chance of developing alcoholism.  Therefore, it is imperative that alcoholic parents take responsibility for getting sober and staying in recovery in order to increase the chances that their children either don’t develop alcoholism or have role models to support them if they do
  • Drinking alcoholically inevitably brings an element of danger into your own life (ie, health, drinking and driving, blackouts, etc.).  Therefore, as a mother, you would not want to bring these issues into your child’s life.

Recovery involves more than just “not drinking”.  It also includes living a balanced and healthy lifestyle.  Here are some suggestions of ways to balance recovery and motherhood:

  • Ask for help!  Mothers are not superwomen and need support in parenting from their spouse, partner, loved ones and friends.
  • Make sure that you are eating regularly and if you need help getting groceries or cooking, then reach out to others.
  • Bring your baby to a mutual-help women’s meeting if you are unable to have childcare at that time.  Other women understand your need to take care of your recovery and should not mind some baby noises!
  • Be sure to integrate self-care into your day when taking care of your child: take a nap, exercise, read a good book, watch a fun T.V. show, meditate, pray, etc.
  • Find ways to combine self-care and childcare: get a jogging stroller so that you can walk/run with your child; do yoga stretches while they are playing in an activity center on the floor; get a seat or “pack and play” that will allow you to shower, cook, clean, etc. while they are amusing themselves; get a hammock or lawn chairs that will allow you to be outside and even breastfeed with your baby and plastic gates for a baby
  • Be sure to get outside each day, especially if there is sunshine! A lack of vitamin D from the sun can contribute to depressed moods
  • Be sure to talk on the phone to others in your sober support system each day to avoid feeling isolated from the world
  • Ask a loved one to watch your child or pay for a babysitter so that you can do something good for yourself at least once a week: therapy, mutual-help group meeting, yoga, exercise, massage, manicure, etc.
  • Access recovery resources from home: Read recovery-related books (ie, “Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore” by Rachael Brownell), listen to free downloadable A.A. meetings at http://xa-speakers.org/ if you are unable to get to a meeting, join and read mothers in recovery blogs such as “Crying Out Now” http://www.cryingoutnow.com/ or join a sober parent chat group like “The Booze Free Brigade at Booze_free_brigade-subscribe@yahoogroups.com
  • Join a Mom’s support group such as “Mommy and Me” or library affiliated mother’s groups
  • Begin to create a daily routine that can bring some predictability and stability to your days
  • Get sleep!!!  Sleep deprivation can lead to many mood-related issues.  If you are having insomnia or constantly interrupted sleep, then it is important to find some support and solutions: Take a nap while your child is napping even if you have chores and other tasks to accomplish, have your partner alternate getting up to feed the baby at night, sleep with ear plugs and have your partner be “on call” alternate nights, listen to a guided relaxation before bed, turn off all electronics 1 hour before bedtime, go to bed first so that you are asleep before your partner comes to bed and have them be “on duty” so that you can sleep, have a night off and sleep at a loved one’s house so that you partner can cover for you (even one night of good sleep could help to recharge your battery), do NOT drink caffeine after 4:00pm, “Sleepytime” tea, consult with your physician about getting a blood test for your Thyroid or other post-partum imbalances that could lead to sleep issues, talk with your physician about non-habit forming sleep aid options if all other techniques do not help you.

For more information and resources about high-functioning alcoholics, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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