Alcohol and Parenting

This article isn’t going to introduce any new concepts or insights, it is just the application of principles already covered in Alcohol Explained to a specific set of individual circumstances, specifically that of parenthood. I have mentioned before how my drinking was accelerated by my service in Iraq, but certainly parenthood didn’t exactly slow it down either.

There is a myriad of different experiences and reactions to parenthood but here we will look at some of the common ones, and in particular those that tend to influence our drinking. It won’t come as any surprise that the experiences I will be referring to are negative ones. This is purely because alcohol, being an aesthetic, dulls feelings. So it is usually (but not exclusively) negative feelings that tend to increase our drinking.

You often hear people saying being a parent is the best job in the world. Speaking as a parent myself I am not 100% convinced that this is the case. For me, the best job in the world would be one which doesn’t involve being covered in excrement on a regular basis, being woken up several times every night, and being vomited on.

You also often hear parents talking about how difficult parenthood is but then concluding with ‘but I wouldn’t change it for the world’. There must be something wrong with these people, anyone sane would change it. How about having it exactly the same but without being constantly woken up, the ever increasing money worries, the tantrums and the arguments? Why on earth would you want all those things to be a part of it? Who wouldn’t want to change the negative parts of it?

There are some great parts to being a parent but it is ridiculous to say it is the best job in the world or that you wouldn’t change it for the world. Like everything there is good and bad to it. The good can be very good but conversely the bad can be terrible. I think the problem is that people just don’t like to admit the truth about it in case others think they are a bad parent. I suppose it is also the case that we like people to think we are getting on well, particularly if they are in a similar situation and seem to be managing with it. So we all seem to stagger on and try to keep up the thinly veiled and frankly unbelievable illusion that we love every second of it.

Anyway, let’s now have a look at these negative emotions that are intrinsically linked to parenthood, the emotions that every new parent experiences to a greater or lesser degree.

First and most obviously there is tiredness. I deal with alcohol and sleep in Chapter 6 of Alcohol Explained so won’t go through it all again here. Suffice to say that alcohol interrupts our normal sleeping pattern with the result that we don’t get the amount or type of sleep that we need and consequently wake up feeling tired. Even one drink will interrupt the natural sleeping pattern and lying in bed for extended periods won’t alleviate the feeling of tiredness the next day. However it is also the case that alcohol, being an anaesthetic, will dull a feeling of tiredness or exhaustion. Of course sleepless nights and constantly being woken up is a key part of parenting, particularly in the early stages. Tiredness becomes a part of life, so a drink seems to confer a much greater benefit generally as it alleviates this feeling of exhaustion. However it is not only the case that this benefit is an illusion (the tiredness has not really be relieved, it has just been covered for a few minutes) but the alcohol will contribute hugely to the feeling of tiredness by disrupting and ruining what little uninterrupted sleep you do get. And of course the following day you are even more tired and so even more inclined to take a drink the following day to alleviate the ever increasing feeling of exhaustion.

The other thing that tiredness causes is a lack of patience. The more tired you are the more likely you are to lose your temper. Our own upbringings are very personal and make us the people we are. We tend to have very strong views on our upbringing, both the good and the bad parts of it. Mostly we don’t even think about this but being a parent ourselves bring these to the forefront. We tend to have very firm views on how to bring up our children and it is very unlikely if not impossible that these views will coincide exactly with our partner’s equally firm views. In this way having children can bring out the cracks in a relationship that simply did not exist before, as we disagree over some very deeply held views on parenting. And of course being tired makes us all the more inclined to lose our temper during these disagreements.

Short temper doesn’t just mean we lose our temper with our partners, but also with our children. Children are infuriating at times, anyone who says otherwise is either lying or has something seriously wrong with them. Even the most patient person on the planet would lose their temper, the lack of sleep can only exacerbate it, and the more lack of sleep we are suffering from the worst it gets.

Whoever we lose our temper with, be it our partner or our children (or more usually both), there are also have additional emotions that then follow on from this loss of temper; the anger leads to the hurt, guilt and misery. All these emotions are intrinsically linked to losing our temper with the ones we supposedly love. All these emotions will be softened and anesthetised if we take a drink. Again this may appear to be an actual benefit but again it is not. It may cover the bad feeling but, in causing us to be more tired than we would otherwise be, it will have caused or at least increased it in the first instance.

It is also the case that the guilt doesn’t just hit us because of losing our temper, it is a key part of being a parent for many people for many other reasons. Very few people these days can live on one salary, so usually both parents work, and this leads to guilt about putting very young children in nursery, about having to leave them in after school care, about having to take them in when they are unwell. And of course there is the usual worries about whether you are doing the right thing for them, are they happy, the worries about money, bullying, safety, etc. You name it, parents will worry about it.

All these worries tend to increase our desire for a drink; we take a drink and we feel better. But the worries are still there when the alcohol wears off and in fact we are even less able to cope with them because then we have the additional alcohol withdrawal which leaves us feeling less mentally able to cope with things (when I refer to alcohol withdrawal here I am not referring to the screaming heebee-jeebies you see in films when an alcoholic is deprived of their alcohol, but the additional stress suffered by every drinker when the alcohol wears off – see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be found in the First 5 Chapters section of the site). In this way, again, the benefit is an illusion and in fact we are worse off in the long run, with the downside needing another drink to alleviate it.

You also need to bear in mind that if you are drinking during the time that you have the children with you instead of at the end of the day when they are in bed, you need to also factor in the effect alcohol has on your emotions. Again I deal with this in Chapter 8 of Alcohol Explained so will not reiterate it again here but suffice to say that alcohol affects the part of our brain that puts a brake on our emotions, with the result that your emotions tend to run unchecked when you are drinking. The result is that you are far less able to control your temper when you are drinking, which is a very dangerous position to be in when you have young children. This is to say nothing of the danger of having reactions that have been impaired by alcohol at a time when you need to be at your most alert.

A final point I am going to drop in here is an observation I will make as a father to two young boys. They are little bundles of energy. Being with them is physically hard work, we rarely (if ever) play quiet games or do things that involve sitting down, most of the time they are physical games that involve me running around. I keep up with them and enjoy it, but if I was still drinking I would not be keeping up with them and I certainly wouldn’t be enjoying it.

The key is if you are drinking you aren’t going to be the best parent you can be. Even without drinking you will find it hard, and find yourself arguing and losing your temper. Well you know what, you are human. Just accept that you are going to act like one and don’t beat yourself up over it. Sure, try to control your temper, and do the best you can, but don’t allow yourself to be riddled with guilt if you can’t. But don’t exacerbate the bad points by throwing alcohol into the mix. If you lose your temper because something has annoyed you then that is nothing to be ashamed about, but if you lose it and you have been drinking (either during the event or even in the past few days) it is very likely that the alcohol has either caused the loss of temper or exacerbated it. Alcohol is going to increase your tiredness, increase your anxiety, shorten your patience and make the whole experience of parenthood less enjoyable.