A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a mum I'll call "Lucy," who told me that she recognized herself in my book. Which is to say, she's an admitted alcoholic who hides her problem well.
Lucy is married to a prominent doctor, is the mother of two school-aged kids, and is involved in her church. She admits that by all counts, she has a beautiful life. "So why can't I stop drinking?!" she wrote. "How on earth did this happen?"
My guess is what happened to Lucy is what's happening to a growing number of mums. Studies show it's become trendy for mums to combine happy hour with play dates, or to reach for an afternoon cocktail to take the edge off a hard day with the kids.
For many mums, this works just fine. But for women predisposed to alcoholism, pretty soon, happy hour turns into a daily habit — and every day becomes a hard day.
Once we realize we're stuck, denial kicks in. "I know for sure that I'm a great mum," Lucy wrote. "My secret drinking hasn't ever harmed my kids. I never slur or stumble. Sometimes, I think it makes me a more loving, patient mum."
I don't doubt that Lucy can drink copious amounts of alcohol with nary a misplaced foot or word. Increased tolerance is a hallmark of alcoholism. Neither do I doubt that drinking makes Lucy less irritable with her kids. Nothing soothes an alcoholic's agitation more quickly than a drink.
But here's the rub. And I say this with love: We're kidding ourselves if we think that our addiction to any mood-altering drug or activity isn't affecting our kids. And we're dangerously deluded if we conclude that it can actually improve our parenting.
By the way, this was me to a T. My own kids were in high school when I spiraled into alcoholism. I clung like a cat on a curtain to this idea that what my kids didn't know couldn't hurt them, but if I didn't get to drink, I just might.
What I failed to reckon was that kids sense it in their bones when you are not fully present. They know you're numbing your feelings and some part of you has gone missing, even if they can't put it into words until later. My kids were grown before they could name the myriad ways alcohol robbed them of Mum.
Of course, many addicted moms aren't so subtle in the havoc they wreak. I know plenty who have lost custody of their kids because of drugs or alcohol.
Ironically, though, it's those of us with the wherewithal to work hard to try to manage our drinking who often stay stuck the longest. We high-functioning, fine-winos take first place in rationalization and image management, but we're the last to reach for help.
I suffered for twelve long years before I finally admitted my life was unmanageable and got into recovery. Since then, I've struggled to name and grieve the losses — conversations I never had with my kids, intimate moments we never shared –because I don't even know what I missed.
I like to think I would have done better if I had known better.
And what about all those mums who aren't alcoholics? Should they be worried about how their drinking impacts their kids? One mother wrote to ask, "If I'm not an alcoholic, getting visibly drunk, or neglecting my kids, is there really any harm in drinking quite a bit?"
I don't have a good answer. Partly because "harm" is hard to measure, and do no harm is a pretty poor standard for parenting. But I think we can all agree that a mum doesn't have to be alcoholic to drink to excess, set a bad example or become emotionally unavailable.
We can also agree that mums have the hardest job on the planet. I'm the last to begrudge them a cocktail or two when they want them. I know plenty of great, loving parents who drink on a regular basis, and do so responsibly.
If you're one of those mums, I raise my glass of sparkling water to toast you!
But if you're not so sure, it's never too late reach for help. More important, it's never too soon.
Heather Kopp is the author of Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk (Jericho Books). She blogs at HeatherKopp.com