Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

More on Motherhood and Recovery

My friend over at Writing My Way Sober had an interesting post about “fierce kindness.” She was writing about her mother:

Here’s what is going on: work and my mother and working with a lot of women who are a lot like my mother. My mom was mean to me, then I went to therapy, got really angry, but then my mom apologized. That’s my Mom. Unconscious, conscious. Narcissistic, attuned. I am glad she repaired things and I am lucky she repairs. Not all Moms do repair. But I wish she wouldn’t do the damage in the first place. 

G in August 1997. From my book about my pregnancy. Photo by my friend Charlee.

At this time of year, I remember in my body what it was to become a mother. I gave birth to my son around the 1997 autumn equinox. I walk out the kitchen door in these late-August evenings and there are few birds singing—almost no robins; robins are the voices of spring and summer; by autumn they’ve moved on to warmer places—but the chorus of crickets and cicadas reminds me of the days and nights I spent waiting for my son to move out of my body. I could hardly sleep during those nights because of the pain—my migraines had picked up again in the third trimester, and though I’d only gained 25 pounds, my belly put pressure on my back and sciatic nerves. I slept mostly on our sofa because the waterbed somehow stabbed me.

We live in the middle of the city but I’d wake up early to the sound of crickets and cicadas.

When he finally decided to move out, he took a long time in coming. I was in labor for 31 hours. My legs shook uncontrollably during my labor; my body wouldn’t dilate past 4.5cm for about 20 hours. I chose to have no epidural and I tried every “alternative” way of managing my fear—breathing; meditation; relaxation exercises—but nothing solved my problem except the three shots of an opioid painkiller administered by the midwife. These shots, I clearly remember, immediately stopped the trembling in my lower body. While that drug was active in my blood and mind, I could at least rest. I was about five minutes away from being admitted for C-section. With the third shot, I articulated some kind of half-baked desperate prayer (on the order of, “Help me”), and I dilated 5.5cm in half an hour. And after pushing for another two hours, I got to feel my son come through my body and into the world.

For the men who might be reading: Can you imagine what it’s like to have a seven-pound baby stuck halfway through your hipbones for 10 minutes, much less 24 hours?

I’ve had 14 years to think about how much I’m willing to sacrifice for my son and for my motherhood. My mother sacrificed everything. My friend Syd, who is married to a recovering alcoholic, asked on his blog yesterday:

What is to be gained by staying in a relationship with someone who you loathe? What is the point of being a hostile martyr?

My mother was a martyr, at many times hostile, at most other times fragile and brittle, like crystal that at a touch splinters into sharp spikes. Not as hostile as her own mother, who, after having been abused as a child of working-class immigrant parents and as the wife of a violent drunk, blossomed into a full-blown compulsive liar and pathological manipulator. My grandmother never apologized to anyone for any damage she caused (she was perhaps too narcissistic to comprehend that she’d ever caused damage to anyone—in the narrative of her life as she told it to herself, she always starred as the victim). My own mother certainly never apologized to me, except at the end of her life. Even then, she did not say the words, “I’m sorry.”

But you know what?—I’ve been taught that those words are the weakest to use in any amends attempt. My Al-Anon sponsor always says the best amends is a change in behavior. And my friend Sluggo taught me that the best thing to say when making amends is: “I was wrong. I know I hurt you.” I look back and can acknowledge that my mother came within a hairsbreadth of saying that. Close enough for me to accept her amends and to understand that I need to keep changing my behavior in my own family. With my own son.

My mother had a breakdown after I left for college. She leaned on me too heavily, and I let her. (Looking back, what else could I have done?—I was a kid.) I can’t put my kid in this position. I have to make sure I have a life that’s my own—not just outwardly, with friendships and work and play, but also an inward life that’s separate from my needs and responsibilities and hopes as a mother.

G’s son, by G. 2008. Wish I had more time to paint. So many ideas in mind: children’s books, YA novel, many paintings and drawings, so much other stuff. Try to remember I have the rest of my life to do all this.

He is a beautiful boy whom almost everyone says looks just like me. The people I know who are used to looking at faces and shapes (photographers, designers, artists) can also see my husband’s face in his, and not just by the dimple in his chin but by some of the bone-structure beneath. But his eyes are the deep brown of my own, possibly even darker than mine; his lips are full like mine, and he has high, wide cheekbones that come from my mother and from me.

What concerns me is that his temperament is so much like mine. I’d rather he took after his father, but the boy is super-sensitive, stubborn, quick with the rhetoric of resistance—backtalk, sass-mouth. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. I worry that he’ll continue to take after me. If you know what I mean.

His school doesn’t start for another week. I usually wake up early and get to work; when he comes into my study, I close the computer and put it down. And even though he’ll be 14 at the next equinox, he still likes physical contact with his parents. Especially, in the morning and evening, with me. He quite often crawls up against us, or sometimes on us. Which presents certain challenges and discomforts because he’s now almost as tall as I am.

“I shouldn’t cling to you so much,” he said with self-deprecation the other evening before bed. During the day, or with his friends, he makes an enormous show of ignoring me or putting me in my place.

So what do I do? Kick him out? Make him ashamed of his feelings? Hold onto him? These small moments make me conscious of the fact that I’m the child of generations of alcoholics and addicts.

I try to walk a balance…

“I think you’re like those robins who grew up on the porch last summer,” I said. “You’ll fly into the world, and then when you can’t find the worms you need or when your short wings get tired you’ll come back to the nest to rest.”

Self-portrait, August 2011.

Is this approach “fiercely kind”? I don’t know. He pushed his face down further between my ribs and the bed and snaked his arm around me. I work in the early mornings and late evenings, and I tried not to think of the work that was waiting for me underneath the lid of my computer. The compartmentalization of motherhood, the overwhelming feelings of love and frustration and not-knowing, it’s all sometimes exhausting.


  1. Just an awesome piece. What a complicated relationship I had with my mother, as her son, and she the first alcoholic in my life. For so many years I thought what I had with her was “normal” and that I assumed I had some kind of defect that caused her to withdraw emotionally, and then physically from me. It wasn’t until years into my adulthood and therapy that I could imaging that perhaps it wasn’t just me, that something was the matter with her. I accomodated to her first, and then the rest of the world, and losing what ever I had left of my self. I was so busy thinking about her needs that I had little idea of what I wanted from life. I learned how to give, not to take or receive. I have two other brothers. None of us have had successful relationships with women. None of us even got married, or had children out of wedlock. My mother was racked with disease and had several strokes before she made any kind of ammend. I recall sitting on the side of her hospital bed, she barely able to lift her left arm, her right now paralyzed. I leaned on her shoulder and she stroked my hair, as a mother would brush the hair from her son’s eyes. That was the last moment of tenderness. She died in that bed.

  2. @John: “It wasn’t until years into my adulthood and therapy that I could imaging that perhaps it wasn’t just me, that something was the matter with her” … funny, in my “other” 12-step program we sometimes say that being addicts/alcoholics has made us self-centered. I think the alcoholic parenting my folks gave me made me just as self-centered as my own addiction ever did. (My mother: “If you weren’t so X/Y/Z, I’d be happy”; my father was just gone.) I’ve spent so much time attributing events and feelings to myself—this behavior can cause me actual physical pain and was part of what drove me to drugs (and earlier in my life, alcohol). … Thanks as always for your story.

  3. Oh my. This made me cry. I have been reading your blog for a while. I love the way you write.
    My father was the alcoholic. My mother passive aggressive and selfish. She too leaned on me and I let her. I think this taught me not to trust love. I mean how can a mother put her child in the middle of such a mess? I made some mistakes with my own, mostly my son. You see he is also too much like me. If I could go back….if I had only ONE piece of advice I could give…it would be to LET him need you. Be his soft place to fall. Let him know you are on his side, no matter what.

  4. omg, G. So much to say, in response to this post. My mom is 94 yo and the ultimate narcissist. I’ve blamed her for so much of my life. But, by the shear fact that she’s lived so long, I’ve had time to do some personal work that has now allowed me to understand her better – AND myself. Thank gawd. I’ve not only ‘forgiven’ her, but have held myself accountable for my own role in our volatile relationship. If my mother had died 15 – 20 years ago, I would have always remained bitter, and self righteous, and angry. I am so grateful for the gift of time.

    I gave birth to my first child in 1976. I feel so incredibly lucky that I had lived in California (going to grad school) a few years prior – and had been exposed to very progressive women and an empowering perspective on childbirth. The book, “Immaculate Deception” was a profound influence on my pregnancy and birthing experiences. I educated and prepared myself for giving birth much as an athlete would before an important competitive event. As a result, I was able to experience completely natural childbirths, with short, yet intense labors -and 8 1/2 lb healthy babies. I realize now that I was ‘lucky’ to have had the internal physiology facilitating such short (2 – 3 hours) labors. However, I worked hard throughout the 9 month gestational periods to stay physically in shape – and internalize the knowledge/confidence that I could give birth without Western medical intervention. Those were the most empowering experiences of my life – in addition to breastfeeding each of my children and witnessing their growth and development, due entirely to nourishment from my own body’s milk. One of my personal goals is to pass down to younger generations the glory, and satisfaction, knowledge, confidence and power of women’s bodies and their natural ability to give birth.
    I breast-fed my daughter for 18 months – and was certain that this would somehow protect her from the ‘contaminants’ of the external world. I was wrong. I wrote about this in my post, “From Breastmilk to Heroin.” I am still very much an advocate for natural childbirth and breastfeeding – and for women being able to fully participate in and empowered by what their bodies were designed to do – but, I also now realize that MY WAY doesn’t work for everyone – and wasn’t the ‘shield’ of protection I thought it would be. My beautiful 8 1/2 lb baby girl, born without any drugs or intervention, breast-fed until she was a year and a half old, given only ‘pure’, homemade baby food without any additives, was still susceptible to addiction. Who knew?

  5. Children schmildren … Number 1 daughter is racing around buying stuff for first term at university. Number 2 went back to school today. They are so loud and fill the house with activity and friends and sleeping past the crack of noon before eating junk breakfast cereal and leaving unwashed dishes everywhere. When I come in at night over these past weeks of summer holiday they have sat on their backsidess and asked about what I would be making for their supper. Then they would complain that their preference was for something other than what I had on offer. No thought of making me something given that they have had 7 hours since arising to achieve something during the day, other than watching Oprah and Co.

    I love them so much. I am glad they get to do that stuff I moan about.

    They call me a “radge” which is a grump in the Scottish vernacular. I am some days. Step 7 on that one…

    I have worries about how they will be. They have my DNA in them. We have ADHD and dyslexia already to deal with in our little family unit. Addiction would be such a burden Iwould wish them almost any other illness. And yet – they both say that they would be fine with being an addict. ” I would at least know when my mood would improve by going to a meeting” was a line I got last week from number 1. I think they have met so much good recovery in my pals and program people that they dont see it as that big a deal to get into recovery. On one level they are right.

    It’s all good really. It is just in this moment.

  6. I relate. In fact I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and getting the courage up to do it myself to help me get sober. I too, prefer this whole thing to be anonymous. In a weird way, it is liberating in that it allows you to express shame openly. It was hard, but I started today and want you to know you played a part in helping me begin. Thank you.

  7. I just noticed this was even here! I apologize that I do not get the time to read other’s blogs as much as I would like. I too struggle everyday with parenting, the great humbler. I would trust your instinct to let him cling. Pushing him away will only make him cling more. He won’t do this forever. I do know that boys separate psychologically from their moms by being mean to them in public, to prove to the world and themselves that they are not “female”. It is so hard for them, navigating a homophobic culture that devalues women while fiercely loving and still needing their mothers. You sound like you are doing just fine, as DW Winnicott wrote: “good enough parenting”.

  8. Thanks for the Winnicott reference. His is a voice that haunts me a bit. My mother did not provide “good enough parenting.” So how am I supposed to? … Of course, motherhood doesn’t operate by the algebraic transitive property… (right?) … We acquire insight and skills that help us improve upon what we were given and mend the vast holes in our experience.

    @Anon… congratulations on starting a blog!

  9. Whew! This piece wrung me out. My very narcissistic mother, who is almost 94, was not a very nurturing/attentive/tuned-in mother. However, her mother was a raging alcoholic and, as a result, my mother’s childhood was filled with shame, fear, instability, and guilt. Because my mother has lived so long, I have been given the gift of time to work through my own issues with her (and myself!) and arrive at a place of forgiveness and understanding. Thank god. If my mom had died 15 or 20 years ago, I might have remained a bitter, angry, resentful woman – always pointing the finger and playing the victim role – blaming HER for my unhappiness and shortcomings. In the last ten years, I’ve had glimpses of my mother as a suffering young adolescent girl, scrappy young woman determined to bury her past, and now, courageous elderly woman keeping herself going and trying not to be a burden to her children.
    I also identify with you and your son’s close relationship. My youngest son is 26 years old and I don’t see him often. He lives thousands of miles away from me and travels around the globe constantly. Yet, when we’re together, he still lets me rub his back and head, cuddles up to me on the couch, shares important info/feelings/dilemmas with me and wants my input. I don’t have this kind of relationship with my older son, for a variety of reasons. So, dear G, consider what you have with your son, a blessing. It’s not a ‘given’, in the kingdom of motherhood.
    P.S. I wrote a children’s photo/story book in 1985 for siblings attending the birth of their baby sister/brother. It’s intent was to educate kids about pregnancy and the birthing process through photographs and simple/easy to understand text, preparing them to be present at a family birth. Fortunately, all of my labors and deliveries were short and sweet, which I was counting on. When Brian was born, Jake (9) cut the umbilical cord and Hayley (6) was the first one to hold her baby brother. Ah, motherhood – – – is there anything more complicated?

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