Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Sober Life: Being A Sober Mom

Said goodbye this morning to my 13-year-old, watching him shamble down the front steps into the first mild morning we’ve had this year. There was something about how he looked walking toward the school bus, wearing the new coat that he calls his “rock-star coat,” which he bought on his own when he walked with his friends from our house down to the shops last week… I watched him from behind, and coupled with that feeling that he’s no longer my little boy came a regret that I’d spent a number of years of his early childhood unsober.

I shut the door, locked it, walked back into the kitchen and started washing the dishes from breakfast before settling down to work. Pretty soon my tears were dripping into the dishwater. Sometimes I can’t do anything about it: I Regret The Past and Wish To Shut The Door On It.

Thirteen years ago, I was a fearful new mom. The fear settled on me as soon as I knew I was pregnant. I knew I was pregnant even before I took the drugstore test. I could feel it in my body. I’d gotten pregnant by accident and after the second line in the pregnancy test’s window confirmed what I already knew, I stood in the front hall and burst into tears—I was sure I had no idea how to raise a kid, and I had no confidence that I could figure it out. I read lots of books, and I even wrote a book about my pregnancy (which was great—my pregnancy, that is), but books didn’t give me that sense of Being Right inside myself.

My son, at a couple weeks old. From my first book. (Photo by Charlee Brodsky.)

When my son was born, and I saw his face, I knew he was the one I was supposed to meet. You know what I mean? His eyes were open. They were stone-colored, and he looked hard at me. I was absolutely flattened by love. I swore to myself I’d do my best.

My best turned out to be several years of addiction.

I got sober when he was turning 11.

As I finished washing the dishes I thought to myself how I can’t turn the clock back. My kid is one person I have to make living amends to. You can’t go to a child and tell him the ways you’ve harmed him… The facts of parenthood force me to live as an example of sobriety, to live as healthily and as spiritually-directed as I can today. Letting the rest go is the hard part. The self-recrimination. The thoughts, when I look into his face, of “what if?” What if he’d been given a different mother. What if I’d been able to get sober earlier. Blah blah blah, self-pity.

I know how I’m supposed to think. I’m supposed to stay in the present moment.

Doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen always makes me think of my own mother. She taught me specific ways of house-cleaning. She did not tolerate drips or crumbs on the countertop. She did not tolerate leaving dishes in the sink. We didn’t have a dishwasher. She used to point to her piano (which is now in our front hall) and say, “There’s my dishwasher”—to emphasize the point that she’d chosen to invest in a musical instrument rather than a kitchen appliance.

I used to think at those moments that, actually, I was the dishwasher, and so was my sister, but I never said so.

We didn’t even have a sink-sprayer. There was a little cup by the faucet that we used to rinse out the sink. (Of course, we had no disposal.)

This morning as I wiped the countertop clean I thought of my mother. She’s been dead of lung cancer from smoking, it’s been almost 12 years.

Recently my father-in-law died, and my husband, on the first night after his dad’s death, curled up next to me in bed and asked, “Where do you think we go after we die?” It was a childlike question borne of childlike feelings. I thought of my mother then. There is nothing left of my mother’s body, surely, except her bones. Her grave is on a hillside 15 miles to the east of here. But can it be said that there is nothing left of her, when I so diligently empty the sink, when I wipe the countertop clean… when I beat myself over the head for making mistakes—the way she taught me?

Instead of doing my yoga at home today, I went to my friend Jenn’s class. I needed to get out of the house, and I needed to hear Jenn’s voice. As I walked in, she was already leading the students in opening meditation. I sat down on my mat, and Jenn said, “Now think of a place of comfort,” and the first thing that came to my mind was my  mother’s lap when I was a child. I could feel her shoulders under the blue-and-brown flannel shirt and I could smell her cigarette smoke, and I could hear her voice. Though my mother hit me when I was small, I also remember how much I used to love it when she sometimes held me on her lap. She also sometimes sang, or read books.

I held my son, I sang to him, I read to him… even when I was not sober…

I started to cry in the yoga studio. (I was in the back…)

One problem I’ve had is that I made my mother my higher power. I did everything she said, down to wiping the countertops clean in a certain way. I am a good reporter and student because I can remember conversations and lectures verbatim, because I was trained to remember things my mother said (or else).

I can see that my son won’t have some of these problems. I’m not his higher power. He is not my confidante. He has privacy, and a good relationship with his father, and productive friendships. There are appropriate boundaries between us.

Driving home from yoga I was thinking that, at the very least, I’m here. I’m alive and well, if not perfect. (By now you will have noticed that I’d like to be perfect… 🙂 ) I think kids are hardwired to forgive their parents, especially if their parents make an effort. If my mother had gotten well, and had lived to see my son grow up, I could have let go of everything that had gone before.

I mean, by the time she died, I had let go of it anyway. … Anyone know what I mean?

But who knows how much possibility for growth, how much joy we might have had?

And she would have been here. Priceless.


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  1. Powerful, beautiful post, G. You are so honest – and articulate. Thanks for expressing things that I’ve felt myself, and resonate with such familiarity. My mom is now 93 yo, and thankfully, I’ve had some time to acquire some compassion for and understanding of her. If she had died before I was 50 yo, I think I would have remained bitter and angry for the rest of my life. Her longevity has given me some time to work things out with/for myself. I’m grateful for that. Hugs to you, G.

  2. You may not be perfect, but this post is pretty awesome. I relate so much to that feeling of, “I can’t help it, I regret the past…” There are times when I ache over the decisions I made, but we have to move on. God is faithful to forgive us, we just have to forgive ourselves too.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. At almost 7 years sober the one area that still stings the most is with my son. He is 16 now and grown into a happy, healthy, really good kid and for that I am thankful, but I can think back on some of my actions before sobriety and that can hurt, I have forgiven a lot, but self forgiveness has been the hardest to overcome. I also believe that kids are “hardwired to forgive their parents”, my son has sooooo many reasons to be angry and not forgive me, but he has (and still does when I need it) and loves me more than ever. Another one of those awesome elements of recovery – relationships restored!

  4. guinevere

    February 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    @Peggy, I thought I would remain bitter and angry forever, but when I got the news that my mother was dying, I knew I had karma to pay off or else I’d come back as an ant or a slug in the next life. Man. I so do not want to be a slug.

    @Shay & @Kimberly… thanks for being here and for reminding me that others are engaged in this amazing project of self-forgiveness and sober motherhood. You guys know what I’m saying… that feels good. 🙂 @Kimberly–well done on 7 years, and on a 16-year-old healthy young man.

  5. G., this is a moving post. I turned out okay (I think) even though I did not have that kind of emotional closeness with my father. We were close as father and son. I think that your love for your son shone through even during the addiction years. As you write here, what we have now is the present to make those living amends. Thanks for sharing your love and honesty here.

  6. guinevere

    February 21, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Aw, Syd. You definitely turned out great. 🙂

  7. Wow, what a powerful post – what a beautiful baby. I remember when I was in the hospital after giving birth to my first child I cried all the time, begging every care-taking employee on staff to come home with me and my baby. Child rearing is hard and it is scary – but I have loved every minute of it.

    I would love to give you proverbial hug and tell you that use the past as strength. You’ve come a long way, baby and facing your giants is one huge step. (I refer to Joe Kelly’s I KILL GIANTS – a great graphic novel about facing fears – if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do so).

    Let me know how it goes! You can find me at She Writes or at my blog:

    Great post,
    Meryl Jaffe PhD

  8. You are amazing and your son is fortunate to have you. The way you write about your experiences truly touches my soul. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Catholic Alcoholic

    March 3, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Im doing this too, making a living amends to my boys, one day at a time.

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