On Saturday afternoon, my eldest daughter and I went to Dollarama to stock up on slumber party supplies. We skipped into the store holding hands because she was happy to have her mother to herself. She wore a pink dress over mermaid leggings and couldn’t stop twirling in the aisles.
We filled our cart with an assortment of candy, nail polish, glow sticks, and decorations.
“This is going to be so expensive,” Cailena said as we approached the till. I laughed and said her dad and I were happy to celebrate her. She leaned into me, her head now reaching my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, CailyBaby.”
The women in line behind us sighed. They were probably about my own mother’s age and looked misty-eyed at the moment Caily and I had just shared.
“Is this for a birthday party?” one asked, gesturing to the haul.
“You look so pretty in your dress,” the other said.
“Oh yes,” I replied. “We’re having seven little girls sleep over in the basement, but first we’re making slime and painting nails. It’s going to be a busy night!”
The women laughed. One told me to enjoy it. Her only daughter had moved overseas as an adult and now her home was very quiet. Never leave your mother, she jokingly made Caily promise.
“Can I give you a little advice, from a mom who’s been there?”
“Please,” I nodded. She placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Get two bottles of wine.”
Her friend laughed. “Like she hasn’t already started,” she said, gesturing at the coffee cup in my hand. “What’s in there, eh Mom?”
“There’s tequila in my truck if you need something harder!”
I smiled and politely chuckled and mumbled something like, oh, I think we’ll be fine.
And then we said goodbye and left, just slight disappointment, unease. I don’t have a problem with other people drinking, but something just fell really flat. I guess I actually did hope for advice from that veteran mother. I don’t know if enough older women realize this, but there are many younger women like me who don’t have enough access to people like them. We are actually parenting in the wilderness and yeah, we’re thirsty for the wisdom of other women in a check-out line, The Ones Who-Have-Been-There:
Take a photo while she’s sleeping.
Wake her at the hour she was born.
Write her a letter.
Take a moment in the chaos to just give thanks.
Get to know her friends. Appreciate them.
Buy extra paper towels, and just laugh it off when punch spills. They’re old enough to help clean.
Hold her face and look into those eyes.
Reflect on how far you’ve come.
Tell me what to do!
But it’s okay. Humor is good too. Jokes unify us, bond us. Those strangers didn’t know I am a sober person. I know that when the women advised I get plastered at my daughter’s ninth birthday party, they were really trying to say:
I see you
I miss that
You’ll miss this
You’re doing a good job
Hang in there
This part is beautiful
This part is worth it
This part is important
You are not alone
But these days, those jokes do make me feel alone.
Because somewhere along the way, it seems like “Mother” became synonymous with “Wino.” It feels like you can’t open Facebook without seeing a drunk mom meme, can’t visit a gift shop without a rustic farmhouse “Moms Need Wine” sign offered at 50% off. We have booze dispensers disguised as diaper bags and babies wearing “I’m the Reason Mommy Drinks” onesies.
Even on the most soul-fortifying mom shows like This is Us, we’ve got all the characters cozily nuzzling glasses of red wine despite the fact the hero patriarch was a recovering alcoholic, the son is an addict, and the daughter has food-addiction issues. Strangers at checkout lines joke about an amusing alcohol dependence simply because a child is holding your hand.
Anyway, I know it wasn’t their intention nor their problem. It’s my problem because apparently I’m a highly suggestible person. Because when all the kids came over that evening, I did remember the words from the dollar store and I did feel a pang of nostalgia:
Remember how you used to do this glass-in-hand? Remember the taste? The instant zen? The way that first sip felt like a blanket, like a sigh, like kicking tired feet out of tight shoes? It really took the edge off the squeals, turned the volume down. Made you more fun, sexy; super laid back as far as the kids were concerned… until maybe drink three or four got you tired and irritated. Or until you snapped at your daughter in front of her friends while making resentment-laden pancakes because you woke up sore and parched with a headache and because the dog is going bonkers because no one’s walked her and you blame everything on the fact that the kids kept you up late as you tuck empty bottles into a recycling bag and sneak-grab the red-rimmed wine glass from your bedside table.
No. That was enough to keep me on sparkling water.
So I leaned into the chaos and learned about a favourite aunt and what it’s like to live with step-siblings. I learned every girl hated feeling too shy to sing. I learned how secret crushes were okay as long as no one took them too seriously. I learned that Caily is really funny; that her humor is sarcastic, self-depreciating, and biting in a pretty awesome way I hadn’t seen before. I learned how sensitive she is to the needs of her guests, saw how she made sure each girl was equally included. I met my kid in a new way and I really liked her. I really liked her funny, sweet, intelligent friends, too. (Seriously, if you need more hope in your heart, listen to a girl. The whole world would be so lucky.)
And the next morning, I walked the dogs before the kids woke up. I marvelled at the night’s hoarfrost and I said a quick hello to one of my favorite neighbors. I laughed with the awkward-dancing, terrarium-building, now-singing children as we made pancakes with nothing but joy and flour and chocolate chips. I took a short nap later that day. I watched Anne of Green Gables with my daughters. And I gave so much thanks for them both, for the last nine years, and — especially — for the last fourteen months.
And I decided not to post this:
Don’t do it, Katie. This really is only your problem. It’s nothing — just an innocent joke between strangers. Don’t call out the normalization of drunk-mom culture. Even people who love and support you will groan. Everyone has a right to enjoy lame jokes as they like. It’s at no one’s expense. No one else cares about this. People will tell you not to take things so seriously. They’ll say you’re a kill joy. They’ll kick you out of the cool mom club. They’ll tell you to lighten up. They’ll say you’re judgemental. They’ll laugh to one another that this rant is exactly why you should drink. Nevermind Glennon Doyle says the world needs women with less chill. You do need more chill! Have all the chill! Chiiiiiiilllllll!
But then: Caily, recovering post-slumber-party on the couch:
“Remember that lady at the dollar store, Mom? Do you think she wanted you to buy two bottles of wine so that we could have one? Because I don’t think kids should drink wine.”
(We were watching the part when Anne Shirley accidently gets Dianna smashed.)
“No!” I laughed. “She was just…”
How to explain this?
“She was just making a joke.”
“About getting drunk?”
“About how wild kid’s parties can be.”
About how they assumed, Dear Daughter, that I would have to be heavily intoxicated in order to tolerate you and your friends.
Caily’s face fell. “Like, she thought we would be really bad? Like, you would want to get drunk?”
“Oh, I don’t think she thought that.”
Caily went quiet. She knew there was something of a lie in what I just said.
Did those ladies think mom would hate the party? Did my mom fake having fun?!?
“Mom, do you think we were bad?” — a catch in her very small voice.
“No!” I said. “No, Caily, I had the best time. I would never need to get drunk to hang out with you. I like hanging out with you. You and your friends are awesome. I had fun.”
She smiled. “Me too.”
Then I realized, the joke was at someone’s expense — hers: the birthday girl’s, the one twirling in the aisles, so excited to hang out with her mom.
Friendly strangers had trashed my beautiful, beaming, pink-dress wearing daughter and hadn’t even realized it. I hadn’t even realized it. I had laughed along with the joke, being polite. Out of three women and one girl, only the child heard the insult.
The rest of us thought it was normal.
I tried to imagine what it might feel like if someone laughed to my husband or best friend that they better get wasted in order to spend time with me. If they chuckled, as if I wasn’t there. I thought about what it would feel like if grown-up Cailena made that same joke about me, standing there in my favorite dress, just an excited old mama thrilled to share an hour in a discount Dollarama.
God damn it, I thought.
Where are all the real Moms-Who-Have-Been-There?
‘Cause we could really use that advice now.