The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
Sheri was in labor with Cathryn for over 24 hours. After a stint at the hospital overnight, they sent us home until the contractions moved closer together and intensified. Just after dawn, I mowed the lawn to feel productive while we waited. I really mowed the lawn because I felt the chore provided cover for drinking Rolling Rocks in the morning.
When we returned to the hospital later in the day, I was worried the hospital staff knew I had been drinking. I only had a few beers, and I was not drunk – not even close. But I could feel the disapproving stares of the nurses who attended to Sheri. Your wife is going through torture to give you this beautiful gift and you are too self-absorbed to abstain for her, they were surely thinking. What a waste of humanity this poor woman has to tolerate.
And a beautiful gift Cathryn is indeed. After delivery, I held both of my amazing girls close. We talked on the phone to family from all over the country and eagerly awaited our release so we could bring our child home. I had a healthy baby girl and a beautiful, healthy wife. I didn’t have to go to work for a few days. We could spend the time bonding as a new family and watching our gift from God make her first discoveries. It was pure bliss. But it wasn’t enough.
As soon as we arrived home – away from the judgy stares of the maternity nurses – I poured a drink. And then another and another. I deserved it, I thought. Labor and delivery was hard and I had performed by husband and father roles admirably. I never considered for a second that my wife deserved a fully engaged husband in the first hours of our daughter’s life. I didn’t give a thought to letting her sleep deeply and peacefully without worrying that I would overdo it leaving her all alone to care for our newborn after an incredibly exhausting delivery. I didn’t think that way because my drinking wasn’t about the effect on Sheri or anyone else. My drinking was selfish – that day and always.
Two years later, our first son was born. Nicky came at night, so I had vodka in my system. I never considered suspending my ritual of nightly cocktails as the delivery date approached. The idea simply wasn’t even on my radar screen. Again, I was filled with paranoia at the hospital as I tried not to exhale around the nurses or doctors. I was embarrassed of my buzz, but not enough so to consider a change to my drinking patterns.
Two and a half years later, Sheri went into labor with our second son just after we finished dinner. Joey was coming in a hurry, which meant racing to the hospital through a blizzard. I remember thinking about the alcohol in my system as I blew through stop lights and drove far faster than the conditions warranted. I felt both justified and ashamed. While Sheri tried to stay calm and slow the process until we reached the hospital, I sat next to her wondering if our predicament would be considered justification if my driving drew the attention of a cop. My pride for getting my wife into the care of the delivery ward was shadowed by a cloud of shame. Again.
When it was Andrew’s turn to be born three years later, Sheri’s water broke before labor began. We spent a bunch of overnight hours in the delivery room waiting. While Sheri endured discomfort and worry in bed, I dozed in a chair next to her. As I floated in and out of sleep I remember feeling embarrassed and helpless that my drinking earlier in the evening left me unable to stay attentive to my wife when she needed my comfort and support. I wasn’t drunk. But I had enough poison in my system to render my efforts to stay awake useless. As I drifted in and out, I was overwhelmed by the shame of letting my wife down again.
I was four for four. Alcohol had played a disgusting role in the births of all of my children. Even before Andrew was born, I felt the weight of this despicable and permanent fact. I was not drunk on any of these occasions, but I wasn’t sober, either. Sheri and I have been married for over twenty years. During those two decades, our babies being born are some of the times my wife most needed me – the times she deserved to have all of me. I let her and my children down 100% of these times. And while there is nothing I can do to change the past, I dedicate the rest of my life to never letting my family down again.
This is a story about disappointment alcohol brought to my family. It is not a story of being drunk, and I had not yet progressed across the invisible line into alcoholism for most of it. The impacts of alcohol on a family are often subtle, yet profound. If you’re not looking for them – if your vision is clouded by a haze of booze – if you are simply taking what our society leads you to believe you deserve, you might miss the signs that alcohol is negatively impacting your family. I sure did for a very long time. Now my challenge each day is to keep my hope for the future stronger than my shame from the past. My family depends on it.