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Why We Drink
And how that changes when we become parents.
Patrick Coleman is Fatherly’s Parenting Editor, father of two young boys, and author of the forthcoming ‘Fatherhood,’ for which he’s interviewed, by his estimate, 254 experts in varying fields of child development. Patrick likes a good stiff Tom Collins and cheap beer but right now, he is experimenting with teetotaling. It’s working out.
Americans drink. More than half of adults do so with great regularity. In times of stress they drink more — alcohol sales increased by 26 percent in the first half of 2020 year according to the Neilson Group. Why? Because booze relaxes us. It’s a reward.
Jim Harrison, the famous author of Legends of the Fall and equally famous drinker once said, “If you spend your days behind a shovel or in an office grinding your mental teeth, alcohol is the rite of passage to your time off, the rest of your life that takes place when not getting your living, the evenings and weekends spent in the constitutionally entitled pursuit of happiness.” He also said, in a knowing contradiction, “life is so short you want to remember all of it, bad and good.”
Adults drink. For better and worse. And many of those adults happen to be parents who certainly aren’t immune from knocking back more in the era of COVID. A recent survey conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University found that parents with kids who were distance learning due to COVID were more stressed than normal and drinking 7 more drinks per week than their pre-COVID average.
I totally get this. I spent much of March and April waiting for the appropriate hour to slosh some vodka into a glass and try to forget the horror of elementary school Zoom meetings. The result of my nightly tipple was a hazy looseness that manifested in both goofiness and occasional unchecked frustration. So, I’d be more primed to play with my boys but also more likely to bark when they annoyed me.
I wasn’t getting blotto. And I suspect that straight-up drunkenness in the presence of a kid is pretty rare for most parents. We’re not living in the 1960s anymore, after all. Still, plenty of kids, my own included, have been watching parents knock back euphemisms like “grown-up drinks” or “mommy juice”. There’s no reason to make this a moral issue. But a rational exploration of the relatively low stakes of kid-visible, end-of-day quaffing might help us find different strategies of coping with the ambiguities of our current historical moment.
When you're thinking about alcohol and kids you're really not considering alcohol or alcoholism, but the perception of children. What do they see and what do they think?
When we drink, our kids notice. There’s no way around it. Dad cracks a couple beers and suddenly he’s on the ground ready for some wrasslin’ or dropping bad puns at the dinner table. It’s not all bad, sure, but kid’s do notice, and when children see parents regularly drinking, the booze becomes normalized and the risks connected with drinking become tough for kids to understand.
Things get a bit more complicated when play gets sloppy. Kids can piuck up on the boozy breath and the uncommon silliness. A few drinks in and it gets easy to forget yourself. I know I’ve brought too much booze-fueled enthusiasm into a wrestling session or two. Innocent accidents when dad’s a couple drinks in can be tough to negotiate. Between a kid who’s been bonked in the fray and the pangs of parental guilt, it’s not uncommon for play to end too quickly. Why wouldn’t a kid start associating the sights smells and actions of a tipsy parent with a little uncertainty?
The evidence has piled up that unexamined parental drinking patterns influence adolescent alcohol use and abuse. Parents who drink are more likely to have kids who choose to drink when the opportunity comes up. And the earlier kids start drinking the more problems can occur, particularly because young people's brains are still developing. The part of the brain that helps them control themselves is not fully developed, making it easier for them to fall into patterns of substance abuse.
This is why offering “sips” of drinks to kids (be it beer or wine) is an absolute no-no. There is no easier way to convince a child that alcohol is completely benign than offering them a taste. A 2018 australian study found that 81 percent of teenagers who received alcohol from both parents and non-parents reported binge drinking behaviors.
“There is no study which supports the view that parents giving alcohol to their kids reduces, moderates, or positively influences their drinking habits — quite the reverse,” co-author on the study Richard Mattick, of the University of New South Wales told Fatherly in a 2018 article. “There’s nothing in the literature that suggests these parents who think they’re doing the right thing are achieving a positive outcome.”
That said, the likelihood a kid will start drinking, regardless of parental drinking patterns is moderated by parents talking to their kid about booze. When parents have rules around drinking and have honest conversations about the danger of alcohol, the outcomes are much better. Unfortunately The biggest issue for parents who drink in front of kids regularly is that when they have strict rules and talk about the dangers of alcohol, it places them in a hypocritical “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” situation.
So there’s a bit of a disconnect here. Drinking apparently eases the tension of parenting in a pandemic while simultaneously inuring our children to dangers of booze. So, what do you do? My decision was to stop drinking (again). I just wanted to not put so much of my attention into how much I was drinking and wat my kids were learning from my drinking.But that’s not going to be a viable solution for everyone. I totally understand that. Again, this is not a moral issue.
It might help to look at why that daily drink is so pleasing. Sure, you’re getting loose from the alcohol, but there’s more to it than that. A drink helps separate your day. It acts as the demarcation point between labor and leisure. There’s rich sensory input too. You crack the beer and hear the fizz, or tip the bottle and hear the glug glug of wine or whiskey. You inhale the aroma of the booze and you are compelled to find a comfortable place where you can sip and breathe and sip in calming repetition.
Quit Drinking, Get a Hammock
When I chose to stop drinking, I still found myself in need of some kind of transition to down time — something to promote relaxation while being a decidedly non-work pursuit. The answer came in the form of a nylon sling, strung between trees in my backyard. I replaced drinking with the easy swing of hammock time.
Some might not believe that a hammock could not possibly rival a crisp IPA in terms of pure relaxation and joy. They would be wrong. Here are the salient reasons why:
A hammock is purpose-built for slacking. There are very few productive activities that can occur in a hammock. You can read in it. You can nap in it. You can’t really sit up in it. Maybe you could knit or journal in it, but why?
A good hammock is a hug in the unconvincing disguise of a home furnishing. It should cradle the body and conform to a person’s curves.
You can’t get into a hammock without it swaying back and forth. You know, how cradles do? And that’s kind of the point. Use the swinging to measure and mark your breaths and you’ve got a one-way ticket to meditation town.
A hammock makes you look up. The sky or the tree canopy are good things to look at.
You can hammock indoors too. You don’t get the sky, but you do get the sway and the hug and as long as you’re anchored to studs a hammock is a safe way to veg out and is easily stored away when not in use.
Kids love hammocks and hammocks encourage cuddling.
The operative word in “coping mechanism” is coping. And coping is a hell of a lot better than not coping. Not coping might mean yelling at your kid, or feeling overwhelmed and letting important duties fall through the cracks. Stress can blind a parent from a child's emotional needs and cause them to be less responsive. Which is to say that not coping could almost certainly lead to kids feeling destabilized too. A parent who can’t cope with stress doesn’t feel like a safe person to be with.
So how do you find an alternate coping mechanism when so many of the things that help us unwind — travel, socializing, exercise — are ill-advised during a global pandemic.
So what you’re looking for is a ritual that can help you move from one moment of your day to the next with ease. It helps if that ritual hits all your senses and offers meditative calm. And there’s plenty of activities that fit the bill, many of which can be down with your children. If you have a yard you might consider a game of catch after work. Think of the smell of the leather, the sound of a ball hitting a glove, the motion of the toss and the repetition. You might wrestle. You can go for an afternoon walk that acts as a bridge between an effortful day and a more relaxed evening. Or to keep with a more epicurean pursuit you could make a pre-dinner snack with your kids. You could experiment with adding flavors to soda waters. You could indulge in a bowl of ice cream.
The best part about unhooking your daily cooldown from booze, is that the ritual you build becomes a point of binding with your children. That’s something that helps them connect and build relationships with you. It’s something that helps them cope too.
Of course, you may still want those drinks. But maybe hold off until the kids have gone to bed. Or save them for special occasions. It’ll ease your conscience and maybe even improve your health. But best of all it helps you kids establish boundaries with booze that will help them in the future.