According to a 2008 report from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), an estimated 5.3 million American women consume alcohol in a way that endangers their health or happiness. Needless to say, many of those women are mothers. A 2008 U.S. Census report suggests that more than half of American women have at least one child). In other words, there are millions of mothers in the United States who have serious problems with alcohol.
Like the people suffering from it, alcoholism comes in all shapes and sizes. While some people are utterly consumed by the disease and are rendered dysfunctional, others find ways to hide their dependency and carry on a fairly normal life. Many alcoholic moms manage to conceal the problem from their children and even spouses. They competently get their kids to and from school, get their work done at home or in the office, and spend time with their family.
Unfortunately, though, such basic tasks do not fully satisfy the unique and dynamic demands of motherhood. Even if a mom succeeds in providing for the family, the psychological and emotional needs of her children and partner can remain unmet. Constantly agitated by the desire for her next drink, she is likely to be impatient, short-tempered, and forgetful. When intoxicated, she may be more agreeable in disposition, but then clumsy, unmotivated, and unpredictable.
It is often a confusing, troubling world for the children of alcoholic moms. Besides being needy and impressionable, kids tend to be extremely perceptive, and they always view their parents as role models. They carefully observe their caregiver’s behavioral patterns, especially at an early age. They notice when mom is tired, confused, or upset, even if they don’t understand the source of what they see.
Sadly, the kids often blame themselves when their parents seem distressed. Living with an alcoholic mother, they are likely to grow up feeling guilty, inadequate, and alone, and they may also turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their own unhappiness.
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) is an organization similar to Alcoholics Anonymous but with the sole purpose of helping people recover from the pain of growing up with alcoholic parents. According to ACA, there are certain identifiable trends in the lives of those who have been raised by an alcoholic. The children often end up with psychological and emotional problems. They frequently become alcoholics themselves and marry other alcoholics. Terrified of abandonment, they stay in dysfunctional relationships, believing that is where they belong. They think of themselves as victims, distrust authority, and sacrifice their real needs in a desperate, fruitless search to please everyone else.
Some alcoholic moms try to justify their addiction, reasoning that their drinking habits are their own business, unrelated to the welfare of their children. They might even think that they deserve to drink as much as they want because of all the hard work they do for their family. But the damage done by alcoholic parents to their children is undeniable, and many mothers who drink too much feel that what they are doing is wrong. Their children should be their highest priority, but the incessant distraction of alcoholic addiction dominates their thoughts and feelings.
The NIAAA has reported that less than one percent of alcoholic women in the United States receive treatment for their dependency, with men being at least twice as likely to seek help. It would seem that a cultural stigma plays a part in holding women back. The alcoholic stereotype is of a man, not a woman, so women may feel especially guilty or embarrassed about their addiction. Also, some recovery programs are not geared toward clients with children, so moms might worry about not fitting in.
However, none of these factors should keep an alcoholic mother from getting the necessary treatment. Organizations like Alcoholic Anonymous are eager to help women in any circumstances, and the sooner an alcoholic mom gets help, the sooner she can experience the joy of properly fulfilling her role as a mother. After all, not only her own health and happiness are at stake, but that of her whole family.
By Colin Gilbert