"Mom, can we go to Bertucci's tonight?" As soon as I heard the question, I felt the intense pressure to say yes. I always said yes when she asked. It didn't matter what the question was, if it was coming from my daughter (or any of my three children), my answer was always a resounding yes. This time was different, though. I was just starting to know better. I was feeling stronger. I wasn't as afraid as I used to be. I knew there wasn't enough time, money, or patience to drag all three kids to Bertucci's for dinner that night, and I caught myself. Although I wanted to say yes, a part of me knew I should say, "Not tonight. We're going to eat at home." But the fear rose up immediately when I thought about this. "Will my daughter be OK? Will she hate me? I should just say yes. What's one dinner out? Let's just go to Bertucci's. She'll be so happy and she'll love me," I thought.
Of course, she already did love me — I just didn't know it yet. I feared that her love was conditional. I believed that my children only loved me when I was saying yes and showering them with material things and fun, grandiose experiences. I loved the way it felt to give them tangible things. When their faces lit up or when I heard their big thank yous, I exhaled and interpreted it as love.
The last four years of my drinking were when I earned my guilt and hurt my children the most.
To be enough for my kids and to be and feel loved by them is all I've ever wanted. And so I kept on saying yes, giving them things I knew I couldn't afford, and going overboard because it felt so damn good. It made them happy. It made me happy, temporarily at least, and it made me feel loved. It was a win-win . . . or so I thought.
Underneath my deep fear of not being good enough was guilt. At the time, I would have done anything to kill that guilt, and I thought I had found my answer in spoiling my children. But it was only a temporary solution. When the new sneakers weren't so shiny anymore and the hour at the trampoline park was over, the guilt was still there, telling me that I didn't deserve anything good in my life, that I would never be enough, and that I wasn't worthy of love.
It took a long time for that amount of guilt to accumulate. I'm an alcoholic, and during my active stage of drinking, I did unthinkable things. The last four years of my drinking were by far the worst. These were the years when I would black out before noon and show up at the kids' activities intoxicated. These were the years when my license was suspended, and I would walk to the liquor store with my daughter in her stroller several times a day to keep my buzz going. These were the years that I drank things like vanilla extract and mouthwash to keep the shakes at bay and to feel what I thought was normal, when I made promises I couldn't keep to a 9-year-old girl who couldn't possibly understand how mom lied to her again, and when I spent my son's 4th birthday in a hospital bed. The last four years of my drinking were when I earned my guilt and hurt my children the most.
As I entered my journey of recovery and slowly started to string together a few days, weeks, then months of sobriety, I was mothering sober for the first time ever, which meant that I was mothering through a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. And the only way I knew how to suppress the guilt was to make my children as happy as I could, as quickly as possible, time after time. So I tried to show them what I thought was love. I never said no. I never disciplined. I was the fun mom for a very long time. This is what mothering through guilt was like for me. It looked like I was a mom spoiling her children. But to me, I was a mom working overtime to win the love I didn't know that I already had; the love I was sure I didn't deserve.
Just as it took years to build up the tremendous amount of guilt that lived within me for so long, it took years to process, accept, and let go of it. Through living right and not drinking, I became an honest, dependable, and trustworthy adult. I started helping other people, practicing gratitude on a regular basis, and mothering sober. I even grew to like myself, one day at a time. With my newfound self-like and my growing self-worth, I let go of my guilt, and with it, my fears.
So that afternoon, hanging at the crossroads of making better choices while facing the decision about whether to go out to Bertucci's, I reminded myself that my dinner decisions had no impact on my children's love for me. And so I said, "not tonight," and I smiled as tears formed in my eyes. At that moment, I physically felt my own spiritual growth, and I felt and trusted the love of my children, which had been there all along.