Deciding to quit alcohol and live a life of sobriety is a big decision. Once you feel settled and like you’ve found a groove in recovery, you might also decide it’s time to tell friends and family. This is something that can be a source of anxiety. It’s sometimes hard to find the words to describe your new lifestyle. Fear of judgment or ridicule might be in the back of your mind. Nonetheless, you figure it out and learn healthy ways to handle feedback and set boundaries if needed.
If you are in recovery and also a parent, you might find—like I did—that telling people you don’t drink and/or are in recovery is a constant conversation.
I’ve been sober since my oldest son was two years old. He’s 14 now. Over the years, we’ve attended countless end-of-the-year parties, sporting events, fundraisers, birthday parties, and playdates. Solo, I’ve been out to many brunches and mom’s night gatherings as well.
At all of these events (yes, even a few of the birthday parties for my son’s classmates) there was drinking, which meant I had to navigate talking about my being sober and/or declining drinks.
With the help of other parents’ experience and a few expert opinions, we’ll give you tips and tricks to navigate drinking culture at the events you’ll inevitably attend as a parent.
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An Overview of Events
I’d mentioned them earlier, but it’s worth listing out the many events parents attend with or for their children:
- Birthday parties
- Extracurricular activities (and end-of-season parties)
- End-of-Year parties
- Moms-only brunches or nights out
- Religious events
There might be more, but this list is a good sampling. Each of these events has a different vibe, includes different people, and happens in different settings, which means that talking about not drinking might look different in each one.
1. Come up with a plan.
First and foremost, come up with a plan to minimize questions. Tempest Recovery Coach Sydney Rhodes knows what it’s like to be the newcomer seeking out fellow parent friends. She was once invited to a “Mommy Happy Hour,” and she decided she wanted to go, but not without a plan.
“I showed up with my large to-go cup seltzer with a squeeze of lemon and lime and just said ‘I'm good’ when people went to offer me a drink,” Rhodes explains. “I also gave myself permission to leave early since I didn't really want to be around later into the event.”
A plan can make all the difference. Figure out your own mode of transportation so you’re not reliant on anyone else when you want to leave. Give yourself a time limit if needed. Bring your own drinks. Plan out answers to questions if this helps alleviate some anxiety. For some, being prepared helps quell the tension.
2. Tell the truth in a simple way.
Rhodes has a simple solution that she uses for each of these situations:
“For me, I need to tell the truth and keep it simple.”
This is one of the easiest ways to take the pressure off of you. Just tell the truth in a simple way.
Laura B., mom of two now college-age sons, got sober when her kids were 14 and 17. She was a “party girl” style drinker, she says.
For her, it’s easiest to be as direct as possible. When offered a drink at an event, she would simply say, “No thanks, I’m sober.” She did this for a couple of reasons.
“I do this to normalize sobriety and two, to allow people who might be on the fence to approach me if they have any questions,” which, Laura says, has happened more times than she can count.
Shelley Mann Hite, a mom and writer, says that staying vague is always a simple option as well.
“Especially when kids are around, there’s really no reason to get into the details when explaining why you don’t drink,” she explains.
Instead, you could opt for saying something like, “No thanks, I’m driving.” You can also just say that you’re not drinking tonight/right now.
3. Steer the conversation.
With your personal drink in hand, it might be easier to just dive into a conversation. Leading with questions is a good way to avoid others asking you questions. I’m all for asking other parents about their kids, jobs, and life. I’ve learned over the years that a lot of parents, and moms especially, have few opportunities to really talk about what’s going on with them, so if I ask, they’re more than happy to answer.
Let’s say you’ve kept it short and simple, but someone is asking questions you’re just not comfortable answering. You can simply restate what you said previously and then try to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“If the situation involves the children, you can simply respond and shift the conversation back to the kids, what's going on at school, family life, etc.,” says Ali Putnam, LMFT-associate in Austin, TX.
4. Your response might depend on the situation.
There might come a time where declining a drink brings about more questions, or you might feel inclined to share a little about being sober or at least leaving the door open for conversation as Laura B. does. Since attending an end-of-the-year celebration and a play date are completely different, you might find that how you respond might differ as well.
“Different settings likely feel more or less appropriate for sharing,” says Putnam. “Something like a small playdate may feel like a more intimate environment where you feel like sharing more about your reasons for not drinking. A large event or fundraiser may feel better for a brief response to go along with your plan for the night.”
The bottom line though, says Putnam, is that what you share and how much is up to you.
5. Protect your sobriety.
It’s important to remember that your recovery is more important than being at the fundraiser or showing up for the birthday party. It’s also really important to know where you are in your recovery and what you’re capable of at that time.
If you’re new to recovery or even if you’re not but you know you’re emotionally off, it is 100% okay to not to attend everything.
“Know that not attending is always an option,” says Mann Hite. “If it’s a school fundraiser, you could just send a donation through the mail. For a birthday party, send a gift with the child and your spouse.”
If you’re parenting alone or your partner isn’t available, see if your child can attend the event with a classmate or friend that you trust.
And as Rhodes mentioned above, always give yourself permission to leave an event early if you do decide to attend.
* * *
At 12 years sober, I feel pretty confident attending most things as far as my sobriety is concerned. I’m also really open about being sober because like Laura B., it’s important to me to do what I can to combat stigma. I’ve also found that many parents questioning their relationship with alcohol reach out to me once they know I’m sober.
It wasn’t always this way, though, which is why it’s so important to know what your options are in addressing recovery and declining drinks. Know that your recovery journey is yours and that you’ve made an important decision in choosing to parent sober.
Navigating sober parenting does get easier over time.
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In a study done in partnership with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University, Tempest members reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (problematic drinking) and a 25% reduction in the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.