How My Alcoholic Ex Strengthened My Relationship With Our Daughter
There’s a message on Facebook from my ex, my daughter’s father whom we haven’t seen in 15 years.
“Just heard about the earthquake,” he writes. “Hope you two are OK.”
We’re not friends. Not on social media, not in real life, and he’s checking in about that small tremor that shook our Bay Area home the night before. It was less than a 4.0 on the Richter scale, and while it had woken me up, it certainly wasn’t big by quake standards.
In fact, seeing his name on my screen makes me want to duck and cover more than that earthquake did.
The irony isn’t lost on me.
He and I met on an airplane that was about to take flight, and it was a shaky time in my life all around. I was 26 years old, headed to The Hague to cover a UN conference, which sounds glamorous, but I was heartbroken after a recent break-up and anxious about flying, along with a hundred other things in my life.
I’d boarded when I heard some commotion between passengers, a mix-up about seat numbers. I turned around to see a tall, good-looking man with big beautiful brown eyes. I recognized something in his face; perhaps it was longing.
“Excuse me,” I said. “There’s an empty seat here.”
The first thing I noticed was how my heart fluttered when he took the seat adjacent to mine. The second thing was the smell of alcohol on his breath. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’d just shared a goodbye drink with friends. Maybe he’d had a beer with lunch.
I was a sucker for a charming, gorgeous man, a man like my uncles. Smart, funny, and handsome as hell. Oh, and also big drinkers.
On the trans-Atlantic flight, he told me about how he’d recently moved back from Europe to Harlem.
At one point, he even mentioned, “You know, I’m an alcoholic.”
In my family of origin, alcoholics amuse us. We never talk about the booze.
I nodded because I could handle him.
He’s so honest and so open, I thought, as he told me about the long stretches he’d had without drinking, followed by the binges like the one he was going through mid-air.
As I listened, I focused on the “stretches without drinking” part.
I wondered what our age difference was. Then I wondered if I’d ever see him again. I gave him my phone number, and a week later, after we’d both landed back in New York, he called.
We started dating, and more details came out. He was 13 years older than me. He loved his family and adored every one of Prince’s songs. He was a survivor. He made me laugh. He also told me at some point that he was bipolar, and looking back, I had no idea what that meant.
Soon he was calling me when he was drunk. When he showed up on my doorstep with bloodshot eyes one night, and later passed out in my bedroom, I still believed I could help him.
My roommate, who was my age and also a caretaker, was concerned. She rescued stray cats. I rescued stray men.
Night after night, I let him sleep off his hangovers in my bed. I brought him glasses of water and listened as he cried.
“I’m a failure,” he said.
“No, you’re not.”
I thought I could save him, and that belief kept me with him. When he wasn’t drinking, he worked hard and loved deeply. We had long conversations about getting married and buying a house starting a business together.
I was in love when I saw the pink line on the pregnancy stick. I called my best friend, bursting with surprise and excitement, and also with fear. He told me we were in this for the long haul and I believed him. He was there when our daughter was born, coaching me through contractions as I waved away pain medications and she came flying out.
But he was drinking again, and as I got up every few hours at night to care for our newborn, I started to feel resentful.
We argued. A lot.
In his lowest points, he’d leave our apartment and disappear for the night. I never knew where he went, and I finally realized there was nothing I could do to help him.
When my daughter was seven months old, I came home to our apartment, opened the door, and stepped over his keys. He’d taken all his things, locked the door, and pushed the keys back under. “You’re better off without me,” his note said.
Over the years, when people have asked me about him, I’ve answered, “He’s not in the picture.”
As if I could take scissors to the photo and snip him out. As if he’d never existed in the first place.
I’ve always tried to be honest and open with my daughter about her father. But I’ve also felt fiercely protective of her. Maybe overprotective.
She knows the basics, like his name and his age and where he’s from, and also how smart and funny and charming he is. We’re even in touch with his brothers and sisters in New York, and I’ve taken her to visit them many times.
When she was still quite young, I explained to her that her father was an alcoholic, although it took me a long time to name it as such. She’s a sensitive kid, a deep-feeling soul, and I didn’t want to frighten her.
And maybe, I didn’t want to face my shame, so I held onto it the same way generations of women in my family did before me.
However, the times I did open up and share details with my daughter about her father — such as his alcoholism and bipolar disorder — she responded to me at face value. In other words, she didn’t want to hear all the sensational details, but I noticed the compassion in her eyes, how she processed the information with so much empathy. Over time, I’ve realized that perhaps my daughter doesn’t have the same baggage I do.
When she was eight years old, she asked — for the first time — if she could see her father, and she was very specific about what that meant. “I want to Skype with him,” she told me.
I was nervous, and I tried to stay curious. One of her best friends had recently started Skyping with her father, who’d moved to South America that year, and maybe this had triggered a desire in my daughter to do the same. So, I emailed him, not knowing if his old email address was even valid.
I was surprised when he responded, and just seeing his name made my heart pound in my ears, as that old anxiety triggered me. He said he was living “in Europe,” and that he’d like to connect. We set up a time. In our little living room, I called, and he answered. My daughter studied him quietly, as I tried to direct the conversation. There were a lot of long pauses. After a few minutes, she ran to the other room with a quick “Bye!” Afterward, she told me, “Thank you, Mommy. I just wanted to see him. That’s all.”
He wanted to call again. I encouraged her to reconnect, but she didn’t want to, and I didn’t push it.
Four years later, when she was 10, I’d married a great guy whom I’d met after moving back to California. Just before my daughter turned 12, I was about to give birth to another daughter. My husband and I talked about the possibility of him legally becoming my daughter’s father. She said she wanted this, too.
So, I reached out to my ex again. I tried to be open and tell him a bit about my life. He wrote back, saying it was good to hear from me, but he gave me no clues as to where he was living or what he was doing. Then I explained my reason for contacting him: my new husband wanted to adopt our daughter legally, and both she and I wanted this, too. To do so, my ex would need to relinquish his parental rights.
He refused. (In the end, the judge overrode my ex’s refusal based on the fact that I’d parented solo for 12 years at that point without any financial, emotional, or physical assistance.)
Today, my daughter is about to turn 18. She’s an incredibly grounded, focused, self-reliant young woman with such a big heart.
And me? I still struggle with anxiety, although I do have some helpful tools in my toolbox.
As my daughter gets ready to leave home and head to college, I worry I haven’t been open enough with her. Maybe I should’ve had more heart-to-heart mother-daughter talks. Maybe I haven’t prepared her adequately for the world.
And now, this Facebook message from her father. Maybe she’d like to be in contact with him now that she’s almost an adult? Maybe she’d like to have a relationship with him? I have no roadmap for dealing with this. My parents never talked about the past, unless they were trying to use it as ammunition against each other.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
So, I put on my journalism hat and decide to reach out to other mothers who’ve gone through similar experiences. I’m part of a private Facebook group of mothers, so I write a post explaining that I’m working on this essay. I add that my daughter and I are very close, and I’m worried. I wonder if I should’ve been more honest with her about her bio-dad. I end with a request, asking if anyone would like to talk to me and share some advice.
One of the first responses comes from a mother in Canada. It’s one line, a question: “Do you write under a pseudonym?”
Maybe she’s curious. Maybe my post triggered something in her. But as I reread her comment, my stomach cramps. My hands shake. I feel like I did something wrong. I don’t know what I was thinking, posting that. It was an awful idea. I feel ashamed. Underneath her sparse comment, I feel her judgment, like she’s saying, “If you use your real name, you’re going to damage your child.”
That comment unravels me, and I spend many days in my familiar place of self-criticism.
I almost give up on this essay; the shame consumes me so much. But my shame also nudges me to look closely at my story because writing this essay is about owning my story. It’s not about revealing my daughter’s.
I want to stop writing this essay, but Alyssa hadn’t responded next. The mother of a college-aged daughter whose ex is also an alcoholic, she writes a kind note to me, offering to share her experiences.
In the end, it’s a Facebook message that prompts writing this essay, and it is a stranger on Facebook who supports me along the way to finish it.
Alyssa begins by sharing with me how she explained her father’s alcoholism to her daughter. She told her daughter, “It’s not because he’s bad, or doesn’t love you, but because that’s just how strong and serious alcoholism is. It can make you do things you don’t want to do. And you can’t get better alone.”
Like me, Alyssa found love again and remarried, and her daughter has a new model for a healthy relationship. “To be able to see change and conflict without rage is big. To see things fall apart but still have kindness and compassion, even when it hurts and is scary, is really a gift.”
She recounts her experiences and advice to me in two pages, with so much empathy and compassion. And perhaps there’s one upside to all of this, Alyssa adds, one I’ve seen in my daughter: “She cycles through emotions as the situations change, usually starting at anger, then confusion, then resignation and sadness. She’s gotten really good at processing and expressing her feelings without demonizing people.”
Lastly, Alyssa reminds me that life is full of “fear and disappointment in one way or another. They all present a great opportunity to teach process and boundaries. By being open about everything with her, she’s gotten really clear about what kinds of relationships and situations she wants in her life, and what she doesn’t. I wouldn’t have chosen this path for either one of us, but I can’t say that it hasn’t taken us somewhere wonderful. She’s an amazing kid, we have a great relationship, and she’s in a great place.”
Reading those last words gives me the courage to go and knock on my daughter’s door. Maybe I’ll invite her to take a hike and talk.
I am hit with the smell of lavender. She’d recently asked for an aromatherapy diffuser, in part to mask out the smell of marijuana our retired neighbor smokes daily over the fence. That pretty much sums my daughter up, a studious high school senior and heartfelt vegan who doesn’t want any addictive substances in her body. Her room is filled with vibrant green plants, which she tends to every night before bed.
“What’s up Mom?” She looks up from her thick AP Statistics textbook and smiles.
I hesitate. “Would you like to go on a little hike later today? Maybe after dinner?”
“I’d love to!” She pushes her chair back and studies me. “Is everything okay, Mom? You look so serious; Did someone die?”
“No, honey.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Everything’s fine.”
No, it’s not. My baby is about to turn 18 and graduate and leave home, and I should’ve talked to her more. Really talked to her. I had so many windows, so many opportunities, and I’ve missed them. I worry I’ve failed her somehow.
It rained earlier, and the sun is out. My daughter and I head up the hill, as she tells me about planning a camping trip with friends, and about mapping out the classes she wants to take next fall.
She’s much clearer and more confident that I was at her age. I almost talk myself out of bringing up her father because I worry I’ll kill the mood.
As we climb to the top of the hill, I tell myself to breathe. I wish I knew where to start. Should I tell her about her father’s message? Or maybe I should just launch into talking about the past?
I dive in and tell her about hearing from her father.
“He was checking in about the earthquake?” Her eyebrows go up like she is almost amused.
“It got me thinking,” I say. “We haven’t talked about him for a long time. I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t shared with you.”
First, I tell her the love story, and also the heartbreak story, and she listens, even if she’s heard so much of this before. I ask if she has any questions.
“I like hearing about your life, Mom. There’s still so much I don’t know.”
I hear no judgment, only curiosity.
“The thing is my father’s sort of a stranger. I don’t remember him. I was so young.”
“Would you like me to respond to him?” I ask next. “Or would you like to write to him?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She lifts her face to the sky like she is rising above it all. “I don’t feel much of a connection to him, Mom. But thanks for asking.”
By the end of the hike, I realize once again how grounded she is. And how close we are.
As long as I give her the space to talk, I hope she knows that I’m here to listen. And most of all, I see how truly composed and capable she is, now that her life is hers.
Image via shutterstock.com.