What It’s Like to Parent in Recovery
Taking care of a child and treating a substance use disorder puts parents in recovery on double duty
At six months pregnant, I sat on the terrazzo floor of my Miami apartment, packing up the last of my books and trinkets. My parents begged me to leave my boyfriend and drive alone to Boston. He was struggling in his recovery from a substance use disorder and the fallout was intense.
I was conflicted. If he stayed, he had limited health care resources and would be stuck dangerously near his old haunts. If he came with me, our lives would be consumed by the complicated care required to properly treat this chronic, potentially deadly condition. Plus, we were only three months away from becoming parents, a complicated life change in its own right. I decided to take my chances, and together we moved to Massachusetts to start our family, and he began his recovery.
According to a 2017 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, 12.3% of American children under age 18 live in homes where at least one parent has a substance use disorder. Due to barriers like lack of health insurance or the availability of programs, only 18% of people with substance use disorders are fortunate enough to get treatment. There are more than 70,000 overdose deaths annually in the United States. Many children are orphaned or affected by untreated substance use disorders. Sesame Street even introduced a new Muppet character, Karli, who lives in foster care because her mother is in treatment for opioid use disorder. To comfort other kids like her, Karli shares her struggles and explores healthy coping techniques for stress with her human friend, Salia, whose parents are also in recovery.
People with substance use disorders often come from long legacies of substance issues. Addiction is a family disease. Many people with substance use disorders have suffered multiple traumas and have a higher number of adverse childhood experiences like abuse and neglect or household challenges like mental illness or divorce. Their risky behavior can lead to additional traumatic events and health issues in adulthood like DUIs, overdoses, losing custody of children, or having a higher risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C. These can make both being in recovery and being a parent even more complicated.
Just before the birth of our chunky, bright-eyed, and sleep-averse child, my partner found a recovery program that works for him. Being in recovery means that a person is being treated medically for their condition, is working on a 12-step program, or doing both. He says it was when our son was a year old that it fully sank in that recovery is a lifelong effort that cannot be done alone. It’s about more than just staying abstinent from substances — it’s about living a life of connection, in gratitude, and finding joy without drugs or alcohol.
Parenting and recovery are life-changing efforts made by people with a lot of responsibility and much to lose.
When I saw how alcohol ravaged the person I loved, and because I also had a fairly unhealthy relationship with booze, I decided to also quit drinking. I turned to others’ stories on sober parenting and wrote some of my own, exploring the social rejection that comes with sobriety. It’s tough to say no to a cocktail at a playdate punctuated with screeching, but it’s even harder to rebuild trust around fears of relapse, while juggling family schedules that include 12-step meetings and many doctor’s appointments.
Parenting and recovery are life-changing efforts made by people with a lot of responsibility and much to lose. “People in recovery have to do a lifestyle overhaul,” says Catherine Milliken, the program director of Borden Cottage, a residential substance use program in Camden, Maine, that’s part of the Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital system. Avoiding triggers and managing cravings can be exhausting without the added stress of a toddler screaming on a 20-minute car ride over a misplaced binky. “It’s kind of like walking around without skin on,” she says.
To make life more challenging, some necessary aspects of recovery and 12-step programs are inherently unaligned with proper parenting. Alcoholics Anonymous touts the wisdom “your recovery comes first” and “one day at a time,” but as a parent, you have to be 12 steps ahead of a toddler waddling toward the stairs. And there are so many meetings — regular meetings and coffee with sponsors, playdates, and field trips. I’d like to go to Al-Anon, a support group for people affected by someone else’s drinking, or even to the gym just for some self-care, but when can I fit it in?
“If this were cancer, your neighbors would be coming over with casseroles and may help with some of the childcare or give someone a lift to chemo,” says Milliken. The stigma around substance use disorders can keep people from asking or sharing how treatment is going. “You don’t get that same kind of empathy and support.”
When I arrived in Boston, I found a therapist to work on my own issues around supporting my partner without co-opting his recovery. I was also treating my own postpartum anxiety and depression, but because of the stigma around substance use disorders, even in therapy I wondered how much I could share for fear of being judged or misunderstood. I wanted to talk more about my feelings around his substance use disorder, but I didn’t want to wrongly set off any alarms about either of our abilities to parent.
It’s hard to rebuild trust after a slip or relapse, even if it was many years prior. Even now, three years of being alcohol free, when my partner uses hand sanitizer, its mildly boozy smell can trigger me to suspect him of drinking. That lack of trust also puts him on edge. It’s an ugly cycle. Milliken suggests partners have daily abstinence-trust conversations. Each morning, the person in recovery will assure the other: “Just for today,” I’m going to maintain my recovery in these ways and I appreciate your support. The partner will respond that “just for today,” they will trust them and support them in their recovery needs. At the end of the day, the couple will run down what they did to support each other and say thank you. Gratitude is an antidote to resentment, so Milliken suggests families also go around the dinner table nightly and share three things for which they are thankful.
One day, we’ll have to start answering our son’s questions about daddy’s condition. Milliken suggests waiting for a young child to ask first and answer each question one by one, not jumping ahead to overwhelm with unnecessary information. From ages four to seven, she says to introduce Karli and access the incredible resources Sesame Street in Communities offers. These include ways to help parents and kids explore what addiction is, how to talk about it with friends, to clearly explain that it’s not their fault, that they are resilient, and not alone. From eight to 11, kids focus on facts, so parents should, too. Teens will wonder how the parents’ substance use disorder affects them, so it’s necessary to keep lines of communication open about their feelings around substances and focus on the benefits of recovery.
As it turns out, the bottom is a good place to start a parenting journey. My partner and I had already seen each other at our worst. We’d started working on maintaining constant, transparent communication and saw how connection is key in both preventing or managing relapses and in raising a child. “The best parent to have is a parent in recovery because they can recognize a problem and they know a pathway for help or healing,” observes Milliken. “That person in recovery is restoring the intimacy and authenticity in that family.” My partner is a doting dad doing just that. My parents even prefer him to me these days.
At the hospital, after giving birth, I signed up for a visiting moms program. For the next year, we were visited weekly by a wonderful woman in our tiny, toy-filled apartment, bringing thoughtful advice and a kind ear. One day, she asked how I was handling fears around my partner’s condition. I told her that even if we don’t last, if he relapses or dies, I already knew the risks. I also know that he loves us and that as parents, we are making every effort humanly possible to give our family a chance. That’s more opportunity than some people get. And for that, I’m grateful.