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When Grandma's Been Drinking

When Grandma’s Been Drinking

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have been reading your column and blog for a while now and I love your writing and advice. Three weeks ago, my husband and I welcomed a beautiful daughter to our little family and I know that what I have read here prepared me for having my first child better than all of the books I had. So, Thanks!

However, I do have an issue that I thought you and/or your readers might be able to help us with. This requires a bit of back story. My mom was a mostly functional alcoholic while I was growing up but after her divorce in 2009 she increasingly struggled with depression and anxiety that led to some pretty bad decision making. Some of these lowlights include making a scene at her mother in law’s funeral and inviting her ex con brother to come live with her. She is always very remorseful and tearful after hurting/embarrassing others, but continued to drink and make important choices while impaired.

Winter of 2010, she put herself in Rehab after an intervention. She completed the program and began seriously attending AA meetings.  She maintained sobriety for several months but was unable to avoid relapses. She continued AA even while being arrested for a DUI. On the bright side, she eventually kicked the ex con brother out once we put our foot down and made it clear that we had been limiting our contact with her due to his continued presence. Any kind of confrontation or conflict is very hard for her though and the only way she seems to know how to cope with problems is to drink. A second trip to Rehab required by her work only seemed to help for a month or so. At this point is difficult to know when around her whether she has been drinking, is exhausted, is somehow impaired by the medication, or a combination of all three.

Three weeks ago we reached a new low point. She came down from out of town with my mother-in-law to help us out after the birth of our daughter. I discussed with her beforehand several ground rules before we would let her into our home and around our baby. However, she snuck out of the house to drink and became visibly impaired (including almost dropping the baby). After a confronting her with our suspicions she admitted to drinking and was very apologetic (like many times before). We told her she could not come back to the house or be around the baby and we could reevaluate things at Thanksgiving. She asked to see our daughter before she left and does not seem to really understand how big a deal her decision to be intoxicated near the baby was. 

 I know this sounds dry, but I cannot really express the emotional turmoil this has caused. I have talked with her and told her how hurt and betrayed we feel. She always says she understands what her behavior has done and will continue to have significant consequences but there does not seem to be much reason to believe she will change at this point. I love my mom and would like my daughter to eventually know her grandmother, but I have to think of safety first and honestly, do not want my daughter to wind dealing with the emotional hurt either as she grows up.

My basic question is where to go from here.  How have others established boundaries and/or found balance while still protecting their child without abandoning family? 

Thanks for listening,

Regular column readers here can probably recite my General Prevailing Opinion About Grandparent Relationships out loud now, since I’ve repeated it so many times. I believe we, the parents, should be willing to make reasonable concessions to parents and in-laws to ensure that we are not blocking, inhibiting or damaging what could be a very important relationship. “Reasonable” means swallowing petty hurts and grievances that really aren’t that big of deal. Getting over That Thing Your MIL Said To You At Your Wedding or the fact that they insist on bringing their annoying dog to visit even though it always poops in the foyer, or refusing to visit them because they don’t have baby gates or refuse to cook vegan for you, or something. It means biting your tongue and not gossiping or bad-mouthing them around your kids.

But then, there are dealbreakers. And from where I sit, your mother’s behavior is a dealbreaker. Allowing your child to spend time with a grossly impaired and clearly out-of-control grandmother is not a reasonable concession. It’s dangerous. I didn’t even grow up with this woman and I can think of endless Not Good Very Bad things that could happen given the behavior you’ve already seen. Your daughter was just born and she’s already been almost dropped during a supervised visit. What happens when Grandma decides that she wants to drive her to the toy store at 2 am and puts that “sneaking out” expertise to work with your child in tow? Good God.

I find it incredibly admirable that you are willing to put everything your mother has done and put you through behind you and can say that you love her and want your daughter to know her grandmother, but at this point, your gut is telling you the right thing: You absolutely must protect your child from your mother’s recklessness. At all costs. Including at the expense of any grandmother/grandparent relationship.

If you believe at all in the rock bottom theory of addiction, it’s possible that your mother hasn’t hit hers yet. Despite her attempts at rehab and the positive steps she has taken (kicking out the ex-con, AA meetings), nothing’s managed to penetrate down to the bones of her problem. Perhaps losing contact with her granddaughter would actually help, and doing it now while she’s still an infant (and won’t remember a lack of Grandma in her life) is the best shot at salvaging the future relationship. Your mom gets the drinking under control and is able to follow your ground rules and stay sober throughout a visit…THEN you can start maybe working on those reasonable concessions, within reason. (No unsupervised time alone at all, no overnights except for a hotel and/or your daughter sleeps in your room to make sure she’d be protected if Grandma sneaks out again and comes back loaded.)

The most contact I would personally allow at this point would maybe be chats over a webcam, honestly, but even that two-way street could be fraught, down the road. It would really be only for your mom’s benefit when your daughter is so young (a benefit that you might not feel she honestly deserves or appreciates right now), and STILL could set your daughter up for hurt later when Grandma forgets to turn on the computer at the appointed time or shows up slurring and not making any sense.

So…yeah. I agree with your current plan: No contact at all for now, re-evaluate later, but keep expectations low because you’ve seen all this before. If she is still giving you reasons to suspect she’s drinking at Thanksgiving, stick to your guns. No visit.

Of course, while we all want to think that our parents value the grandparent relationship as much as we do, that’s not always the case. The consequence of losing access to her granddaughter might still not be enough to change anything, and oh, I KNOW how hurtful that is to contemplate. I’m wondering if you have ever attended a meeting or support group for children of alcoholics or read any books/literature about it? If there’s a crowd that DOES have actual, practical experience with drawing boundaries, I imagine it’s other adult children with parents similar to yours.

There is alcoholism in my family, but not even close to the level you’re describing, so I personally have never been faced with the decision to cut someone off from my children. Others have, and I would really encourage you to reach out and connect with some of them. You sound REMARKABLY strong and resilient, by the way, but I’m sure you know that admitting that you could use some help navigating the path of being an adult child of an alcoholic who now has a child of her own is not at all a sign of weakness or takes anything away from everything you’ve managed to overcome.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jess

    November 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I have to agree with Amalah on this. My grandmother was an alcoholic and I spent a lot of time (alone) with her growing up. I have memories of being alone in the house as a young child because she repeatedly passed out on the living room floor during the afternoon. I know she meant well, and that she loved me, and I can sympathize with why she started drinking in the first place (One of her sons was killed in a car accident when he was 10. As a mom I can certainly understand how that would lead someone to start drinking.), but if she were still alive I wouldn’t let my children around her, supervised or not. I have too many bad, painful memories of growing up around that and how uncomfortable it made me as a child, not understanding why grandma was acting so strange.

  • Cam

    November 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    As the daughter of an alcoholic, I know that in a few years I could very well be writing a letter nearly identical to this one. Particluarly the part where the parent is not aware of Quite How Big A Deal This Is. I am not even pregnant, and the relationship between my future children and my mother is one I think about often. Thank you to the original poster for having the courage to put words to your fears and share them with others, and thank you Amy for addressing them so candidly and with care.

  • Heather

    November 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I agree as well. While I don’t have children yet, I have been watching things play out with the nieces and a family member who is mentally ill. Not quite the same thing, but there are parallels with the awareness level of the disease and the ability of the individual to seek treatment. My family member has consistently demonstrated an inability to recognize his own illness and seek appropriate treatment. The children are not allowed to be alone with him. My husband and I have decided that the only way we will be comfortable with unsupervised contact is when our child(ren) is able to drive him/herself and will be free to leave at any time. Heck, we ourselves have restricted visits to only meetings where we are independently transporting ourselves so that we are free to leave at any time if our relative begins to act irrationally. All the best to you — it sucks.

  • JD

    November 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    oh dear 🙁 this breaks my heart. i myself am the adult child of an alcoholic. my father is unpredictable. i will never allow my children to spend the night with my parents, i’ll never allow my father to behave around my children the way he’s behaved around his own. i can not expose my children to that. if i bring my children to visit and there’s even a suspicion he’s beeng drinking, the kids get packed up and back home we go. my mother is an enabler and will bring my kids over to their house so my dad can get a visit in, and i just can’t allow that knowing that she wouldn’t remove my kids if need be, she just brushes it under the rug, so unfortunately she no longer gets to take the kids out without me. i’m at the ready to deny any access to my father without zero hesitation. actions have to have concrete, consistant consequences. i wouldn’t re-evaluate a thing with your mother until there’s been a long period of sobriety. unfortunately you know that nothing is going to change between now and thanksgiving. it’s a hard pill to swallow, believe me i know, but your child’s safety, emotionally/pyschologically and as you’ve witnessed, physically, should be enough to say “enough is enough, get it together and until then you’re out of her life” she needs true concrete consequences. being a grandparent is a privilege, not a right. and i’d rather my parents ask me “why why why can’t we see the kids” instead of my children asking one day “why why why did you allow us to be exposed to that”

  • Kate

    November 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    The family member’s version of AA. It’s helped a lot of people. THere are chapters and clubs everywhere, just like AA.

  • Erica

    November 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    My parents and their siblings staged an intervention with my grandparents (both alcoholics, now in recovery) when I was in high school. While they had managed to handle our relationships to that point, the drinking was getting worse and they had reached a point where they had decided they needed to put structure and limits on the relationship to maintain safety. However, they did not do this alone. They had the help of an excellent counselor from our church, 3 of 4 siblings on board, and they collected several letters from friends and family members of my grandparents who had observed and been effected by their alcoholism and were joining in the intervention in written form. The counselor was able to help my parents form a clear plan about what the limits should be and how to enforce them. There is a lot of good help available out there for how to do this well, and you and your child deserve it. Over 20 years later, my grandparents are still in AA (it turns out to be a pretty awesome benefit for retirement, keeps them in community and conversation with younger people!) and we are so glad they chose the detox and rehab that was arranged for them and that they were able to stick it out. I know it doesn’t work that way for everyone, like it hasn’t worked for your Mom, but that’s a good reason in my book to get extra counsel from the experts. Your child will be ok for not being exposed to the alcoholism. Your Mom will be better for the tough love. Get help with this. It’s so, so hard.

  • J

    November 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I am the daughter of a recovering alcoholic mom (3 yrs sobriety) and the mom of a 2-year-old daughter, and I can really identify with what A has written here. Especially those feelings of hurt and betrayal. I would encourage you to seek out an Al-Anon meeting (for families/loved ones of alcoholics) to hear how others have coped with similar situations. While my mom was bouncing in and out of rehabs during my 20s, I completely lost trust in her and worried a great deal about her role in my future children’s lives. My husband and I even discussed how we would need to limit her contact with our future children if she continued to drink. She has been sober since right around the time I became pregnant, but it took a long time for me to regain my trust in her, and even longer for my husband to trust her. After the first few supervised visits with my daughter, and after we saw that she was maintaining sobriety and working her program, we became more comfortable in relaxing the boundaries, and now we are comfortable leaving our daughter with her overnight, etc. However, I am always on the lookout for signs of her slipping, and if she did start drinking again then we would reestablish boundaries immediately.

    Also (and I know you didn’t ask about this)– I’m sure there are other resources out there, but Al-Anon also has some great material in books and online, and that really helped me with the betrayal I felt every time my mom lied about drinking. (My own mom lying to my face hurt more than I realized it would.) In particular, some of the writings about detachment (from the person’s actions, not necessarily the person) really helped me. I also participated in a family counseling session with my parents as part of one of my mom’s rehabs. That interaction, and meeting other families of alcoholics in rehab, really helped me and my communication with my mom about all of this.

  • Elizabeth

    November 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Can I please just hug you through the computer? And whole-heartedly give a resounding second for going to Al-Anon? My father is an alcoholic. I didn’t even know if he would be at my wedding because he very nearly died a few weeks before. Over the course of his attempts at recovery and relapse, he nearly bled to death from a stomach ulcer, fell and broke his neck in his bathroom, and was hospitalized countless times. He also went to rehab so many times I lost count. His intervention (the beginning of the recovery roller-coaster) was just before my husband and I married, and I said the most important thing I could to him: that if alcohol continued to be a part of his life he would NEVER be a part of my future children’s. I went to an Al-Anon group specifically geared toward adult children of alcoholics, and nothing before or since has done as much for my emotional/mental health. The first few meetings I couldn’t even speak…I was in such a raw place I just pretty much cried through the whole thing. And they were amazing. And when I did speak, they helped me put things into perspective and create healthy emotional boundaries for myself. Your pain is proof of how much emotional damage an alcoholic can do, please think long and hard about unleashing that on your children. My father finally got it, and made the choice to stop and has been sober for over a year now. It’s not perfect…he’s damaged his body and as a result has had several strokes and ultimately is not the same person he used to be. But he’s happy, and relatively healthy, and thankful every day that he lived to meet his granddaughter and be a part of her life. Like the previous person said, I still struggle with trusting him and am working on letting a lot of my anger go. I would never leave my daughter alone with him, and he graciously has never asked.

    The bottom line is, your mom might be okay. Or she might not be. But your ultimate goal should be that regardless, you WILL be okay. In my father’s darkest days, I learned that if I couldn’t help him, the best thing I could do for myself was to make decisions so that when and if his time came, I could live with myself, because that’s who I’d have left when he was gone.

  • JenVegas

    November 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I feel ya, A.
    My F-I-L is a functioning alcoholic. The kind who has to start drinking when he wakes up to keep himself “functioning” all day. And he’s a TEACHER! We have a son who is almost 1 and I am grateful every day that my F-I-L lives halfway across the country so my husband and I are not forced to confront him about our feelings on his interactions with our son. There just really aren’t any. When we are in my husband’s home town we see his dad for a few, early in the day, hours on a couple of days and when he visits us here he is never alone with the baby. Ever. This past visit he actually said “Come here baby, we can spend some quality time together, as soon as I open this beer.” I cried a little bit mostly because I know how hard it was for my husband growing up but also because I know my son will never have the type of memories of his grandfather like I have of mine and it makes me super sad. I hope that you and your mom can get the help you need. Good luck.

  • IrishCream

    November 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    My mom is an alcoholic too. Much more functional right now than your mom, but she’s been worse, and she could go there again. Visits are fine, but I wouldn’t leave my toddler alone with her after four pm when that first glass is poured (and actually I’ve never left them unsupervised anyway, she’s flaky at best). It’s her decision to drink, she knows how I feel about it, and I’ve chosen for now to essentially let it go, BUT if there’s a visit where Grandma gets weird or scary to my kids, or endangers them in any way, that visit will be over, and there won’t be any more unless she’s sober.
    It’s a fine line between enabling and letting go of trying to make someone stop drinking. I will say that my life has been less stressful since I stopped trying to change things. I cut off all contact for a while a few years back, but that punished me as much as her. It’s hard to accept her limitations and her weakness, but it’s also taken the pressure off of me. I hope you can find peace in whatever kind of relationship you choose to have with your mom. Whatever bad things have happened to her in the past, she’s the one in control of her choices, and you don’t need to feel guilty if the consequences of her choices aren’t to her liking. Hang in there, and good luck.

  • a

    November 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Stick to your guns.

    We’re on a “no contact with your grandkid until you figure out your shit” basis with my dad right now. Looks like we won’t be seeing my dad anymore. When my husband was a kid, his family got to that point with his grandfather, and he never saw his grandpa again.

    These are “relationships” we’re better off without, in my opinion. When I think back to my childhood visits with my drunkenly affectionate grandma– well, I mostly was OK with her, sometimes she was a little scary, but the visits were, overall, awful because of how unhappy they made my parents. Especially my drunk dad, who was in the habit of working through his own childhood shit by being awful to other people. And drinking.

    I would love it if my son never had to learn to make allowances for adult bad behavior. You can imagine that, with this history, I’m not a perfect parent, so I know he’s already had to make allowances for my shit, but I think it’s important for me to take responsibility for making this cycle end with me. Keeping my kid away from people who have a proven track record of messing up kids seems like a good start.

  • Kari weber

    November 13, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Family is great to have… But I can’t agree with previous commenters enough that their relationship is a privilege not a right. I have a dies functional mother in law that is crippled by depression and the loss of her husband to cancer 14 years ago. She has been so irresponsible financially that recently the IRS put a lien on her house! She makes such spontaneous and bad decisions, that I DO limit my two boys’ interactions with her. If I had to, I could walk away. My husband too. He is fed up with his mother’s problems that she seems unwilling to ever fix. Most of the time it is ME that keeps us connected, not him. BUT, my point is, we have learned to find family elsewhere. My best friend has made a better aunt than any of the biological ones. Another a wonderful “grandmother” figure. Thankfully my family is amazing and the boys have that relationship. 
    If you have to walk away, your child will be better off, and that relationship you wanted for them can be found elsewhere and be much healthier.  Good luck, and remember: you can do what is right for you and your child.

  • Erin

    November 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    This. Exactly this with my dad.  While we knew that he was drinking more than “normal” I am not sure that anyone knew quite the level of drinking that was going on until he ran his car off the road one night.  Thankfully no one was hurt but that was just the first of two DUI’s.  The man also continued to drink while under house arrest (that is how he was able to serve his time for the DUI’s).  After spending time in rehab (after dropping out of two different programs) he has been sober for about 2 years now.  We had written letters and threatened to not let him see his grandchildren (he showed up at the hospital after my daughter was born and was obviously drunk) but I am not at all sure what it was that made him realize he needed to make a change.  

    We recently let him spend time alone with my son (who is almost 5).  A year ago I would have been hesitant to do this but 6-months into his sobriety he told me that he realized he is not someone who can EVER drink.  

    One thing that has been important to me is to try not to keep score – I could continue to be angry at my dad for the ridiculous things he has done and the horrible situations he has put us all in but he has shown that he has made changes and I need to trust that he will do what is best for him.  At the same time knowing that I will never put my children in danger.

  • Jennifer

    November 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I am in the same situation. My mother in law is an alcoholic and does not understand what she has done to us and our daughter or potentially do to her. My mother in law is in complete denial about her actions. My husband refuses to speak to his mother ever again. But, we have agreed to let her have contact with our daughter if she agrees to never drink around our daughter again. I have been speaking to her via email, but unless she straightens up she will never see our daughter again. It really sucks because I do not have any parents. I love my mother in law, but my daughter will not pay the price for her alcholism. I am hoping that my daughter will get to see her grandma at Christmas, but we will see.

  • ace

    April 18, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I can completely relate to you. My mom is the exact same way. My husband read your article and he thought I had wrote it. The answer has hope me a lot. I’m so torn because I want her to be apart of my child’s life but not in the state she’s in now. In the end we need to protect our child, no matter what that means.

  • Alicia

    September 13, 2014 at 3:53 am

    I am so relieved to have stumbled upon this site. I am in a similar situation with my alcoholic mom. My gut tells me to send you encouragement to stick to your guns and establish boundaries. However, that is hard…nearly impossible to cut out your own mother, at least I struggle with following through. My mom has been an alcoholic all my life – I never net my father. My grandmother (a recovered) alcoholic) raised me because my mom was drinking and in abusive relationships my whole chiodhood. I have a 7 month old and I am afraid of allowing my mom to come around. She recently was fired for drinking at work, and got caught drinking vodka while babysitting for my cousin. I am afraid for my mom’s safety too bc she goes home with men she doesn’t know, even homeless men. I want my daughter to know her grandma, but don’t want her to be hurt by the alcoholism. Have you tried Alanon yet? I might start attending meetings again or see a counselor for practical guidance. My aunt keeps reminding me: you can’t change a person, only they can. Thoughts and prayers to you as we sort through these issues.

  • Tracy

    October 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    So glad I’m not alone in this. My MIL is a “functioning alcoholic”. Every weekend for her is a shit show, drinks from Friday night to Sunday night. She party’s and obsesses over drinking like she’s 16 years old. Anyways our son just turned 2 and about 6 months my brother in law had a family dinner on a Sunday and we showed up with our toddler to find her fall down drunk at 3pm…we thought maybe she might act like a civilized adult for a family supper that her small grandson was going to be at but nope! She thought she would “help” him eat his dinner and was waving a steak knife in his face and he went to grab it and iffy husband hadnt of grabbed her from across the table my son would’ve gotten cut. After that he told her that her behaviour was unacceptable and she was not to drink around us again. So she’s been slowly pushing her limits over the past few months but this weekend was just an all time low, she showed up at our sons birthday party smelling like booze and starting pouring her vodka and waters as soon as she walked in our house. I called her out on it and so did my husband but she just kept drinking. No one else was drinking at the party, obviously it’s a 2 year olds birthday…anyways I contacted her later that night and I was fuming that she had the nerve to bring her vodka to his birthday party after the boundaries we’ve set with her and what kind of grandmother is she. And she never responded. Her pride is hurt because I called her basically an alcoholic and it’s always been an elephant in the room, everyone knows she is but never said anything. So at this point she’d rather not contact me or not apologize for disrespecting our boundaries then to make amends to see her grandson ( I’m 7 months pregnant with her other grandson). And that hurts but I do not want our kids to see her the way she gets because she gets disgusting, sloppy, and dangerous. Since she can’t be trusted to act like a responsible adult at any given time I cut her out. At times I know I’ll feel guilty but I don’t know what else to do.

  • abbie

    November 14, 2014 at 12:59 am

    I have a mother in law that is an alcoholic. ..i try so hard to let the little things go. I have given her several chances to trust that she won’t drink while helping out with the baby. Well she comes up and states she will feed through the night but yet sneaks alcohol. She is so unreliable and I think that if she does it in our care how on earth can I trust her to keep him over night. She states over n over she will take care of him but I refuse to let her when she is drinking. How do I go about talking with her about this? I’m frustrated because I don’t want our child to deal with this growing up. .If she won’t do it for herself and get help how do I tryst her with our child.