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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

Published November 11, 2011. Last updated March 12, 2018.
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 [email protected].

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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