‘Drunk Mom: A Memoir’ by Jowita Bydlowska

Drunk Mom coverReviewed by Jess Woolford

So much of mothering is about surveillance: surveillance of self (Should I have eaten that?  Why didn’t I realize the baby was wet?  I should be happy…), surveillance of child (Is the baby breathing?  Is the baby latching on properly?  Don’t put that in your mouth, baby!), and others’ surveillance of self and child (It’s cold out—your baby should have a hat on. Nursing should be done in private. And isn’t your child too old to be nursing anyway?), most of it fuelled by anxiety, uncertainty, and a society-wide desire to box up mothers so that nothing “unpleasant” slips out.  Even as I write, worldwide debate swirls regarding the seemliness of the Duchess of Cambridge’s post-birth bump and, here in Winnipeg, there is much discussion about the nature of Lisa Gibson, a woman who appears to have killed her children and herself whilst in the grip of post-partum depression.

I began to think about mothering’s relationship with surveillance while reading Drunk Mom, Torontonian Jowita Bydlowska’s riveting memoir about her addiction.  As she notes, “All I had to do was be a mother to a little baby.  That is all.  Just a mother.” Yet being a mother is hardly simple, especially when you’re a long-time alcoholic with only three and a half years of sobriety who “prefer[s] drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep. My child, my lover, anything. I love to drinkIt’s like little zaps of gold going through me, charging me, starting me up.  When I drink, I fill with real gold and become god-like.”

A self-described blackout drunk, Bydlowska remarks that, “Living is difficult. Dying is difficult. Being dead is not difficult. And what else is a blackout if not death?”  So one function of the author’s alcoholism is that it releases her from surveying either herself or her son Hugo (called Frankie in the book).  For example, early on she asks herself why she’s relapsed and responds, “I don’t know why. Or I know why and I don’t have the time to go over it right now. Or there are too many whys to consider.  Or who really cares why?” In this way Bydlowska can avoid the question long enough to drink another mickey of vodka and black out while the baby, “soaked in piss and milk,” screams.

Bydlowska takes this distressing image of her son’s need and uses it to convey the power of her own desire for alcohol:

I want something.

This is no ordinary wanting.

This is the wanting that has no end.

It’s an obscene appetite; it’s uncontrollable with mouth wide open, insisting. It’s a baby—a wet, hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.

She calls herself a “stupid, stupid shit” and considers herself toxic, especially in relation to her child with his “little fist like a flower bud”: “I don’t kiss him.  I can’t go near him… I’m poison.”  At times he reaches for her breasts but, “I gently move his hands and he twists his body as if in pain. I give him his bottle with formula.”  Bydlowska’s breast milk is often so tainted with alcohol that she squeezes it down the drain, rather than feed it to Hugo.  As she tells it, “A self-proclaimed agnostic, I was convinced I could hear the angels sing when [Hugo nursed]. His mouth was a portal to the universe.  So I went ahead and I destroyed that connection.”  Bydlowska is unavailable, emotionally and physically, unsure of what happened the night before and the night before that and, in one particularly frightening instance, unable to determine whether or not she was sexually assaulted.

Bydlowska describes her addictive thoughts as unstoppable and her addiction as “a body part. I can’t get rid of it any easier than I can cut off my own arm…” Her days are spent “walking endlessly” until night when she drinks.  “Some nights it just seems as if I am not there at all. I am somewhere on the bottom of a lake and my boyfriend’s face is barely visible above the surface, maybe calling my name, maybe telling me that he hates me.” As her relapse continues, Bydlowska’s depersonalization intensifies to the extent that she says, “I am the opposite of a ghost.  My body is here but my spirit is gone.”

Bydlowska travels a long and snaky path from relapse to recovery, and her ability to pay honest attention to herself and her situation is key to her success. It is likely that writing Drunk Mom, an unflinchingly minute confession of her struggle, has enabled her to maintain abstinence, yet she has been accused by some critics of “oversharing.” Are we to understand, then, that our surveillance society has its limits, and that a mother revealing that raising a child is often hard, frightening, lonely, and discombobulating work, and, further, that some mothers soothe themselves through less-than-ideal means, is too threatening to the notion of Motherly Perfection?

It’s enough to drive anyone to drink.


Doubleday | 304 pages |  $22.95 | paper | ISBN #978-0385677806

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