Mother's Little Helper

by Patty Nasey

Life is different today/I hear everybody say

Mother needs something today to calm her down.

She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper

And it helps her on her way/Gets her through her busy day.

~Rolling Stones, 1967


Just in time for Mother’s Day, a California-based winery recently filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to declare that its MommyJuice Wine does not infringe on the trademark of rival vitner, Mommy’s Time Out.

 When it comes to wine, MommyJuice’s attorneys say, there’s no monopoly on the word ‘mommy.’

Both wines promise harried caregivers a respite from the demands of motherhood.  Mommy’s Time Out offers a “well-deserved break” although, judging by the picture on the label, this “break” involves sitting alone with a bottle in a corner. It looks like more of a punishment than a reward. The MommyJuice imagery is a little more inviting, featuring a cute cartoon of a mom with four arms, sitting in the lotus position while juggling a house, a computer, a spatula and a teddy bear.  The website offers a “gift set” with a bottle of wine and a baby onesie that says: “When I whine, Mommy wines.” And the copy on the label reads: “Being a mom is a constant juggling act, so tuck your kids into bed, sit down and have a glass of MommyJuice.”

“Sexist!!” was my first reaction to this latest development in the Mommy Wars.  I have plenty of male friends who suck on cigars while watching their kids, but I doubt they’d smoke a stogie called Daddy’s Binky or Papa’s Paci. Of course they wouldn’t!  So how is that not one but two vintners are fighting for the right to put Mommy on their label?  Maybe it’s because we really haven’t come such a long way, baby.  Our moms had Valium; we have MommyJuice.  Why not just call it Mother’s Little Helper and end the lawsuit.

“Why are you so angry about this?” a friend asked as I shouted from the top of my feminist soapbox.  Indeed, I had no problem
with National Mom’s Nite Out, a series that took place last night all across the country. But something about those mommy wines got me in a rage.  “You know,” she said, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”

And then I remembered Veronica.*  She and I got married and pregnant around the same time. I watched in awe as Veronica transitioned gracefully and effortlessly into her new role as a wife and mother.  When my daughter was just 10 weeks old, I couldn’t wait to get back to the controlled environment of my office while Veronica stayed home, organized play groups (I used to send my nanny) and breast fed for a year.

My apartment looked like a war zone; Veronica’s was spotless. I bought Gerber’s baby food; Veronica mashed her own.  I was still carrying a few pounds of baby weight when I got pregnant with my second child; Veronica did Strollercize in Central Park every morning and looked better than before she was pregnant.  She was my go-to mom who could juggle it all like the lady on the MommyJuice label, while I felt like balls were dropping all around me.  And then her second child was born.  She started smoking again, the apartment got a little messier, the food took longer to make, it was harder for her to find time to exercise. After she weaned the baby, she started having a glass of wine once the kids went to sleep. Within two years, the glass at night had turned into a bottle; the cigarettes had become marijuana. The “I deserve a break” message she had told herself had insidiously evolved into “I can’t do this without a drink.”  And Mommy’s “time out” became an all-the-time habit.

When her kids were only 3 and 5, Veronica went to her first rehab. When her husband came alone to social events or playdates, he covered for her saying she was home taking a nap or feeling sick. I just assumed she was exhausted like the rest of us. She returned from rehab only to relapse within the year. She tried a second rehab where she met a recovering Crystal Meth addict. She relapsed again only this time she got hooked on Meth. After several failed attempts to get clean, she ended up leaving the country, granting her husband a divorce and giving up custody of her kids.

I bumped into her just before she moved away. She was almost unrecognizable — a fragile, hollow shell of her former beautiful self.  I had been so angry at her when I learned what had happened, but that day I  just hugged her as we stood on the sidewalk sobbing. Six years later, I still can’t look at her kids without breaking down and crying.

Of course, there are plenty of moms who can safely enjoy a “time out” with a glass or two of wine. and will celebrate on Sunday with a well-deserved drink. But seeing the word “Mommy” on not one, but two wine labels reminds me of my friend — and of the millions of women who won’t be spending Mother’s Day with their children as they battle the powerful disease of addiction. These mothers don’t need another “little helper.”  They need help. And on Mother’s Day and everyday, I hope and pray that they may find it.

*Names and minor details have been changed.


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Sober Coaches: “Hired Powers” for the Rich & Recovering…

sheencoachesAlcoholics Anonymous used to be the great equalizer: Rich or poor, famous or unknown, everyone was an addict, and everyone sat on the same hard chairs, in the same church basement, drinking the same bad coffee. My mom used to tell me about all the politicians and other muckety-mucks in her Washington-area AA meetings (never naming names, of course, but just mentioning that this or that famous person was there, as if to prove she was in good company). And that was a good thing, especially for celebrities and other narcissists, who needed the humbling.

Then along came fancy rehab centers (yes, there’s always been Betty Ford, but usually after rehab, those people went straight to AA), Celebrity Rehab with Doctor Drew, and now–sober coaches–a sort of first-class airplane ticket to sobriety.

Maybe I’m out of the loop, but I learned about sober coaches for the first time, recently, when I happened to be reading about Brooke Mueller & Charlie Sheen’s early-morning knife fight (yes, I admit, I was kind of fascinated). Since both celebs apparently have a history of alcoholism and addiction, they had their Sober coaches on hand that morning. So what is a sober coach? Basically, it’s a person you pay to help you stay sober, after you leave rehab. Apparently, if you don’t feel like going to AA and hanging around those icky basements, the one-person AA meeting will come to you. How’s that working for you, Charlie Sheen?

For $40-$100 per hour, companies like Sober Champion will appoint someone to be your “sober escort” (to take you from point A to point B, such as on an airplane) or your “sober coach” (your companion for a finite number of hours). If you’re willing to shell out up to $1800 a day, you too can have a “sober companion,” who will go through all your stuff to make sure you’re not hiding booze or drugs, and basically follow you around, coaching you, praying with you, and helping you find ingenious alternatives to boozing (i.e. meditating, taking a bath, exercising). Sorry, but sober coaches are not generally covered by insurance, so you’ll have to shell out all the dough yourself. The maximum suggested time for the 24/7 sober coach is 90 days. Celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Owen Wilson, Robert Downey, Jr., Lindsay Lohan and Mary-Kate Olsen have used sober coaches.

Frankly, not that I’m his mother or anything, but what Charlie Sheen needs is a bad cup of coffee and a basement full of regular people calling him on his shit, not a suck-up sober handler who charges him $650-1800 day. Ditto Lindsay Lohan et al. The cure for narcissism is a dose of reality. One of the most helpful cures for addiction is to find a community of people who can bolster and support you, and who you in turn can bolster and support. Sober coaches offer a community of one–a one-sided arrangement.

I’m sure there are cases where sober coaches have saved peoples’ lives, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. They have testimonials out the wazoo from grateful celebs, I’m sure. But still…

What I don’t get is that AA has always offered sober coaches–for free! They’re called “sponsors,” and they are AA veterans with years of sobriety under their belts. If it’s hard for celebrities to attend public meetings, couldn’t they have celebrity AA meetings or something? And get this–one of the sober coaching companies is called “Hired Power.” A sellout G-d. How ironic.


What If He Did (or Didn’t) Like to Party?

images-3The other night, I went out to dinner with a couple I’ve known and been close to for years. As we sat at the bar of an über-hip downtown NYC restaurant, waiting for our table to materialize, my friend and I got to talking. My kids were babysitting hers, so we chatted about how cute that was. But we quickly moved on to work, how we both needed to shed a few pounds, and former boyfriends.

I learned, after all these years, that my friend used to go out with a recovering alcoholic (before she married my husband’s friend) and had many other friends who had been to AA, and who she had personally escorted to rehab.

Over my caiprinha and her vodka martini, she explained how she comes from a very straight family, but somehow has always been drawn to those who are prone to addiction and like to party and have a type of fun that her own family members didn’t have.

Conversely, I come from a family where fun and partying were right up there with dark chocolate and coffee ice cream (read: the best things in life). I loved the fact that my parents enjoy their life and weren’t afraid to show it—with friends, dinner parties, wine, dancing and lots of laughter.

When I met my husband, the fact that he liked to drink and party was attractive to me, and we’ve been doing it together (in moderation) for more than 20 years. But what if I fell for someone who was an alcoholic? How would it feel to sacrifice my love for drinking wine and catching a good buzz? I can’t help but wonder, are we attracted to those who either like to party or don’t? What do you think?


Getting My Mother Sober

russian_family_at_the_feast_tableBy Erin St. John Kelly

Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, my mother arrived at my house for dinner holding on hard to my stepfather’s arm, sporting a fresh, scabby shiner.

She’d managed to fall up the stairs, slamming into the baluster of her staircase the night before. I nudged her towards a chair in my little kitchen as efficiently and subtly as I could, hoping to minimize her mobility and the possibility of another accident.

My mother sat at the head of the table, having a slur of a rant to no one in particular. Among my assembled friends and family, one of my sisters and her daughter sat quietly leaking tears at their places. My eldest daughter left the table after a short while and the rest of the children followed her. Their grandmother was scaring them during the appetizer and they opted for crackers and cheese in the next room instead. She was impenetrable, only vaguely resembling the person they’d known as their grandmother.

My brother James had died earlier that year. It was sudden, out of the blue, and far, far away from my mother’s bucolic college town. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye. She hadn’t seen his body. After he died she lamented that she never should have let him go. As if he’d asked, and as if he would have obeyed. She couldn’t relate to the distant place he’d died except through the story of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” because they too had died in Tupiza, Bolivia. James wasn’t robbing banks and he didn’t die in a shoot-out. He and his wife were backpacking around the world, doing good works, before they would settle down to raise a family. He died of altitude sickness in an Andean emergency room that had no oxygen mask. He came home as a box of ashes.

My mother was raised on an apple farm in Southern Quebec, the middle child of seven girls. She was the first ever in her family to go to college. She survived a bout with breast cancer, a stint in women’s prison for civil disobedience, and Woodstock in the rain, but it was her despair from James’ death that triggered her descent into raging alcoholism.

My mother was so drunk she smelled. She wore the same sweatpants and sweatshirt day in and day out. She had once loved a martini – we called them garbage-tinis because she’d pretend it was good for her by adorning it with limp, brown vegetables culled from the drawers of the fridge, creating a stinky salad in a fancy glass. Now she was pared right down to gin, in a coffee mug, while lying in bed.

My mother has read all of Proust.  She has probably spent more time immersed in the matters of Congress, albeit via C-SPAN, than have most actual Members. As a matter of course, three televisions and at least one radio were on at all times, and two or three daily newspapers were ingested. When we were growing up she took us to rock concerts, peace rallies and hitchhiking through the Yukon.

Then, a cacophonous slide into nothing. The televisions were all on but she didn’t care about what was happening on them. She didn’t know what time of day it was– it was irrelevant. She was either in a rage, or on the verge of one.  She complained that she didn’t hear from us, her children, enough. We did call, but she didn’t remember having spoken to us. One winter my eight-year-old daughter realized that my mother was surprised to see her every time she walked past.  She said to me, “Mom, I am worried about Granny’s memory.”  Mom had provided me a tremendous opportunity to explain the nexus of martinis, mourning and memory.

My five remaining siblings and I felt helpless for more than a year to address her drinking, except among each other.  His death brought the revelation that the family had depended on James, the middle child, to be our emotional and cultural center. Now we had lost him, and it. He was so steadfast, earnest and good. He signed off all his emails from abroad with this Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

James was also a worry-wort. Be it concern for the global state of humanity or trying to eat healthier, he was on it. No one hated my mother’s drinking like James had.

I hadn’t planned to confront Mom for everyone’s Easter dinner.  I had planned to serve a specially ordered ham instead. I had been rolling around the need to deal with her in my mind, but hadn’t been able to form a real plan of how and when to do it. Turns out, there’s no good time for an intervention with your mother.

It started by accident. I sat next to her and suggested she eat something every now and again, maybe even drink a glass of water. I offered to get her one. She mumbled that she couldn’t, that I just didn’t understand how it felt to be her. She dropped the sickening bomb I knew she had, but didn’t think I had it in me to withstand. She didn’t save it up. It came out fast. “You haven’t lost a child,” she moaned. And everything froze.  All the chopping, washing, table-setting and chat ceased.

My voice shook and I paused. Then I continued, motivated by the eternal regret and sorrow that I’d experience if I let her die without trying to make her stop, just once.

“You haven’t lost a child.” It was what I feared she would say. I felt almost guilty for not having a dead child myself. That without one, I had no understanding and therefore no grounds to complain. “No, I haven’t,” I said. Then it came to me why I could confront her. “But I have lost a brother. And now I am losing my mother. And my children are losing their grandmother.” There was more that just tumbled out, but I can no longer remember what else I said. My mother sat quietly waiting for me to finish. “Well, dear, Mommy loves you very much, but now she has to go,” she said, as she put her hand on my shoulder to raise herself up from the table.

I know that it is completely irrational to feel like James’ death was a personal failure of mine, but there it is. I did. As the oldest child I had always felt a conflicted mix of power and responsibility. I fixed things. I adjudicated. I felt I had failed everyone by not bringing him back from Bolivia alive. At the funeral home in La Paz, I saw him for the last time through the glass window of a little blue coffin.  His shoulders were cramped against the wooden walls of a box built for a small Andean native – the biggest coffin his wife was able to find. I am haunted by his face with his lips pursed in the way they looked before he was going to say something that mattered to him. I couldn’t be so weak as to fail him and the family again, by letting Mom die a drunk.

At my desk on Monday, I wrote my mother an email to restate in print what I’d said at Easter dinner – I was afraid that my spoken words wouldn’t stick. I didn’t know how else to try to get through. I hoped that she would be able to process it, staring at the screen in her own time. In my email I begged her to stop, to take some pity on us – the survivors – her children and her grandchildren. Must we watch her kill herself? And then I typed what I had been unable to say: was the death of one of us worth more than the other five of us alive?

I sent a copy of my email to my siblings right after sending it to my mother. I wanted them to be aware of what I’d done, the possible horrors I’d unleashed. I waited with a panicky, shiny sense of dread for reaction – from them and from her.

Two days later, I was sitting at my desk when an email gently floated across my computer screen that simply said, “You’re right. I quit.” Oh my God, it’s a suicide note I thought, and I dialed the phone, to see if I could stop her or if it was too late. There she was on the other end of the phone. I was at work so I couldn’t say much except, “Really? What can I do to help?”

I thought rehab. “Let me try it my way,” my mother said. “If that doesn’t work then I promise to do it your way,” she said. She and my stepfather joined AA.

It’s been more than a year. She showers. She drinks seltzer and fruit juice spritzers in wine glasses. She goes to weekly AA meetings. A former reporter, she listens intently to other people’s tales of horror and redemption. And she thanks me all the time for writing the note. “I want to be sober until the day that I die,” she announced last summer. I believe her. My mother is nothing if not a zealous participator, a whole-hearted committer to things. She’s recommenced being her old quirky self, protesting for peace in front of the post office, glutting herself on news and stuffing her grandchildren full of snacks.

And now, even her sense of humor is reviving. On Mother’s Day this year she took me and two of my sisters out for dinner. She explained it was to make up for whatever she’d done wrong during our entire lives. She was practicing an AA step, and we had about an hour. We sipped delicious, unembellished tap water and I asked her what the secret element to her resolve was. “Maternal instinct,” she said. “I don’t want to worry the children. It’s not the way it’s supposed be.”

Erin St. John Kelly is the eldest of the eight children from her parents’ many marriages. She and her husband have two daughters. She has lived in Brooklyn, New York for almost 20 years. The writing she is most proud of has appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, Brain Child Magazine and on WBFO, the Buffalo NPR station. This essay originally appeared in “Knowing Pains,” an anthology that is a fundraiser for a breast cancer non-profit (“)