Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drunk Mom covers booze, but not the baby

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The back cover of Drunk Mom, Toronto writer Jowita Bydlowska's memoir, solemnly proclaims, "There are many alcoholic mothers. Only one has told her story."

That's not actually true (see Texan Mary Karr's 2009 memoir Lit), but the genre does seem more cluttered with the reminiscences of writers who were the kids of drinkers than vice versa. In any case, it seems a bit crass to capitalize on it.

Regardless, there is clearly some voyeuristic appeal to peeking into the life of an attractive young mother who gets blackout drunk and tries to hide the increasingly out-of-control problem from her family and friends.

Bydlowska had given up drinking, but suffered a full-blown setback after quaffing a glass of champagne at a very special occasion: a party celebrating the birth of her first child. After that, she embarks on a double life of hidden bottles and secret trips to the liquor store, sneaking swigs out of mickeys she hides in her son's crib.

The more she drinks, the guiltier she feels; the guiltier she feels, the more she drinks.

The fact is, there are a lot of Me and My Effed Up Life memoirs out there -- to set one apart requires either a truly shocking, sordid sequence of events, a writer with eye-opening insights into her own condition or a memoirist with a prose style that elevates the story above diary entries.

Bydlowska meets none of those requirements. Yes, her tales of pushing infant son "Frankie" in his stroller while blotto on the sparkling wine she's poured into a Sprite bottle are harrowing. But in general, the author -- who blogs about parenting, mental health and herself at Huffington Post and Salon -- is so dispassionate when talking about her child that he feels like a prop, not a real, at-risk baby.

Perhaps that's partly the point: Bydlowska chose to put alcohol above her offspring and her recollections reflect that. But, despite the sections where she stresses over her breastfeeding schedule, figuring out when to drink and when to pump so she doesn't poison Frankie with her milk, her son is mostly relegated to a silent presence in his stroller or crib, a reminder of her guilty conscience but not an active part of her life.

The Polish-born author writes with a crisp, likable style that never strays into melodrama -- the way she talks about alcohol makes you see how alluring it is to her and how it makes her feel -- but she's no Karr. Drunk Mom unfolds as a series of anecdotes documenting bad behaviour -- it feels as if she's fulfilling steps 4 and 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves; admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

Throughout, Bydlowska never refers to her partner by name, calling him only "my boyfriend." The impulse toward confidentiality is admirable -- except she outs him (and her son) in the book's credits.

Maybe she is getting even. The boyfriend, Toronto journalist and novelist Russell Smith, outed her as a drunk first in his 2012 account of losing his vision, Blindsided. It all adds to the sense of over-sharing that's so rampant in this age of personal blogs.

Drunk Mom is certainly a cautionary tale, but it never really points the reader to why Bydlowska went wrong or how she was able to stop drinking. Perhaps the seminal book in this vein, Drinking: A Love Story by Carolyn Knapp, didn't skimp on the salacious details, but the journalist author also included a wealth of research on alcoholism, especially among middle-class women, and advice on how to deal it.

At her best, Bydlowska captures what it feels like to be in love with booze. Where she falls short is in conveying what it's like to be in love with your baby. A book called Drunk Mom needs to represent both emotions.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J9

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