The Book

Sober DadCHAPTER 1

“You Might Not Have Had a Happy Childhood, but You Sure Are Having a Long One”

That’s what my sponsor told me one day when I was whining about something. I don’t remember what I was whining about, but I sure remember what he said.

Why does it take nine months for a baby to gestate inside a woman’s body?

I don’t know, but I do know this: The nine months of pregnancy give the father a chance to finally grow up.

If you’re fortunate enough to have that period of time ahead of you, use it wisely. We’ll talk about how in this chapter. If you already are a father (sober or not) and simply want to become a better father, the ideas in this chapter pertain to you as well.

You can’t still be a kid when you have a kid. That’s the message of this chapter.

Sportscaster Colin Cowherd likes to talk about the guy who wears his baseball cap backward. He might make a great wingman in a club, but you don’t want Backward Baseball Cap Guy to be your quarterback and the face of your franchise.

And yet, wearing your baseball cap backward is basically a sign of the times.

It’s a way of saying, “I’m cool. I’m casual. I’m stylin’.”

It means you’re a guy.

Guyhood is a period of suspended adolescence in between childhood, which never seems to end (as my sponsor suggested about me), and manhood, which never seems to arrive.

Think about the males you know. Are they men? Or are they guys?

Do they wear their baseball caps backward or forward?

We have millions of role models who want to be guys: our buddies in meetings. Celebrities. People we see at the mall.

The problem is that a guy cannot raise a child.

It takes a man.

So if your wife, girlfriend, or whatever (your partner, going forward), has just informed you that she is pregnant, you’ve got less than nine months to grow up.

The baby’s gestation will take care of itself.

It’s your gestation that we need to think about right now.

Before you can really be present as a husband or father, it’s essential to make that all-important, and all-too-often postponed, transition from guyhood to manhood. That’s what I’d like to talk about with you right now.

We have some mistaken ideas in our society about what manhood really means.

If I say manhood, what comes to mind?

John Wayne?


Showing no emotion?

Seducing large numbers of women?

One mood, all the time?

That’s what comes to my mind. What about you? Those are the ways in which our culture has conditioned us to think about manhood. But those really are markers of guyhood, not manhood.

So what is manhood?

I define manhood as a willingness to embrace adult responsibility. Personal responsibility.

So what does that look like?

For people like us, for starters, there’s sobriety.

In case it’s not clear yet, I’m a firm believer in the Twelve Steps. Without getting all touchy feely, I trace the growth I’ve made as a person during the past decades as well as my sobriety back to working a program. Living a program.

So, again, what does embracing responsibility for my sobriety mean? It means working a program, if you have an issue with alcohol or substance use. What does it mean to have a program? Having and defending a sobriety date. Choosing and making use of one’s sponsor. Carrying the message. Doing the drill. So before we even start talking about changing diapers or warming up the formula or breast milk, we’ve first got to start with a look in the mirror.

If there was ever a time to tighten up your program or get on board with one, this is it.

So now let’s ask the key question: What do children really need?

They don’t need to live in a mansion on a hill. They don’t need to be chauffeured in a 7 Series. They don’t need season tickets. They don’t need all the things you might not have had when you were growing up.

(Incidentally, a friend of mine says that he didn’t grow up by age eighteen—he just “got big.” He only grew up when he got sober.)

Children need consistency, ideally from both parents.

As long as children have at least one balanced and emotionally present parent, they’ll be okay. In a perfect world, they have two such parents. In your child’s perfect world, one of those emotionally balanced adults . . . is you.

Everything else is gravy.

Finding out that your partner is pregnant can be and should be a sobering moment.

A recognition that life is about to make greater demands on you than ever before.

It’s awfully hard to rise to the occasion when you’re “in and out of the rooms,” as we say in recovery.

I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t have that kind of moral authority with you, and that’s not how Twelve Step programs work. We don’t tell each other what to do. We make suggestions. As in, it’s suggested that if you are jumping out of a plane, have a parachute on and, at the appropriate moment, pull the rip cord.

So the idea here is this: If your program is inconsistent, how will you ever be consistent as a parent?

If you aren’t showing up for yourself, how will you ever show up for that helpless little person who will call you daddy?

I’m not trying to induce guilt.

I’m trying to induce reality.

One of the themes of this book is that self-care for fathers is extremely underrated. The focus is on the mother and child, as well it should be. But we men are people, too! We have emotional, physical, and sexual needs, many of which are not being met during this critical stage of life. One of the things we will discuss at length in this book is how we men can best take care of ourselves—not just while our wives or partners are pregnant or when our children are extremely young, but at every time.

Are you getting to enough meetings? Have you taken the Twelve Steps? I’ve seen meetings change a lot in the twenty-eight years since my first Al-Anon meeting (I’ve been sober for twenty-four years at the time of writing this book). Today in AA, there seems to be an unfortunate acceptance of the idea that you can just hang out in meetings for years without doing your Steps, and you’re doing just fine. In reality, physical sobriety is terrific, and we all have to have it. But physical sobriety without emotional sobriety—without the reawakened spirit that recovery provides—simply isn’t going to cut it when your child comes. So, what work are you doing to support both your physical and emotional sobriety, either inside or outside of a Twelve Step program?

You’ve heard about all those sleepless nights after the baby’s born, right? It’s no joke. It’s a huge test of your program to have a newborn in your home. Your partner is going to be exhausted and going through all sorts of hormonal changes. You’re going to be pretty cooked a lot of the time, too. You and your partner may not see eye to eye about how to be a parent—few couples automatically do. Will you have the dispute-resolution tools you need when that bell rings? Or will you revert to being the pre-sober, selfish, self-centered baseball-cap-on-backward guy you were before you stopped drinking or using?

These aren’t theoretical questions. These are the realities we will face, and the smart choice is to use the nine-month stretch before the baby arrives to work on ourselves.

The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, tells us that one who believes physical sobriety is enough is “unthinking.” It’s time to start thinking, and to start thinking of someone other than ourselves. If you haven’t made a surrender by taking the first three Steps, if you haven’t done the self-examination that the next four Steps require, if you haven’t made your amends, and if you aren’t taking responsibility for your actions and enlarging your spiritual life, are you really the best possible version of you?

If you need to turn your life around, to grow up and be the man your family needs you to be, then start by turning around that cap on your head. Turn your hat around, turn your life around. Plain and simple.

There’s time. To quote the venerable philosopher Larry the Cable Guy, “Git-r-done.”

I understand that it’s hard to get to meetings sometimes. We’re tired, or it’s inconvenient, or whatever. In reality, if we don’t get to meetings now, before the child arrives, do we really believe our calendars will suddenly open up once the child is born? If anything, this is the time to stockpile meetings, to load up on spirituality, to pack in all the AA, NA, MA, CA, and OA you can get. (Alcoholic parent or loved one? Al-Anon. Talk too much in meetings? Try OnandOn.) Seriously, even under the best of circumstances, becoming a father for the first time is incredibly stressful. You’re not going to know what’s flying, and if it’s the first child for your partner, much of the time, neither will she.

Why is the baby crying? Is she hungry? Tired? Sick? Angry? You may have heard the expression that for an addict, getting into a relationship is like pouring Miracle-Gro on your character defects. Becoming a father, in comparison, is like pumping up your character defects with steroids. There will be times when you won’t even recognize the man in the mirror. So as long as you’re looking at him, maybe it’s time to take that baseball cap and have it face forward.

Let’s talk about money. Babies are expensive! Assuming your health insurance is in order, you still may have a great big copay when your partner gives birth. Let’s pray that your child is born healthy, but sometimes situations arise and additional tests are necessary. Somebody’s got to pay for it. And even if everything is perfectly fine, diapers aren’t free. If your partner stops working outside the home, there’s an income stream to replace. You’ll need a car seat, by the way, and they aren’t cheap, either.

I’m not trying to scare you, although come to think of it, maybe I am! My point is that one of the most important things you can do during your wife’s pregnancy, after you’ve got your own AA program straightened out, is to figure out how you’re going to pay for this delightful young creature about to enter your life. Maybe you’ve always dreamt of being an actor, a writer, or a professional athlete. I support your dreams. I encourage them. I also suggest that you put them away for the time being and instead focus on what I call CPR—something that will put Cash in your Pocket, Right now. Do you have a steady stream of income? If not, can you go get one? My sponsor says that he’s never surprised when an addict gets sober. He is only surprised when an addict gets a job.

The funny thing about us alcoholics and addicts is that we don’t want jobs—we want a position! We only want work commensurate with our exaggerated sense of self-importance! Well, it’s time to grow up. In a pamphlet on the Seventh Step, Lois W., Bill’s wife and the cofounder of Al-Anon family groups, defines humility as knowing who you are.

If you aren’t a famous artist, writer, singer, or whatever right now, maybe you will become one, one day. Right now, however, it’s time to bring home the Benjamins, because when a baby comes through the door, money flies out the window.

When I first got sober, my sponsor told me to get a job—any job. He called it a “sobriety job”—something you did in order to demonstrate to yourself that you actually had value to other people. When we were drinking, we didn’t. Self-esteem tends to plummet. That was my situation.

I have a JD degree from Columbia Law School, one of the best and most competitive law schools in the country. By the time I got sober, seven years after graduating law school, my classmates were making partner at the top firms in the country. Me? I was on heating assistance, because I was dead broke.

So I got a job temping, for $7 an hour, because I couldn’t think of anything else I was good at. The temping firm could have sent me to one of the law firms where I had briefly worked, but my Higher Power spared me that humiliation. I made that $7 an hour and I was grateful for it. Little by little I built a financial life for myself, which is a story for another day.

The main thing is this: If you aren’t bringing in money now, it’s time to start. You can drive for Uber. You can wait tables. If you’ve got a strong back, you can work for a moving company. If you can write code, write code. What you do to bring in money, as long as it’s legal and ethical, doesn’t even have to relate to your education, training, past employment, or lifetime goals. You just have to have a steady stream of income.

The number one thing that breaks up marriages, and as a result, families, is fighting over money. Not having any is dispiriting, and not to go old school on you, but as the man, bringing home the bacon is your job. Right now, your partner’s busy enough—and she’s about to get a lot busier once that baby comes. To put it simply, as I heard early on in (or more precisely, in the hallway outside) an AA meeting, “Life is like a s*!& sandwich. The more bread you have, the less s*!& you have to eat.”

Any questions?

So far, we’ve talked about the need to start up or step up your program so that you are spiritually fit when that baby arrives. Then we talked about the financial side of life, which essentially boils down to the importance of living AA’s Seventh Tradition in your personal life and in your relationship—being financially self-sufficient. Now let’s turn to another vital aspect of being a parent—looking back to the relationship you have with your parents and, if necessary, straightening that out. They say there are no big deals aside from getting sober, but working out your relationship with your parents is such a big deal that it deserves its own chapter, immediately if not sooner, and that’s where we turn next.

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