'Drunk Mom' memoir details author's struggles with parenting, alcoholism
Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska
Kathleen Keenan, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, April 28, 2013 3:10PM EDT
TORONTO -- As the mother of a newborn, Jowita Bydlowska justified her drinking as research for a novel about alcoholism. The final result? A memoir about her own struggles with addiction.
"Drunk Mom" is an agonizing catalogue of Bydlowska's drunken parenting failures, filled with excruciating details like the fact that she kept a secret stash of bottles in her son's sock drawer.
"I'm told that I have a dark sense of humour," says Bydlowska. "I don't know if I did it consciously, but you need a bit of relief."
The book's title -- a phrase that Bydlowska originally used as a placeholder -- hints at her unflinching and self-effacing narrative voice.
She writes with piercing honesty about using Google to determine if her breast milk was safe to drink, hiding bottles of vodka in her son's stroller and fighting with her partner, author and newspaper columnist Russell Smith.
After 3 1/2 years of sobriety, Bydlowska had a drink at a friend's wedding in Warsaw before she knew she was pregnant.
She relapsed into full-blown alcoholism with a glass of champagne following the birth of her son.
She remembers watching herself from the outside and thinking, "Why don't I write a book about a mom who drinks?
"What about this sort of secretive person who walks around and looks normal?" Bydlowska says. "I called her the ordinary, everyday villain."
She continued to drink for months, pretending that she was working on the novel, before agreeing to go to rehab.
"I went to rehab because my drinking was getting out of hand, but even at that time I went with this idea that I was going to do research on my novel," she admits. After leaving rehab and relapsing almost immediately, she realized that she was trying to write her own story, and it had to be a memoir.
In a chapter near the end titled "Archaeology," Bydlowska lists several possible reasons for her alcoholism -- from her family to her taste in music -- and ultimately rejects the need to find the cause. "It was anything, really," she writes.
Bydlowska's sister, along with her partner, Smith, struggled to understand this conclusion. Nevertheless, they have been supportive. "I don't know if I was surprised, but I was certainly blown away by how incredible they've been," Bydlowska says. "I'm really lucky."
Promoting the book has been "weird," she admits, given how uncensored it is. "I have to do readings, and I think, what am I going to read? Is there a light part I can focus on?"
Is she worried about being typecast as the drunk mom?
"I have these nightmares that for a really long time, I'll be the drunk mom," she confesses. "But I own it now."
She does wonder about what her son will think when he reads the book. "I certainly have this idea of him being a 13- or 14-year-old and throwing it at the wall," she says.
"My hope is that he'll read it with an open mind and an open heart. It's a memoir, but it's also a form of (making) amends."
Bydlowska was born in Warsaw and moved to Woodstock, Ont., with her family when she was 15. She remembers expecting all of Canada to have the rolling hills and beautiful landscape she'd read about in "Anne of Green Gables."
"It was a huge culture shock, beyond my imagination," she says about her first few years here. "We moved to a small town in Ontario surrounded by corn fields and tobacco fields, and the cultural centre seemed to be 7-Eleven."
Eventually she went to journalism school, moved to Toronto and began working in magazines.
Bydlowska started writing about her personal life on her now-defunct parenting blog, They Don't Tell You, which explored the darker side of motherhood. She started the blog because, she says, "There's a certain expectation of women in general, but also motherhood, that may be false."
Although "Drunk Mom" is about Bydlowska's alcoholism, it also came from this desire to be honest about motherhood, even when the truth is hard to read. "This is another part of being a woman, that we tend to want women to tell pretty stories, or stories about dating," she says.
"I find that my story is an ugly story, it's a dark story, but it's also a very important story, and it's important for women not to be afraid of telling the dark stories."
Bydlowska says her next book will be fiction. She has already completed a novel and has two other projects in mind.
"No more memoirs," she says, laughing. "I hope not!"