Mixed (Drink) Messages

   My bubble has burst. I used to consider myself a somewhat enlightened mother, but apparently I was pretty ignorant about the world. I say this because I was beyond shocked when I read recently about not one, but three area mothers arrested for drunk driving. One had been out clubbing with her 16-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. Another had also been under the influence of marijuana. Two of these mothers were involved in car accidents, one of which was fatal. All of them had their children in the car.

   It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe something like this could happen — I know people drink and drive more often than I care to think about. Rather, I was baffled. I had foolishly believed that some switch is flipped inside all women once they become mothers, and things that used to be important to them suddenly pale in comparison to the well being of their children. For me, having children not only changed my decision-making process, but also the decisions themselves.  Was life different? Less exciting? More restricted? Absolutely, and many of the changes required a hard adjustment period. But isn’t that part of the sacrifice that comes with parenthood?

   Apparently not. My first emotions when I read about these mothers were anger and disbelief — what were they thinking? The next was pity. Since I don’t know the particulars of any of their lives, I don’t know if their behavior can be attributed to alcoholism or just plain laziness and reckless behavior. But ultimately I had to wonder how our society can be aware that such incidents occur, apparently more than we realize, and do nothing to change it.

   Now, I have to admit that I rarely watch television.  But since I was so surprised by these DWI stories, I decided to turn to the media to check the ‘tone’ of what folks are reading and watching these days and to gauge our societal views as a whole. More surprise. HBO has a current show about a widowed mother who deals drugs to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. Another show about a bunch of desperate suburban wives has at least one alcoholic mother among its characters. And there are two new books on my local library shelf: Daddy Needs A Drink: An Irreverent Look at Parenting from a Dad Who Truly Loves His Kids–Even When They're Driving Him Nuts and Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, which has apparently already been optioned by HBO. All of these examples bring to light a growing, pervasive message: Alcohol and drugs in the home, indeed, in full view of the children, are no longer considered objectionable. Nor are they likely only to be found in junior’s room. This concept has been incorporated into the mainstream just as cigarettes once were. But what does it tell our children?

   With all the school programs aimed at helping to reduce teen drinking, and all the experts telling us we need to talk to our children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it’s surprising that we don’t seem to have made much headway. A 2005 national Health and Human Services survey showed that 10.8 million people between 12 and 20 years old reported drinking alcohol, 7.2 million of them had engaged in binge drinking, and another 2.3 million considered themselves heavy drinkers. Does this mean the programs are not working? I don’t think so. They are intended to be part of a whole, incorporated into and built upon the messages our children get from us, the parents who supposedly know better. Perhaps this is where we’ve erred. Perhaps we’ve missed the mark by targeting school children with these messages, but sending very different messages to them, and their parents, at home.

   As an editor, I know the responsibility that comes with the power the media holds. What we read and see, both as parents and children, helps us understand the pulse of our society, its priorities and limits. Media messages are everywhere, and are more of a shaping factor in our children’s lives than ever before.  So when the media shirk that responsibility in favor of ratings, money and customers, and lower the bar of acceptable content, they ultimately shift the attitude of society as a whole. It happens by degrees, but it happens. One need only think of how much things have changed since the days of shows like The Brady Bunch, Father Knows Best, and Happy Days. Though these programs did not portray real life, they depicted a “supposed norm”, a standard to which families could aspire, or at least reference, as they made decisions as parents and members of society. If the supposed norm today is drink- and drug-using suburban parents, it is a very telling statement about our society, our priorities and our expectations of ourselves.

   I pity the mothers who were arrested, and their children for being given such poor examples of right and wrong.  These mothers made bad choices — very bad choices — but I can almost guarantee they didn’t make them in a vacuum. The tacit condoning of parental drinking and drug use is out there, everywhere. The message is being planted in people’s minds every day, taking root, and growing into behavior more often than many of us realize — until it makes headlines.

   When parents blur the line between what is acceptable behavior and what is not, we do our children a disservice. As we pressure them to be the best they can be, are we looking very carefully at what we ourselves are doing? Isn’t doing our best the most effective way to encourage them? Allowing our media powers to send messages that certain behaviors are OK, and then prosecuting people for doing those very things, we are raising our children in a society of hypocrisy. If the grown-ups can’t even decipher the “right” things to do, how in the world can we expect our children to know the difference?