Q: My mother-in-law is a recovering alcoholic. She’s been sober a year. She is dying to baby-sit our newborn son, but I am a little nervous about leaving her alone with him. What if she falls off the wagon? How should I handle this?
A: Your concerns highlight the fact that recovery from addiction involves the entire family and not just one individual. Honesty and connectedness need to be a key part of your family’s relationship with your mother-in-law.
Recovery: A long and winding road. An article by Kat MGowan, “The New Quitter” (Psychology Today, 2010), notes that relapses do occur as “stumbles” in the long and winding road to overcoming addictions. Instead of viewing them as failures, she suggests they be viewed as learning experiences so that the individual studies the triggers for the relapse and then develops concrete scenarios for avoiding these situations in the future. The St. Gregory Retreat Center, which is a Christian drug rehabilitation center, takes a similar approach, saying that when setbacks occur, “the goal is to mine the experience and find what can be gleaned from it.” (www.stgregoryctr.com/articles/the-benefits-of-a-christian-drug-rehabilit...) Although this view of recovery is optimistic about the chances of long-term success for your mother-in-law, it also lends credibility to your concerns for your baby. As a mother, you need to decide how to support your mother-in-law while balancing the needs of your son.
Building family connections. Your mother-in-law’s strong desire to baby-sit your newborn son can be reframed in a way that meets your needs and builds family connections. Time is a precious commodity for new mothers, and your mother-in-law can provide this gift. Perhaps she can care for your son while you catch up on household tasks or prepare dinner. Or maybe she can come over in the evening so that you and your husband can have some rare “alone time” taking a walk around the block.
Peer support. Many families value sharing their concerns about a loved one’s drinking behaviors with others who have faced similar issues. Al-Anon meetings provide this support internationally. Perhaps you can contact your local group. And keep in mind the words of the Catechism: “With all humility and meekness, with patience, [support] one another in charity.” (2219)
One of my favorite wall plaques is based on Romans 12:12, “Let your hope make you glad. Be patient in time of trouble and never stop praying”. A year of sobriety is reason to be hopeful and glad. Keep your relationship with your mother-in-law in your prayers and be open to God’s voice.
Dr. Cathleen McGreal is a psychology professor and certified spiritual director.