The raw awkwardness of small talk — at a neighborhood block party, with a new-parent friend (am I too eager?), or dinner out with another couple (why is my husband talking about “Star Wars” ... still?). The armor that comes from holding that first glass of wine, and the liquid fuel that softens the edges and keeps the conversation going after two or three. Then, the next morning: Did I say the wrong thing? Did I laugh too loud? Did I overshare about my kid’s awful reading teacher? Can I really make it through soccer with another hangover? Where’s the Advil?
Needham’s Kimberly Kearns, 40, founded Sober in the Suburbs for ordinary people who have become gradually trapped by their own drinking but lulled into complacency. Maybe they don’t consider themselves alcoholics, and maybe they aren’t quite ready to give up drinking entirely. Maybe they’re scared: Without alcohol, is it possible to still have fun? To find the right words? To send the funny texts? To make new friends?
Kearns launched the group — she calls it a sobriety social club — to give the sober-curious a place to meet like-minded people, without the awkwardness of turning down a drink and making lame excuses: “I have a big day tomorrow!” “I’m on antibiotics!”
Kearns took her last drink in November 2020 and launched the group during the pandemic. At her events, nobody is drinking, and that’s perfectly OK. These are the people (usually moms, she says) who might seem completely together at baseball practice or in line at Target; who sit next to you at the tuba concert or who always chime in on the group text about school supplies. But they’re struggling inside, and they’re tired of it.
Her next in-person gathering is on Wednesday, Aug. 30 (learn more at www.soberinthesuburbs.com). It’s the first in her Sober Curious Speaker Series, happening throughout the fall. She’ll kick it off with her own story, based on her memoir, “On the Edge of Shattered: A Mother’s Experience of Discovering Freedom Through Sobriety.”
This week and next, I’ll share excerpts from our conversation — in the hopes that many of you can relate and find camaraderie. This week, Kearns shares her descent into problem drinking. Next week, she’ll talk about what it was like to get sober: both the fallout and the liberation.
I’m so glad to talk to you, because your approach fits perfectly with my newsletter’s premise. I want to offer a respite from the aspirational or scolding parenting content that exists — where it’s performative-perfect or data-driven. This is a column that touches on real-world issues that parents face but don’t talk about, and I think drinking is a big one, because it’s so destructive but so accepted, and it exists along a continuum.
I went through a period of 18 months where I was on anxiety medication, and I didn’t drink at all. I got so many questions: “Are you pregnant?” I felt very isolated and almost defensive. It was a pretty alienating experience, so I’m really glad that Sober in the Suburbs exists. Tell me about it.
It’s different than AA. We don’t follow any guidelines or steps — it’s really about community, connecting, and feeling like there’s a safe place to talk without alcohol.
We’ve been so immersed in this world of drinking, and a lot of us have felt like there was nowhere to go. I Googled “sober in the suburbs of Boston,” and I was blown away by the fact that there was nothing around here.
I have friends who’ve gone through this. I don’t know if shame is the right word, but there’s a sense of: “I don’t look like somebody who needs to change.” There’s a lot of inner conflict around what makes you decide that you actually need to live differently.
From the outside looking in, I had the perfect life. I really tried hard to maintain that image for a very long time. But on the inside, I was crumbling. I was struggling.
I started drinking at 14. I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, going to high school parties, like a lot of kids did and still do. I went to Colby College, where I met my husband and where our relationship was born in a world of binge-drinking. I maintained that work-hard, party-hard lifestyle throughout our 20s.
I was 25 when we got married. By the time I was 30, I had three kids and was a stay-at-home mom. My husband’s a lawyer. He worked long hours, and I was home with three little kids.
We moved out to Needham, and I always gravitated toward people who drank. I wasn’t the kind of person who drank every day. But throughout my drinking, I couldn’t just have one drink. I always liked to get drunk. I blacked out. I would drink to the point of forgetting my nights. And it was like that through college, through my 20s, through my 30s.
We lived in Boston when my kids were tiny. I had my two boys; they were 18 months apart. I would put them both in the double stroller, fill it with a couple bottles of wine, and head over to a friend’s house for a playdate at three o’clock. That’s what we all did.
We would meet up at Ringgold Park in the South End, and we’d order pizza and drink wine, and you could, because you just walked everywhere. We were “cool moms,” drinking out of our Yetis in the park. We were so sophisticated. I never thought I had a problem because everybody else was doing it.
We moved out to the suburbs, and it was a slow roll. I just eventually started having a glass of wine at night, then it became a couple of glasses at night, and eventually, it was a bottle. On Saturday nights, I would get really drunk. There were times when my husband would sit me down on a Sunday morning. You know, we had a 5-year-old, a 7-year-old, and an 8-year-old. They’re all downstairs watching cartoons, and I’m so hungover. I can’t get out of bed, and he’s like, “What is going on with you? I’m worried about you. You’re not in college anymore.”
I’d be better for a month. I wouldn’t drink as much. I’d say: “I’m not going to drink during the week” — these “moderation games.” I wouldn’t drink Monday through Thursday, and I’d try to prove to myself and to him that I didn’t have a problem. But eventually that inner voice would say, “I really need a glass of wine.” I’d order up wine through the Drizly app or whatever. And I couldn’t stop at one.
Then, the pandemic came around. We were home. And my husband was sort of turning a blind eye: “Oh, I get it; this sucks and the world’s imploding. Yeah, you can drink.” But then I started sneaking, hiding it, drinking during the day, and drinking in the morning. I knew I was spiraling. I was out of control.
And I knew in my heart of hearts that I needed to stop.
What did sneaking around actually look like as a mom during the pandemic? What did you do?
In my book, I write about how my family was going to get our Christmas tree the day before I stopped drinking. I get in the car, and my husband’s not being helpful — or, in my mind, he wasn’t being helpful. They’re all fighting me about putting on jackets. I remember my hands were shaking because I needed a drink so badly. I was like, “Hold on. I’ll be right back.”
And I ran [back inside]. I chugged from a Tito’s bottle, and that was at 9 a.m. And a lot of women have come forward since reading my book and have said, “Oh, my God: I used to stick my kids in the car, too, and then run back in and chug wine.”
Putting my kids to bed, I would run downstairs, quickly pour a glass of wine, chug it, and then go back upstairs to read to them. I had to have a buzz. I had to be numbing myself to deal with my kids, and that was just an awful feeling, to have to be escaping from motherhood.
The next morning in the bathroom, I woke my husband up at 5 a.m. And I said to him: “What would you say if I told you that I need to stop drinking?”
It was something that I had never voiced out loud, and I knew when I said those words that there was no taking them back.
Next week: What it’s like to get sober.