A.J. Daulerio Is Embracing Sober Parenting

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

A.J. Daulerio is the creator of The Small Bow, one of my all-time-favorite newsletters, which he began publishing in 2018. It’s about addiction and recovery and also about family stories, big memories, stubborn feelings, and experiencing grace. The fact that I, a not-sober person, find it so resonant with my experiences suggests some of the expansive excellence you’ll find within. I consider The Small Bow a newsletter about being an accountable, self-aware adult, which is a topic area that is oddly underexplored in … the world?

A.J.’s personal history is pretty well documented. He was an editor at the sports website Deadspin before becoming editor-in-chief of Gawker in 2012. That year, he published clips of a sex tape that featured Hulk Hogan, who ultimately sued Gawker for $100 million and won. The suit ended Gawker as a company and threw Daulerio’s life into utter disarray.

He’s written a lot about the period in his life that followed the suit’s decision, but one particularly interesting dimension to the timeline of his past decade is that he became a father just as the dust of a lot of chaos was beginning to settle. He now has three children with his wife, Julieanne, and they live in Los Angeles. We chatted over Zoom about his experience as a sober parent and about the kind of parent he wants to be. Subscribe to The Small Bow here.

What was it like for you being newly sober and finding out Julieanne was pregnant?

Weirdly enough, I was just like, God, why does this feel like the absolute right time? Even though any other sane person would basically say this is not the thing to do right now, I just trusted our instinct and it was obviously a good decision. Now, we’re three kids later. But at the time, her friends were like, “You cannot have a baby with this person. He hasn’t been sober that long.”

Did that offend you?

I mean there were, like, articles written about me. My parents weren’t talking to me. I was not a well-regarded human being at that point. So I understood it. I think she believed that there was this other side of me — I don’t think she knew exactly the full extent of what that looked like at the time because it was so new. I was 90-days sober when she got the pregnancy test, and I was still in the thick of all that other legal stuff. I didn’t have a lot of employment prospects at the time, either. Nobody’s gonna hire me. But for whatever reason, in that moment, I was ready. I was ready to be whatever it takes to be a parent and responsible and all those things. I don’t know. I was just ready for that love.

I think the whole readiness concept is a completely overblown and unhealthy thing that people are obsessed with. I think there’s a controlling instinct there. 

Yeah. There were no ultimatums or anything like that from Julieanne, but I had some for myself. I had to get more serious about 12-step stuff. I had to get more serious about therapy. I’ve got all of this mood-disorder stuff, which is, I think, a lot more challenging than any of the drinking stuff. I don’t think she was fearful that I was going to relapse. But she was fearful that I was going to have a meltdown at some point. When I did have one, and we had two kids at the time — you know, we’re sitting in the hospital, and she’s like, “You have to go on meds. You have to get a psychiatrist.” And again, that was life-changing. I see what the hype is. It’s great to be medicated.

We’ve worked my recovery into our routine. If there’s pickup or drop-off stuff that I’m supposed to do, but I need to get to a meeting or I need to check in with other people and take care of that — there are no questions asked. She’s not annoyed by it or anything like that. She knows what the stakes are, right? Because they’re kind of huge when it comes to me because she knew the guy I was before.

It sounds to me like your sobriety isn’t so much a looming thing that you’re fearful of maintaining but rather a set of routines. Is that accurate? 

I mean I have a healthy fear of relapse like anyone does. There are certain things that I try to not participate in. I wouldn’t say it’s looming, but it’s a part of our life. And my wife, I think, understands that. I don’t think it’s a burden. She lives her life too.

For a lot of parents I know, drinking or drugs is a way for them to feel like an independent person with an identity apart from the kids. It can feel like a rare pressure release in the age of intensive parenting. Do you have trouble feeling like an independent person as a sober parent? Do you feel you’re among the children? 

There was a dad’s kindergarten night last week, and we were supposed to go ax throwing. Without the kids. Mighty kindergarten-dad-night bonding. And I was excited for ax throwing! I was like, All right, at least it gives me something to do instead of watching everyone drink beers and bullshit. But then ax throwing got canceled and they were just gonna have dinner and drinks. I didn’t go. I regret it because it was more me imagining the worst-possible scenario, which is this awkward table of eight other dads and this feeling of “Oh, you don’t drink” and everyone thinking that there has to be some explanation behind this.

I feel like I haven’t gotten to the place where I feel comfortable. I’m comfortable around sober people. I can go into any AA meeting on earth, and I can be my best version of myself — charismatic, telling a good story. But eight dudes sitting around an Italian restaurant drinking beers and trying to be dudes? That’s hard for me. And that feels lonely to me sometimes. I get very jealous of parents who have that outlet. I get the “wine mom” thing. I’ve seen some of that happen in this little community of parents that we have. And I’m like, God, that would make things so much easier. It just feels like, as much as I was a bad drinker, I was a good drinker at the same time. I was fucking fun. I felt like I was until I wasn’t.

What kind of story do you tell yourself about what kind of parent you are? 

It’s funny the things I get sensitive about with my kids. My dad was a temper guy. He was a guy who I was scared of growing up. And I never want to be that parent.

But yeah, the third kid really throws off the axis. He’s going at a different speed. I have to pay attention to the little one — I’ve lost him, twice. He wanders! I raise my voice, and I start to yell, and I’m like, God! They’re going to remember me as the yelling person! I don’t want to be a yelling parent! And I’m not a disciplinarian. That’s their mom. They don’t give a shit about me. I’m just the yelling guy. They don’t listen to me. It does nothing. I’m the person who will absolutely stay up with them and let them eat ice cream and watch horror movies at age 5 and 6. I’m that guy.

I don’t know if that’s good parenting — I don’t. But I remember specifically this one moment with my father. We went to Disney World together when I was a kid, and one night he couldn’t sleep. It was ten o’clock at night, and he took me to Bob’s Big Boy because he wanted a milkshake. I remember being so surprised that there were all these people up so late. It was really special to me. I think that’s the only thing I can be good at — being a person who’s trying to give my kids those kinds of memories. I have nothing else to offer. I’m not a good disciplinarian. I feel like I’m failing constantly to reach them in any meaningful way. I feel like I have to act like a kid to be on their level. I don’t know — I wish I could be more of an adult around them. But I don’t feel like one.

Maybe because I was brought up in an unconventional environment, I am obsessed with the importance of being a reliable presence as a parent. It’s everything. You don’t have to do anything — just be there. The effects of not doing that, of not being there, can mess with kids forever. I’m actually very bored with a lot of parenting discourse because it’s always about how you can be making more of an effort. And I fundamentally believe that almost none of that matters. It’s all about just being around. But that doesn’t make for good content. There’s no story there; there’s nothing to sell.

I mean I needed to hear that.

Do you follow other parents on Instagram?

I get really sucked into the Instagram parenting thing. There’s this one woman I follow; we were colleagues, and she has kids the same age as ours. Through the pandemic, they were going to the mountains, canoeing. I’m looking at her stuff on Instagram, and just then, we were potty training our 2-year-old, and she walks out of the bathroom with the plastic toddler toilet on her head, and I’m like, Man, we’re doing this wrong. I feel like we don’t have enough of those sorts of activities with them.

We had a bad pandemic. Our newborn was really sick. There was a whole bunch of panic. We’ve been cautious in a way that I don’t necessarily think is healthy. Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum with me, like I had this thing last week where my son was sad at school, and I’m like the best thing for me to do is go over there, pull him out of there, and take him surfing. But that’s crazy! That’s the extreme that I go to, because I have this strong memory of being told “no” so many times and of my parents being scared of putting me in certain situations.

You know, growing up, we didn’t do a lot. I’m always jealous of families that ski. We’re not a skiing family. I don’t know how to ski. I’m scared of heights. I went twice, and on the lift, I was like, This isn’t safe! But I wish we had a life where there was more access to that sort of stuff. I have the desire, and I wish I had more follow-through. We’re pretty interesting people, and we make ourselves small for the sake of the safety of our kids.

I feel like this is a very common frustration among parents. The culture of parenting right now — do you feel that it generally aligns with how you feel children should be treated? 

Well, the school my kids go to is pretty great. But at the same time, I’m like, This is not the real world. Is this too much of a bubble? But I think they feel loved, and everybody tells me that my kids feel safe at home. I didn’t feel safe at home as a kid. That might be the one thing I’m doing right. The kids feel loved here and can come here and be themselves.

What more can you ask from your family? 

[Laughing] Skiing. Ski trips.

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A.J. Daulerio Is Embracing Sober Parenting