Striking a Balance as a Parent and Bartender: One Dad's Story
The question had to be asked, but he hated to ask it.
He looked at me, asking for a job tending his bar a few nights a week, and mostly nodded, excited at the idea of us, friends of 15 years, working together at last. I sought work with a bit more flexibility, and a different decorum, than my gig reporting for our city's newspaper. And I hoped bartending at his young, but successful, cocktail bar to be the right fit.
So we met over lengua tacos and aguas frescas to discuss the possibility. I thought the job to be a lock, but I sensed a bit of apprehension from him.
Experience wasn't the problem. A decade in the service industry, a respected name in the community, time spent behind a bustling urban bar in Ireland, a local reputation as a knowledgeable food writer, a spirits lover -- I needed no resume.
Still, as an employer, he couldn't neglect one concern. Finally, he lobbed it at me.
"Do you think it's the right fit for your family?"
If a stranger had asked me this, perhaps I'd have socked him, but I understood the question.
My daughter, Mavis, was two-and-a-half at the time. She's a sociable comet of a kid with a blonde tail trailing behind as she charges a playground, and I am over the moon for her. In leaving the office behind, I wagered I could freelance, volunteer at her school, and on a whim, my pastry chef wife, Mavis and I could take off on a day trip, pick apples in the mountains or something.
But bartending meant missing dinner and bedtimes and sleeping through morning rituals, he warned. In asking, he only wanted to be sure that I'd thought it through. I had, or least thought I had.
A few weeks later, I completed my first solo close, an entertaining night immersed in the drinking habits of my soon-to-be regulars. I locked the door and the place glowed with order: backbar labels faced out, cooler stocked, floors mopped. Sometime after 4 a.m., I slid into bed next to my daughter and thought, "I can do this!"
Three hours later, sweet words pierced a deep sleep: "Daddy, it's wake up time!"
Then again, maybe I can't.
Parents in the bartending world are rare, but we're a resilient breed, hard-working and sleep deprived. It's not hard to imagine why new parents leave bartending behind: In addition to hours on our feet, unclogging sinks and kicking out drunks, a babysitter who works as late as we do is a mythological figure.
Just as fictional is the concept of a work-life balance, but that's not something we wanted, anyway. We love our children and drinking culture. Cocktail development and early childhood development interest us equally. And while steadying both worlds induces hangover-like headaches, we're not giving it up anytime soon.
Thankfully, bartenders like me have role models. If there's someone in the industry who exemplifies the best traits of the bartender-slash-parent, it's Kellie Thorn, beverage director for and consultant to Hugh Acheson's four Georgia restaurants. I first met Kellie behind the bar at Empire State, Acheson's Atlanta outpost, and have now delighted myself with cocktails she's composed at bars in three different cities. She became a master in the trade while raising Finnian Sandifer, her six-year-old doppleganger who slurps oysters and orders mocktails with confidence.
Getting back behind the bar after Finn's birth took its toll. Parents, especially mothers, suffer a separation anxiety when they head back to work after leave, and for Kellie, it was no different. Running on two or three hours of sleep a night, Kellie came home exhausted and went back to work exhausted. It was a difficult and emotional experience, she admits. "Those first couple of months were almost dreamlike," she remembers.
Finn's dad, Trip, is also a bartender, which means both parents spend hours away from home. Their extended service industry family, it turns out, makes perfect babysitters, understanding why mom and dad wouldn't be home until 3 a.m. On days off, Kellie refuses to skimp on quality time. She turns her phone off and leaves email unchecked. Most nights, she says no to industry events in favor of couch snuggles before bed. "It's never easy, it's damn hectic, and you are constantly filled with anxiety that you aren't doing a good job," she says. "But like any parent, you make it work."
Luckily, my wife's pastry career and my bartending and writing have been aided both by grandparents and co-workers who don't mind Mavis tagging along for meetings or her spending a quiet happy hour drinking OJ in a booth. We make it work, as Kellie says, hoping she's impacted as little as possible by our work lives. It's never easy, as Kellie says, but I'd give my wife and I a B-plus on work-life balance. Not too bad, and definitely getting better.
If there's a superpower I've developed as a bartender, it's serving other parents.
New moms and dads on date night, their babes asleep at home under the watch of grandparents, sidle up to the bar unsure of themselves. The last time they knocked back a cocktail feels like a lifetime ago. What do they even like anymore?
I recognize in them the same exhaustion that I certainly exude. I've been there, I want to say — I'm still there, and it's okay. But I say nothing. I don't mention children and won't. If we start talking kids, they'll end their date early, desperate to get home and cuddle. I would. I'll finish my night wishing I could feel my daughter tossing and turning and talking in her sleep.
But we need this moment, both of us. Parents need to check in on each other, and a quiet bar and a cold cocktail only eases the conversation.
I shake the finest Mezcal Last Word I can muster, and stir a Sorghum Old Fashioned until it's chilled just so. I hear the ice crack against the tin and meditate, maybe thinking about how to be a better dad and husband when I wake up tomorrow. Maybe I zone out, because I need that, too. I slide their drinks across the bar and smile.
Relax, you two, if just for a little while.