EDITOR’S NOTE: This is NOT medical advice. The CDC warns against smoking during pregnancy.
Let’s start here: my first son was an “eh” baby. As in, “If we have sex now, we’ll get pregnant.” “Eh, why not.” He was conceived after a long night of drinking and smoking out at one of the city’s private clubs, where you could still smoke, because I still smoked.
It was the second decade of this brave new century, and yes, I smoked a pack a day. Marlboro Light 100’s, long, slim, and white, which I sometimes stuck in a cigarette holder a fit of grad school affectation. I’d been smoking in earnest since my sophomore year of college. That had been several years before. I also had unmedicated ADHD, which meant that I craved stimulants and was unknowingly self-medicating with them (my Red Bull consumption was legendary).
I was not a casual smoker. I was the smoker who rolled out of bed, plunked down on the couch, popped a can of Red Bull and lit up a Marlboro.
So when the pregnancy test melted into two little blue lines, we were thrilled — except for that one little detail. I immediately called the only midwife in town, who told me to use valerian root to quit.
Valerian root is bullshit, friends.
Two weeks in and freaking out because I was still smoking, albeit much less than before, I had a threatened miscarriage (which was really the result of my cervix bleeding from having sex, but no one told me that until later). I lost it. I cried all the way through a five-hour ER visit. I cried through a doppler scan, when I saw my son for the first time. I cried because I wasn’t sure if I had made a terrible, terrible mistake and that made me a terrible, terrible person and this was coming whether I wanted it or not. Prenatal depression had grabbed me by the neck and shaken me hard, at only six weeks.
And it didn’t stop.
Most people don’t know that prenatal depression is not uncommon. They don’t know it can lead you down every miserable path of regular depression: a reduced interest in life, the universe, and everything. A desire to do nothing but sleep. The deep, desperate darkness of self-harm. And the scariest pain of all: serious suicidal thoughts, the type that come with a plan.
The only reason I didn’t act on them? I didn’t want to kill the baby, too. All this is to say that any willpower I had was spent keeping me alive, keeping me breathing through panic attacks, keeping me from killing myself. I didn’t have enough left over to kick the nicotine.
So I smoked. I smoked on the back porch, 2-3 cigarettes a day, always guiltily, always gratefully. My husband tried hiding them. I found them. I made friends buy them for me. I smoked in my BFF’s car a few times, hunched down so no one could see my pregnant belly. And when it finally became apparent that I needed psychiatric treatment — something that, in retrospect, we should have realized far earlier — I was too afraid to tell my doctor I smoked. I knew she’d just lecture me. I knew she’d tell me to quit, which I couldn’t do, not without help, and I knew she’d put it on my medical charts and it would fuck up my insurance. Maybe I also feared she’d tried to take away the one thing in life I could count on enjoying.
So I kept smoking.
Never in public — I was afraid of your judgment. I knew your judgment: it lived in my head. Always in private. I was so secretive that my mother stayed over in my eighth month and didn’t know I was still sneaking cigarettes twice a day.
I smoked while in labor, especially when it got bad, when it got hard, when it hurt so bad I thought I was caught in back spasm that wouldn’t end and I just rocked and cried. I stopped when we went to the midwife. I didn’t have one on the transfer to the hospital, when my labor took too long. And once my son was born, I was so consumed with hospital procedures, so busy mama-bearing the staff into doing what I wanted and making sure he didn’t get formula or pacis or circumcision or the nursery, that I literally forgot all about cigarettes. I was too busy learning to nurse. I was stuck in that hospital room, in those four walls, for three days. And when I came out, at some point in the haze of newborn babyness, I realized I hadn’t smoked in days.
And I never smoked again.
My son suffered no ill effects from my smoking during pregnancy — so far. His ADHD is genetic. He had a bad case of eczema, which could be attributed to it, but then, so did his sibling. And still I worry. I’m still terrified that the chemical flipped a switch, kicked a chromosome, maybe twisted a gene or two: set a time bomb for him, for us. Cancer. Mental illness. Something I can’t name or know or think of yet. I worry that something’s coming. I worry that it’s my fault.
I didn’t like smoking during pregnancy. But I couldn’t stop. I could not fucking stop. You have to understand that if I could have stopped, in my haze of misery and depression and the world would be better off without me’s, I would have. I loved the son I carried. I didn’t want to hurt him. I knew what I was doing was bad for him. But I couldn’t stop doing it. I wished I could then. And I wish I had now.