For years now, my wife, Susan, and I have been hiding a deep and dark secret. Until she quit almost a year ago, my wife was a lifelong smoker, even regularly puffing on cigarettes when she was pregnant with each of our daughters, Isabelle and Lorelei.
As you mull that over, I hope you'll hold off your judgments until later. She has a story, which she's allowing me to tell in case it helps anyone out there, and I'm proud of her for it. But make no mistake: We aren't proud of the fact that she smoked during pregnancy. Even my wife now calls what she did "evil."
Susan began smoking when she was a teen, pulled into the abyss by peers. She continued as a twentysomething, and since she did her best to hide it from her parents, she had no one to object to what she was putting into her lungs. Until me. And so, a couple of months into our dating, she agreed to quit. Although it was tough for her in the beginning, she soon appeared to have conquered her addiction. Having no keen sense of smell, I didn't realize that she had simply taken her habit behind bathroom doors. I discovered her secret stash of cigarettes on our honeymoon, a year later. I felt as if I had found her in bed with another guy. Only in this case, my wife was cheating on me with the Marlboro Man.
So, minutes after I learned that she was pregnant, I insisted that she end her affair. Susan agreed. Now that she was expecting, she assured me, she would quit.
Again, I believed her, and that's where I went wrong. I was content to let my wife fight this battle on her own. That's how she said she wanted to do it; having me constantly ask how she was doing, she said, would only stress her out. So I didn't offer Susan much beyond very sparing encouragement.
If I could do things over, I would have insisted she enroll in a smoking cessation class or join a support group. I would have sent her encouraging love notes. Yes, I was following her game plan, but by doing so, and letting her go it alone, I made it easier for her to fail. My wife needed my help, not my hope.
The clutches of nicotine addiction
And while nonsmokers are probably wondering what the fuss is about -- you have a baby, you quit -- that's part of the problem, too. We don't understand the power of a nicotine addiction. I've heard that it's harder to quit cigarettes than cocaine. Add the hormone factor, and quitting probably seems impossible. It's easier to cut back, like Susan did, and pretend you're making a difference.
And maybe she did. Isabelle was born a beautiful baby, and to my relief, the doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her. Afterward, Susan and I let the subject of smoking drift. Isabelle was such a wonderful baby that it was easy for Susan to rationalize that no harm was done, so why not wait until later to quit?
Eighteen months later, though, Susan was pregnant again, and our old arguments resurfaced. But just like last time, I didn't do enough. Oh sure, I debated more fiercely, making it clear which side I stood on -- and that it wasn't hers. But all I did was make her feel bad about herself.
Two months into the pregnancy, a travel magazine asked me to write about a charming little hotel in rural Ohio; my wife and I took the opportunity to have a romantic weekend away. The hotel had a strict no-smoking policy, so Susan was forced outdoors for her cigarette breaks. During one of those breaks, as I sat in our cozy hotel room by myself, I pictured my pregnant wife outside in the rain, smoking near the entrance. Even though she wasn't really showing, I imagined the other guests looking at her scornfully. I envisioned our baby, probably the size of a fingernail clipping, choking and reaching about for an oxygen mask or maybe some air-freshener spray. I felt pathetic -- and scared.
Still, part of me felt optimistic. We had hit rock bottom, right? Surely my rain-splattered, smoking, pregnant wife would return to the room and concede that it was time to quit. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
A few weeks after Lorelei was born, Susan brought up the notion of having a third baby. I told her she could count me out for future kids unless she quit for good. If that meant withholding sex for the rest of our lives, so be it. I waited for her to say "Praise the Lord!" but she was quiet. Over the next three months, she made several valiant attempts to quit, but none stuck.
Then one day, she had her last cigarette. I guess we got lucky. My wife had foot surgery, and knowing she would be doped up on painkillers and unable to drive for a few weeks, she decided to try once more to give up smoking. I went through the motions of supporting her, but I secretly kept waiting to catch her in our bedroom making out with Joe Camel.
I should have realized this time would be different. Unlike previous times when she "quit," Susan was now on the medication prescribed after she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, and she had a therapist she could talk to. She talked to our family doctor, too, and read up on methods to try. Finally I got on board, buying her flowers and offering praise. While it's a shame this didn't happen sooner, we're relieved that our girls are now protected from secondhand smoke -- and that they have a healthier mom.
Looking back, I realize that expectant moms who smoke deserve our sympathy more than our contempt. Don't misunderstand me: Smoking when pregnant is despicable and dangerous. But before we glare and judge, let's not forget that the mom is probably as disgusted as we are. If she's like my wife, she desperately wants to quit. But, for whatever reason, she can't.
Not without help. Expectant moms and dads should think of stopping smoking as the first true test of parenthood -- something they need to do together. What finally did the trick for my wife was that, this time, she didn't attempt to overpower her addiction behind a bathroom door. This time, she wasn't alone.
Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor and a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.