I’m a Mom Who Smokes Cigarettes—a Look Inside My Secret Struggle
Oct 04, 2022
On the day my daughter was born, the nurses whisked her away for a series of newborn tests, and I was instructed to rest. “We’ll have her back in an hour. Don’t worry. Take a nap, mommy! Sleep while you can!”
I was exhausted in a way I would have found unimaginable just a couple of days earlier. But as I lay my head on the plasticky hospital pillow, I felt a restlessness creep through me.
My toes began to tap and my mind raced, and that little impulse began to rattle around in my brain: I need a cigarette.
My then-husband eyed me as I tucked my hospital gown into my stretchy pregnancy pants. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t relax. I need a smoke.”
He tossed me his turquoise pack with a lighter tucked inside: maternity ward contraband.
Was he judging me? I was judging myself. But as I crept down the halls past reception, exhilaration drowned out everything else. I was about to enjoy my first guilt-free cigarette in 40 weeks.
I wish I could say I never smoked during my pregnancy, but I can’t. My relationship to cigarettes dominated everything during those nine months. Each day I tried to abstain, but at some point I would give in, “sharing” my husband’s cigarette until he urged me to just have my own.
I would cry, wracked with guilt. My doctor who supported my efforts to quit smoking was so kind about it. He told me that the stress of quitting completely might be worse for the baby than occasionally giving in. “My mother smoked two packs a day when she was pregnant with me, and look! I’m a doctor!”
My own mother had always been open about smoking before I was born. She spoke of her cravings and all the times she had tried to quit, but the story always ended the same: “And then, when I found out you were coming, I threw my cigarettes away and never looked back. I loved you so much already, I couldn’t do that to you.”
It sounded so simple and maternal—her first motherly act.
I knew it would be the same for me: I’d take a pregnancy test, become a mother in that joyous moment, and never look back. All of my painful quit attempts would be washed away by the warm glow of motherly love.
It should have been easy. I waited for my maternal urges to ease the withdrawal pains. And waited. But it never happened.
About halfway through my pregnancy I called my mother, crying, and only then did she admit that she’d struggled to quit as I grew inside of her. In her words, “it was hell.”
In my 20s, smoking was an integral part of my identity. It wasn’t that I thought it made me look cool; where I grew up, the cool kids didn’t smoke. For me, smoking was pure rebellion, a rejection of the expectations of society.
We all knew it was bad for us. I was a child of the ’90s; my Saturday morning cartoons were peppered with PSAs full of dark warnings from grandmothers with tracheostomies.
I grew up playing in punk bands, walking alone at night, mouthing off to creepy strangers and then, yes, smoking cigarettes.
I didn’t expect to grow old. I wanted to live fast. I was an artist. I didn’t need my health, I needed nicotine.
The hospital where my daughter was born was, of course, a smoke-free zone. There were “no smoking” signs everywhere, plus security guards itching to enforce the rules.
I walked about a quarter mile, tucking my plastic identification bracelet up inside the band of my sweatshirt, wrapping my arms across my chest to hide the edges of the polyester gown, hoping to go unnoticed.
I was sweating and exhausted by the time I got to the edge of the property, but I was elated. My body was my own again! I could do whatever I wanted—and all I wanted was to smoke.
My hands shook as I lit my cigarette. This was the best feeling, the sweetest relief, the moment I’d been waiting for…for about three hard drags. Then my stomach turned: a response to the nicotine, as well as the realization that this wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I sat down on the ground, clutching my belly and feeling painfully aware of the trauma my body had just survived. Twelve hours earlier, my daughter was there, and now I was empty and wounded.
I had ripped open. I had created new life. And I heard my own voice shrieking inside my head: What are you doing? You’re a MOM. You’re a MOM now. What are you doing? You’re somebody’s MOTHER.
I clutched that cigarette and smoked it all the way to the filter. Then I started another. My husband texted, “Where are you?” I walked back to the delivery room, certain everyone I passed was staring at me, judging me. They could probably smell it on me.
The voice in my head admonished me, rhythmically: You’re a mom. You’re a mom. You’re a mom.
I prayed that nobody would talk to me. I made it back to my room unnoticed, stripped off my clothes, and walked directly into my private shower, where I stood, crying, for nearly 20 minutes. I put on a fresh gown and climbed into bed, just moments before a nurse returned with my baby.
She was sleeping, perfect. I just sat and stared down at her, a tiny bundle of blankets in my arms, watching her breathe. The voice in my head whispered: You want to live forever. I looked over at my husband and my eyes watered as I said, “That was my last one.”
But it wasn’t.
I couldn’t cope with the stress of caring for a newborn. I didn’t have much of a support system. My close friends lived far away, and my local friends weren’t into hanging out with a baby.
I spent hours nursing, rocking her, burping her, changing her diaper. Everyone told me, “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” Instead, when she drifted off, I would creep out to the front porch to smoke, watching her on the monitor.
When she was awake, I waited for her to sleep again so I could satisfy the cravings that never went away. I kept thinking, If I could just have one more cigarette, I could handle all of this, but I never felt the relief I thought I would.
I didn’t want the baby to smell the smoke, and I was terrified that she’d absorb the nicotine from the smoke on my skin, so I showered constantly, scrubbing my flesh raw. I felt like a husk of a person. Every single thing I did was in service of the baby and my addiction.
I was always trying to quit. Every morning I woke up wondering if I would be able to make it through the day without a smoke. I rarely succeeded. I never made it more than a couple of days before giving in, crying, overwhelmed with relief and self-loathing. Why couldn’t I just stop?
In the years since my daughter was born, I have lost so much time and energy to my struggle with smoking. My relationship to cigarettes has consumed me.
When my daughter started day care, I avoided the other parents. On my way to pick her up, I’d use mouthwash, chew gum, and spray myself down with Febreze and perfume. Occasionally, one of the caregivers would say, “Wow, you smell good!” Thank God, I’d think. Thank Procter & Gamble.
Once, at her classmate’s birthday party, the hosts realized they’d forgotten to buy a lighter for the birthday candles. One of the dads shouted, “Anyone got a light?” Everyone laughed. The birthday girl’s mother said, exasperated, “Of course not! It’s not like anyone here smokes!”
Was she looking at me? I felt my cheeks burn as I stood with my hands in my pockets, tracing the edge of my Bic, wondering if I’d out myself by offering it up.
Smoking comes up in conversation from time to time in mommy groups and social media comment sections. One particularly hurtful thread in my favorite support group still haunts me. In a discussion about destigmatizing cannabis use among mothers, the consensus was that smoking pot is fine; it’s medicine. But cigarettes? Unforgivable.
“What kind of mother would smoke cigarettes?”
“It’s child abuse: even if they go outside to smoke, all the chemicals stay on your skin. The smoke gets into everything. It’s toxic.”
There were calls for smoking mothers to lose their children to CPS. “You can’t smoke cigs and say you’re a good mom.”
Some comments echoed my own thoughts: “It’s pathetic. Like…just stop.”
I left the group without contributing to the conversation. If they knew, they wouldn’t want you there, anyway, said the voice in my head.
Literature about quitting smoking often instructs us to calculate the amount of money we’ve lost to our addiction: cost per pack multiplied by packs per day multiplied by the length of our addiction. The dollar amount can be shocking. We are meant to think of the car we might have bought, the fancy vacations we might have taken, the down payments on imaginary houses, the contributions to a retirement fund.
I calculate my loss differently. I tally the minutes lost to wishing I could step away from my child. The times I put her in front of the TV so I could go outside alone and watch her on the baby monitor.
How many bedtimes have I cuddled her, unable to enjoy it because I’m worried that I smell like smoke? How many times have I laid there wishing she would just fall asleep so I could escape and smoke?
Have I ever been completely present for an entire day? Or have I just been waiting for the next opportunity to feed my addiction?
Some days I feel like I have tried everything to quit. Willpower, hypnosis, nicotine replacement, Googling images of diseased lungs, watching my sleeping child and getting swept away in an anxiety fantasy about how she would feel if I died of lung cancer.
I talk to my child-free smoker friends, and they get it, kind of. They understand how hard it is and tell me they don’t judge me at all.
A friend of mine quit after her 40th birthday. When she shared her good news, I nearly cried telling her how I didn’t think I’d ever be able to quit. She reached out to grab my smoky hand and held it tenderly, looking into my eyes. “You will. You’ll quit. Someday, you’ll be ready and it will happen.”
Recently, I began taking Chantix to support my efforts to stop smoking. It makes me feel sick to my stomach, but I have noticed myself smoking less and less. I can go longer stretches of time without feeling overwhelmed by urges.
One morning, my daughter and I woke up together. I made her a bowl of oatmeal, stirred it lovingly, and served it to her in front of the TV so I could go outside to have my morning coffee-and-smoke combo.
I sat staring at the smoke rising into the sky, and something inside me shifted. I put the cigarette out before I was halfway through and went back inside.
My daughter, my precious girl, looked up from her bowl with bright eyes and a huge, jack-o’-lantern grin. “You’re back! That was fast!”
I stood in the doorway, simply staring at her like I did when she was brand new. Now six years old, she is just as perfect as the day she was born. I felt my eyes water as I said to myself, “That was the last one.”
And I hope—I hope beyond hope—that this time, I’m right.
About The Author
Callie Williams is a writer, student, chef, and musician-artist living in California with her six-year-old daughter and their guinea pigs, Penelope and Pineapple. You can see more of her work at calliewilliams.com.