I am a mom and I smoke

How does this diminish my fitness as a parent?

By Jennifer Hatala
July 13, 2000 11:01PM (UTC)
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I smoke cigarettes and I'm a good mother.

There, I said it. It isn't easy being a mother; but to claim to be a good mother while admitting to one of the most vilified vices in America, well, I can practically feel the breeze from people shaking their heads in disagreement.

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Let me explain. I am what is known in the medical community as an intermittent smoker. This means that I smoke less than a pack of cigarettes a day. Actually, I smoke about three cigarettes a day. I smoke outside or in the smoking section of my local coffee shop. (I live in Missouri, which is consistently behind national trends: It is still legal to smoke in many restaurants and bars here.)

I do not smoke around my children. I do not have sex around my children either, but I do not think I am a bad mother because I enjoy sex.

I have three sons, ages 3, 4 and 7. I stay home with my children, and sometimes I need a break from the tantrums, the squabbling, the mess and the persistent demands for juice. Some mothers eat chocolate; I step outside for a smoke.

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Often I have to wait until late afternoon, when the kids are allowed to watch a video. (We do not have television reception.) When all of them are settled with the afghan tucked around their toes, I go into my bathroom closet and pluck a cigarette from my gold-plated case, grab my lighter and head out to the sunshine of my back deck. There, I spend a peaceful few minutes, sometimes with coffee, enjoying the serenity of my backyard and the taste of my cigarette.

People say to me, "Why do you have to ruin going outside by smoking?" and "It's such a vulgar, stinky habit. How can you do it?" And these are valid questions.

I like having a cigarette outside for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is its own little timer. When the smoke is done, it's back to the laundry and the dirty dishes. Tucking my butt into the water-filled yogurt cup I use as my ashtray marks the end of my time alone. Smoking is, for me, an adult-only activity. I go outside with my children, too, but when I go out with my cigarette, I actually get a break.

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Also, smoking has memories for me. I first smoked with two of my roommates at Brigham Young University. We could have been expelled for it (since BYU is governed by Mormons), and of course that was part of the appeal. Smoking reminds me of those youthful college days driving out to ice-covered Utah Lake and looking across the frigid landscape at the mountains in the days before I really had responsibilities.

I did not smoke again on a regular basis until my second child was colicky. I quit when I became pregnant with my third child, and then started again to relieve the pressures of having a 4-year-old, a 1-year-old and a newborn.

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Smoking also reminds me of my best friend, who moved to New York last week. She is a heavily closeted smoker (or a garage smoker, because that's where she does it). She smokes maybe double what I do, and she is determined to quit. I wish her well. But I will always remember standing in her garage with her, both of us smoking as we talked about our shared experiences as women, wives and mothers.

We disagreed on one key issue, however: what to tell our kids. She has never told her kids she smokes because she is determined to quit and she does not want them to think that smoking is acceptable. I understand her points. It can make a strong impression on a child when a mother embraces or rejects a behavior.

Despite this, my children know that I smoke. I tried to hide it from my oldest son, the only one who really understands, but one day when I came in I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had seen me. And then I had a decision to make. I could ignore his look or I could speak frankly. So I told him that I knew he had seen me, that I smoked and that like swearing, coffee and beer, it was only for grown-ups. I told him it was bad for me and that people die if they smoke too much, so I try not to smoke too much.

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He asked me if he could see my cigarettes, so after a moment of hesitation, I showed him.

This anecdote has drawn criticism from friends, who believe that I either should not have shown him my cigarettes or should have quit right then. But I wanted to deconstruct smoking for him, not call any more attention to it than I do to beer, coffee or swearing.

My parents do not smoke, but I do. My friends whose parents smoked won't touch a cigarette. I smoke in moderation and follow a few simple rules: not in the house, not around kids, no more than three a day. I do not believe in living my life only for my children. That is dishonest. I think it is better for my son and I to have an honest relationship and for him to see that some things can be done in moderation.

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I do not think that my smoking will turn him into a teen smoker, or that my not smoking could prevent him from smoking. He will make his own choices, as I have made mine. And I hope he will follow my example and tell me about them.

Smoking is so taboo in this country that admitting to being a smoking mommy raises concerns about your fitness as a parent. Oh, your kid isn't reading before kindergarten? Well, maybe if you spent less time smoking and more time reading to him, he'd be reading!

But smoking is not the only thing that I do. I also run 9 to 12 miles a week, make bread and pies from scratch, sew and crochet baby blankets, act out the "Three Little Pigs" and read voraciously. I do not watch television, and as far as I'm concerned, letting my children see me watch television would do greater long-term damage than letting them know that I smoke intermittently.

Not all parents share the same attitudes about a lot of issues in child rearing -- especially in this country. We fall out over how long it is acceptable to breast-feed a child and whether it is OK to do it in public, whether parents should sleep with their babies, whether it's OK to have wine with dinner, use disposable diapers or buy toy guns.

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Me? I have opinions about all that stuff and I'm going to stay true to my beliefs. I also am going to wake up every day and hug my kids and drink my coffee, and in the late afternoon, I am going to head out to the deck for a cigarette. Because I am a good mother, and I smoke.


Jennifer Hatala

Jennifer Hatala is a freelance writer and graduate student in Missouri.

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