I have four kids, a graduate degree, and a successful career. People think I’m a wonderful mother. I know this, because they’ve told me.
What they don’t know is that I drank alcoholically during my pregnancy with my fourth child. If they knew that, of course, their assessment would be different. Only meth moms or 19-year-olds who would rather party than take care of their child would drink large amounts of alcohol while they’re pregnant.
Except, that’s not true. I make organic baby food, breastfeed my babies, and read to them at least 30 minutes a day. After working a full day in the office, I carry my newborns around in a sling while making a healthy dinner for my older children, which most nights, includes a green vegetable.
While pregnant, I took my prenatal vitamins, avoided soft cheese and raw fish, and weaned off my anti-depressant, all for the health of my unborn child. I avoided anything that could be harmful to me or my pregnancy. Except for alcohol.
I didn’t wake up one morning and say to myself, “Oh, I like my wine so much, I’ll just keep drinking during my pregnancy.” It was much more insidious than that. I had just given birth twice in the space of 15 months, and had suffered from post-partum depression after the births of all three of my older children. Then I unexpectedly became pregnant with my fourth. I was still in the throes of depression, and my youngest was six months old when I realized I was expecting again despite being on birth control.
My husband and I were surprised but enthusiastic. I had always wanted four children, but with full-time jobs and daycare expenses in a large metropolitan area, it hadn’t seemed to be in the cards. But forget practical. We were excited for the new addition to our family.
We converted a spare room into a fourth bedroom, unpacked the newborn clothes, and dug out the baby name books. And of course, I quit drinking. I quit drinking about a hundred times. I don’t remember how it happened the first time, probably it was “a small glass of wine, just this one last time.” But that’s never how it played out. And I realized I desperately needed help.
I couldn’t tell my husband, or my friends, or my doctor. I was full of shame and hated myself for engaging in this sudden, incredibly selfish and horrible behavior. So I turned to Google. But I soon realized that no one talks about this. I couldn’t find a single person discussing this topic. I felt even more alone and full of shame.
Certain that I was the only person in the world dealing with this problem, but desperate to do the right thing for my child, I finally told a healthcare professional that I was drinking during my pregnancy and needed help. It was the most difficult conversation of my life. And with the help of outpatient treatment, a psychiatrist, a therapist, and my OB, I was able to quit drinking about halfway through my pregnancy.
We did lots of extra prenatal testing to check for obvious signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. The specialists told me there was no physical evidence of harm to my baby. None that they could see anyway. I met with a genetic counselor, had extra ultrasounds, and reported on my sobriety to my OB every two weeks. I expected lots of extra appointments. What I didn’t expect was the absolute compassion and professionalism I received from these doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. My OB told me it was a lot more common than one would think. Really? I hadn’t been able to find a single one of those women when I was desperate and alone, trying to find help.
My son was born a few months later, beautiful and by all appearances, healthy. I will probably never know whether and how much he was harmed by his mother’s drinking. My medical providers tell me I shouldn’t worry about it, that he will probably be as smart and healthy as my other three children. But I will always wonder. If he ever struggles in school, or gets in a fight, or almost anything else, I will wonder. With my other children, I will know that these things are not inherently my fault. But with him I will never know.
You would think that my sobriety and recovery story started there – that drinking while I was pregnant would have been the moment when I knew I was an alcoholic and would choose not to drink again for the rest of my life. But after making it through the rest of my pregnancy, as well as my maternity leave without alcohol, I returned to my full-time job and to social drinking. Or at least I thought that’s what it was. But, in fact, it would take another six months and a lot more alcohol before I finally accepted my alcoholism and started my recovery journey. But that’s another story for another day…
There is so much power in shame. There is far greater power in being open and shedding light on a taboo subject. And so I embrace my story. It’s the only one I have.
I share my story for my son, for myself, and for that one other woman out there that is searching for help. My son deserves to know what happened to him. I will not hide my disease from him or anyone else. I also tell my story for myself. There is great strength in facing one’s darkest hour and exposing it to the healing power of light. Finally, I share this story for you. If my OB is right, there are others out there. And to you, I say, “You are not alone.”
My recovery journey has been transformational and full of discovery. I have never felt such clarity, authenticity or joy in my life. In fact, I almost don’t recognize that person who struggled with addiction while she was pregnant with her child. But I do recognize her. She was a wonderful mother, a strong and brave person. She courageously faced the shame and stigma of that last taboo: addiction and pregnancy, because she loved her child.
I can never undo my actions or the harm I caused my family through my addiction. I can, however, be an advocate for recovery. Addiction and recovery affect almost every person in the United States, either directly or indirectly. Employers, the health care industry, government, individuals, and families all benefit from recovery advocacy. The world needs more recovery advocates.
Jessica lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and four children. She is a proud recovery advocate and shares her experience and knowledge through her website, Integrated Whole Recovery. Jessica enjoys reading, running, yoga and the practice of mindfulness.
If you’d like to read more of Jessica’s story, check out her Recovery Blog at Integrated Whole Recovery.