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Smoke and Mothers

Today I am a non-smoker. I will think like a non-smoker, act like a non-smoker, and breathe like a non-smoker. I will chase thoughts of smoking out of my head. I am smart, creative, and hard-working. I am stronger than a habit. I will not let cigarettes kill me. My life is good, and I will live longer because I am a non-smoker. My husband loves me. My child will love me. I love myself. Today I am a non-smoker.

It was a spring morning in 1995. I covered my face with my hands. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, pushing all of the evidence out of my lungs. Today I am a non-smoker. I burrowed beneath the comforter and imagined drinking coffee and driving to work without smoking a cigarette. I dug deeper. I will think like a non-smoker and act like a non-smoker. I had penned my credo days ago. The night before I had printed it out, and posted it all over the house. I scribbled it on an index card and slipped it in my purse. This time it was for real and I knew it. Shuffling to the kitchen, I muttered the words again: Today I am a non-smoker. The nicotine patch on my arm reminded me that I had help. I considered moving it to my mouth.

It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I smoked my first cigarette. Today, most kids start a lot earlier. In fact, ninety percent of all smokers are hooked before they turn eighteen. And the average age for a new smoker? It’s just thirteen. That’s the seventh grade. You wouldn’t believe the number of kids I see smoking as they walk through our neighborhood on the way home from high school. Is it weird that I want to follow one of these teens, knock on a front door, and talk to his mom or dad? Perhaps I could save a life. More likely, I’d see what a restraining order looks like. But research shows if they don’t stop smoking now, it will be years before they do. For me, “just one cigarette” to stay awake during an all-night exam study session twenty-five years ago, turned into a pack-a-day addiction in a matter of months. Home for semester break that year, my mother, an ex-smoker, hugged me tightly and didn’t let go. Sniffing my hair, she asked point blank, “How could someone so smart be so damn stupid?” I don’t remember my answer.

So when my husband and I first talked about whether we were ready to have kids about sixteen years ago, the answer was Yes! In every way but one. We knew it was crucial for both of us to become non-smokers before we even attempted to make a baby. Of course, I was aware of the impact smoking had on my own health and on the health of an unborn child. But frankly, the notion of quitting smoking and adjusting to being pregnant at the same time was unthinkable. I had watched my mother struggle with eating habits, a sluggish metabolism, and weight gain when she had quit twenty years earlier. I knew this was a hurdle I would need to clear completely before we could start a family.

Today I am a non-smoker. I had tried quitting many times before. But this time, something felt right. I had the patch, I had a quitting partner, and most importantly, I had the ultimate inspiration. My husband loves me. My child will love me. I love myself.

To this day, I consider becoming a non-smoker the single, most arduous challenge I have ever undertaken. The word brutal comes to mind. As a mother, I will do everything in my power to keep my daughters from smoking. I will tell them how stupid I was to smoke that very first cigarette, how incredibly difficult it was to quit nearly eight years later, how embarrassed I am to admit, even now, that I wasted so much money on a product that I knew was lethal. I will tell them this because it’s important to talk about smoking with your kids, even if you don’t use tobacco (and never have), because too many of their friends do. And one day – one way or another – if our kids start smoking, they will have to stop.

And finally, I will tell my daughters that because of a credo, a patch, and a promise made to a child we hadn’t even conceived yet, I know this: My life is good, and I will live longer—because I am a non-smoker.

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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