Nicola Barry


Smoking and drinking during pregnancy

Drinking during pregnancy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drinking in Pregnancy

At times, it seems as if our society is obsessed with keeping children safe – from unsuitable adults, from paedophiles and from child abductors. Yet, in the case of women who drink while pregnant, there are very few people out there keen to protect those unborn babies. At long last, campaigners who want to make it a crime to drink excessively during pregnancy may be a step closer with a landmark case on the issue due to be heard by the Court of Appeal, in London. It will be argued that a six-year-old girl is the victim of a crime because she suffered brain damage when she was exposed to alcohol in the womb. Her mother was well aware of the risk involved. The case comes at the same time as 50 per cent rise in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) over three years.

Hell is a drunk pregnant woman

Unfortunately, I know what I’m talking about. I was born drunk. My mother tippled her way right through pregnancy. She couldn’t face life without vodka, sherry, wine, you name it and her drinking devastated my childhood. My mother drank for as long as I can remember and everything that happened in our household was either a direct or indirect result of her drinking. Anything was allowed to happen. I was sexually assaulted by a joiner who worked in our house while my mother lay drunk in the next room. We were too ashamed to tell anyone. At the age of ten, I was confined to a wheelchair and had about 15 operations on each hip over the next nine years. It was then that I realised there was something wrong with my mother. She was told that her drinking during pregnancy was responsible for my disability and I think that only made her drink more. Whenever she leaned over me, to give me a bedpan or help me wash, I could smell alcohol. Occasionally, she’d swig from a bottle in the pantry; saying she couldn’t face any nursing tasks without her “wee cocktail”.

My poor mother spent her days drunk or drugged, or both. This was our secret as a family; the secret everybody around us shared but refused to acknowledge. That is why I believe shame is a far bigger sickness than alcoholism, especially here in respectable Scotland. Everything is hidden. The harm adults, parents, who drink to excess do to babies, children and young people is hidden as well. Hidden harm. My mother was also a doctor. She should have known better. She only practised briefly before she had children. She had been a brilliant, compassionate, witty woman who happened to fall under alcohol’s spell. Whenever she emerged from our house in Edinburgh, her bag bulging with empties, our neighbours looked away in disgust, as they did when she returned with a respectable purchase like a tin of soup on top of six clinking bottles of vodka. There were bottles everywhere in our house: in the wardrobe, in the cistern, inside boots and shoes. We didn’t dare have friends round: she was far too unpredictable. We lived in a bubble, cut off from the world by our own strangeness and unpredictability. It may not sound like it, but I loved my mother. It was just that I wanted her to be normal like other mothers, to bake scones, cook us meals when we came home. I could never understand why my father, also a doctor, didn’t stop her drinking. It took me years to understand that nobody stops anyone drinking. Years later, she fell downstairs and lay at the front door. When I got home from school, I thought she was dead. But she was just dead drunk. I was forever fishing her out of the bath when she couldn’t stand up, clearing up the vomit from her bed, watering down her secret supplies of drink when I thought she wasn’t looking. Her promises drove me mad. I wanted to strangle her because she kept swearing – on the Bible incidentally – she’d stop drinking and taking prescription drugs, yet she always started again.

Don’t get pregnant if you have to drink

When she died, I found her. She was lying on the floor in our respectable Murrayfield home, a mouse wandering about behind her, nibbling on bits of food she’d discarded when drunk. I remember how awkward her head looked – as if it had been screwed onto her body back to front. She lay on her right side, facing the door. She was wearing an old dressing gown, her arms were outstretched, mouth wide open; saliva on her chin. She had vomited on the floor, near where her bedside lamp had fallen. The bulb had burned a big hole in the carpet. She had choked to death. For years, I was eaten up with guilt and misery. Even though I did all I could to help her – I was haunted by the feeling I could have done more.

Then, I remember how much pain her drinking caused me. It may sound harsh but mothers who drink have to be held responsible for the damage they inflict. If you can’t stop drinking, don’t get pregnant.

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