The Birth Moms' Page
NOTE: Contains all 3 books written by Elizabeth Russell
NOTE: This article begins on page 88
The Missing Voices
By Janet Christie
As part of a project between Health Canada and Prostitutes Empowerment and Employment Resource Society (PEERS), I co-facilitate a group for women who have a history of addiction. Part of the group's purpose is to develop a model of support for women who are at high-risk of drinking during pregnancy, including the development of literature. During this process these insightful women have taught me, time and again, FASD is but a symptom of a much bigger problem: addiction.
If prevention of FASD were merely about raising awareness, I believe our job would be simple.
Studies show that up to 60% of all pregnancies are unplanned, and in the case of teenage pregnancies, this figure has been given as high as 95% (Mauldon, J., & Delbanco, S. (1997) Family Planning Perspectives). Furthermore, women who are aware of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and planning to conceive simply will not drink, providing they are not addicted to substances or suffering from some other mental health issue. There are always going to be babies exposed prior to a woman knowing she is pregnant, but with increased awareness she will stop once she knows, provided she can.
Not so for many other women. There are those who are gripped so strongly by the compulsion to use alcohol and/or drugs, they have often lost all manner and power of choice - such is the nature of addiction. Alcoholism is all consuming and described in the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous as cunning, baffling and powerful. Willpower does not factor in when dealing with addiction. According to the Committee to Study Fetal Alcohol Syndrome of the Institute of Medicine in the text (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Diagnosis, Epidemiology, Prevention and Treatment (1996b), ed. Stratton, Howe & Battaglia), four percent of all women surveyed, between ages 21-40, would be considered to have alcohol abuse or alcohol dependency issues. The majority of these women suffer in silence, largely due to the guilt, shame and stigma attached to addiction, and in particular, drinking during pregnancy. This and all other aspects of addiction are non-discriminatory.
Current misconceptions and attitudes about alcohol and drug abuse are widespread and contribute to the barriers to dealing with this very complex issue. Due to the prevalence and acceptance of alcohol use, an attitude of ambivalence exists and a resistance to identifying addiction in our society. As an example of the progression of the disease, society, like the alcoholic, is continually adjusting its acceptance level; what would once have been considered unacceptable behavior becomes acceptable, as demonstrated by some of our leaders.
The media have been extremely powerful in manipulating society's views and beliefs, producing many stereotypical ideas and myths around alcohol. Anna-Maria Huber takes a close look at the evolution of how those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and `drinking mothers' have been portrayed in the media in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the Canadian Press: A Discourse Analysis, 1998. Her research covers the period 1977 -1994. Well educated, middle-class women are rarely the subjects of the studies she was evaluating. She found that FAS has been constructed largely as an aboriginal problem with strong implications that addiction is a moral rather than a socio-medical issue. Heavy emphasis is placed on blaming and punishing women for being irresponsible, uncaring and choosing to drink whether or not they are aware of the dangers involved. Her `offspring' are described as `hopeless victims' leaving the impression that every child with FAS is doomed. In contrast, the middle class, educated woman who sips afternoon cocktails and gives birth to an underdeveloped learning-disabled child is much less suspect than an aboriginal woman from an impoverished community. Yet recent research indicates there appears to be no racial difference in the metabolism of alcohol (Garcia-Andrade,C., Wall,T.,& Ehlers, C. (1997) American Journal of Psychiatry). Furthermore, blame is placed entirely on the woman to the exclusion of all others, including the baby's father and society at large. These attitudes push women under-ground, particularly those who do not fit the stereotype, yet are equally at risk.
The women I work with in this project are all in recovery from addiction. As part of their recovery process and involvement in the project, these women all acknowledge drinking and/or using during pregnancy. These women have many different faces, come from all backgrounds (not one of them aboriginal), shattering the myth of who addicted women are. These particular women have also been involved in the sex trade. A major difference between these addicted women and those who are less visible is the socio-economic cushion buffering them.
How do we achieve fewer alcohol-related births under these conditions?
Huber's study concludes the women portrayed in the media were rarely given a voice, the interpretation always done through someone else's eyes (usually a male professional), yet it's the ones affected who provide insight into these complex issues. We need to listen to the voices of those affected.
As part of their educational process, the women in the group examined existing literature. They were shocked by some of the messaging about drinking during pregnancy. Current awareness-raising literature, for example, was found to be unhelpful, and in some cases, even harmful for women with addiction. This is not to negate the efforts to date, but rather an indicator of how far we still have to go.
These are the missing voices. Hear what they have to say. - - - Janet Christie
Here are some of the comments regarding posters which were reviewed
“This poster, and all the other ones, imply that quitting drinking is simply a choice. Don't people think I would have quit if I could?”
“I'm glad I didn't see those posters when I was pregnant. They would have made me feel like a real loser. What do I do when I feel like a loser? I drink.”
“Where is the father in these posters. Why is he never mentioned as playing a part?”
“Do people think that I intentionally set out to harm my baby??” (horrified)
“It's real easy for people to tell you what to do when it's not their lives.”
“You can tell these posters have been done by advertising agencies because of the shock value.”
“Not one of these posters takes alcoholism into account.”
Recommendations for future literature
Messages that are not shame-based.
Images that make a loving connection between mom and baby.
Include men in the solution.
Literature that is informative.
Offer a solution, such as a confidential help-line.
Messages that address the issue of alcoholism.
Following is one of the pieces of literature designed by the group. The artist identified she has FASD during her participation in the group.
The pamphlet is two sided. The reverse side opens to a poster-sized version of the drawing, as well as a side panel of myths and facts regarding drinking during pregnancy. The pamphlet folds down into a neat, square little package and fits nicely into a clear plastic zip-lock together with vitamin info, etc.
The telephone number has been omitted. Other communities wishing to develop a similar support group are welcome to order our literature and insert their own telephone number. For more information, call 250 388-7940.