Why would she drink?

Abused, addicted or didn't know she was pregnant

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Stocky, six-month-old Jacob has a huge smile, curly black hair and sports an urban camouflage suit on his 8.5-kilogram frame.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/04/2011 (4196 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Stocky, six-month-old Jacob has a huge smile, curly black hair and sports an urban camouflage suit on his 8.5-kilogram frame.

“He’s my everything,” says his mother Jayzee, never taking her eyes off the cooing, gurgling baby seated at her feet. “I was happy I was pregnant. I like babies. I was even more happy when I found out I was having a boy.”

For Jayzee, baby Jacob was the turning point, her fourth child who finally pulled her out of a life of drugs, booze, gangs and stints in jail.

JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Christina Dyck with her daughter Mia who has FASD. When she found she was pregnant, Christina quit alcohol cold turkey. But it was already too late.

“I had to change,” said Jayzee, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “I was tired of the same old cycle and I didn’t want my fourth kid going into care.”

She’s getting help from the province’s InSight Mentoring program at the Nor’West Community Health Centre. Jayzee said she quit drinking and, this time, abandoned her substance-abusing social circle instead of her baby.

Jayzee was nine when her mom died and she was moved around, ending up with an aunt who cared for her until she was 16 and addictions took hold.

“It was a blur. I had no worries. I felt no pain.”

She spent the next few years moving from place to place and spent her teens in and out of the Manitoba Youth Centre and abusive relationships. She got pregnant.

 

“I didn’t feel anything. I was hanging out with gangs. I was taken care of… I didn’t plan that pregnancy or want that pregnancy.” She ended up in a treatment program and got sober. After baby Mercedes was born, she went back to partying. At age 19, she made the same choice with her second daughter, Shanti and then later with third daughter Jacqueline.

“I do have guilt about it,” said Jayzee. “But they’re fine. They’re alive. And they’re very smart kids.”

Jayzee’s is a cycle FASD experts see daily, and it’s one that defies simple solutions, despite knee-jerk demands to force pregnant addicts into treatment or charge them with child abuse if their children have FASD.

The courts have made it clear that women can’t be forced into treatment even if their unborn babies are at risk. Doing so risks re-opening the abortion debate and rewriting Canada’s laws that don’t recognize fetuses as legal persons possessing rights.

Plus, those approaches just don’t work. Studies, and the experience of many front-line workers, have shown that threats of jail or forced treatment are not effective deterrents.

“If you come down all heavy-handed, the women will disappear,” said one provincial government expert.

Why pregnant women drink, even when they know booze damages babies, is one of the toughest questions facing FASD experts. In most cases, birth mothers of kids with FASD either simply didn’t know they were pregnant or are chronic alcoholics who come from a life of abuse, poverty and mental illness. Often they come from generations of alcohol abuse and have FASD themselves and simply can’t see the effects of their actions. As one FASD advocate said, they sometimes continue to have babies thinking eventually they’ll be allowed to keep one.

Some FASD experts are even rethinking the oft-heard catch phrase “FASD is 100 per cent preventable” because it offers a facile fix for a complex mess of issues. It also puts the onus only on women for causing and preventing FASD. It does nothing to recognize the roles and responsibilities of fathers, the need for community support or even the reasons a woman might drink, such as escaping years of abuse and isolation.

Though many believe FASD is exclusively an aboriginal issue or a poverty issue, it is not. Among the most at risk of having an FASD baby are slightly older, seemingly well-adjusted women — university students, young professionals — who might binge drink on the weekend and don’t realize they are pregnant until it’s too late. They are perhaps the hardest to reach with prevention programs and campaigns, and their children are often diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and not FASD because they may not be daily, chronic drinkers.

Winnipeg mother Christina Dyck found out she was two months pregnant right after a prolonged drinking binge. By then, the damage was done.

Even though she’d always wanted kids, she’d been told by doctors she could never get pregnant, so she wasn’t being careful with birth control. At 26, she’d been a chronic alcoholic since her teenaged years. Adopted herself, Dyck says she likely has FASD, too.

“When I found out, I hit rock bottom,” she said from her cosy living room on Archibald Street.

Dyck quit drinking cold turkey — “the hardest thing I have ever done” — and moved with her family to British Columbia, where her daughter Mia was born. A few years later, her daughter was diagnosed with FASD and the two moved back to Winnipeg. Now seven, Mia is a sweetie, but she struggles in school, tends to get picked on and has many of the classic signs of FASD.

Dyck says it does no good to vilify mothers who drank while pregnant, especially if they meant no harm and did so out of ignorance.

“I have to live every day of my life looking at my child knowing I caused what happened to her,” said Dyck. “You beat yourself up every day. If your child is having a bad day, you know that’s you.”

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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