HELPING WOMEN who drink while pregnant isn’t as easy as just telling them to stop.
The key is to find out why they are drinking, or self-medicating, and getting to the bottom of it so they can deal with it and move forward, says Kermode Friendship Society Circle of Life project manager Lisa Lawley.
“When a women is actively using alcohol and drugs, she’s self-medicating for a reason,” says Lawley.
“What is the reason, so how can we support her. Educate and awareness in a gentle way of what happens to the baby and what’s going on for her,” she says.
“You can learn [Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder] FASD 101 from a book but you really don’t understand until you truly stop using your head and start listening with your heart.”
FASD is caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol and can range from mild intellectual and behavioural issues to the more extreme that can lead to profound disabilities or premature death.
Lawley has been running the Circle of Life program at Kermode Friendship Society for three years.
The criteria for the program is someone with an addiction, who has children born with FASD and who is in her childbearing years, she says.
The program helps women to get community services they need, while also having someone who will advocate for them and be their cheerleader, says Lawley.
“Whether they actively use alcohol or drugs, we do not turn our back on them,” says Lawley. “We help them do harm reduction with the idea to reduce the number of children born with FASD.”
Reducing harm for a woman can mean helping her find a home, assist her with relationship issues, help her get food – something that makes a difference in her life, says Lawley.
The women are asked to pick five things most important to them and then they are helped to make those goals achievable so they feel successful and reach their goals, says Lawley.
“Our job is to empower women and make changes in their life to help them,” she says. “We don’t have a set focus. This is your journey and we will walk with you. When you take a step, we take a step. That’s our focus.”
And it’s not just that a woman drinks and doesn’t care about her baby.
“What happens if her partner drinks with her and says ‘if you don’t drink with me, I’ll leave.’ It’s not just low income aboriginal issues,” she says, adding alcoholism is in all socioeconomic groups.
In the three years that Circle of Life has been available, it has made a difference.
“We have women actively consuming alcohol in pregnancy and they actually stopped before the end [of the pregnancy],” says Lawley, adding the women feel empowered. “Women have gone on living healthier lifestyles with their family and raising their children.”
Lawley, who has six children, three of whom have been diagnosed with FASD, has been speaking about her own life for 11 years.
“Every time I speak I’m healing a piece of me,” she says. “My children are quite strong and they stand behind me. They don’t hate me. We talk about it and I’ve had my daughter Jessica speak about her struggles as a youth with FASD and so we just keep pushing forward.”
Part of getting rid of the judgment against a woman for drinking while pregnant is changing the terminology.
Lawley spoke at the fifth International Conference on FASD in February in Vancouver as a “maternal mother” of a child with FASD about what it’s like, the struggles and how society looks her and others like her.
Mothers of children with FASD are called “birth mothers” but that likely came about in the past when children with FASD were already in foster care, which isn’t true for everyone now, said Lawley.
“It doesn’t sound like you cared for your children, no nurturing,” says Lawley about the term birth mother, adding it’s negative, so she changed it to maternal mother.
In September, Lawley will attend the first International Conference on Prevention of FASD in Edmonton and sit on three panels there.