Drinking while pregnant has recently been a point of contention, because there is currently no known safe level of alcoholic consumption during pregnancy, which causes many to debate whether women can drink small amounts while expecting. However, one mom wants to share her side of the story.
Kathy Mitchell drank while pregnant with her daughter Karli, according to a feature in The Washington Post. She’s not proud of it, and it’s a choice that will literally haunt her for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Karli is now 43, but is developmentally a first-grader, because she has fetal alcohol syndrome as a result of being exposed in utero. This means she collects dolls, loves Hello Kitty coloring books, can’t recognize social cues, and can’t remember to brush her teeth. In many ways, she’ll be a perpetual child.
Many people have heard of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, but don’t entirely know what it entails. Effects range from impaired growth, intellectual disabilities and such neurological, emotional and behavioral issues as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, vision problems and speech and language delays. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disabilities are permanent and “last a lifetime.”
So, why is Kathy making her story public when it is clearly a difficult one? She feels it’s her moral duty as a mother, stating: “I believe I would be a terrible person if I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent this from happening to another child.”
Kathy grew up in a family with a history of alcoholism–by age 12, Kathy had already been drunk regularly, and by 10th grade, she became pregnant with her first child. In 1973, at 18, Kathy gave birth to Karli with her then-husband, and recalls her behavior:
“The fact is, I had poor nutrition, smoked cigarettes, worked in bars and drank alcohol. None of this was conducive to a healthy pregnancy.”
1973 was also the same year that the University of Washington Medical School published a paper that described children with physical and intellectual disabilities whose mothers had drunk heavily throughout pregnancy. It wasn’t until 1989, after Kathy began to have suspicions because of her current job as a counselor’s aid that Karli got the official diagnosis from a geneticist at Georgetown University Hospital. Kathy was horrified, understandably so, stating:
“I thought I would die from the grief and guilt. It was one of the worst days of my life, and at that moment I knew that I had to do what I could to prevent this from happening to another child.
The guilt and remorse are painful, but it’s even worse to think of what Karli might have been—a nurse, like she wanted do be when she was 10, or a wife or mother? She won’t have any of it now, because I drank during my pregnancies. I would never knowingly harm my child, but what I didn’t know ended up robbing her of so much…Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What if? What if alcohol hadn’t been a part of my life?'”
Even now in 2016, 43 years after Karli’s birth, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that there is still no known safe level of alcoholic consumption during pregnancy. Yet, the CDC claims that 1 in 10 pregnant women do drink alcohol. Kenneth L. Jones, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego who co-authored of 1973 study, believes drinking any amount of alcohol is an unknown risk, stating:
“[It’s] a risk that doesn’t make sense to me at all…Why bother putting an amount on it? Why risk your baby’s future?”
As of now, 61-year-old Kathy is vice president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is a nonprofit that aims to increase awareness of the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy and its effect on families.
Watch the video below to hear Kathy talk about what it’s like to raise an adult daughter with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: