Today is Mother’s Day, the day we set aside to think about and honor our mothers, and to let them know how much we appreciate their love and devotion. Two days from now, May 11, marks the 45th anniversary of my own mother’s death. I miss her still. I regard it as one of the tragedies of my life that just on the verge of forming an adult relationship with my mother, I lost the opportunity forever. I thought I’d take this occasion to share some personal reflections on this experience.
My mother died of a stroke at the age of 52. She had been ill for a couple of years – of heart failure, we now know – but not in our wildest nightmares did we imagine she was dying.
It was a devastating blow to my family. Two of my three siblings were still living at home, and my father (a great father but, like most men of his generation, not such a good mother) was at a loss as to how to cope with his new situation. My 16-year-old sister, overwhelmed by grief, sprinted through what remained of her high school career, graduating a semester early to evade my father’s efforts to burden her with running the household. My 11-year-old brother was unceremoniously packed off to a boarding school where he was lonely and miserable. My 20-year-old sister and I must have been lonely and miserable, too, because we both married within a few months; my marriage lasted but hers didn’t. My profound feeling of vulnerability (how could it be so easy to die?) led to a bad case of hypochondria that persisted for several years.
Our family had lost its compass. Overnight, we were transformed from a close, happy family into a seriously dysfunctional one. All my mother’s children, in one way or another, have carried the scars of her loss into our adulthood.
My mother was not a smoker, but any woman who smokes greatly elevates her risk of sharing my mother’s fate and dying prematurely. Half of all smokers die of a smoking-related disease, many of them in middle-age. Female smokers, on average, lose more than 14 precious years of life.
Female smokers are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women who have never smoked. Smoking is also associated with cerebrovascular disease, especially in young age groups – a risk that is greatly elevated in oral contraceptive users. Almost all lung cancer is caused by smoking, and lung cancer (not breast cancer, as many would guess) is the biggest cancer killer of women.
One woman in five still smokes. The fact that that woman is a mom surrounded by people who love and depend on her, who think she’s the most important person in the world, won’t protect her if she keeps on smoking. Quitting at any age, on the other hand, produces huge health benefits. Honor your mother, love your kids, and help yourself to a long and healthy life by resolving to quit today.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.