Family Life


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A look at the secret lives of parents who smoke

Red-haired woman in a black shirt smoking

In her bathrobe, Calgary mom Judy Arnall snuck outside to her back steps for a quick cigarette before getting on with her day. When she finished, she went to her back door, and jiggled the handle only to realize she’d somehow locked herself out of the house. Even worse, her 14-month old was on the loose inside with no supervision.

Ash tray2 - a look at the secret lives of parents who smoke

None of her neighbours were home, so Judy had to phone her husband to come home and open the door to let her in. “That was my ‘A-ha moment,’” she says. “I thought, ‘OK, I can’t do this anymore.’” She had been smoking since she was 17. 

Judy’s not the only one taking a puff. While there are fewer heavy smokers in Canada today, recent StatsCan figures indicate light smoking is on the rise and highest among 25- to 34-year-olds – people in the prime baby-making years – yet smoking and second-hand smoke have long been known as risk factors for infertility, in both men and women.

While the habit remains, one thing has changed, especially for parents – and that’s huge public disapproval.

Daniel Seidman, PhD, the author of Smoke-Free in 30 Days, says, “It’s harder to smoke now. It’s more restrictive, right? So there are less places that you can smoke. Most people don’t want you smoking in their home. You can’t smoke in a lot of public places. So you can smoke in your home – but how do you hide that from your kid?” Cue the secret smoking trend. 

Recently, my son, 10, started noticing parents in our Toronto neighbourhood who’ve “gone to buy milk,” or “take out the trash”, who are madly waving smoke away as he nears. And it suddenly occurred to him I might have something to hide, too. “Mom, do you smoke?” he asked one day. And I saw him struggling to believe me at first, when I said ‘No’.

I’ve never smoked. But regardless, my life has been touched by smoking. I’ve had countless friends who’ve smoked – classmates, boyfriends, coworkers, fellow moms and members of my extended family. I’d go so far as to say I’m attracted to smokers in one sense. I admire their spunk, or maybe the nonconformity that smoking represents. As one friend told me, “There’s an edge. Smokers are more fun.”

But from a parenting perspective, I’ve started to rethink it. When I was growing up, parents were more casual about their vices. Is today’s trend of smoking in secret better? 

I talked to several authorities and parents to explore these issues. I have to admit, I was powerfully affected by these discussions, especially the accounts from parent smokers of what’s going on inside their heads. Here’s what I learned:

Many parents who smoke know the health risks – and are haunted by them.

Nadia (not her real name) is a Toronto mom of two who’d stopped smoking about five months before our interview. She started smoking in university, but had hidden her habit from her kids, parents and siblings. “Smoking is so obviously bad for you. Everybody knows that intellectually,” says Nadia. The knowledge tormented her. “It was such a guilt thing, just lying awake at night, thinking ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? You have to be as healthy as possible for your children and live a long life.’”

She says, “You feel like the evil mother that smokes, especially when you have healthy children and healthy pregnancies.”

Daniel Seidman, who’s studied smokers for 25 years, says surveys show that “people have a lot of shame and guilt about it. A lot of people don’t even enjoy it that much. And it’s not as social anymore because there are a lot of places you can’t smoke.”

There’s probably nothing harder than quitting when you have young kids. 

If the name Judy Arnall (the one wearing the bath robe) rings a bell, it’s probably because she is a parenting educator who has been interviewed for ParentsCanada in the past. She’s proof that even parenting experts can struggle. “I tried to quit with my first son,” says the mother of five. “But it took probably three years until I finally, actually did quit. And I was on my third child by then.”

Compounding the difficulty, she says are all those “sleepless nights, crying, tantrums, stress. The incredible stress of parenting young children at the time you’re trying to quit a habit makes it very hard to do. Because that’s how we react to stress. We want to relieve it by filling our pleasure centres – and cigarettes are our friend.” Judy says it’s been 18 years since she quit and she’s since helped develop a regional quit smoking program for pregnant women. But she stresses: “I still have the dream where I’ve started smoking again and then I have to quit all over. And I wake up and I think “Oh thank goodness I don’t have to quit again.’ It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Secret smoking affects your relationship with your children.

Nadia now enjoys a lighter relationship with her children: “I feel a lot better not hiding from the kids. It was like ‘OK I’m going to take out the garbage.’” Now she’s not always scheming to smoke her next cigarette – plus her kids have started telling her she smells so good. “They’re pretty smart. I think they kind of knew.” 

So is honesty the best policy with kids? “I always favour being honest and open,” says Judy. “Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t smart enough to figure it out. But when kids get into the school-age years, like six and up, I think they can figure it out. If you’re trying to quit and don’t like the habit, talk about how hard it is, that it’s something you don’t like and something you want to change. It’s a good teachable moment, too, to talk about the physical effects of addiction.”

Most smoking is not “social”.

Nadia used to think of herself as a social smoker. Her quitting process included becoming upfront about how much she actually smoked. “There are a lot of people that look like recreational smokers. But they’re not. Actually a lot of them are just incomplete quitters,” says Nadia. 

Smoking can cause depression. 

Research shows a definite link between smoking and depression. “Depressed people are more likely to get addicted to smoking and more likely to have a hard time quitting,” says Daniel. “There might be more of an emotional adjustment period for somebody who quits who also has depression. Hopefully they’re getting the help they need for their depression and that should help.”

Quitting isn’t really about will power.

Smokers aren’t all the same, says Daniel – nor is their quitting process. If there are any commonalities, it may be a day of reckoning, like Judy’s bathrobe moment. 

What else helps? Daniel says quitting is not about being strong or about will power, but looking at what you believe about your smoking, and learning and changing your perspective. “If your kid wanted to learn to play the piano would you say you have to be strong? No. You would say there are things you have to do, things you have to practise, things you have to understand and work towards so you can do this thing.” 

For her part, Nadia says she found great support via online discussion forums. She learned from stories of others, plus the shared compassion when someone slipped up. “It’s OK, you start again. You know that whole thing, ‘Don’t ever quit trying to quit’? That really kind of resonates.” 

Nadia also risked disapproval and came clean with her doctor about the extent of her habit. “I thought he was going to be extremely mean about it but he said ‘You’re talking about it, that’s good, there are ways to help quit.’ So just being honest about it is a good first step.”

Smoking In Canada

  • According to Statistics Canada, In 2011 almost 20 percent of people over 12 in Canada smoked.
  • In the last decade, approximately 21 percent of all deaths in Canada were due to smoking. 
  • Between 2001 and 2011, the number of women who were light daily smokers rose from 51.2 percent to 62.6 percent; for men it rose from 36.7 percent to 43 percent.
  • According to a University of Waterloo study, smoking prevalence in Canada is highest among young adults aged 25 to 34 (23.8 percent) and those aged 20 to 24 (21.5 percent).
  • Nearly two-thirds of smokers say they are seriously considering quitting in the next six months.


Connie Jeske Crane is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mother of one. This article was inspired by the smokers in her social circle and the stories they’ve generously divulged. While a non-smoker herself, Connie admits to having her own share of bad habits.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2014.

a man carrying two children

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