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Criticism stung new mother, father
Joe Kennedy Staff Writer. The Roanoke Times
Mellisa Williamson has no computer and has never used the Internet, but she has seven stapled pages of ridicule that computer users aimed her way after she was depicted in our newspaper smoking a cigarette while pregnant in September.
The photograph accompanied a story about traffic-calming measures in Southeast Roanoke. Williamson said she worried that noise from jackhammers might harm the child she was carrying. The cigarette, the quote and the photo made the pregnant Williamson a target of worldwide derision.
Comedian Jay Leno made sport of her on the "Tonight Show."
Her name appeared on hundreds of Internet sites, and some talk radio hosts fed off the topic like swine at a trough.
There is no dispute that smoking - if not jackhammer noise - has been linked to heart, lung and other diseases in adults and birth defects in children. The habit is estimated to account for 20 percent to 30 percent of low birth-weight babies, up to 14 percent of preterm deliveries and 10 percent of all infant deaths.
In an interview a week after the photo furor began, Williamson shrugged off her critics and said her doctor had asked her to cut down on smoking, but not to go cold-turkey for fear of stressing herself and her unborn child. She claimed she had reduced her daily cigarette consumption from two packs to half a pack. And, she said, people had bugged her about smoking since she started the habit 20 years ago. She was used to it.
Tuesday afternoon, I dropped in at the apartment that Williamson and Emmett Muse Jr. share in a house on Bullitt Avenue Southeast. She was in the front room, dressed in a red sweat shirt and white pants and holding Emmett Muse III - the baby she bore at 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 15.
Emmett III weighed 5 pounds, 2 ounces at birth and measured 18.5 inches in length. He arrived one day early. He is up to 6 pounds now and doing well, she said.
She and Muse, her partner for two years, had a good Thanksgiving, and they anticipate a good Christmas.
Muse is 49, a big man in a camouflage jacket who has applied for disability because of a back injury he suffered in car wreck several years ago. Williamson, 35, is a small woman who worked at a fast-food restaurant until after she became pregnant. She is unemployed and on public assistance.
A small, artificial Christmas tree stands decorated in the front room. The baby's bassinet and swing are there, too.
If Jay Leno happened by, Muse said, "He would see a perfect child made by God almighty and the angels above."
Clearly the couple is thrilled by their newborn - Emmett's first child and Mellisa's second. Their moods shift when the talk turns to the criticism caused by the photograph of Williamson smoking while pregnant and her jackhammer quote.
Here are some examples of the reactions, taken from www.sternfannetwork.com, a Web site for fans of radio shock jock Howard Stern.
• "Those rednecks down there just don't care."
• "What a moron."
Somebody even published the couple's telephone number on the Internet.
"I got calls from people telling me how stupid I was," Williamson said.
Someone else gave her the seven pages of criticism she has saved. Her ability to shrug it off didn't last long.
"I just cried," she said. "It upset me, but I thought, 'I can't be upset,' so I had to overrule everything because I was pregnant."
One online wit suggested that Emmett III's father really was her uncle.
The remark infuriated Emmett Jr., who called it "slander, big-time, on a person."
The critics, he said, "are all being judgmental unless they've had the nicotine habit."
He has known people who got off cocaine and other drugs but failed to shake nicotine.
"It's like a sickness to a person," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, he has reduced his smoking, just as Mellisa has.
She and Muse said they hope to marry in January.
Despite their smoking, their apartment did not smell of smoke.
"We don't allow no smoking in the house at all," Muse said, emphatically. "Cigarettes are a habit my son will never pick up."
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