From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

A Mother’s Fight for a Special Child

No language can express the power and beauty and heroism of a mother’s love.

Edwin H. Chapin

Frank and Lee married in 1948 after serving in the Catholic church, he as a seminary student and she as a nun. When they started a family, Lee decided that she wanted six children. The first arrived in 1951, with five more following in the next 11 years. But by the time the fifth child, Tom, arrived, Lee was at the point where she wasn’t sure she’d be able to care for another.

At six months, Tom still wasn’t able to take spoon feedings or hold his head up. Lee felt that he was developing slowly in general. So she took him to the pediatrician, who told her that she was making a big deal over nothing.

“Lots of babies have trouble adjusting to spoon feedings,” he told her. “This is normal.”

“I think I know what’s normal and not normal,” she told him evenly. “I’ve had four others. There’s something wrong.”

So she took her baby to another doctor, who told her to wait a year to see if he would “grow out of it.” So Lee waited—and watched.

Over the next year, Tom did manage to hold his head up, but in many other ways he got worse. He often refused to eat. Or he would eat only squash, until his skin turned an orange tinge. But the most worrisome development involved his violent outbursts. He would attack his older siblings while they watched television, or hit Lee from the back seat of the car while she tried to drive. Lee knew that temper tantrums are normal for a toddler, but the intensity of Tom’s tantrums worried her.

When he was a year and a half, Lee made the rounds to the doctors and the specialists again. This time, no one told her Tom was normal. One doctor diagnosed PKU, a metabolic disease that can result in retardation. Another said it wasn’t PKU, but brain damage at birth that had deprived the brain of oxygen. After a year, meeting this doctor and that doctor, Lee was told that Tom could never lead a normal life and should be institutionalized.

Lee was horrified. How could she send her child, only three years old, away to an institution, where the possibility of growing up healthy could be jeopardized forever? When Lee and Frank visited the institution the doctors suggested, all the children she saw there were seriously mentally disabled, many unable to communicate. Tom had problems, Lee decided, but this was not the place to send him.

Then a visiting nurse told Lee about a hospital in Ann Arbor that might be able to help Tom. The doctors and psychiatrists there concluded that he was mentally disabled and would never be able to finish high school. A social worker at the hospital suggested that Frank and Lee would find it a problem to raise a son with such limited capabilities, since they both had been to college.

“He’ll never be anything more than a ditch digger,” she said.

“So?” she retorted. “Let me tell you something. I don’t care what he does for a living. I love all of my children. I don’t love them based on their intelligence. It doesn’t make me love Tom any less if he’s not a genius.”

But Tom exceeded the doctors’ expectations. Reluctantly, the doctors agreed to let Tom attend a regular school. Although he experienced periods of difficulty, he not only graduated from high school, but also completed two-and-a-half years of college. Somewhere along the way, his mental disability was found to be emotionally based and was treated properly.

I’m glad Lee didn’t give up on that child, because that child with the rough start in life was me. Today I’m on medication to control my emotional ups and downs. And when I look back on my early years, I thank God I had a mother who was so stubborn that she wouldn’t listen to the doctors’ pessimistic predictions for my bleak future. My mother loved me enough to listen to what her heart told her instead—that the best weapon in a fight for a child is a lot of faith and a lot of love.

Tom Mulligan

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