When prospective moms or dads anticipate the birth of their babies, they usually do so with unbridled optimism. They look forward to their new family member’s growing and learning; watching their little bundle of joy grow into a discernably happy individual.
But what if things go wrong, as they frequently do when we gamble? In an article entitled “Why don’t I like my own child?” in the June 2011 Redbook magazine, the anonymous author, whom the magazine refers to as Jenny, tells of her own struggle dealing with a disappointing child and consequently disheartening parenthood.
Jenny had a clear vision of what her daughter would be like: “vivacious, spunky, and whip-smart, socially savvy and self-assured. What I got was the polar opposite.” Little Sophie (not her real name) was skinny, small and weak and was “strange.” She would not make eye contact and screamed at the sound of ripping paper. She would not answer direct questions. She did not make friends. “Life was hard for her. It broke my heart,” writes Jenny, “a little every day.” Here is a list of Sophie’s issues:
- Uneven skills, like putting together sentences;
- Inflicts physical pain upon herself;
- Doesn’t appropriately express or understand her needs;
- Freaks out at high-pitched noises;
- Ignores other children and prefers to play alone.
Jenny felt guilty as well, because she was “repelled by my own child . . . This just wasn’t the magic mother-daughter bond that every book I read, every movie I saw, and every family I’d ever met had led me to expect.”
It’s this last sentence that bewilders us the most. Evidently, Jenny has avoided the plethora of movies like The Bad Seed, Lorenzo’s Oil, Autism, the Musical, and The Omen (okay, we admit she did have a right to expect her baby to not be Satan’s spawn). There are so many television shows and books that deal with these contingencies that Jenny’s naiveté is confounding. Had she never heard of, or considered, birth defects? In fact, at one point the bewildered mom suspected autism might be the culprit. Why didn’t she consider that possible eventuality before she and her husband conceived? Isn’t it interesting how we perceive what we desire to perceive, especially regarding planning a family?
Diagnostic testing revealed nothing. Her husband, whom we are calling Jamie, accused her of searching for a nonexistent diagnosis. He, however, was able to accept little Sophie “as is.”
When Sophie was about 2 1/2, Jamie and Jenny brought a second child into the world. After all, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right? To us, this is selfish behavior at its most refined. Without knowing what was wrong with their daughter, this couple decided on another roll of the dice.
Fortunately for J and J, Lilah “was exactly the baby I’d envisioned: strong and healthy, with a penetrating gaze.” But that joy induced comparison with her firstborn : “I got to the point where I viewed Sophie’s every move through a lens of failure.” She felt that Sophie was trapped in her own world and incapable of ever being normal.
When a friend told Jenny that she must be a rock for her now-four-year-old Sophie – that she must support her unconditionally – Jenny broke down and cried. She realized “how easily I had betrayed my own daughter and . . . it was disgusting.” Jenny found a psychologist who specialized in such issues. Through long hard work Jenny struggled to accept her daughter but always sensed that something was just not right.
Then, at her pediatrician’s urging, when Sophie was seven and abnormally small, J and J had her tested for growth hormone deficiency. Voila! There lay the answer. There was a marked deficiency . . . and the answer to their questions. Sophie was three years behind schedule in her motor skills, speech and social maturation. And it explained her moods, behaviors and communication difficulties.
By age nine, her nightly hormone shots had put Sophie on a track to “normalcy.” And Jenny is now living with her guilt about feeling that Sophie had let her down, when it was she who had let Sophie down.
In researching message board reactions to this article and to coverage of the story on the Today show, we were surprised by the vitriol heaped upon this poor, suffering woman. Whether or not Jenny was a good mother, she never gave up on her child. She suffered mightily for more than seven years. She could not help what she had felt.
But when parents fail to think twice before making children and then wonder why things don’t go as planned, it’s obvious they haven’t been thinking at all. In Enough of Us, we discuss at length that the biggest risk moral people take in life is gambling on the success of their progeny. And often the failures of the parent-child relationship don’t manifest themselves until well into the child’s development. Having kids is a selfish quest. Unfortunately, many who assume that risk are unprepared for the disappointment.