Abbie gives birth to triplets and almost dies in the process. She survives with severe brain damage, incapable of speech or movement, but able to think, read, smile, and cry. Her husband divorces her, leaving her in the care of her parents, and has not allowed visits from her children (now 3 years old) for nearly two and a half years. In fact, the children do not know that their mother exists. The father’s reasoning: he doesn’t want to traumatize them or make them feel guilty about being the cause of their mother’s disability; she can’t “interact” with them.
Last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times reported this tragic story in a cover article titled “Disabled, Is She Still a Mom?” It is an emotionally and legally charged situation prompting passionate social debate and precedential legal arguments. What constitutes a parent/child relationship? Can a severely disabled parent emotionally nurture a child?
“There is no case in point that addresses Abbie’s particular circumstance, whether someone in her condition has a constitutional right to parent or visit her children,” admits her attorney Lisa Helfend Meyer. Abbie can answer questions by blinking her eyes, and seeing her children is a definite ‘yes’. So, her parents are asking a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to order the father to allow Abbie visitation. “Abbie is alive and wants to see her children,” Helfend Meyer argues. “The children need to have a relationship with their mother. The kids need to know the truth.”
Yes, our children need the truth, and they deserve it. Furthermore, as unlikely as it seems to adults, they can handle it. How often we underestimate their ability to understand, their capacity to give and receive love, and the depth of their compassion.
This father’s myopic projection of his guilt and discomfort onto his children punishes them severely. They are not only losing an opportunity to know and love their mother and receive her love in return, they are being robbed of a rich human experience, a privilege that most of us are rarely offered – a loving bond with someone disabled.
A few years ago, I visited a dear friend with my four year old son. She was a woman who never told her age, but I believed her to be in her mid-nineties by then. She had been wheelchair bound for some time and unable to move much at all. Recently, she had stopped speaking, and she no longer seemed to recognize me. As a toddler, my son had accompanied me almost weekly, but it had been several months since his last visit, and when he last saw her she was still talkative and lively.
To say I missed my friend’s former vitality is a massive understatement, but I never stopped cherishing time in her presence. The warmth, wisdom and good humor that always radiated from her transcended her condition. It was enough just to sit beside her, talk to her, or silently hold her hand. She often squeezed back, really hard.
Sometimes one of her daughters was there (both of whom I adore) or her gruff but kind live-in caregiver, who made Hungarian desserts for us. My son liked a crepe with chocolate sauce called palacsinta. (I don’t know what the rest were, but they were yummy.)
That last time my son accompanied me, he chased the caregiver’s cat around the apartment while I sat with my friend. He seemed to have a jolly enough time, but as I started up the car to leave, it occurred to me that I should acknowledge the change he must have noticed since our previous visit. I assumed it disturbed him, and I wanted to encourage him to express it. “Magda doesn’t talk now…“ I began. He interrupted me without missing a beat, “But she laughs!”
Young children do not have expectations. They are acceptance personified. They love freely and unconditionally, and they forgive liberally. They are healers. Uncluttered and baggage-free, they see beyond our adult limitations and have so much to teach us — if we will only let them. Children are honest to a fault and need our truthful presence in return. The rest of what we give them is just gravy (or palacsinta).
April 21, 2010 – The Los Angeles Times reported today, that a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted Abbie’s parents the legal right to fight on her behalf for visitation rights with her children. At the request of the husband’s lawyer, Abbie will be required to undergo neurological testing. She will also have to be questioned and a video of that deposition shown in court. This is only the beginning of what will likely be a long battle before Abbie and her triplets can reunite. They still do not know they have a mother.
UPDATE – Victory!
March 25, 2011 – The Los Angeles Times reports that after an acrimonious yearlong legal battle, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ruled that Abbie Dorn has a legal right to see her (now 4 year-old) triplets and ordered annual 5 consecutive day visits and monthly visits via Skype video conference call. Judge Frederick C. Shaller wrote, “The court finds that even though [Abbie] cannot interact with the children, the children can interact with [Abbie] – and that the interaction is beneficial for the children. They can touch her, see her, bond with her, and can carry those memories with them.”
He also ordered Dan (the father) to set up a shelf or table that is “open and available to the children 24 hours a day in his home devoted to the children’s mother” and to place photographs and other mementoes of her on it. ”The children would benefit from having these photographs and important items as symbols for the presence and existence of their mother and it would reinforce in the children that [Abbie] is part of their lives.”
According to Abbie’s mother, when Abbie heard the news, “She gave me a huge smile. I told her about the visit this summer…She gave me a long, long blink and another huge smile.”
Thank you for sharing this story Janet. I hate to say this but sounds like her ex-husband has issues of his own that he needs to work out; he is projecting them on his children by withholding a necessary relationship. Children bring laughter, which has a great power to heal.
Another insightful article about trust….thank you. I know in my life I have had times when I was fearful of the truth and whether my own children could handle the difficulties. I wanted to protect them. I forgot for the moment that trust and respect were the only truths.
This father’s decision is the saddest of stories. This is another one of those times when fear overrides common sense.
As always it is easy to comment from a distance, but his not allowing their children to know their mother is a sad sad situation. Maybe one day this dad will see the “truth” and trust and respect his children’s abilities. The whole thing makes me weep.
Thank you too, for sharing the story of Magda. What a blessing for all of you to be together at that time of her life. I can only see her sweet smile hear her laugh. Thank you for the memories! Thank you again for holding on and passing down the teachings of Magda Gerber. They are a treasure.
Roseann, thank you! I obviously agree about Magda Gerber’s teachings being a treasure!
I read this article on the LA Times website and was also moved to think about it. Very interesting. I love your blog and your thoughts about RIE! My little one is at a place that practices RIE and I’ve read Dear Parent and Your Self Confident Baby. I believe in the principles and try my best to apply them. Keep up your blogging!
A sad story, a wonderful article. A dilemma that pits philosophy against reality against spirituality. This story has pity, contempt, loneliness and injustice all mixed up. As with the other readers, I too am saddened for the mother and the children and wonder about the motive of the father. Is it his own guilt that he denies both his wife and his children, or does he truly believe that he is doing the right thing? If I were anyone other than who I am, I could perhaps find some sympathy for the later alternative, but I don’t. I think it is fair to say however that those children could potentially bear upon themselves as the ones who caused their mother’s condition. That would be a horrible injustice. But in all fairness, children every day believe they are the reason for their parents’ divorce. While untrue in both instances, certainly not so far fetched as we’d like to believe. So although I don’t agree with the father, I’m not prepared to rush to judgment of him either.
Janet makes several excellent points when discussing the bonds that are shared between a mother and child. Who are any of us to deny that which we cannot ourselves understand? Scientists tell us that a newborn has that very special smell so as to act as catalyst creating that initial bond between a baby and its parents. Maybe that’s true, I’m not a big believer in all things scientific. I think the Creator gave that baby that smell. There is nothing else in the world like it, there is nothing else in the world that matches it, yet it lasts a lifetime for those who shared it. I think when we look to reduce all things to a logical explanation we sometimes miss out on a much grander meaning.
In Matthew 18:3, Jesus told us that “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is much we learn as parents. We all learn a lot from people like Janet who devote themselves through through education, observation and interaction. From her direct contact and analysis we continue to improve as we grow as parents. As as the world changes so does humanity and the need for constant growth through learning. I believe too however that some things are never understood – but many are accepted nonetheless. A mother, a child, these are both unique in all the world. Fathers are great guys, we need them. But they are not mothers. I can’t reduce that statement logically, but 99.9% of all reasonably intelligent people would agree with that statement. It is something we know, we accept, we can’t label. It is something that just is. These are not issues of chance. They are not serendipitous. They are one of those given truths. Children, as mothers, are uniquely special. When one looks upon new life, they do it with awe on every occasion. There is a sense of miraculousness about the birth of a child, yet it happens numerous times a minute all over the world. But every one is incredible.
So why then do we discount these facts? We can’t explain them that is true, but they are real nonetheless. Why then would we be so arrogant so as to interfere with that which is given from above as if we our self knew better? It is sad that the mother in this story suffered injury while giving birth. It is beautiful that a mother lies still today having given her life, or at least a huge part of it in the process of giving new life. I can’t explain that. But there is more than one way of looking at something. Perhaps those children would one day come to see life so much more special than you or I ever could – because for them, they live at the sacrifice of another. And that other is with them, smiling, and loving them. And never for a moment would her thought be that what was a tragedy. What happened was she gave life and she gave all it took. And she is one to understand the meaning of Matthew 8:13, and she will know the Kingdom of Heaven. Why then would we deny children the company and the love of such a special person? There is another scripture at Matthew 19:14 that says “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” I believe that Jesus resides with the mother, that she paid dearly for the birth of her children, and how dare anyone keep them from her. Let us be careful which law we choose to put before another.
Wonderful article for discussion Janet. You are awesome!
An especially emotional story for me, written with love and care and so much wisdom. You continue to amaze me.
Thank you, Bence, for your wonderful, kind words. I feel honored!
Today is Mother’s Day, and I am missing my mother and your mother so much. My love to your family!
Janet, I followed this story ever since I heard about it on a midwifery site. I completely agree with your analysis: children don’t need to be shielded from the truth — they can handle it. I believe children appreciate all kinds of people, and see them in the most truthful light — before their perception is colored by prejudices or media. I’m so glad this mother is able to see her children (no matter how brief).