Religious belief, special needs children and parental love

[A short while ago, I invited my best friend to contribute posts to Blinded Trials on any subject she thought might be of interest. Below is the first of what I hope will be many.]

by Rose Woodhouse

Jeffrey Goldberg, blogger at the Atlantic, wrote a paean
to deep paternal love in honor of Father’s Day. He tells a moving
story of a father, Thomas Vander Woude, who sacrificed his life by
jumping into a collapsed septic tank to save the life of his
twenty-year-old son who had fallen. Vander Woude drowned, but his son
lived. Not incidentally to Goldberg, Josie Vander Woude, the son, had
Down syndrome. Also not incidentally to Goldberg, Thomas Vander Woude
was a religious man. That these facts were not incidental to Goldberg
says more about Goldberg than it does about the depth of and reasons
for paternal love.

My cards on the table: I am the mother of a special needs child, one
who has more severe mental and psychomotor retardation than the vast
majority of people with Down syndrome. I am also an atheist.

When I first got my child’s diagnosis, I googled my child’s syndrome
for weeks on end. If you do this, you will inevitably find lots of
parent blogs. If you find these, you will inevitably find many claims
that one’s disabled child is an “angel,” or a “gift from God.” Thomas
Vander Woude, the man who sacrificed his life to save his son with
Down syndrome, believed his child to be a gift from God. While I was
still reeling from the news, these claims made me nauseated. Why?
Because they were, obviously (to me at the time), pathetic and
deceptive. These people were kidding themselves, pretending all was
well to ease the tragedy, or else felt the need to lie so everyone
would think they were heroic.

When you don’t have a special needs kid, you simply cannot imagine
loving one the way you would your typical children. It is
inconceivable. You know how you feel about people with special needs,
and could not really imagine feeling that deep parent love for one of
them. This, I think, is the reason that 90% of babies with Down
syndrome are aborted, as Goldberg notes. So people who do seem to love
their special needs children seem either a) deceived, or b) especially
morally admirable, able to gin up a love that a morally average person
could not. That Goldberg believes option b) is implicit throughout his
article, which dwells on Josie Vander Woude’s disability, and implies
that the sacrifice that his father made was much greater than a father
who sacrificed himself for his typical son.

Here’s the thing, though. While they aren’t phrases I use, I now
understand why parents call their special needs children a “gift from
God” and “angel.” It’s because you remember full well when you didn’t
think you could love your special needs kid. And you know other people
think it is somehow more difficult to love your special needs kid (as
Goldberg clearly does). Which makes you kind of defensive. Because,
after all, you do love your kid. And you are fully aware that most
people don’t believe that you do, and that most people believe that
you are burdened not only with the extra time and effort that
disability bring, but also a less-lovable child. So you feel the need
to insist that your child is indeed lovable.

But, I assure you: assuming you are the kind of parent who loves your
typical kid unconditionally (which is of course not true of every
parent, but is true of a lot of them), you would love a special needs
kid if you had one. You would gaze at the peaceful sleeping face and
tiny chubby hands and broad grins and big kisses with same passionate
depth that you do for your typical kids. And, if you are the kind of
person who would throw yourself in front of a bus for your typical
kids (which probably is true for more parents than not), you would
also do so for your special needs kid. It just happens. One need not
be morally all that special to fall in love with a special needs kid.

Because Goldberg has trouble realizing this (that is, that you really
do (effortlessly!) end up loving your special needs kid), he also
thinks you need a special kind of belief system to have that kind of
love. He says:

“I’m reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his
child. But I also don’t doubt that Thomas Vander Woude’s powerful
faith cleared the path into the tank. A person who has an articulated
calling, who believes in something larger than himself, could more
immediately accept the gravity of the moment.”

Just as you would not need to check with your value system to assure
yourself that you really do think your child’s life is worth living
before you ran into a burning house to save your typical child, let me
assure you that you need not make a special reflection in order to
save your special needs kid. It is no more surprising to me that
Vander Woude sacrificed himself to save his child with Down syndrome
than it would be surprising if he saved his typical kid who has,
rationally speaking, more to live for than does his child with Down
syndrome. Parent love is parent love. When you have experienced it,
you know it is boundless and omnipotent and utterly resistant to any
rational assignations of value. My love for my child is no less
palpable, no less action-guiding, no less profound because I believe
it to have a physical basis rather than a supernatural one. I
guarantee Goldberg would sacrifice himself to save his special needs
kid because parent love compels him to do so, regardless of his
calculation of the relative value of lives. So would you.

[Update: related thoughts here.]

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.

One Comment

  1. As always, thanks for your posts (wherever they may be). You write well, and you write about matters near the heart, and those are not common.

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