Is it Okay to Deprive Four-Year-Olds of Their Mother?

Abbie Dorn is a mother. She may not be able to play with, hug, or feed her children, but she is, none-the-less, a mother. After giving birth to triplets four years ago Abbie suffered from a series of medical errors that left her with brain damage and an inability to move or speak. Her only way of communicating is through a series of eyelid blinks. According to her mother, she can cry and even smirk with her eyes. Her parents care for her in their home in South Carolina.

Her husband, Dan Dorn, called them from his home in Los Angeles when the triplets were a year old and told their grand-father, “I need to move on.” He then divorced Abbie and has refused to allow the children to see their mother, saying it would traumatize them. They do not even know she exists.

 

Everything about this case disturbs me. It begs questions about the nature of motherhood? The rights of children and grandparents. And, perhaps most striking about this case, is what it says about our attitudes toward the disabled.

Long before we had institutions to house people with mental and physical disabilities, there were a common sight in our societies. Even Shakespere created characters with mental or with physical disabilities. I’m concerned that the more we insulate people, young and old, from seeing the full range of human possibilities the more we limit our capacity for compassion.

Abbie may be a single case of a family’s trauma. But it makes me wonder about the thousands of dedicated young men and women who are continuing to return from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities. I happen to support an organization called Iraq Star Foundation that gives free plastic and cosmetic reconstructive surgery to soldiers wounded in the war because, after risking their lives for our country, they are severely discriminated against when they come home disfigured. Our society has become intolerant of ugly and disabled.

Are Abbie’s children too young to see their mother? NO WAY. Everything is new, strange, and normal to kids. Some form of a living mother, her body warmth, her breath, her tears will have deep meaning to her children.

I happened to have grown up with a mother had a chronic illness (Lupus.) Consequently she spent a big chunk of my childhood on the living room sofa, too weak to make dinner. Did I feel ripped off? No. This was normal to me. We snuggled under quilts on that coach and read books together. This is my version of a mother’s love.

Who are we to decide what these children will take away from a relationship with a living being? Could it be more injurious for them to live with an adult anger when they learn they were deprived of their mother? Would a lifeless Teddy Bear be more acceptable for comfort than a living, breathing, feeling, mother? And what about the healing benefits for Abbie? Losing one’s body and one’s children is a double loss.

8 thoughts on “Is it Okay to Deprive Four-Year-Olds of Their Mother?

  1. Great piece Dr. Walsh. One of the best things about love is it’s infinite variety. Maybe one day David will get to learn about that when his children find out what he did and don’t discard him as he did their Mother and their chances to be enriched by knowing her.

  2. How are these children going to feel towards there father, when they find out as they grow older. I heard of him before and could not believe his actions as well as the relatives/friends. Great article Wendy

  3. Removing the disabled not only robs our society of the opportunity to develop more compassion, it robs all of us of the opportunity to be motivated for action. How can we prevent terrible medical errors such as those suffered by this mother if we can’t see the consequences of those errors? How would our perception of war, or our strategies be changed, if we spent a day in the shoes of our injured soldiers? We need more action in this country!

  4. Dr. Walsh,

    I read about your blog post on the blog on someone on the Autism Hub. And I read what the poster had quoted there (from your appearance on GMA and form here), and I was impressed. Those of us who work (to any extent) as psychologists of any sort usually get asked questions that we can’t answer simply, because there isn’t a simple answer: and we try to muddle through one way or another to get something that puts our thoughts into a more simple form. And then people come back with ‘duh!’ and we feel… dumb.

    Many, given the question about a mother who might or might not be able to communicate by blinking, would go into the ins and outs of severe communication difficulties after the acquisition of brain damage, and how there are assistive and augmentative communication methods and aids available and that they could be tested (and should be!) for usefulness and so on… and we’d lose the audience and the interviewer.

    And you come straight in – ‘who cares… this is still a person in there… can’t exclude because of this brain damage’ and I was taken aback when I saw it on the guy’s blog that you’d said that.

    What you said was absolutely right.

    I’ll attempt some answers to your ending questions:

    “Who are we to decide what these children will take away from a relationship with a living being?”

    We’re not. Period.

    “Could it be more injurious for them to live with an adult anger when they learn they were deprived of their mother?”

    Adult anger over a childhood trauma is – as I have my own reason to know – actually quite damaging. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for. We become less psychologically resilient as we get older (this may be a function of the change in emphasis that happens from fluid intelligence to crystalised intelligence… I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to speculate anyway).

    “Would a lifeless Teddy Bear be more acceptable for comfort than a living, breathing, feeling, mother?”

    Well, Harlow’s monkeys formed attachments to very crudely built models of ‘mothers’; and the point here is this: that – even if Abbie Dorn never communicates (in the sense that we generally think of communication as being), she is still a human being and she still is alive. And even this situation puts here a million miles ahead of Harlow’s ‘monkey mums’ as an ‘object of attachment’ (if we’re going to be psychological about it).

    “And what about the healing benefits for Abbie? Losing one’s body and one’s children is a double loss.”

    I’d say there are none. What you say about the double loss is entirely accurate.

    Given Dr. Phil and the like… it was refreshing to hear of your answer. Went some way to restoring my faith in the profession!

  5. When those children grow up and find out the truth, they will not interpret what their father did as being something caring. Instead, they probably will not forgive their dad for depriving them of the truth during their childhood.

    That’s the reality of life. If the father doesn’t try to hide it from his children, it won’t come back to bite him later.

    It’s not as much what happens to someone like a parent in life that affects children, but rather how children see a parent reacting to a tragedy.

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