Growing Up Wonderful

When I was very young, I became a mom. It was not unusual in those days–people were often grandmothers by the time they were in their late 30s. Like mothers of those days, I was eased out of work about halfway through my pregnancy. There was a war in Vietnam, so I was alone when it was time to drive to the hospital. My son was born at 4 in the morning, and one of the nurses had a staph infection, which she transferred to my son. And then everything went bad.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

He went downhill fast with the infection. His liver stopped working. He turned yellow.  He lost half his birth weight. The doctor noticed that my baby had a single line across his palms–in those days called “simian creases.” It accompanies many terrible genetic diseases–among them Down Syndrome and Kleinfelter syndrome. The chaplain made it to my bed before the doctor and began to discuss picking out a coffin. The doctor followed and told me my son would most likely be low-functional, and never have a normal life.

I was young and alone. I was not allowed to see or hold my son, who was attached to so many tubes I could hardly know he was a real person.

Both sides of the family became silent. I learned what it meant to be alone. I saw a life of incompetence and struggling ahead of me. I was scared. Even at a young age, I was good at sucking it up and moving on. I was sent home 12 hours after the birth, and returned with breast milk the next day. For the next weeks, I stayed at the hospital until they threw me out, and sang to the little bundle amid the tubes. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.” I have a bad voice, and one nurse told me it would damage the child, and I should let his last hours be in quiet. I hated her.

He lived. He was stubborn and tough. He came home. No one gave me referrals

Yale University

or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He sat up late. He walked late. He talked late. I tried to be brave. He kept me busy. And then he began to talk. In full sentences. Every night, I read him stories and sang to him. At 23 months, he read the stories along with me. At 25 months, he would put his hand over my mouth and say, “You are singing it wrong.” And I was. I can’t sing. Not even hum.

A doctor examined him and told me, “Mothers of retarded children [that was the term in those days] often think their children are brighter than they are. You must accept was God has meant for you.” I don’t believe in a vengeful God who punishes children or their mothers. I was a little older and a lot tougher. Ian and I  left the office, both stubborn. He was reading chapter books before kindergarten.

I took him to a new doctor and didn’t mention the past. In a time without computers, it was easier to lose the “retarded” label.  Over the years, it turned out that he was amazingly bright, determined, focused and impatient. He often didn’t understand that others weren’t as bright as he was. Bright children have their own struggles, and we muddled through.

When times got tough, I’d think about those first hard months. And those days were the first thing I thought of when he phoned me today, to tell me he had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor at Yale University.

It has not been without hardship, loss, sadness and struggle. But it has also been with laughter and growth and, now, just plain pride.

I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on.” Congratulations. You have made me so very proud.

-Quinn McDonald is the proud mom of a very happy tenured professor.

74 thoughts on “Growing Up Wonderful

  1. Congratulations on raising your son without the negative labels. I too, was born with simian lines in both hands and grew up being told i was ‘slow’. at about 20 years old a doctor took me aside and told me i was as smart as i wanted to be. That kick in the butt set me free!

    • I’m sorry it took you 20 years to be set free–but I am so glad you met a doctor who had the brains to do it!
      As you now know, people with Down Syndrom always have simian creases, but that doesn’t mean everyone with Simian creases has Down Syndrome. I learned that in Philosophy 101. I’m glad you are living it now!

  2. What an inspiration. I could not read through your story with dry eyes. Thank you for sharing this. Congratulations to you both.

  3. I read your wonderful post, afraid of where it was headed. I saw the incubator and all kinds of feelings came rushing back – from 24 years ago.
    Our families were silent, no instructions or referrals were given to us. She was delayed and always so tiny. She talked early, and her motor skills improved by her teen age years. She has grown to be 5 ft 5! She graduated from college in 2011. Her major was Japanese. She comes home tonight from Tn. She went to visit her boyfriend.
    I have never heard of anyone else who had a similar story. Thank you and congratulations to the both of you!

  4. An amazing story, Quinn. How proud you must be and how happy for the way things have turned out. What an encouragement to us all! Big congratulations to Ian.

  5. Oh, Quinn, congratulations to you and Ian! What an inspiration both of you are! Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m typing with tears in my eyes and will be doing a happy dance celebration for Ian’s tenure as soon as I send this off! This news is very exciting!!!! (it deserves lots of exclamation marks!!!!!)

    • You taught me about multiple exclamation marks, Lynn. I always tell my grammar classes that they have only 20 exclamation marks to use in a lifetime. But this was a multiple exclamation part event, for sure!

  6. Miracles are things that cannot be explained, only marveled at. Congratulations on your having tenured yourself to your son at birth and to Ian for his tenure to teaching. I am sure he got his teaching ability from you of course.

  7. Such a heart warming story, and it does bring tears — such a happy ending with such a difficult start. This is the kind of life story that should go viral, and become a best seller and a hit movie. So inspirational, you as a mom so scared but not quitting, continuing to do your very best for your son, and Ian who worked his butt off to get where he is today. Congrats to you both…

  8. What a lovely story, and what a brave mom you were. And so sad that your family didn’t help you through that rough time. I was a young mother too – when it was almost frowned upon – so I can relate to that part. Congratulations to your son and to you for your part in it.
    Meredith in NC

    • Neither family was equipped for help. There is a long backstory, but that’s long and intertwined. This was shorthand for the withdrawing many families do when the black sheep of the family runs into a rough patch.

  9. Beautiful! …just beautiful! Many joyous returns of the day to you and your happy Professor! Thank you for sharing this story, and for the ‘perma-grin’ that is has given me 🙂 Love conquers ALL!

  10. What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it. Your posts are always so inspirational and thought provoking. I’ve been a long-haul lurker to your blog for awhile but today, have been moved to let you know how much I appreciate your content. Also caught your podcast yesterday with Leslie Riley and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Congratulations to you and your son!

  11. What a wonderful tale. Yes – your persistent nature was a gift to your self, your family and your son. It sounds like he inherited some great genes from his Mom!

  12. LOL, oh my! I knew from your post over at ART that your son had gotten tenure .. and when I read the beginning of this, I thought … is this the same boy???? (er, I mean man… lol)
    Awesome, awesome, awesome! For one thing, you are one very tough lady … and your son is lucky to have you (as I bet you know you are lucky to have had HIM!).
    I have a son with a speech problem, and for a while I was afraid he may have autism (or be on the spectrum anyway). He is six and still has a problem speaking words, but nothing wrong with his brain functioning. I do have to say, today people aren’t as … afraid, or callous, or ? as in times past with those who have difficulties. Maybe times are changing somewhat for the better? I hope.
    Anyway, congratulations to your son!

    • Some things are better–there is more help, for example; some things are worse–labeling, for example. Once your child gets a label, it’s much harder to shed. Had my son be labeled as “retarded” (the word they used in those days), in today’s world, he would have been given a sub-label (low functioning, autistic) and that label would stick through high school and limit his life. Different times.

  13. What a wonderous story quinn, thanks for sharing. sometimes sharing personal things are so difficult – but only by sharing do we each acknowledge our inter-connectedness. know that each and every one of your readers today is so proud of both you and your son (written as my tears of happiness for you stream down my face).


  14. Oh Quinn, I’ve been so busy with my own life and I haven’t been here for a while.. Now I read this post and my eyes are full of tears. How brave you have been in those very young years, and how alone! You are such a fighter you and your son both. Ian who has become a professor at Yale University… that is the crown on your all your work as his mother! Congratulations to both of youq

  15. Quinn, Your story about the courage of a young, heart centered, sensitive to her child mom…who did not allow the words of the world to push her from her core beliefs…and how feels a pride for her child, is what I will carry around with me, inside, today and for many times ahead. The sweetness of sharing is the gift that is blessing me…thank you for this.

  16. Your story made my morning 🙂 It reminded me never to accept what others try to make you believe when you know in your heart it isn’t true. Congratulations to your son- and to you!

  17. What a beautiful, inspiring story! Thank you so much for sharing this joyous moment with the world. Amid all the craziness of pseudo elections, financial crisis abounding, and all the minutia of our days, this story of Ian’s wobbly start in the world and culminating at Yale as a full professor is nothing short of wondrous….

  18. This has brought tears to my eyes reading it this morning, Quinn. You know, I do believe that those songs you sang to Ian in those very early days mattered in a way that science and conventional medicine cannot begin to imagine. “Forever Young” is one of my all time favourite songs.
    The connection between a mother who believes in her baby and that child’s ability to thrive is just enormous. A truly symbiotic relationship that transcends the singularity of this world. There are things that happen that cannot be explained by science. Well done you and well done Ian.

  19. What a beautiful, powerful, and brave story. Congratulations to both you and your son for your strength and tenacity, and a truly epic accomplishment!

    I admit, though, to a chuckle about the images in my head of a staff infection as opposed to a staph infection. Forgive me.

  20. I’m just sitting here with a smile on my face and in my heart. Both you and Ian should be so very proud! You both struggled through, beat the odds and came out the other side….better and stronger! Thanks for sharing this incredible story Quinn.

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