The Power of Stubborn

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 pushed out of my job 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.

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 no talent for singing, 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 or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He didn’t sit up until he was 8 months old. 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.


Yale University

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 what 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 computerized medical records,  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 two years ago, 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  just plain pride.

Today is Ian’s birthday and those memories are still strong. I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on, ” even when it got tough. I love you.  You have made me so very proud.

-Quinn McDonald is the proud mom, no matter how old the birthday boy is.


44 thoughts on “The Power of Stubborn

  1. What a powerful story, Quinn! Heartbreaking and redemptive! I want to reach back in time to be there to watch your back, to offer a shoulder, to drive you to the hospital so you can see and love your son with support. I often wonder how women with no assertiveness (or English skills) get any services they/their children need. Hopefully, your son’s successes have compensated somewhat for all pain that the nay-sayers predicted!

    • My son had made me incredibly proud. I could have used a lot of help back them, but may not have accepted it. I was afraid I’d owe people. We all get smarter as we get older, but I really could have used family support. My brother and his wife were the only ones who stepped in, and I’m still grateful.

  2. I can’t even imagine what a difficult time that had to be for you Quinn. I admire the courage and strength that both and your son have. Happy birthday to your son and congratulations proud mama!

  3. Quinn,
    I wanted to wish your son, Ian, a super fab birthday filled with Honor for Who He Is. What a message your mothering story is. Being stubborn has its advantages, especially when it’s needed to survive. Kudos to you both!

    Be refreshed,

  4. Happy birthday to your son! You’ve both done well. Labels can be useful, I guess, if they give us information about how to approach a situation. They can also be extremely damaging and limiting and, I fear, we tend to slap them on too rapidly.

    • Today, a label follow you around from doctor to doctor, from school to job, and into places you had no idea it could. I made an arrangement for an older friend at a hotel in a chain I have a membership card to. Now everytime I register for myself, they give me a handicapped room. Labels don’t always work.

  5. Happy Birthday, Ian! You have a wise, wonderful and fantastic mother, whom I adore. It seems that you both have tenacity, perseverance and the resolve to do whatever you want. And just in case you didn’t know it already, you are truly a bright light to your Mom and her whole body smiles whenever she talks about you. Happiest of days to you both! XO

  6. My grandson, Ian, was born on March 17th, 2015…Makes this Irish grandmother very happy! He entered the world at 9.9 lbs and is beautiful. He didn’t have to face the challenges that your Ian did, but I hope your Ian is an influence on his namesake.

    This was one of the most heartfelt stories I’ve read about going on against all odds, lack of support, and making it through in spite of it all. Yea for you and Ian (professor Ian). You should both be proud!

  7. I, too, had a baby born in an Army hospital. I didn’t get to touch her (other than to carry her inside me for nine months) until discharge when she was 19 days old. On my first Mother’s Day I stood on the veranda of the hospital that faced the nursery windows and longed to hold my baby. She had an IV in her head to control seizures. That feeling of aloneness — I can relate!

  8. Happy birthday, Ian and congratulations to you both for your tenacity. Often, it is best not to listen to doctors, they are not Gods. Ian is so fortunate to have such a strong, loving mother. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with your readers. A mother’s love is the best love in the world, for sure. Happy birthday to Ian !
    (I wish doctors would just admit they don’t know everything too.)

  10. Wow! What an inspiring and encouraging story! Congratulations to both of you. Be proud…so very proud. Happy Day to you and yours.

  11. This is an amazing writing. I am in awe. Happy Birthday to your son. I love to prove doctors wrong. After 2 years of fetilitaztion drugs my DIL was told she couldn’t get pregnant, her ovaries were too small. 2 weeks later she walked into that Drs office with all of her pg sticks claiming she sure was. She has multiple medical issues and was told from the beginning that she would lose the baby. She wouldn’t be able to keep it in long enough to be viable or she would have a still birth. Her “chances” were slim to none. Today she is in a hospital bed, and has been for a few weeks. Preterm contractions and early dilation. Her due date is June 15th. Yesterday I was told the baby won’t stay inside her for more than another month. God has given them this miracle baby. The baby is now viable. God has proved the Drs wrong from the beginning. This baby is strong and still growing. This baby will prove the drs wrong. Our God has proven them wrong and will continue to do so. I LOVE your story. I can feel your pride in your son. Doing something in spite of being told you can’t is an amazing feeling. God bless you and your family. Tell him congratulations. Your story lights up my heart. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt story here, I pray that it helps many young mothers facing similar paths. A mother’s love is strong and can carry any load. Your belief in your baby boy and your determination to help him achieve great things are to be commended. How wonderful for you both that you never gave in or gave up!

  13. Dear Quinn,

    Of the many successes you had had in your life – this story is the best. Many congratulations to you and your son and those who did support you.


  14. Tears rolling down my cheeks! It is such a fantastic story of ‘success being the best revenge’! I’m horrified at how cruel and ignorant and incompetent the people around you were in those early days. Heartfelt Congratulations to you and your son!!!!!<3 thank you for sharing this with us.

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