Having a Baby 15 Years Ago/Having a Baby Today: Two Perspectives

Having a Baby 15 Years Ago/Having a Baby Today: Two Perspectives

Having a baby 15 years ago versus having a baby today: how much has changed? Ellen Painter Dollar describes her experience as a new mother at the turn of the millennium, when technology wasn’t so readily available. As a new mother in 2015, technology looms large for Jennifer Palmer, who feels she is constantly navigating the challenges of parenting in the digital world. 

Having a Baby 15 Years Ago

By Ellen Painter Dollar

I welcomed the new millennium in stretch pants, my three-week-old firstborn guzzling at my breast. In the weeks leading up to January 1, 2000, I worried little about “Y2K”—the catastrophes predicted due to our computers’ inability to decipher a year abbreviated as “00.” I was too consumed by the impending and then actual arrival of my tiny girl, and too skeptical of doomsday thinking, to fear government dissolution or planes falling from the sky.

Twenty months later, on September 11, 2001, we would learn that planes falling from the sky was a legitimate thing to fear, though the planes would be brought down not by inept technology, but by old-fashioned human rage. We learned, in blood and fire, just how fraught with both promise and peril our increasingly global connections can be.

As evening approached on September 11, the day’s many charged legacies—for our nation, for parents and children—were yet unknown. All I knew was that I had a 20-month-old who was blessedly oblivious as I watched the towers collapse, my hand clamped over my mouth so I wouldn’t frighten her with horrified whimpering, and that we had plans the following day to go to the beach. I called my friend Cathy and asked, “Should we go? It seems wrong. But what else are we going to do?” What else indeed, especially with a child not yet two years old? So off to the beach we went—me and several other moms whose firstborn children were all around my daughter’s age, and who were the first real friends I made after becoming a mother.

Having moved back to my hometown 11 months before my daughter’s birth and begun telecommuting from home part-time, I often went days without seeing anyone other than my husband and the Kinko’s clerk, to whom I would deliver faxes and page proofs bound for my DC-based employer. While I took to motherhood easily, reveling in the tactile pleasures of caring for a newborn, I needed friends. Online community was a fledgling endeavor, friendship not yet something to be tallied in a sidebar. I met my friends the old-fashioned way—awkwardly and in person, after reluctantly signing up for a local new parents’ class. After our six-week class ended, we would spend the next half dozen years meeting weekly in our homes as our brood grew to 17 children, then graduate to book discussions, dinners out, and rare weekends away as our kids grew. These were the friends with whom I spent September 12, 2001, at the beach.

We, of course, had no cell phones on which to scroll through the latest news while keeping half an eye on our toddlers. But I won’t give into the temptation to look back with pure nostalgia at a time, only 14 years ago, when an hour’s drive to the beach could effectively shield us for one blessed day from the worst news many of us had known in our lifetimes.

To be sure, I am grateful for the brief respite we got that day from 9/11 and its frightening implications. I wonder uneasily what it means for our spirits and our families that such separation from the world’s terrors, such complete attention given to our beloved ones, can now be achieved only with a deliberate act of will, or a trip somewhere remote.

But social media and wi-fi allow me to nurture a writing career along with a home and a family, to comment knowledgeably on the day’s news from the window seat in my dining room, the dog underfoot and occasionally a sick kid in the next room. These virtual connections, too, are laden with promise and peril.

Parents must learn to bear the unsettling truth that our children belong to the world as much as to us. In a poem titled “To My Children, Fearing for Them,” Wendell Berry asks, “What have I done?” Yet even as he grieves his inability to save his children from witnessing and bearing suffering, he also cannot “wish your lives unmade, though the pain of them is on me.”

That Wednesday afternoon, as we dug in the sand and wiped sunscreen onto scowling faces, we must have thought of the pile of steel and debris and bodies smoldering just across the Long Island Sound from our sunny idyll. We—perhaps especially my friend Carol, heavily pregnant with her second child—must have wondered, “What have we done?”

But the image I most clearly recall from that day is of driving back into town, my daughter and my friend’s little boy asleep in their car seats, their deep, steady breath giving off the exhausted contentment of a day at the beach. No, I could not wish these lives unmade, though the pain of them, the agony of the fallen towers and whatever horrors these little ones would know in their lifetimes, was firmly on us.

Questions about how to ease our children into necessary but heavy knowledge have long been part of parenthood. In the past 15 years, such questions have become more immediate, more daily, as the world is never farther away than the smartphones in our back pockets. What has changed since I had my first baby is that the divide between public and private has become far murkier; we must choose more deliberately between engagement and solitude, attention directed outward and inward, and fight to give ourselves fully to each pursuit at the proper time.

What hasn’t changed is our agonized awareness that, as Wendell Berry also wrote, “We who give life give pain.” Our children have always been subject to the promise and peril of human connection, heirs of legacies that stretch far beyond our own family trees.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel.


Having a Baby Today

By Jennifer Palmer


My daughter was born one fine spring morning in 2014. By that evening, several family members and friends had met her in real life. But many more had “met” her online. Cradling her to my chest with one hand, I used the other to update my Facebook status, announcing her arrival, and the response—dozens of comments and hundreds of likes from my small circle of social media contacts—came within moments. In the intervening year, I’ve added photos and videos of her every few months, and, while none have come close to matching that first post’s popularity, such updates garner far more interest than the other things on my wall.

My use of Facebook isn’t the only way that technology has affected my parenting. Constant communication and access to instant information are so ingrained in my way of life that I have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have a baby without them.

Often, the consequences of having so much technology available are obvious: take my tendency to consult the Internet when I have a question. Prior to becoming a parent, I thought nothing of this habit. After all, as my husband often notes with a wry smile, “Google knows everything!” It was only natural, therefore, when my daughter seemed to lag far behind her peers in certain milestones, for me to type “infant developmental delays” into the search bar. Overwhelmed by the quantity of conflicting information available on the subject, I learned my lesson: today, when questions arise about my daughter’s health and development, I consult my mom, my husband, or my pediatrician, but rarely my search engine. I may know less—a crime in today’s information-saturated world—but I also worry less.

Other times, the effects are less clear. Like many Americans of my generation, my phone is nearly always within reach. It is more than just a phone, of course; it is my calendar and my camera and my shopping list. I use it to read and to shop and to write. I listen to audio books and music. I text daily photos of my girl to her grandparents and her dad. In recent months, I have become ever more aware of how much I look at my phone as my daughter has become more curious about her world. She sees me holding it, lunges for it, and I wonder what it teaches her to see her mother so enamored with this inanimate device. How will it affect her, in the years to come, to grow up surrounded by screens?

There’s this, too, as I think about parenting in today’s modern world: there you sit, reading my words, and somehow, I don’t feel quite so alone. I send my words out, talk about what it is to be at home with my baby and know that you read them, that you can relate. I read the words of others, too, blogs about parenting, about modern womanhood, about life, and feel as though these long days at home with an infant are not so lonely, as though somehow I have community and connection, virtual though IT may be. My introverted personality tends towards the ease of Internet relationships; with such an avenue open to me, I must force myself to cultivate meaningful connections in my hometown. While online friendships are valuable and words have power to heal, nothing compares to a physical hug, to a meal shared. With only so many hours in a day, determining the balance between the virtual world and the real one can be challenging, to say the least.

My challenge as a new mother in 2015 is to navigate the ever-changing digital world of social media and smartphones and 24-hour-news cycles, keeping the good and discarding the rest. It’s a task more difficult than it sounds, for I cannot always determine the ways in which the marvels of the modern world influence my thinking, my relationships, my life. I know, too, that the challenge which will only grow as my daughter does. Today, I need only govern myself, a skill I’ve yet to master; the time will come when I will need to guide her as she explores the World Wide Web, show her how to avoid becoming ensnared in its sticky strands.

Though I cannot always quantify the ways in which technology changes the way I parent, I know this: at its essence, mothering an infant, even in 21st century America, requires but a few things. Patience. Kindness. A willingness to shelter and care for and feed a small, helpless human being. Community. Love. Though the details may be different, though my day-to-day may bear little resemblance to that of those who have gone before me, I suspect those things have remained constant throughout the ages.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Freedom Tower photo by Scott Boruchov

Image: dreamstime.com

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

The December holidays are no doubt a time for gift giving, but how much is too much? Jennifer Collins thinks our children are overindulged: the focus of Christmas should be on experiences and helping others. Kristina Cerise is trying to walk a middle ground between buying her children things they need and also things they want. Ellen Painter Dollar believes bestowing her children with generous presents at Christmas is a reflection of the holiday’s true meaning.


By Jennifer Collins

HolidayDebateYESIt has always been a priority to make Christmas just as wonderful and magical for my own children as it was for me. To make lots of memories and to spoil them a bit, too. But six years ago my husband and I decided to chase a job and move from Georgia to Maine, far away from our families. We were faced with the unique opportunity of creating our own holiday traditions anew.

In the beginning, our families overwhelmed us with gifts, because they weren’t there. They wanted the kids to know they were loved and thought of across the miles. I also overcompensated with things because I wanted the kids to have a good Christmas—to make up somehow for the distance away from their relatives.

But recently my husband and I have decided to scale back the focus on gifts. We notice the bins of toys the kids neglect, the puzzles that are never put together, the dolls that aren’t played with. Our kids have more than they need. More than they want. They really don’t even know what to write on their Christmas Lists this year.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my children if they could remember what gifts they received last Christmas. They could only name one or two. What did they remember most about our family Christmas traditions? My daughter said she loved going to the nursing home and singing to the residents. My son’s memories were about making holiday-themed cookies and wearing Christmas pajamas while reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bed on Christmas Eve. And of course they remembered the shenanigans of our elf “Cole” that stays with us from Thanksgiving to Christmas and reports their actions to Santa each night.

My children remember more about the gifts they’ve given others than the presents they received themselves—such as the customized pencil-and-crayon vase my daughter gave her first grade teacher and the glittery handprint ornament my son made for our tree. They’ve picked out special toys for children their age from the Angel Tree and have dropped coins into the Salvation Army’s red kettle. My children seem to understand intuitively that the true joy of Christmas is connected to the thoughtful and careful process of giving.

This year we are doing Christmas differently. We will give our children fewer things and yet enrich their lives with more of the holiday experiences they remember so well from the past. They will be receiving a few handcrafted gifts from us and some items that they have on their lists— a sword, Legos and pajamas for our four-year-old; craft supplies and books for our eight-year-old. But they won’t be receiving any of the extra “fillers” that always seem to creep in. Our kids seldom have lists that are miles long. We are the ones that over-do it each year. We are the contributors to their overflowing, neglected toy bins.

This Christmas we are also going to spend more time serving others and looking for ways to help out in our community. We will sing Christmas carols in the nursing home again. We will make a pet food donation to the local animal shelter. My daughter also wants to bake cookies for the local police and fire departments. We have one project for each weekend of the month leading up to Christmas. Our new tradition.

Yes, our kids enjoy Santa and stockings, and all the typical holiday fun. But ultimately, for us, Christmas is a religious holiday. And I am thankful that we have put the tradition of giving—not receiving—back at its core.

Jennifer Collins is a mom with a day job and she likes to write about her victories and messes along the way. She is living an adventurous life as a Georgia transplant learning to thrive in Maine. Jennifer’s writing has been featured on BlogHer, iVillage Australia, Daddy Doin’ Work, and Mamapedia. She blogs at www.gracefulmess.me.


A Little Bit!

By Kristina Cerise

holidaycookiesMy Facebook feed is more divided during the holidays than during elections. On one side are those counting down the shopping weeks, days and hours until children charge expectantly into living rooms looking for parcels and cookie crumbs. On the other side are those who post links to simplicity challenges, bemoan outrageous holiday spending, and champion giving experiences instead of things.

The division isn’t only on my screen, it’s also in my bed. My husband’s holiday compass points to a different North than mine.

I come from a tradition of simple holidays. Exchanging practical gifts was what my family did. It exemplified our values. It showed we were too sophisticated to fall for marketing. It proved we didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses (or Bakers, in our case). The socks and underwear in our stockings were evidence that we were above it all.

Now, I see that we were just poor. And proud. But I also see the joy in the intimacy of those holidays. I remember selecting and distributing one present at a time from underneath the tree. I remember the slow reveal. The expression of gratitude. The passing around of the gift for admiration. The hug for the giver.

Despite having the means to give more extravagantly now, my siblings and I still choose to keep our gifts to each other simple. We exchange consumable gifts for each family to share: a jar of home-canned jam, a bag of special caramels. Some years even that feels like too much and, in the midst of the holiday madness, we call each other to say, “Wanna skip it this year and just know we still love each other?”

That would never fly with my in-laws or the sweet man who gifted me his last name.

My husband’s family distributes gift lists on Excel spreadsheets. They consider GPSs appropriate stocking stuffers. My in-laws start delivering gifts well before Christmas to try to disguise the fact that they won’t fit in a single car load.

The first time I witnessed the madness I felt physically ill and mentally confused. Their approach to Christmas was so different from anything I’d experienced that I couldn’t even recognize the holiday. I had thought I wanted to leave my own family and all its quirks behind, but that first shared Christmas made me long for second-hand gifts from Grandma’s garage wrapped in Sunday comics.

In the beginning years of our marriage, I raged against the consumerism. I touted the merits of jam giving. I fought the excess. But the joy from my husband and in-laws was greater than my judgment and I lost the battle and then the war. Admittedly, the Le Creuset stockpot helped ease the pain of defeat.

My childhood taught me that presents can either meet a need or satisfy a want and I want my kids to learn to be grateful for both types of gifts. So, I still give practical things: underwear, socks, math workbooks.

My husband’s family taught me the joy of receiving something you want but don’t actually need. Something frivolous. Something fun. So, I put practicality on the back burner and buy my kids some of the ridiculous things they ask for: more Pokémon cards, a platypus puppet. After all, I remember wanting a neon pink horse with a purple tail and glitter shapes on its haunches.

For me, the jar of jam approach to gift giving feels too small. But the Excel spreadsheet method feels too big. I am Goldilocks, still looking for the “just right” holiday experience.

Some people suggest that metrics such as a dollar limit or a maximum number of gifts can be used to ensure the right balance. For me, though, it is about ratios.

I want a holiday with more gratitude than greed.

I want a holiday with more wonder than wastefulness.

This is my tenth year of working with my husband to define “just right” for this family we’ve created by merging genes from two ends of the gift-giving spectrum. And each year I think we get a little bit closer.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly (www.definingmotherhood.wordpress.com) and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 



By Ellen Painter Dollar

unnamed-12Every year, my kids declare that gifts are their favorite part of Christmas. Does this make me worry that I’m raising materialistic children ignorant of the holiday’s “true meaning”? Not really. When I was their age, the thrill of a pile of wrapped presents under a twinkling tree was my favorite thing about Christmas too. I still feel that thrill, although now it’s less about what’s under the tree (mostly trinkets that my kids buy at the school craft fair) and more about anticipating them opening the gifts I have painstakingly chosen.

There’s no doubt our American Christmas is too commercial; I finish most of my shopping by Thanksgiving to avoid December’s hectic mall crush and focus on the home-centered activities I enjoy more. But as a Christian, I also believe that gift giving can be a meaningful reflection of God’s extravagant love and generosity, which is the holiday’s true meaning for us. While we’ve pared down gift giving among the adults in our family, we still joyfully present each child with a generous pile of gifts.

In addition to practical presents—pajamas, hats and gloves, lip balm, books, jeans, art supplies—I get each child one “big” gift, not necessarily expensive (though it might be), not necessarily physically large (though it might be), but something that, in their eyes, will be magnificent. These gifts are meant not only to fulfill a desire, but also to affirm who each of my children are and who they are becoming.

For example, two years ago, we gave our then 13-year-old daughter, who loves the outdoors and is unable to do most sports because of a physical disability, a real archery set. (What gratification I felt when I saw this email from her best friend: “YOU GOT A REAL BOW AND ARROWS FOR CHRISTMAS?!!” Yes indeed, she did.) My other daughter, a born caregiver, got a bed for her favorite doll. She placed it under a sunny bedroom window, where she lovingly tucked her doll in every night for months. My son, a nontraditional boy who gravitates toward sparkle and dolls and the color pink, received a Barbie dream house that I assembled ahead of time, so it would be ready for immediate play.

The happiness inspired by material gifts is fleeting, but it is also genuine. I hope that my kids’ happiness with their holiday presents goes beyond momentary captivation with something shiny and new, to a sense of belonging, an unnamed gratitude for parents who know them well enough to get them a just-right gift.

At their best, this is the function that gifts—even frivolous ones—can serve in our consumer culture. Thoughtfully chosen gifts reinforce the deep satisfaction of being loved by someone who knows what you need, what will make you happy. One Mother’s Day, I desperately needed something beautiful and unnecessary to lift me from an exhausted postpartum funk; my husband splurged on a watch that was far more than a time-keeping tool. The material illuminates the immaterial; a well-chosen gift can be a tangible reminder of intangible realities, such as love and grace.

Parental love is usually expressed in the mess of everyday life—school lunches made, dinners served, shoes tied, arguments refereed. Christmas giving invites me to take a step back from the daily muddle, to ponder my children’s talents, passions, and struggles, and what gift might offer the encouragement, inspiration, comfort, or distraction they need. I go to all of this trouble with Christmas gifts for the same reason I go to the trouble with the necessary, routine stuff—to show my children that I see them, know them, and love them just as they are, and am committed to helping them grow and thrive.

When my children thank me for their presents, I hope that somewhere in their gratitude, even if they might not recognize it, is thanks for all of the less shiny but oh-so-necessary daily gifts I give them. This season’s excesses need not be distractions from the essential meaning and joy of Christmas. Rather, they can kindle within all of us a renewed gratitude for the less extravagant, more fundamental gifts—food, relationships, warmth, beauty—that sustain us every day.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel. 



WO resemblances artBy Ellen Painter Dollar

“Look at those fingers! And her toes! So long and skinny…just like yours, Ellen.” I don’t recall how many people uttered those words during the early weeks of my firstborn’s life. Maybe only two or three. But I felt bombarded by this innocent observation. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, my husband, who accompanied her for a bath as I was stitched up after my c-section, had mentioned that her eyes were a “funny color.” At that first hint that my darkest fears would be realized, a heavy door slammed shut in my brain, locking away my dread about what, exactly, my daughter had inherited from me. But every time someone noted the resemblance between my daughter’s digits and mine, a dank fog of fear seeped in around the cracks.

My daughter’s long, skinny fingers and toes, the bluish color in the whites of her eyes—these were signs that Leah had inherited a scrambled gene that would wreak havoc on her skeleton.  When she was six weeks old, we received official word that Leah had indeed inherited my bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta (OI)—a condition that would likely cause her many fractures (I had about three dozen before the age of 11) and possibly painful corrective surgeries. I clutched her fiercely against my chest and told God that he had damn well better take care of this child. That day 14 years ago was the hardest day of my life.

Because of Leah, I have spent 14 years contemplating inheritance—all that we pass on to our kids, the ways that we both hope for and dread evidence that our traits live on in our children. Over those 14 years, technologies that allow parents to control what our children will or won’t inherit have become increasingly sophisticated and available. Today’s technology tempts us to believe that genes are destiny, that a particular combination of amino acids can predict what a child will look like and be like and live like. But genes are far more slippery things than that. My daughter Leah inherited my gene for OI. But the mutation that resides in every cell of both of our bodies has affected us in vastly different ways. Besides the three dozen fractures, I had a dozen surgeries to put metal rods in my leg bones to straighten and stabilize them. Leah has fared far better than I did. She has had 12 fractures and only two surgeries. Leah’s experience with OI has been far milder than mine—which doesn’t mean it has been easier.

Between her second and fourth birthdays, OI battered Leah particularly hard. She had six broken bones in those years, three of them occurring one after another over a particularly brutal summer. As we endured that fracture cycle, we were also contemplating a second child. The thought of having two fragile children, of going through the wary scrutiny of my newborn’s digits and eyes and skeleton again, was enough to send us to the fertility clinic to undergo preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Physicians, nurses, and lab technicians collaborated to help us produce four embryos by in vitro fertilization (IVF). The four embryos were tested for the genetic mutation causing my and Leah’s OI, and only one didn’t have it. We had a single shot at having a child guaranteed to avoid my OI gene. The shot missed its mark; I didn’t get pregnant.

We ultimately abandoned PGD for reasons both straightforward and complicated. We went on to have two more children naturally, each time having an amnio done at 16 weeks just so I wouldn’t have to face the awful scrutiny of my newborn’s skeleton, trying to figure out if he or she had OI before the lab tests could confirm it. Our second daughter got my husband’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my maternal instincts. Our son got my brown hair and eyes but is otherwise a carbon copy of his dad. Neither of them, to our profound relief, inherited OI. Our family complete, I could stop obsessing about whether or not my children would bear the weight of my genetic baggage. But I never stopped watching to see how the dreaded inheritance of OI would sit upon my oldest daughter’s fragile skeleton.

I am fascinated by how Leah’s body and soul have borne our identical genetic destiny. Where I was emotionally resilient as a child, almost ridiculously optimistic and cheerful in spite of so many fractures and surgeries, Leah has grappled with depression and anger, particularly after an accident one June caused multiple broken bones and effectively cancelled our summer. But now, as a teenager, she is far more comfortable in her own skin than I was, accepting (even celebrating) her place on the fringe of middle school culture, where she hangs out with other self-identified “nerds” more interested in music, art, and books than boys and fashions. By my standards (and those of OI), she is tall at five feet. She moves with a grace and steadiness that I, with my more damaged skeleton, long for.

I wonder if it is normal to be so mesmerized, so charmed by watching one’s teenager grow into herself. I regard Leah with particular intensity because her height and poise, her strength and straightness are so different from my crookedness and limp, proving that genes are most definitely not destiny. Watching Leah, I understand that inheritance is not a blueprint, precisely dictating a finished product. Inheritance is more like an artist’s toolbox; our children’s genes shape but do not ordain their lives. The genes Leah was born with, including my OI gene, have influenced where she started but do not determine where she will end up.

A couple of years ago, when I was speaking to a group of women with OI about my childbearing decisions and experience with PGD, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t understand why you would go through so much  [the process of PGD] to avoid having a child who is just like you.”

That Leah and I share such an obvious and momentous genetic trait (and probably, because she is my first teenager), I watch her intently, greedily. As it turns out, in many ways I did end up with a child just like me in Leah, and not just because of her fragile bones. Like me, she loves to read, thinks critically, looks for solace in music, and is attracted more to those on the outskirts of the action than in the middle. She also inherited the expected-but-unexpected snap of bone after a minor fall, the sinking feeling of knowing that a fracture has just derailed plans for the coming weeks or months, and the irritation of knowing more about what you need than the fresh-faced residents in the ER do. Eventually, she will inherit the worry that her own children could inherit this bone-cracking menace. Why was I so desperate to have a child who is not like me? Because while I know I cannot protect my children from all pain, I so desperately wanted to spare them from this pain that I know far too well.

People ask if I feel guilty for passing OI on to Leah. I have honestly never felt guilt; OI is not something that I willed or desired for her. But Leah’s pain—the physical pain of OI, the psychic pain of bodily betrayal—pierces me in a unique way because of how intimately I know that pain. There is a cliché that when you have a baby, you must endure the sensation of having your heart walking around outside your body, subject to all the world’s beauty and pain. I sometimes feel like my own skeleton is walking around outside my body. Leah is old enough not to need reminders to be careful. Indeed, even when she was much younger, she was innately careful. But I still admonish her to take care when it’s icy or wet. I can see in my mind’s eye and feel in my own bones the sensation of slipping, falling, hearing the snap, feeling the searing pain. I have a visceral reaction to Leah’s fractures—nausea, dizziness—that I have never had after my own fractures. Leah’s leg breaks and I feel it—not in my leg but in my gut.  Then her heart breaks too and I am undone.

When Leah fractures, I can be so overcome by lightheadedness that I end up discussing Leah’s care with ER personnel while sitting with my head between my knees so I won’t pass out.  I hope she gets some comfort from knowing that I understand, in the deepest, most visceral way possible, her pain. I am just beginning to glimpse an unexpected bright spot in the muddled inheritance that has passed from me to Leah—her ability to offer me the same deep, visceral empathy.

One Sunday morning several months ago, I slipped on some black ice when going to get our newspaper. Landing hard on my back, I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, and partially collapsed a lung—the kind of injuries that stronger-boned people incur when they fall from trees and roofs. I managed to crawl from the frozen front walk into our entrance hall, but couldn’t go any farther. While I lay there waiting for the ambulance to arrive, as my husband reassured my two younger children and called my mom to come stay with the kids, as I struggled to breathe, Leah sat next to me on the floor. She just sat there, silent. At one point, I said to her, “You know, Leah, don’t you? You know how I’m feeling.” I wasn’t talking just about the pain, but also the crushing disappointment of a regular day ruined, the weightier knowledge of the ruined days to come. I was talking about feeling powerless in the face of something as stupidly mundane as ice, and being betrayed by the fragile body gaining the upper hand on the strong spirit. Leah nodded. Yes, she knew.

That Sunday morning, I understood that Leah’s inheritance is not merely a faulty gene and fragile skeleton, but also the truest kind of compassion—the kind that arises when you recognize your own pain in another, and vice versa.

Empathy and compassion are the most important legacies any of us leave our children, the inheritance we most want them to receive and treasure. Leah has received this inheritance all wrapped up with a far less desirable, far more insidious legacy of literal brokenness and daunting pain. Does this gift of empathy mean that Leah’s inheritance of OI is “worth it,” because of all it has taught her? Many people insist that it should mean that, trotting out all those tired clichés about what we learn from pain. But for me, no good thing can make the pain I’ve passed onto my firstborn child “worth it.”

Here is the paradox that I live with: I am in awe of this child—her groundedness, wisdom, and grace. I have no doubt that what shines in her character—what drove her to sit quietly next to me as I suffered—has been polished by pain. But if I could take her pain away, I would, her groundedness, wisdom, and grace be damned. Why was I so desperate to avoid having a child just like me? Because even if wisdom and empathy are forged in the crucible of pain, I am intimately acquainted with the crucible’s agonizing heat, and no parent would wish such a thing on her child.

And I understand that is impossible—despite the promises of today’s reproductive and genetic technologies—to hand-pick our children’s inheritance, ensuring that they get only our thick hair or talent for math or optimism, and not our anxiety or dyslexia or propensity toward substance abuse. Our children’s inheritance is a massive, many-tentacled thing that cannot be contained or predicted by even the most sophisticated technologies.

I look at Leah and see myself in her spidery fingers and odd gait. I see myself in the way she sat with me that Sunday morning, quiet and steady, mirroring all the times that I sat with her as we, together and also terribly alone, absorbed the harrowing fact of a new fracture and all it would mean for the days to come. I see the effects of my faulty gene that go far beyond a fragile skeleton and the grief of (literally) shattered hopes. I see the wisdom, poise, and empathy that come from intimate knowledge of pain and disappointment. I also see, with a measure of envy, how much straighter and taller she is than me, how little she seems to care about how others perceive her.

I can never be grateful that my daughter inherited my brittle bones, even as I understand how the pressures of living with our disorder have shaped her in beautiful ways. But I am grateful for who she is. And I am also grateful that parents don’t get absolute control over our children’s inheritance, that we don’t get to pick and choose what they get from us, With my anxieties so focused on what sort of bones my child would have, with my vision so limited, I could never have predicted, much less devised, the wounded and gracious person my daughter has become.

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She blogs at Patheos.com, and regularly does media interviews and speaks to community, student, church, and book groups. Learn more at http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com.

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