Profound Disability: Thoughts on Loving a Helpless Child

Loving a helpless child can be a blessing. There is always something appealing, and interesting, about every person, if you look hard enough.

By Rosemary J. Gwaltney

As the adoptive mother of twenty-six children, including children with a wide variety of disabilities, I've been asked many questions. I used to speak at adoption conferences. Everyone understood how I could love my beautiful, responsive children smiling in the picture frames, which I brought to show them all. But they would stop short when they learned about my daughter Misty. I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked how I could love a profoundly retarded child. Why is it so rare for people to love a helpless person? Is it fear of the unknown, fear of loss, boredom, indifference? Is it that they have never known a child like this? That is quite likely. I'll tell you where to find many of them. In the photo listing books at adoption resource centers across the United States. Waiting. And they are the fortunate ones. Some caring caseworker believes they deserve at least one loving parent of their own, just like any other child. The less fortunate ones are tucked away in institutions. I know where many of them are, as well.

Is loving a newborn infant difficult? No, it is thrilling, precious, breathtaking, and natural. We just don't expect that newborn infant to remain an infant. We expect that infant to grow, learn, change and mature. A profoundly retarded child needs much the same care as a baby, and is just as precious. It's just that he or she will remain helpless.

I think people's hesitation and avoidance might have a lot to do with fear. A very realistic fear, that perhaps this child could die young. After all, how many times in a life, does a person give their love to someone they consciously, rationally, know they could lose?

I first began learning how to love someone that I was going to lose, when I became a foster parent. It was an excruciating experience. Every time a child moved on, my heart was broken. Some marvelous foster parents can love a series of foster children for decades, and survive the sorrow, even feel happy for the child when they move on. I could not. I began adopting.

Many years later, when I had experienced the deaths of several of my medically fragile children, having to pull myself together each time and continue loving and nurturing my other children, I began to think of these helpless children as rainbows. When the sun comes out, there is a lovely rainbow. Then it is gone. A fragile child is like a rainbow. It is terribly sad when the rainbow disappears. I have had periods of intense depression over my earthly losses. Between rainbows, I struggled and prayed to remain resilient, and to feel and continue to give joy! It is God Who has healed my deepest griefs at last.

Those who give
their love to fragile
children must learn to leap
from rainbow to

God gave me a helpless little daughter I named Misty Angelita. She was one of my lovely, fragile rainbows. Misty was a shock when she arrived. Misty was two years old, and as limp as a cooked noodle. She did not babble, or respond to anything we did. She was not in any way, the little girl I had been told she was. The caseworker, who had never even seen her, had relayed the foster mother's words, that she was a good eater, was learning to play with her foster sibling, and was beginning to crawl. But Misty could only drink from a bottle, and could not roll over, sit up, say a word, or play. As it turned out, she could not even see. She was not very much aware of her surroundings, unless startled or frightened. In my heart, I was terribly disappointed and full of sorrow. The doctors told me she was so globally damaged, that she never would walk or talk, and they were correct.

I learned that Misty would not ever respond to me in the way I had expected. At first, when I learned how devastatingly limited she was, my heart was broken. A different break than I had ever experienced before. This child was not going to grow up and become largely independent like my other children. But I was outraged at the doctors' strong suggestions that I send her back. She was not a defective appliance. She was a lovely human child. God had sent her. I always prayed that He would send just the right child, so I knew that she was, though I did not understand it. I had adopted her, and she was my own. Just as though she was born to me, I was keeping her.

To make a long story short, God put a love in my heart for this beautiful baby, that had no explanation. I had lost the child I expected. But here in my arms was a helpless baby who needed me far more than any other baby could have. And loving her changed my whole life. Because I grew to love Misty with such a fierce and tender mother-love, I deeply appreciated the value and worth of children who were so completely helpless, and went hunting for another one just like her to adopt. I never found another child just like Misty, of course. But in the decades that followed, I became the mother of ten helpless children. I adopted nine, and one was given to me by his loving mother. Each one was a unique individual, and dearly loved.

Loving anyone presents a risk of losing. Any time, any place, under any circumstances. But imagine what life would be without love! A barren, selfish existence. Few would choose never to love. Even those who have been injured by losing love, usually go on to love again in their lives. Maybe not the same kind of love, but love nevertheless.

Every kind of love is different. Even a parent of many never loves two the exact same way. No two children are exactly the same, in personality, in the way they respond to others. Human beings are all different, and every relationship has its own characteristics, and unique properties.

So it is with loving a profoundly retarded individual. Exactly the same. Love is love. I have loved each one of my children in a different way from the others. Each love has been returned to me in a way just like none other. A relationship with a helpless person is very pure, because love has to be given unconditionally. It is pure in the way that it enriches the soul. I used to think that my love, as the mother, was deeper. But as the years passed, I began to wonder . . . is it really? Is my love, being the one who can express it, larger?

Consider the child who knows only one person, and whose entire existence depends on that one person. My Misty was such a child. This person makes the complete difference between life being a mass of confusion, and life consisting of love and security. I think you might say that this child's love is just as great as that of the person who is able to express it more. After all, simply being able to express love, is not the defining element of its greatness.

Loving a helpless child is a blessing. It is not difficult. There is always something appealing, and interesting, about every person, if you look hard enough. I think a person who never knows, and grows to love a helpless person, is like someone who has never seen a rainbow. Love growing in a person's heart is enriching by itself, as well, like a garden of exquisite flowers. The fragrance wafts into every portion of a person's life. Love is a gift, and a pearl of great price, to be treasured. Always.

Rosemary J. Gwaltney was born on the Alberta prairies to Christian parents, and raised on a farm in Washington state. I began motherhood as a foster mother of disabled babies. That marriage dissolved when I was pregnant with my third child. Three years later, I began to adopt children as a single mother, and phase out of fostering. I have been blessed with twenty-six children. Most of my children have disabilities of one sort or another. All of them are dearly loved, greatly admired, and deeply enjoyed. Copyright Protected.