The Common Good
May 1994

The Essence of Good Parenting

by Ruth B. Moynihan | May 1994

Barnabas House teaches many lessons

That violence and self-centered behavior exist in abundance in our society no one can doubt, but behind the headlines, in homes, communities, and parishes throughout the country, love and commitment are at work.

Karen and Paul Martin have 12 children—eight who have severe disabilities. Four others have died. But all who visit the Martin household can see that it is full of laughter, joyful spirits, and hope.

Twelve years ago the Martins formed a corporation called Barnabas House, after a first-century Christian who sold everything in order to share with the community. The family is now "a nonprofit organization dedicated to permanency planning for special needs children," a step that enables them to continue adopting disabled children, raise funds to help cover the cost, and permitted Paul to quit his job and share full-time parenting with Karen.

At that time Karen and Paul already had four children, three "homegrown," as Karen puts it, and one by adoption. Their family has been growing ever since.

First came the births of Sean, Nathan, and Justin (now 20, 17, and 16), and later Adam (now 9). Impressed by the example of a nearby family who had adopted a houseful of handicapped children, Karen and Paul also adopted Ryan (now 14).

Born with a relatively mild case of spinal bifida, Ryan joined the Martins at the age of 3 months, in a full body cast. What happened next, says Karen, was their "baptism of fire" in regard to special needs children.

They took Ryan to the hospital in his cast, as scheduled, and remarked to the attending intern that Ryan’s legs were brittle and should be treated carefully. Angry at the unwanted advice, the intern yanked him out of the cast and broke both legs. In the course of further treatment, the doctor informed Karen that she was not the child’s mother so he didn’t have to answer her questions.

Ultimately, when Ryan was 3, both legs had to be amputated. That was not the doctor’s fault; his illness just made them too brittle ever to hold weight. Epitomizing bureaucratic attitudes, however, was the young psychologist who later insisted that Ryan was retarded because he could not pass the walking test. Ryan uses a wheelchair, but his mind and his sense of humor are as mobile as his mother’s. He is now a self-confident, popular high school freshman and hopes to make a career in handicapped sports.

ONE IS ENOUGH, thought Karen before the first adoption. But she loved mothering, and felt "gifted with parenting skills." The Martins bought a large, old renovated apple mill in Somers, Connecticut, which they expanded to accommodate their family. They accumulated specially equipped vans, hired several dedicated home health aides, and opened their hearts to 11 more children of various racial backgrounds.

Kari, now 10, has a three-chambered heart that required history-making surgery and remains a serious problem. Bill, now 19, has muscular dystrophy. Candi, 14, is autistic. Shari, 12, is brain damaged. Craig, 16, is severely learning disabled. James, 10, is totally blind and deaf. Victoria, 6, is severely developmentally delayed due to childhood emotional injuries. All of them receive unconditional love.

Theresa was with them only three months before she died of complications after surgery at the age of 5. Timmy spent three years with the Martins, suffering frequent seizures; he died when he was 6. Michael, born with only a brain stem and no cerebral cortex, died when he was 7 months old. Lisa, prematurely born at two pounds with a severe heart condition, spent seven months with the family before she died at 1 1/2 years old.

The experience of family deaths "keeps us focused on living," says Karen. Though the sense of loss and grief is very deep, Karen and Paul feel that there have also been "more joys, more highs" in their lives because of the many large and small victories over pain and heartbreak.

Karen and Paul feel that the "ability to accept each child for who he or she is, not what you want them to do" is the essence of good parenting in any family.

Karen plans to carry her assertive advocacy to another level as she prepares for a career in service to the needs of all disabled children. Her family has good reason to believe that her voice will be heard.

RUTH B. MOYNIHAN, mother of seven grown children (one adopted), teaches women’s history at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent book, published this spring, is Second to None: A Documentary History of American Women (University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

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