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I never wanted another child

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The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth by Johann Heinrich Füssli

Dr. Coplan describes the notion of “special children” within the context of his own family of origin.

“I never wanted another child, James. I already had you, and when I remarried I suddenly found myself with three daughters. That was enough for me.” My father confided this to me a few times over the years, typically in the aftermath of one of his volcanic eruptions of rage. I don’t have my stepmother’s side of the story from her own lips, but it seems pretty clear that she wanted his baby – a child she could point to as evidence of their union. Perhaps she was insecure after her first marriage dissolved, and she felt that having a baby with my father would reduce the chances of another divorce (not that having 3 daughters with her first husband had spared her). Perhaps she wanted to have a physical embodiment of her new relationship with my father. Or perhaps she just loved little children. Or all of the above. Or something else. I will never know for sure. What I do know is that several months after my father and stepmother were married (by a Justice of the Peace out on Cape Cod; we all drove away in my father’s 1948 Chevy, my father and “new mother” in the front seat, me and my new sisters all crammed into the back), she had a miscarriage. We kids didn’t exactly understand (I was four years old at the time), but we knew that she was sad. Several months later she was pregnant again, and this time she carried to term. Alas, the year was 1954 – the last epidemic of German measles (Rubella) before immunizations came along.

My new sister weighed 3 pounds at birth. Even though the pregnancy had lasted 9 months, the doctors called her “premature” because of her low birth weight (The terms “Intrauterine growth retardation – IUGR” and “Small for gestational age – SGA” had not even been coined). To this day we don’t know for sure, but it’s at least plausible that my sister’s IUGR and intellectual disability are due to congenital rubella. In any case, something had gone terribly wrong during the pregnancy.

My sister’s delays were evident from the beginning. (My career as a developmental pediatrician dates from the day my great-grandfather asked my parents “Why doesn’t she talk?” My great-grandfather was blind, and he spoke English with a thick Russian accent. Sitting in my parent’s kitchen, holding his great-granddaughter on his knee, he sensed something was the matter. I was 8 years old; my sister was 2. That memory lay fallow in my brain for three decades — during which time I grew to adulthood, completed college, medical school, residency, and fellowship training in child development, and established my reputation as author of The Early Language Milestone Scale. I suppose it might have lain forgotten forever, but one day I was giving an interview to a newspaper reporter for the Human Interest section of the Sunday paper. She asked me a stream of innocent questions – where did you go to school, where did you complete your residency, etc. I was relaxing in my chair, eyes half closed, feet up. Then she asked me “How did you become interested in language development, Dr. Coplan?,” and suddenly I was back in my parents’ kitchen, the memory of my great-grandfather’s question as fresh as on the day he posed it. I was not simply “remembering” the moment – I was re-living it. Unbeknownst to my conscious self, my great-grandfather’s question had been guiding my career choices all along.)

My little sister was a “Special Child” many times over: Badly wanted (by my stepmother), unwanted (by my father), and a “Yours, mine, and ours” baby, where “yours” from before are fine, “mine” from before is fine, but “ours together” is defective. In the uptight 50’s, all of this was taboo to talk about. My father and stepmother dealt with their unaddressed issues by discharging them onto the kids: I became their “poor, troubled son,” while my kid sister became the angelic child who could do no wrong. (Now would be a good time for you to jump over to my home page and take a look at my webinar on family function [here and here], and the concept of “triangles.”)

Displacing their issues onto the kids didn’t work, of course. My father drifted into the role of Lady MacBeth, fruitlessly trying to wash out the invisible bloodstains of his unarticulated guilt, anger, and shame. Initially, this took the form of doing everything for my sister, followed by circling the wagons against any form of outside intervention (no one was ever “good enough” to work with her), and eventually reaching the point where he became so totally enmeshed with my sister, psychologically, that she became his object, rather than his daughter. My stepmother tried to prevail against my father but she was no match for him. Eventually, her chronic sorrow and defeat congealed into a sort of bitterness.

Was this outcome pre-ordained? I don’t know. My father and stepmother came to their marriage woefully burdened by their own past baggage. Neither of them had ever received unconditional parental love when they themselves had been children. Their native insecurities played a huge role in what was to follow. But my little sister was a “special child” in several of the ways we have been talking about, and that “specialness” may have been what tipped them over.

Until next time.


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James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Stay connected, join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter.


2 responses to “I never wanted another child”

  1. Judy Coplan says:

    This blog is one of the most beautifully written piece of yours that I have read. I shared it on my facebook page.

  2. James Coplan says:

    Thanks for reading it, and thanks for your response. 🙂

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