Jen Gann describes herself as “a mother whose biggest mistake was becoming one.” She describes her son who has “blue eyes, curly blond hair, slightly crooked teeth. He’s daring, most of the time. He’s afraid of doctors and anyone in a flapping coat.” He also has cystic fibrosis, and Gann writes movingly of her conflicted feelings for her son in the cover story of a recent New York magazine.
Gann and her husband are currently plaintiffs in a “wrongful birth” case. Although she had genetic testing to rule out cystic fibrosis (CF) during her pregnancy, the positive results of the test were never delivered to her. She explains, “While my family’s life is now shaped around a disease I would never willingly have brought into the world, we are a family because of (the defendants in her suit) -- unwittingly, they gave me my most precious gift.”
It’s a heart-wrenching piece to read, full of loving details and tragic desperation. Speaking of her son and referring to the people who failed to deliver the test results to her, she writes: “I want them to be able to smell his soft breath in the morning, just before I strap a mask over his face so he can inhale medication. I want them to fathom telling a child no amount of treatment can make his disease go away, that people with CF are so likely to pass bacteria between each other they can’t be in the same room, that most men with CF are infertile, that every drinking fountain holds the risk of a lung infection. I want them to feel all the moments in a life affected by this disease and experience what it’s going to be like, to be Dudley. I want to take all the pain and disappointment he’ll have and drown them in it.”
How could she not feel this way? And yet, it’s hard to read the piece without praying that she could be freed from the chains of that hate in the midst of her suffering with her son.
“(L)ogically, I know the guilt belongs elsewhere,” Gann writes. “But, biologically, I feel a deep responsibility, a primal and uniquely female pain.”
“This pain is rage and despair. It is every modern woman’s worst nightmare,” Kathleen Buckley Domingo, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says about the piece. “We schedule and plan every detail of our lives so that when something goes awry, it becomes a great source of embarrassment.”
Think about that. “This is where we are in the world. The life of a toddler ... is a source of embarrassment,” Domingo adds. “Jen Gann’s piece is one very long apology. She is apologizing for not being smart enough to get a second opinion, apologizing that her time is now tied up with treatments rather than smarter activities, apologizing most of all that her son exists and takes up time and space on this Earth that would have been better allocated to a healthy child, the one she intended to have all along.
“Now that abortion has been normalized and made readily available in our culture, women no longer feel compelled to provide a reason for obtaining one, but for not obtaining one,” Domingo observes. “The overwhelming sense in this piece is that Ms. Gann feels the great need to apologize for the life of her son. You feel the very clear pain she is experiencing, the huge burden she is under.”
Gann is a witness of love; if only she’d be free from unrealistic cultural expectations to do everything possible to not have anything less than the perfect life.
Gann should be the kind of woman we celebrate, as she gives of herself with more love than she knew possible. Instead, she feels wrong, so much so that she is going to court because her son is alive. Angry that she is a mother, while she is clearly in love with this suffering son of hers. Don’t we want to be a culture that only nurtures love and sees no life, no matter how challenging, as wrong?
At one point in the essay, Gann writes: “There’s no escape from knowing that the opportunity for mercy quietly slipped by and that something as idiotic as a clerical error is responsible.” There’s mercy in love, in the embrace of a mother and child, in the giving that this embrace inspires. Life can always be mercy. It’s why the current pope so frequently appears to be begging people to go to the peripheries of society with self-sacrificial love. A mom who feels such pain for even being a mother is an outsider in a culture that has so devalued the motherly love that should be a beacon for the rest of us.