Nature or Nurture? One Mother’s Struggle with the Odds

It never ceases to amaze me how diverse we all are as individuals, yet our experiences and emotional journeys are so similar.  As in writing, there are no new stories to tell, no new plots that haven’t already been discovered, only new ways of experiencing them.

Over the years I have listened to fellow blogger and friend, Kathleen Mulroy, when she shared stories about life with her adopted daughter and how challenging it was when her daughter’s mental health issues sat in the driver’s seat of their lives.  I asked Kathleen if she would blog about her journey and give us a glimpse into her heart during the years since adopting Katie.

I am happy to say that she accepted.  Now I will step aside and bring you her story…


“I Love You, Mom.”

By Kathleen Mulroy

Once upon a time, my husband and I adopted a newborn girl.  Naturally, we were determined that Katie would grow up healthy and happy.  And I knew we would succeed because I would be the most loving, diligent mom ever to grace the planet. Failure just wasn’t an option.


“What’s for dinner, Mom?”

I turned to answer ten-year-old Katie as she came into the kitchen, but I was so shocked at her appearance, I couldn’t speak.  Her lovely, long, thick eyelashes had vanished.  She had plucked out every, single one.

I managed to choke out, “Wh…why did you do that, honey?”

Blank-faced, she shrugged.  “I didn’t like my eyelashes.  They tickled and they’re too curly.  So I pulled them out.”

Katie removed her eyelashes for the next several months before deciding to let them grow back.  But then she attacked her eyebrows, plucking them until almost nothing remained.  She shaved her arms, complaining that they were too hairy.  She picked at herself until she had permanent scars up and down her legs.  And she became a cutter, once carving the number seven into her upper arm.

From the beginning, my husband and I adored Katie.  We gave her lots of hugs and told her every day how much we loved her.  We read to her each night.  We took her to museums and plays.  She and I participated in play groups and attended mom and child gymnastics classes. Her preschool was the best in town.  But nothing we did seemed to make any difference.  Katie’s mood swings grew ever more extreme; manic, then depressed.  She had awful night terrors.  She lied about little and big things.  Sometimes she destroyed her personal property, even cutting up her clothes in fits of rage.  Worst of all, sometimes she hurt her little brother, our biological son.  I couldn’t leave her alone with him.  Katie binge-ate and hoarded food.  In sixth grade she attempted suicide by downing some of my prescription allergy pills.  Several of her childhood friends started to avoid her, and she made new “friends” who – as we found out much later – introduced her to drugs.

Over the years we took Katie to three different therapists, as well as a neuropsychologist and a psychiatrist.  She saw a speech pathologist for language deficit issues and an occupational therapist for her memory problems.  Desperate, I read book after book on raising a “difficult” or “challenging” child, and at last came to the conclusion that Katie was probably bipolar.  It was also evident she had severe attention deficit disorder.  Our psychiatrist eventually agreed, but medications proved to be ineffective.

All of my love and diligence as a mother seemed to be in vain, and this apparent failure tore me up inside – literally.  Over a period of ten years, I was hospitalized four times with life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding, and I began stumbling down the long, dark road of clinical depression.  My husband and son suffered, too.  Katie was increasingly verbally and physically abusive to all of us, and we were afraid of her.  She gained emotional control over our household.

When our daughter was fourteen, my husband and I reluctantly took the advice of the “experts” and sent Katie to the first of what would be four residential treatment facilities.  Each placement was punctuated by attempts to bring her back into our home, because we wanted our dysfunctional family to become functional.   But things just didn’t work out, and we were devastated.

For the past few years Katie has lived elsewhere; sometimes with her birthmother, sometimes with a roommate or a boyfriend.  An adult now, she still struggles with mental health issues and has a particularly difficult time maintaining good relationships.  Yet, surprisingly, she calls us nearly every week to check in and even remembers our birthdays.  Even more amazing is the fact that at the end of each call, Katie says, “I love you, Mom.”  And I always say, “I love you, too.”

So, I guess my diligent motherly love did result in a kind of success, though it’s certainly not what I’d hoped for when I first gazed with wonder into my new daughter’s big blue eyes.  But it will have to do, and I’m grateful for it.

~ ~ ~

Kathleen, thank you so much for being a guest on my blog and sharing your story!  What an inspirational story of love and your determination to make things right.  Some things in our life are not ours to control, and we just have to let them go.  You and your family are amazing!

About Diana Murdock

California-grown, writer of contemporary and YA paranormal with enough energy to write, raise two boys, run, and dream.

Posted on September 1, 2011, in Family, Personal, Relationships, Teenager and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. One of the greatest struggles of parenting is giving up our idea of what it “should” be like. I’m stepmother to two kids–and they’re great kids, but every day is a new challenge. And there are lots and lots of times when parenting just flat sucks. And there’s this temptation to beat myself up because it “shouldn’t be like this”. I try to remind myself that it is what it is; that this is the parent-child relationship I have, and that wishing for it to be otherwise doesn’t help.

    I admire you for your tenacious love. Next time I feel like complaining I am going to remember this post–and remember that love does what it must no matter how imperfect the relationship. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Michelle, for the response to my blog. “It is what it is” is a great truth;all we can do as parents is do our best, then let it go. Step-parenting is a true challenge; good for you for taking it on.

  2. Let me type through my tears. This is such an intense, personal story for Kathleen to share and I thank you for that. Many times, the hardest part of parenting is admitting that we can’t fix everything. I still struggle with that.

    I grieve for you as a mother that you had to relinquish your daughter to the outside world, but also celebrate you for your strength and courage in a terrible situation. My wish for you and your family is that you all learn and heal from this situation. The future is unwritten, but I hope it brings a sense of calm to your world and that Katie succeeds in whatever it is she wants to do.

    Again, thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for your kind words; I really appeciate them. This was the first time I’ve shared a little about our experiences with Katie in writing, and it was a good release for me. You’re right – admitting that we as parents can’t fix everything is very, very hard to let go.

  3. What a powerful story. Parenting is always a challenging role but some are blessed with an easier journey than others. What a fortunate young woman Katie is to have such loving, intelligent parents who obviously have made every human attempt to help provide her with the life she deserves. Like Tameri, I celebrate you for your strength, courage and unfailing love.

  4. p.s. Diana, thank you for bringing this story to us.

  5. Kathleen. Without you and your husband– what might have become of Katie? You did travel down a long dark road, but with a light and hope. A very touching story. Adopted children are chosen out of love whereas birth children are made from love. There is no difference! You sound like a great mom!

    Thank you Diana.

  6. Kathleen, your story is like deja vu for me, except I’m the sister of the daughter who went out of control. My parents raised us both the same way, and yet we turned out so different. I can’t imagine a mother’s pain, though I see it with my mom. She had to learn to let go too. Thanks for being brave enough to share.

    • Thanks for your response, Angela. I’m so sorry you had to go through that kind of childhood. My (now teenage) son had some pretty rough times with his adopted sister and they left an emotional mark, but, thank goodness, he’s quite well-adjusted, especially considering the dysfunctional family in which he was raised. I’m glad your mom was able to let go of feeling guilty/responsible/sad about having a child go out of control. All the best to your family.

  7. Kathleen, thank you for sharing your story with us. My heart goes out to you, your family, and your daughter. Parents so often think something in their parenting is at fault, when the fault cannot be placed anywhere.

    My husband and I raised three daughters, and there were moments of terror for them, but they passed. I believe in destiny, so it is easier for me to accept the things that come. I hope each new day brings fresh flowers and beauty into your lives, to balance that which troubles you. And that the day will come when you truly let go in the region of your heart, not of the love, but by trusting the universe, so the decision to have her live elsewhere will rest easy. God Bless!

  8. What a special story. I can so relate to Kathleen as I’ve seen a similar case in my family. Thanks for sharing it Kathleen and Diana!


  9. Nancy J Nicholson

    Kathleen, I share your pain as my husband and I adopted two special needs children at the age of 5 and 7. Half siblings they appeared normal to the rest of the world, but they too put a great strain on our household. What’s even harder is like most older adoptions and even some birth adoptions they were diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. They have severe trouble with bonding. So all our efforts were hardly ever rewarded with a smile, a hug or even an “I Love You”. Like you, we have just launch the youngest and though we worry for them as adults, we’re seeing some of the fruits of our labors.

    It’s never easy being a parent and birth children can be as difficult but I feel we were called to do what we did and there is a purpose.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is a very courageous post, and I thank you for writing it. I’m a custodial step mom of five and we’ve had a hell of a ride with mental illness/ emotional issues the whole five years the kids have lived with us. With all of that, I know they are still a billion times better off than they would have been, had we not intervened. Often the right way out is not the easy way out. Like your commenter Michelle said, it’s tough to let go of what we think things “should” be like. I’ve had to learn to open my mind and my eyes, but also to have faith in myself that sometimes I know what I’m talking about.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your perseverance and strength as a mother and a family is inspirational and heartwarming. Although it may not be the picture you had in your head originally, you guys are growing and healing…and coming together. Wow!

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