Demographers say there are 2 billion moms in the world — and that doesn't count the women who are not biological mothers, but who nonetheless nurture and raise the world's children.
Each mother has a story as different as she is. Some wrestle with physical challenges; others carry mental or emotional burdens. One mom may struggle to feed and shelter her kids, while illness has turned another's expectations of motherhood on their head. But they all share the desire to love and nurture a new generation.
This Mother's Day, the Deseret News introduces four women mothering in unusual circumstances. One has lost limbs, another is raising her dead sister's children. A third has children with disabilities, while the fourth is battling advanced cancer. Each is a testament to the depth of mother love and its profound influence in the lives of children and mothers alike.
These are four extraordinary women.
Floating and flying
Lisa Speckman is swimming with Hannah, 12, and Lily, 9, and the sounds of laughter and splash are providing background music to a joyous family outing. It is here, as she swims with her girls, that she feels lightest in all senses of the word.
“It’s like flying, it’s like walking again,” said Speckman, 52, of Salt Lake City.
She slices through the water — just her — without an artificial arm or legs. On land, she has both, the result of damage from invasive Strep A infection after Lily was born in 2005.
A routine delivery became a near-deadly crisis for Speckman, a former emergency-room nurse whose story the Deseret News first told in 2007. She developed necrotizing fasciitis and Streptococcal toxic shock. Blood clots strangled her limbs. Doctors removed whole organs and sections of others. They cut off her dying legs in repeated surgeries until they ended inches below her hips. She lost her right arm above the elbow.
None of it shaved a hair’s width from her spirit.
“Lisa puts on her legs and her arm every single day. And every day, the girls see her walking and doing things that any other mother would be doing on a so-called ‘normal’ day,” said her husband, Steve Speckman. “She drives every day. She rides horses twice a week with the National Ability Center. She skis in the winter. She swims at the Jewish Community Center. She cooks meals for the family. She sometimes does more housework than I.”
Every day her children see her “love of life and living it to its fullest. Our girls have witnessed how much someone can do with only one hand, a lot of creativity and determination to be self-sufficient,” he said.
Speckman herself is the first to acknowledge a gap between the kind of mother she planned to be and the mother she actually is. She was aiming to be an “action Jackson mom" who loved travel and physical activity, like her own mother. She's still active, but said, “I am a much better listening, watching mom than I would have been. I show up for the girls and I have their backs.”
She finds motherhood both difficult and routine. But while she misses the action and identity of being an emergency room nurse, she is, she said, “a mother and spouse, first and foremost now.”
Speckman often helps out at the school where the girls are in third and sixth grades, although she had to brace herself for how folks would react until they got used to her. “It’s hard to walk in the first, second, third time,” she said. “Those initial looks are not just seen by me, but by my kids, too.”
Now people are used to her, the looks gone. “I can show up and for the most part finally just be somebody’s mom,” she added.
She volunteers for field trips if they are to wheelchair-accessible locations. She walks on artificial legs, but not all terrain is suited to it and she tires if distances are long.
When Lily was tiny, they hired a nanny, but as Lisa got stronger the nanny phased out. In those days, everything seemed to take the impatient mom forever, from healing to getting things done. Years and repetition have streamlined processes. She can get up and be out the door in 15 minutes to drive the girls to school. She slips on her “easy” arm, which is quick and less complicated than another version. She may drive in pajamas. She’ll change everything when she gets home and isn’t racing a clock.
Lisa sometimes cooks, bakes and does a bit of housework. “You can’t waste your limited energy on housework,” she added, if you’re prioritizing what matters when endurance is in short supply. In the kitchen, she uses tricks and tools like a cutting board with nails to hold food still. She treasures her little garden and the me-time it provides.
She’s the parent who helps with math and science; her husband is a writer and photographer, those areas his domain.
Lisa is not a fuss-with-the-hair type mother — never has been. She couldn’t care less about matching clothes and thinks people waste time on unimportant things like shopping and impeccable housekeeping. She takes risks and admits she doesn’t always take her disability into consideration, citing a time she got stuck in the snow with the girls. On the bright side, they’ve learned to problem solve, too.
She thinks her kids would call her a crazy mom — in the spontaneous, fun, unpredictable sense.
Her husband sees a powerful role model. “They have seen their mother walking (not rolling) around the Alhambra in Malaga, Spain,” he said in an email. “They’ve gone swimming with their mother in Mexico. We’ve ridden horses as a family outside Zion National Park. As much as the girls have had to endure by having a mother who looks so vastly different than others — and there have been limitations, setbacks, the staring, etc. — they are realizing and appreciating more and more how special and inspiring their own mother is. ...
"Inside the home, she is warm and loving to the girls, always ready with a hug or a snuggle and one of her much-anticipated stories at bedtime. It’s a home full of life these days, with a dog, two cats, three chickens and a beehive in the backyard.
"Full of life — that would describe Lisa as a person and a mother.”
Powering through tragedy
It's the kind of question siblings ask each other: If something happens to me, will you raise my children?
So when her sister Lori asked in 1995, Lisa Salberg said yes without hesitation — but also without much thought. She was pregnant with her own child. Of course she and Adam, her husband, would step in if her nephew, John, then 13, or her niece, Stacey, 10, ever needed her.
"Ever" came two months later. Lori Titus died, the result of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic form of heart failure. She was 36 and had been divorced for some time. She wanted her kids to have a relationship with their father, but trusted her sister to raise them as she would have.
A month after Lori died, Salberg's daughter, Becca, was born. And the Rockaway, New Jersey, woman began her foray into motherhood with not one but three children, two of them grief-stricken by their mom's death, which had broken her heart, too.
The disease that felled Lori runs rampant through their family, Salberg said. It's an autosomal dominant genetic disorder that's common — about 1 in 500 people — and Salberg and several relatives also have it. As a result of her sister's death, Salberg founded and runs the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, online at 4hcm.org.
Raising kin creates complex relationships. In kindergarten, Becca drew a family tree and called John and Stacey her "brother cousin" and "sister cousin." She got mad when her teacher said there was no such thing. She was living that relationship.
The Salbergs had some support as they embarked on their instant-family adventure, as they had moved into a house around the corner from her parents for that very reason. The folks helped run the kids around to activities, such as John's three sports.
"In the beginning, I was mom by default and had to hurry up and learn the new role. I had to be a mom to an infant and a mom to grieving pre-teens," said Salberg. "I guess what I tried to do was offer some stability and some safety, and I was concerned about everybody being as good as we could be in a sad situation."
She felt Lori's death was a waste, her illness mismanaged. She threw herself into protecting the children: "I claimed myself as a mama pit bull, trying to throw myself in a blocking pattern to stop anything else from hurting them. It didn't always work. I was 27 at the time." She left her full-time human resources job to found the association and raise the kids.
Without Adam, it all would have fallen apart, she adds. They'd loved each other since they were both 14, and she was only 13 years older than John, so her husband, too, had known the children most of their lives.
They managed to grow a healthy, stable brood, with some "crazy" days along the way. John teaches in a middle school and coaches volleyball at a university. Stacey is grown and works full-time, too.
Time has warped as Salberg has mothered her way along. "It was a long time ago. I can't imagine life before my daughter. But it seems like my sister died yesterday," Salberg said.
They'll always need her
Pheobe Blackham is as busy mothering today as she was when she and her husband, Udell, welcomed their first child 36 years ago. That baby, Aaron (now a doctor), was followed by Nathan (a computer whiz now), then Annika, Kate (a recent mother), Tonya and Shannon. The Alpine, Utah, mom was pregnant with Kate when Annika was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a neurological condition that stops kids — almost exclusively girls — in their developmental tracks.
Children never stop needing their mothers. But some of Blackham's brood of six will always need an especially involved mother's care.
Annika, 32, can walk, but is wobbly and slow. Physically and mentally, she remains a toddler. She cannot speak. She attends a day program and has a live-in caregiver who deals with day-to-day physical needs, while her mom manages her medical and financial needs.
Doctors said the Blackhams shouldn't be afraid to have other children. But Tonya, now 22, was diagnosed with ADHD and a communication disorder by age 3. She will soon graduate from a public education transition program, and the question Pheobe Blackham ponders is what comes next. She's sociable and very fun, her mom said, but has trouble staying on task. She'll need support to work. She reads on a third grade level, while math, money and other subjects are mysterious. She's loud, boisterous and sometimes says things that are inappropriate, but draws laughs and hugs from those around her.
Blackham's voice catches as she describes her youngest, Shannon, 20. At the end of her junior year of high school, this "beautiful, smart, life-of-the-party gal" had a motorcycle accident and suffered traumatic brain injury. She had to relearn how to breathe, to swallow, to walk, to talk. She ignored doctors' advice to rest her brain and not return to high school, and with sheer determination graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Her mother said no one has any idea how hard it was for the girl for whom all things were once easy. Probably the hardest part was that, as the doctors predicted, she would lose all her friends. The accident damaged her frontal lobe, which controls emotion, judgment and filtering, all affecting relationships.
Shannon struggles to stay positive, but it is very difficult. She still has some speech issues and processes thoughts slower. She's about to try college part-time and to live in an apartment with some help. Her mom is hopeful. TBI often presents invisible difficulties, and recovery may never be complete.
Blackham works hard every day to help her kids, but knows she can't control their futures. "Her sacrifice, love and commitment in raising three kids with disabilities really is remarkable," said son Aaron's wife, Kim Blackham, a marriage and family therapist who holds her up as an extraordinary woman.
Asked how she wants her kids to describe their mom, she answers slowly. "I would hope they know I am there for them. I try to always be supportive. ... One thing I've learned is that everybody has their own challenges and it's as difficult for them as mine are for me. Sometimes people assume what we can and can't do.
"I despise the fact that I have to deal with disabilities, but I love my kids regardless of their challenges. We grow into what we are because of our challenges and we deal with them as they come."
Showing up for Presley
Sandra Doyle Ferullo plans her day around dropping her daughter, Presley, at school and then picking her up. But she's too weak at the end of the day to make it all the way to the school cafeteria, where the children wait to be claimed, so she enlists friends. They walk the 10-year-old to the curb where Ferullo is parked.
The Farmingdale, New Jersey, wife and mother was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 breast cancer six months ago. She's been through "devastation, shock, just feeling of uttermost confusion. Everything you can imagine goes into that shocking word," said Ferullo, 46. "But I have a fighting chance, the best oncologist on board, and I made a choice to say I am not going anywhere."
Her own dad died when she as 10. She doesn't want that for Presley, so she's hunkered down to fight for her life and her role as mom.
"I want my daughter to look back at this time and say, yes, my mother was sick, yes, my mother had cancer, but she was still my mom, still functioning," said Ferullo. I want her to learn from this situation that even in the hardest times of our life, we can still be the best human being."
Because she's undergoing treatment, Ferullo relies on her husband Jerome and friends to help her. Ferullo, a native of Scotland who speaks with a slight accent left over from childhood, said she gets one week a month off from chemotherapy. Other weeks, she receives treatment for hours at a time. She also requires injections to boost her white blood cell and hemoglobin counts. It's exhausting, and she naps during her extra hours so she'll have the energy to pick up Presley.
She's no longer up to helping with homework, but she and her daughter "talk a lot. We like each other's company. She loves movies. I love when her friends can come over, and I let them come over a lot because then we can stay home and she can do something she likes, while I don't have to physically run around. Running around outside the house exhausts me."
To cope with the hair loss of chemo, the woman who had long, straight, dark brown hair picked a reddish-brown wig that falls a little below her neck. When her hair grows back, she thinks she'll try platinum blond.1 comment on this story
Presley knows a bit about cancer: She had two friends who had a parent die from it. But she sees her own mom power through bad days, even when her nails are falling out.
"I want her to say that 'my mom is courageous' — that I didn't allow the situation to bring me down. And that I can still be true to myself and to her. ... I tell her I got sick because I got sick. It's how we conduct ourselves and how our friends and community support us that matters. I think that's really important for a child growing up," said Ferullo.
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