Des Moines Oral History Project
Interviewer: Matt McManus
Interviewee: Michelle Laughlin
Conducted on 11/1/17
Me: If you can remember all the way back to our first interview we talked a lot about your job and how it relates to disability and how you especially feel about disability and we ended our discussion with what you wanted to talk about more in our second interview. The things you talked about was your faith, your motherhood and upbringing family with your two sisters and everything is a little bit different. In our first interview you talked about how your parents lead had a specific mentality growing up that I myself didn’t have myself and I think it is quite special. So the first question I want to ask right away is of those three things, which do you want to talk about first?
Michelle: So lets start with my family and then we will move on to the other pieces because it will all eventually move into place. So you talked about siblings and that’s a good place to start. As we have mentioned, no one knew I was going to be born with a disability. I did have an older sister who was “normal”, I would really believe that because she is my sister. I can’t say that she is normal but she was raised to accept me as the a sister and there was never a time where she felt cheated. The reason I know this s because when I was in grad school I had to write a paper and decided to write it on perspective. As part of that paper I was going to interview some people to get perspective on what is was like to be apart of my life. No to be vain and it was a much better paper than I just made it out to be. I asked her what it was like to be raised as my sister. And she gave an incredible testament to my parents and so they never lead her to believe that I was better or different or we were siblings. We fought and we did all of those types of things that we are supposed to do as sibling. Closest of friends now. But mom and dad raised us both the same. And I think that is a testament to my parents. My sister never felt slighted, I was newspapers and I there were a lot of people that knew about me and they sent gifts, they sent cards they sent all kinds of stuff and my sister never felt slighted. I think that is truly a remarkable shout out to my parents to say that ‘you did it right’. After 5 years I was born my little sister came into our world. I told my parents that life is better with just two of us, we don’t need a third why would you bring a third into our life. So Melony, my little sister, she and I had a different kind of relationship. I don’t ever think she was jealous, and I think the age difference was part of if and this was as we were growing up. I know she was proud because of what others have said she said about me but it was just a friend. Melony was spoiled and Mom an dad, and again we were all pretty much raised the same way but the third one they get tired and Melony marched to her own drummer and still does to this day. Love my sister dearly. Just Melony and I had a more volatile relationship and I really don’t understand or don’t know why that was. We are close now, and we don’t fight like we used to. It was different. I do not know how or what to contribute that too.
Me: What are the age differences between you three?
Michelle: So older sister is almost 3 years older than me and my younger sister is 5 and a half years younger than I am. So you do the math and there is 8 and a half different between my older and younger sister with me in the middle. That dynamic was weird too. I’m not saying we weren’t close, and it was a middle sister and little sister thing. I know for a fact it had nothing to do with my disability.
Me: With the relationship to your older sister, there is a smaller age different and you grew up together. Your older sister was 8 by the time Melony was born, which made you 5 and you guys were growing up together for those 5 years, yes different atmospheres and different social situations with school and stuff but you grew up together.
Michelle: if you put it together like that, then that makes a lot of sense.
Me: with Melony you had to throw her into the loop a little bit and catch her up a little bit and thrown into the mix..
Michelle: oh she was thrown alright, I’m pretty sure she was dropped, no just kidding [both laugh] I do love her. But the dynamic I see with my husbands family and things like that, there’s closeness between the first two always and the third one will feel difference. For Doug he was the 4th. I think overall mom and dad did an amazing job dealing with someone who was ‘different’ no knowing exactly what to do. We had special appointments, to Chicago at the Chriners hospital twice a year for appointments. I never saw it as anything special like “oh I get to go to Chicago” because we went there and came right back. My sisters never felt like ‘oh how come I never got to go’ other than ‘oh she gets out of school and we don’t get out of school’ type of thing. I don’t thing mom and dad hid the special things I got but I think that they did a good job explaining it. Even to this day, last time I went home my mom had a box of stuff that she had saved for me that I would someday want and I don’t know why cause they were cards from people when I was 5 and 6 years old. So a lot of these cards are 40 plus years old and I was like ‘why do I need these? I don’t know these people’. I laugh because the other box had puzzles and books and Michelle’s arm. And I teased her, “So that’s where my arm has been all these years? you hid it in the closet?” [laughter]. I had prosthetics when I was growing up. My mom still had one of my first arms which was just weird and now I have my first arm and my last arm so its kinda funny.
Me: In the years that I have known you, I have never seen any ‘extra’ to you and have always seen you as you.
Michelle: And I stopped wearing my prosthetic legs when I was a sophomore in high school because they were cumbersome and uncomfortable. I stopped wearing my arm when I was a freshman in college when my then boyfriend kept saying to me, “I notice that you don’t wear your legs anymore, why do you still feel it so important to wear your arm?” And that was a really good question. The reason I didn’t wear my legs was because I was comfortable being the way I was. So I did question why I wore my arm. It was uncomfortable, I couldn’t wear certain outfits because my arm would show and the straps of my arms would show and that would make me self conscious somewhat. It came down to he got tired of me whacking him with it and in my defense, I kept my arm is so I could use it as a weapon and the reason he didn’t want it anymore is that he didn’t want it hitting him. It made me realize that I can be just who I wanted to be without wearing fake stuff and he accepted me that way. That was `my first validation of being accepted just like I want to be. My parents wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to feel like everyone and the prosthetics didn’t make me feel like everyone else, it still made me feel different. This is how I fee like everybody else.
Me: No one else should decide how you should feel, and this is how you want to feel.
Michelle: My kids have never seen me with my arm. I remember when I was in college, my boyfriend who turned into my husband and said to me “Id love to see your legs just once”. And so my mom has a pair of my legs in the closet of all things. Arm is in the attic and legs are in the closet. Obviously they don’t fit anymore. I was glad I had the prosthetics because it made me feel like everyone else for a little bit but I also glad I don’t have them anymore. With the new technology today I don’t know how I would feel and as the saying goes, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. I feel very confident that I don’t have to be like everyone else.
Me: Was it your idea or your parents idea for the prosthetics?
Michelle: Growing up, I don’t remember the decision making process, I do remember it was my choice to not wear them anymore. In fact I remember having conversations with doctors that I already had with my mom that I didn’t want to wear the legs anymore. Instead of telling me that I had to wear them he asked me why and what I did or did not lie about them. He wanted to know how to make them better for someone else. My mom used to tell me “you have to wear your arm to school today” and I would say I don’t want to wear my arm. I remember asking my mom “Do I have to wear my arm today” and she would respond “yes you have to wear your arm today”. It is really weird to look back and think that I had to ask those questions. How many of you can honestly say that you had to ask the question ‘do I have to wear my arm today’.
Me: I can never say I had to ask those questions [both laughing]
Michelle: So when you continue with the story and talk about faith, it is the most important thing in my life. It centers me and gained that faith from a very very young age. I remember saying to my parents that ‘god made me different because he wanted me to tell a story’. And so I think for me that was always part of it. It wasn’t gods fault I was like this, it was one of those things. I have a huge difference in my life between religious and faithful, always have my faith and never had my religion until I was older because we didn’t go to church as much as we do now. Because I go quite often now, my parents do as well, more than they ever did when I was growing up. My faith is what I always lean back on through a lot of difficult times with friendships and all of that. I always knew I had my solid foundation and that I was okay. My faith is very important to me. When I do my presentations I talk a lot about my faith and I am never shy to talk about my faith and some places where I can’t share my faith. I don’t share my faith with students unless they share theirs. I have always been a firm believer in that I show my faith through my actions. In times where I can’t talk about my faith, I can at least show you my faith through actions. When having a bad day, I can do one of two things, choose to ignore it and let it get to me or I can pause and say ‘what can I control and what can’t I control’. I can control going to my bible and my got to verse is don’t be anxious about anything. That was a good verse to read in times like that. Every year I chose a word to prey about for the whole year and how is that word touching me. This year the word was ‘be’. It is all over my walls as you see “be honest, humble, loving, yourself, strong, creative, hopeful, and grateful.” that’s been my motto all year. My faith had lead me to have the confidence to do all the things I have done, go to college, get married, have kids, and the reason why I want to talk about my kids is just how nature vs. Nurture and how amazing it is. I am a firm believer in nurture but what’s amazing about nature is that when my children were born, they didn’t see me any differently than any other mother in the world. Let me tell you about Colin who is my first born. When he was born, he was 11 weeks early and only 2 pounds. After I had him I had questions like, ‘oh crap, how am I going to take care of him, should have maybe thought about that first’. from the first day I had changed his diaper, he lifter his legs for me. This was at 2 weeks old. From time of his first diaper change to when I had to change his clothes, he had adapted to his environment. When he would need to be burped or just hang out on my shoulder, he wouldn’t squirm or move or anything when I had to drive around the house with my wheelchair. He knew I didn’t have the other hand to hold onto him. His dad would do the same thing then, picking him up and taking around the house and he would be all over the place because he knew he could. It wasn’t that I had this magical inner monologue with him and could zoom in on that magical power, but that has always truly amazed me and how they adapt. I thought it was just Colin and that he was a special breed. Then I had Mackenzie, they are almost 4 years apart, and she did the exact same things as it was with Colin with diapers and clothes and all that. Difference was with Mackenzie was that both kids liked to ride in the wheelchair but she liked it so much that she didn’t walk until she was almost 2. Doctors thought she was delayed, I knew she was lazy, and still is. But they adapted, and did whatever they needed to and it truly amazes me that humans can adapt that way. my biggest fear was them not accepting me and not wanting to have their friends come around and things like that. In fact all of their friends come around. At Iowa State Colin’s friends always say that “how come we don’t get to see Michelle, you need to bring your mom up here more.” Mackenzie is a senior in High School and for homecoming we had the after party at our house and all the kids were sitting in our living room and at 11:30 at night I’m like “you guys need to go else ware, we are not your entertainment”. But I love their relationships with their friends because I know they truly think of me as their friends mom not ‘dude your moms in a wheel chair’. they might think of that at first but that goes away very quickly.
Me: But then their attitude and perspective changes and they think, your just my friends mom. Nothing more nothing less.
Michelle: Well I would say there is something more because I am the cool mom.
Me: Well obviously [both laugh]
Michelle: Every mom loves to talk about her kids and in my sense of why I wanted to focus on those three things is because A. All three of those things are extremely important in my life, B. It just shows you don’t have to settle for things people didn’t think you can do. right after I got pregnant, I had a lot of nay-sayers saying “are you sure you should be pregnant” or “what happens if you have a child like yourself”. All of these questions were things I had too but it was a matter of, well we deal with it. I was raised the way I would want to raise my kids. When you were raised the way I was, it gives you the perspective of why shouldn’t I be able to try this. Obviously I know I have limitations like driving a car that I can’t drive. Those aren’t things I need in order to have a happy life.
Me: You said you have a difference between religion and faith, so can you explain the difference between them and how you practice them both separately or together?
Michelle: So for me, I was raised Lutheran, still am Lutheran. That to me is a religion so I am affiliated with Lutheran church and the reason I say there is a difference between religion and faith to me is because my parents really didn’t practice, we didn’t go to church when growing up. they made sure we were baptized and made sure we were confirmed but we just didn’t go to church. Who knows why. Now that they are older, they go to church every Sunday. Melony sings in church and that’s why they probably starting going to church. When I think about the difference between faith and religion, because I couldn’t go to church I had to find a way to worship on my own. I became a member of FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) even though I was not an athlete. I kept saying to the teacher in charge of it, “I’m not an athlete” and he goes, “it’s not about that, it’s about the character, the kind of person you want to be”. That was kind of my church, reading the bible and listening to Christin music, that was my church at home. I didn’t go every Sunday to practice my religion. So when I say my faith is important is because I had to build my faith from mentors and people that helped me that developed my faith. At that time I did not practice religion compared to how I practiced my faith. Faith is believing is something is there without actually seeing it. That’s how I view it, I could not see the religion but I could see the faith.
Me: That’s a truly interesting point, not seeing one thing but seeing another, yet they are related to one another. And that you built your own faith, religion, practice and so on.
Michelle: My in-laws actually are quite interesting, they go to church every Sunday, they practice their religion to a T and didn’t accept me. When Doug and I started dating, it was not a good situation. They did not accept who I was as a person, they didn’t think their son should be dating somebody who was different, they didn’t think I would be able to do what they thought I needed to do so they judged. Doug and I dated for 4 years before we got married, and it was another 4 years until we had Collin and it wasn’t until I had Collin that I had the power of withholding a grandchild from going home. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I think I did that if you didn’t learn to accept me I don’t want to expose my child to somebody who does not accept me. It took a while, and it was hard. To this day I remember the day my mother in law gave me a hug for the first time. And it was way after I have been married, for a very long time. Oh and after I had Collin. It was when he was about 5 or 6 years old when I got a hug from my mother in law. Now were close and that sort of thing, its water under the bridge now. Though they were religious, I didn’t see their faith. They weren’t able to something good was going to come of this.
Me: That’s powerful. So you talk about Doug, your husband a lot and he should have some light shed on him. So how did you guys go from meeting to 4 years of dating, then marriage and to your kids?
Michelle: I met Doug my first week at UNI (University of Northern Iowa). He was the dining hall manager and had to carry my trey. It was awesome
Me: That is super cute
Michelle: I know, if your going to marry somebody make sure he is your slave first, I’m just kidding. Make sure he waits on you hand and foot [both laugh]. I remember the first time he took me to the dining hall he sat my trey down and asked if this was prime scoping area. He knew I was there to check out what UNI had to offer when it came to the male persuasion. It started becoming a trend, he would be the only one to carry my try, claiming that he was the manager and it was the managers job. But my girlfriend was actually working underneath him and told me “Oh no, we were told whoever was available could do it but I remember times when Doug would jump over the counter to come and carry your trey.” So he was obviously flirting, and flirted a lot for about 3 months. He was playing football and they tackled him resulting in him ‘spraining his ankle’. Whatever, he is just a wuss. There was a time where he said he couldn’t run away so I asked him out. Because my girlfriends said it was getting ridiculous, why don’t you ask him out? All because we know he wants to date you. So I asked him, he said yes, and we have been together ever since. Our first date was non-scary group date. Our second date we talked about stuff, we always spent lots of time talking about stuff but this date we talked about big stuff right away. He asked me about my disability and all this kind of stuff. On our second date we went out for pizza and he teased me relentlessly, constantly saying “I noticed you only ate half your piece of pizza, I noticed you only drank half of your pop, is everything you do in half. I was gunna kill him [both laugh]. So the next night he shows up at my dorm with flowers behind his back and I remember saying to him “If there are only 6 roses in this bag you are in trouble.” Lucky for him he had the full dozen so he saved himself there. He and I grew up together. I was 18 when I met him and went through a lot together. Did the whole dealing the parents who don’t accept and dealing with all of that kind of stuff. People stare at me everywhere we go. I remember that he always used to say that people were actually staring at him cause he was so good looking. Whatever. We just always clicked. We had a couple times where we broke up in-between but not anything longer than 6 weeks at a time. And then he graduated, I went up to Minnesota for a weekend and he said to me, “Lets go shopping, lets go look” I go, “What are we looking at?”, He goes “we are going to look at computers”, I go “whatever you don’t need a computer.”
Me: I see what’s happening here.
Michelle: So we went to the mall and he pushes me into the jewelry store. He’s like, “pick what ring you want”, so I picked out my own ring. At the time I didn’t have my powered chair yet, only a manual chair. He pushed me into a sporting goods store next door and I asked him what we were doing here. He goes “I just make sure there’s not anything else I need more.” Oh your so romantic Doug [sarcasm]. “So do you?” and I’m like, “do I what?”, “well do you want to get married” blah blah blah. Anyway, the reason I share this story because humor has always been a part of our life. I mean, we’ve always had a sense of humor. When we got engaged, after picking my own ring, he got down on one like he actually should, the ring sizers were actually in the store so it could be sized in store. He went to put the ring on my finger and the gal behind the counter said, “wait your putting it on the wrong hand.” And It was really really funny. He started putting it on my left arm and it didn’t fit. The women thought she ruin a special moment but all she did was give me a story that I can tell the rest of my life. She did not play it off well, she fell down behind the counter and just sobbed she was so mortified. I loved it. I think that growing up together, and being married for 25 years, being together for 29, eek, that means I’m older than 29, that means I can have a child who is 21.We have been through a lot. When you go through having a child who was born that premature, that’s a stress, stresses of moving, getting new vehicles that cost a fortune, and doing all that, we have just grown together and been through it all together. He is a good guy.
Me: That is probably better than any Nicholas Sparks book.
Michelle: Yea there we go!
Me: No I am being serious! I think the world should have humor in it and that is what the world needs, and that story is just really adorable, cute, and find any adjective that is like adorable and insert it here. This shows love prevails.
Michelle: This also shows we are a family of smart asses that pretty much sums up our life. It has been a ride.
Me: Has is been a good ride?
Michelle: Absolutely, Absolutely. I wouldn’t change a thing. everybody goes through their relationship bumps and that sort of thing. It wasn’t anything that we couldn’t handle. Let me tell you one more thing about Doug and this sums up who he is as a person. There are a lot of things we have to do differently, obviously whether it comes from building a house that is accessible, or making sure that vehicles are accessible or even so far as driving mini-vans because we have to have a mini-van, or having a pontoon boat because we can’t have a speed boat because I can’t get in a speed boat on my own. So there are a lot of things that he has had to do differently. But what he does is he sits there and thinks about how can we do things differently, it’s not about ‘I have to do this’ its ‘how can we make this work’. And I think that sums up his entire being, the acceptance factor and just how much he truly valued who I was as a person and that my disability was never something that defined me. I think that is important, he never saw it as he had to do anything out of duty, he did it out of what he had to do. That right there sums us up.
Me: How do you follow that up?
Michelle: What a great way to end my day, to think about, yeah I like to talk about myself [laughter]. Just kidding, what I really like is to be able to talk about the things I am passionate about. I think about the times when I want to speak and how much I want to write, when I get an opportunity such as this to do such a thing that gives me all the good reasons to want to do it. When I think about what I want people to think about me after I’m gone is that, A. I cared, but I cared less about what I was than who I was. By saying that, I never cared that I was different, I never cared that anyone else was different, my advocacy and my wanting to get those students to the next level, and wanting to make that person feel wanted/needed/valued. Those are the things I want to be remembered by. I just want to be remembered as a good mom, I was a good wife, I was a good and faithful servant. Those are the things that I want people to think about when they think about me. I don’t want them to them to automatically think, ‘oh yeah that’s the girl in the wheelchair. But if that’s how they remember me, then that’s okay too because I am very proud and happy that god chose me to live this life. So there you go, that is my life in a two hour time frame.
Me: Time flies when your having fun!