by Lori A. Wood
I love babies. In fact, at the sight of a toothless little grin that reveals adorably tiny dimples, I go positively weak in the knees. Also, I’m pretty sure that the intoxicating scent of a freshly bathed infant is a reasonably close facsimile of what the air in Heaven smells like.
When I was a little girl, I listened intently as my friends described the details of their fantasy weddings with meticulous precision. But, even as visions of the perfect gown floated through their minds, mine was occupied with a different kind of daydream. Even then, I was sure that I wanted to be a mother.
Often, if my family was seated next to a baby in a restaurant, my mom would go over and ask his or her parents to bring the infant over to our table, so that I could get a closer look at the little tyke. Usually, this request was graciously fulfilled, and I’d get my chance to visit with their precious bundle of joy. With each of the baby’s sweet gurgles and grunts, the desire to have a child of my own grew stronger.
By the time I was in high school, this desire consumed me. Every time I’d see a baby on television or passing by on the sidewalk, pangs of jealousy would suddenly flare up. I can’t wait to take care of a baby one day, I remember thinking. Will I ever have one? The moment the question would arise, I’d dismiss it. Of course you will, a voice in my head assured. Why wouldn’t you?
This was a loaded question that my dad always seemed to have an answer for. Whenever I’d mention how much I wanted kids, his response was consistent. His practical nature became oh-so evident when he’d say, “That’s great, but who’s going to be taking care of them for you?”
His question annoyed me. At the time, the bluntness of it seemed unnecessarily harsh. It frustrated me to think that he believed that there was something that I couldn’t do. However, the wisdom that comes with maturity has shown me a truth that I never thought I’d be able to accept—he was right.
In the next few months, I came to the realization that there was more to caring for a baby than speaking nonsensical syllables to make it giggle. The fact is, babies can be irritable, fussy and disagreeable creatures, and I figured out that those aspects of an infant’s personality weren’t things that I would be able to handle on my own.
If I were to have a baby, I’d have to hire a nanny to assist me with its daily care. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that this is a perfectly viable option for other disabled women, and I applaud those of you who have successfully exercised it in order to raise your children. Still, there’s a big part of me that dislikes the idea of having to hire someone to take on the many responsibilities that are inherent in the traditional role of motherhood—responsibilities that I would want to execute for myself.
While I have no doubt that I could provide the emotional support and guidance that are vital to a child’s development, I feel that the limitations imposed by my disability would inhibit my ability to physically bond with a baby. For example, bath time can be an effective bonding activity for parents and children. I would want to be the one who gently massages my baby with warm, soapy water, and who soothingly applies lotion to their newly clean skin afterward. I know that there are assistive devices on the market these days for every imaginable use, but restricted manual dexterity and coordination make it difficult for me to use many of them.
Additionally, there are some childhood milestones for which no such apparatus has been created. As the child becomes a toddler and begins to move independently, I want to be the one to crawl around on the floor with it, but I cannot crawl. As he or she prepares to take those crucial first steps, I want to be the one standing behind him or her, holding tiny hands as they start to find their way in the world, but I cannot stand. As much as I hate to admit it, these aspects of my physical limitations really bother me.
At first glance, my comments might seem like those of a woman who has not yet come to terms with her disability. I can promise you that this is not the case. I am simply a woman who has ultimately decided not to have children.
The financial resources required to raise a child played a big part in my decision. At http://www.bankrate.com/brm/calc/raiseChild.asp, it is estimated that raising a child can cost over $190,000 in his or her first eighteen years of life. To me, this figure seems staggering. For now, I live with my parents, but, someday, I will need around-the-clock attendant care. This is just my opinion, but I feel like there will be enough future expenses for me to have to contend with, without the added financial strain of bringing a child into the equation.
According to www.disabledparents.net, my choice is an increasingly outdated and unpopular one. A statistic on their website indicates that, in this country, nearly eight million families include at least one parent that has a disability. This is an encouraging figure, indicative of just how far disabled women have come. Still, those who want to raise families have farther to go.
A 2000 paper from the New Jersey State Council on Developmental Disabilities makes the point that society still has a hard time seeing disabled women as mothers. Those who hope to become adoptive parents are often turned down by adoption agencies, and parenting classes for pregnant women often fail to take the needs of disabled women into account. To some extent, gynecologists buy in to this misperception, as well. The article also states that disabled women receive fewer pelvic exams than their ambulatory counterparts. Three reasons are cited for this fact: accessibility issues concerning the examining table, the lack of physician knowledge about disability, and the false assumption that disabled women aren’t sexually active.
As frustrating as this seems, things could be worse. A 2001 French law says that it is legal for disabled people to sue their mothers’ doctors if the mothers were never advised that they could get an abortion. What kind of message does this send to disabled people and their parents? It’s horribly offensive, and even frightening, to think that, if a baby doesn’t happen to meet some unrealistic standard of “perfection,” there are places in the world where such shortcomings make it acceptable for the child to be killed.
If the medical and legal communities of the world are permitted to be so shortsighted, what hopes does society have of accepting disabled women into the role of motherhood? While doing research for this piece, I read many stories of pregnant disabled women. In a number of them, when the woman shared the joyful news of her pregnancy with others, she was advised to get psychological counseling. According to http://www.infoplease.com/dictionary/pregnant, the word is defined, in part, as: having a baby developing in the body. I certainly don’t see anything in the definition that qualifies it as a telltale sign of mental illness.
Canada’s Parenting with a Disability Network, and other similar organizations, represent the antithesis of such tragically narrow thinking. Helpful in its comprehensive nature, the network offers a wide variety of services to disabled parents, including: employment information, peer support, attendant services and independent living skills training. On the website, Canadian residents are invited to email email@example.com for membership information.
In the United States, a California organization called Through the Looking Glass http://lookingglass.org/index.php hopes to empower disabled parents with ongoing research projects, adaptive baby care equipment, and professional training, among other things.
Even though I’ve made the choice not to have children of my own, I consider myself three times blessed. On April 5, 1999, my nephew, Nicholas, was born, followed exactly two years later by his brother, Alix. Then, on April 27, 2004, my niece, Madison, came into the world.
Biologically, these children aren’t mine, but I love them as much as if they were. It is often said that parenthood makes people less selfish, and allows them to see things from another perspective. Becoming an aunt has done the same thing for me. Every time I look at them, I get a glimpse of the world through their eyes, and once again marvel at its beauty and wonder. As only children can, they’ve shown me the power of unconditional love, and proven to me that I don’t have to be a mother to receive it. I’ll carry that gift with me for the rest of my life.