Courtesy of Laura Dorwart

Finding The Joy — And Adventure — In A Different Kind Of Parenting

By Laura Dorwart
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I found out I was pregnant just after Thanksgiving dinner three years ago. I promised myself I’d wait until I was done with all the gravy-smothered rolls I could manage and safely tucked away from family before I took the test, so that I didn’t burst out with the news right at dinnertime in front of everybody. Back in our hotel room, my husband waited for me to emerge from the bathroom, the picture of worry and anticipation. A plus sign: Everything we’d longed for. “Wow,” he said simply, his eyes gleaming. And just like that, we set out on a whole new adventure together.

Still, as I started to look for baby clothes, my mind was on more than choosing pink or blue, elephants or tigers. My husband has been a wheelchair user since he broke his neck 19 years ago, and neither of us was sure how that would affect his newfound status as a father. We met in grad school and, together, navigated the world of dating with disabilities. I wasn’t used to making sure that every restaurant was wheelchair-accessible or wondering if an elevator would be broken, and being with him opened my eyes to what it’s like to be part of a world that isn’t designed for you. And although parenting is always full of surprises, we both eyed the road ahead of us with more than a little trepidation, wondering if we’d find more barriers than bliss.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura Dorwart; Design: Allison Gore/Romper.

While I was focused more on the changes happening to my body during pregnancy and preparing for labor, my husband conducted painstaking research. He pored over blogs about parents who use wheelchairs and hunted down accessible parenting gear. We soon discovered, though, that we were exploring an area that had no real road map. There aren’t many available resources or role models for parents with disabilities. In many cases, we’ve had to forge on and venture out on our own to create a new path where none existed.

Our daughter is now 2 years old, and the adventures just keep coming. From the beginning, we’ve had both triumphs and missteps in navigating the rocky terrain of parenting, especially with disabilities. When she arrived, we weren’t sure of just about anything: if it would be easy or hard, if we had way too much gear or too little. Our minds swirled with many more questions than answers. All we knew was that we were in this together.

At first, I felt the need to do almost everything in terms of baby care; after all, my husband was starting a brand-new job, and my fingers were nimbler and more efficient. But as the stress began to build, and my husband wanted a more active role, we learned that we had to shift our mindsets and accept a few bumps along the way if we were both going to share in parenting equally. I had to learn to be more patient and less anxious, and to trust that my husband would figure things out on his own. He’s always been intrepid and resourceful, and there was no reason for that spirit of ingenuity to stop once he became a father.

Determined to be an independent parent who doesn’t need to rely on me to do the heavy lifting, my husband always tests cribs and car seats at the store in advance to make sure they’re accessible. The steady roll of his wheelchair is like a built-in stroller, and it quickly became a soothing balm for her that put our daughter instantly to sleep. As a baby, she slept in his arms while rolling around everywhere from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to busy airports. She got so used to falling asleep in his arms that he took on feeding-and-changing duties most nights while I got some much-needed rest. We stocked up on all the most reliable baby basics, like formula, bottles, and Pampers Swaddlers (the brand most doctors and hospitals use for newborns), to keep by the bed, as we learned that extra preparation went a long way in ensuring that we could stay calm in the midst of a whole lot of newness.

And while my husband initially told me he was worried that our daughter wouldn’t accept his differences, our reality has turned out to be exactly the opposite. Adults, we quickly discovered, are the ones who project their expectations onto children — not the other way around. Our toddler accepts change and difference so much more easily, and joyously, than we ever could have imagined.

Allison Gore/Romper

One night, we were practicing counting on our fingers. My daughter smiled up at her daddy, yelling, “one, two!” and wanting him to join in. He shot me a nervous glance. Because my husband’s fingers are partially paralyzed, we were puzzled at how he’d do it. I uncurled each of his fingers as he counted, and she watched, transfixed. In turn, we watched with pride as she began to count on her fingers for the first time — uncurling them one by one, just as she’d seen her dad do.

A game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” turned into yet another lesson that our initial fears had been unfounded. Upset that her dad wasn’t getting into the spirit of the song, our daughter ran over and grabbed his hands. At first, we thought she was trying to help him up out of his wheelchair. Instead, she helped him lean over and touch his toes before declaring triumphantly, “Daddy toes.” She knew who he was and saw what he needed without having to be told.

Around every corner, it seems, there’s something new to explore as parents. Whatever your circumstances, or however your family may be different, it can feel overwhelming to venture into uncharted territory. But we’ve learned that change can be as stunning as it is scary, as sweet as it is stressful, and as inspiring and intimate as it is intimidating.

This post is sponsored by Pampers.