“My mommy fell down today," my daughter sometimes tells people, whether we're at school, at dance class, or out running errands. "Daddy picked her up.” When I hear her say this, it fills me with pure dread. I am a disabled mom, and I know people already judge me for it. So when my daughter announces to strangers that I "fell down" (an occurrence that, it must be said, happens relatively rarely), I brace myself for the inevitable dirty looks.
I have cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects muscle tone and coordination. I don't consider my disability a burden or a blessing. It's just as much a part of me as my dark hair, freckles, and snarky sense of humor, and it hasn't stopped me from making my own decisions in life about what to do, where to go, or who to marry. It also didn't stop me from becoming a mother, and my family has been incredibly supportive of every decision I've made. In fact, the only pushback I've received about my life choices has been from people who don't really know me.
When I told my family I was expecting my daughter, they were overjoyed. It wasn't until my pregnancy became visible that the questions and comments began. “Did you plan this?” “Do you know what you’re getting into?” “Who is going to take care of it?” From grocery store clerks to ER techs, total strangers couldn’t fathom the idea that a woman who uses a scooter could possibly have the capacity to decide to have a baby, let alone know how she was going to take care of it.
After my daughter was born, the questions changed a bit, but they were just as judgmental as ever. “Who does she belong to?," people would ask me, or my personal favorite: “Who helps you?” Every atom in my body screamed at me to tell these people off, but to paraphrase Michelle Obama, when they went low, I tried to go high. Usually, I just flipped my hair, put on a charming smile, looked them in the eye, and said, “We work together.” Then I'd high-five my daughter and I'd walk or scoot away.
Eventually, it occurred to me that it doesn't matter what a stranger thinks about my ability to parent a child. What does matter, however, is how my 4-year-old sees me react to such criticism. I don't want her to think that growing up with a disabled mom is a liability, because it's not. It’s an asset that will serve my daughter throughout her childhood and into adulthood.
If I happen to fall, I don't stop until I get up — and I always get up.
My daughter sees me in a lot of places: working in my office, cooking in our kitchen, reading books at her school, playing ball with her in the house (yes, you read that right). Occasionally, she'll see me prone on the floor, where I'm alternately scanning for spots my husband missed with his vacuum, and planning my attempt to get up and rejoin the land of the standing. She sees me pull myself up on tables and chairs. She sees me lower myself down stairs. If I happen to fall, I don't stop until I get up — and I always get up.
These are the moments when I teach my daughter about the value of resilience, and how important it is to have a sense of humor in the face of adversity. Whether you’re falling literally or figuratively, you have to show your child that it’s not the end of the world. If you don't manage to pick yourself up the first time, you can always try again.
These life lessons aren’t limited to the times that I find myself inspecting our hardwood flooring. In our daily life, we all work as a team. All three of us — my daughter, my husband, and myself — step up to do our jobs, from making dinner to doing laundry. When she was just 18 months old, my daughter got her own plate or sippy cup and put them in the sink when she was finished. Now that she is older, her responsibilities have expanded to tasks like feeding the cat and picking up her toys. Having little daily responsibilities gives her a sense of purpose and self-determination.
Empathy is second nature to my daughter. When a baby toddled and fell on the carpet outside her dance class, my daughter ran through the crowd to pick her up and make sure she was OK. And when she saw a receptionist who was a power chair user, she struck up a conversation with her and told that her mommy had a wheelchair, too.
One of the life lessons I teach her on a daily basis is that there is any number of paths to a solution. Because my mobility is limited, I find creative solutions for simple tasks. When our mid-century cabinet doors get stuck, my huge spatula does double duty as a pry bar; when I can't reach a mug, I can flip the spatula around to grab it. My daughter knows that her mommy can’t run fast to chase her, but I can zoom after her in my scooter around our front yard, and we can play with Legos or do crafts together on elevated surfaces. It isn't about where we spend time together, so long as we're spending time together in the first place.
Empathy is second nature to my daughter. When a baby toddled and fell on the carpet outside her dance class, my daughter, who was then 3 years old, ran through the crowd to pick up the little girl and make sure she was OK. And when she saw a receptionist who was a power chair user, she struck up a conversation with her and told that her mommy had a wheelchair, too. She accepts people as they are, and she has a remarkable ability to put herself in someone else's shoes (or wheels).
Other people might see my disability and view it as a problem, or something that gets in the way of my ability to parent. But what they perceive as an imperfection, I see as a viable opportunity to give my daughter the tools she needs to be a successful person. I don't have to bake a dozen organic cupcakes for the PTA and carry them through a hot yoga class (or do hot yoga in the first place). I am a great mom with an awesome kid. And guess what? So are you.