A friend of mine has always amazed me. She has juggled three kids; two of them twins, has lived abroad with her family, has forged a deep commitment to her faith and community and is a writer. She balanced all of this while acknowledging her own needs for personal and professional growth. None of this is easy. I recently had an opportunity for our families to get together. Our kids played in the other room while we sat at the table having a rare adult conversation. Of course within a few minutes, kids came bouncing into the room to settle disputes, declaration of boredom and requests for food. You could see the exhaustion on both of the parent’s faces — exhaustion that mirrored our own. After repeated attempts to address a sibling battle my friend suggested her children solve the problem themselves. I thought it was the sign of a wise and seasoned mother, to empower her kids to solve their own problems. Then my friend said, “You must think what kind of mother am I.” I was surprised by her comment and yet relieved by her honesty. My entire body unwound – relaxing the bounds of self-doubting fear, of internal judgment.
As a mom with a disability – despite my strong non-mom positive sense of my disability identity – I have had many many “you must think” moments. It can be challenging to manage my own needs, yet alone then needs of a vulnerable early life. I feared my energy level wouldn’t keep up with my son’s needs. When I couldn’t drag myself to all the “Mom’s Groups” or felt I didn’t fit with the able-bodied moms I felt isolated and ashamed for my son. Was he missing out on needed social interaction because my body could keep up? I uttered those same words I heard my friend say, “people must think what kind of mom am I.”
I was surprised how my own personal identity was eroded during the early months of motherhood. This was shocking to me. In my twenties I grew into my identity as a woman with a disability – with all of the dynamics of navigating ableist notions of dating, sex, and love. I formed life long friends in the community. I formed my career around disability advocacy. I work to transform the health care system, helping the industry better respond to people with disabilities needs and teaching the disability community to navigate a system far to complex, inefficient and economically cruel. A core part of my social identity is who I am as a proud disabled woman.
We are all trapped in the “you must think” moments of parenthood. It’s a code of silence – with only a precious few knowing the truth. The silence causes even the most honest of women to feel the pressure to transform to join the Stepford Wives guild. I had this experience repeatedly. When I asked for help, for guidance, for support, or simply wanted to express the truth of the struggle of early parenthood I got statements like:
“Most women do it themselves.”
“What do you expect I told you not to have children.”
“You better deal with it, you have this kid for the rest of your life.”
“You must be depressed.”
“I’ve never heard of a man having depression after a baby”
“You should get a counselor”
“You should give husband a break, time for himself”
“You should stop breastfeeding”
“You should breastfeed more”
“You should exercise more”
“You should sleep more”
“You should do less…”
“You should do more…”
It’s easy to offer drive by advice, to offer the you “should” solution to problems that need more that words that neither comfort nor support.
One of the best things someone did for me was offer to read to my baby while I took a shower. After she offered me some food, she shared all of her sarcastic stories of frustrated motherhood from infancy to teenage terror.
Yes, parenting is hard and to admit it does not make you a terrible parent. To not jump at every need and want of your child does not mean you are neglectful, or lazy in your ability to teach him or her the life lessons they must master. To admit exhaustion, fear of the relentless, tedious, mind numbing boredom, and suffocating feelings of the loss of autonomy, the being trapped aspects of infanthood, does not mean you are a woman on the verge of a depressed disaster. Yes, it’s normal to be afraid that your child goes to bed to late, wakes up to early, isn’t eating, hasn’t pooed, picks everything on their body, a sneeze and cough can take out the family for weeks, isn’t potty trained, won’t stop sucking that thumb, doesn’t brush their teeth, hits, kicks and bites other kids, is hyper, is to shy, is to this, is not doing that. As mothers, we are judged by how well our child’s physical and developmental milestones are aligned with the realm of the measured normal, of the clinically and socially expected. It is an unfair pressure and creates another layer of anti-disability dogma if our child also has a disability.
Children have the freedom of non-judgment, until we teach them and socially mold them to think otherwise.
Parenthood involves the family, even the community, any challenges that arise is blamed entirely on the birth mother, with a complete disregard for the adjustment of her partner, her family members or even her friends. When you struggle there’s nothing worse than pity. Sympathy and support? Yes, please. Pity? No.
I embrace my disability mom identity; a spastic mom that frequently spills milk!