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10 Things I Wish People Understood About Being a Parent With a Disability

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Having been born with cerebral palsy, I thought I had a good handle on how the outside world viewed me and how to redirect misguided assumptions about my abilities. That is, until I became a mom at 28. Here are the top 10 things I wish people understood about being a parent with a disability.

1. She’s mine.

It happened more times than I can remember. My daughter and I would be out with one of my gal pals for shopping or lunch. I’d be pushing the stroller loaded with baby gear, and some well-meaning stranger would stop my friend and comment on how gorgeous her little girl was. I wanted to shout, “Over here! Yes, me, the one with telltale signs of sleep deprivation and spit-up on my shirt. I’m her mom!” It was as if they somehow believed my physical limitations would exclude me from having the same maternal desire, ability and right to create life as other women.

2. Everyday tasks sometimes require creativity.

I used a stroller to get my daughter from place to place before she started walking, and I still make sure I’m seated or leaning against a stable surface before I pick her up. I may accomplish some of the day to day responsibilities of motherhood differently than most able-bodied moms, but finding ways to adapt makes it possible for me to care for my daughter independently. 

3. I worry she’ll be treated differently because of my disability.

Let’s face it. Kids can be cruel, and a lack of education and awareness about disabilities often leads adults to perpetuate stereotypes unknowingly. Will other kids make fun of my daughter or exclude her because of my limitations? Will the parents of her peers hesitate to allow their child to accept a sleepover invitation? Growing up can be tough enough. I can only hope that by working to raise awareness now, I can help to eliminate some of the stigma that may impact children like my daughter who were born to a parent with a disability.

4. Don’t assume I’m not capable.

If you see me out with my child and think I need assistance, please don’t just jump in and take over. That only serves to make me feel inferior and teaches my child that Mommy needs to rely on others. Let me have a voice. Simply ask if I would like help. After all, every mom has been overwhelmed and in need of a third hand at some point. Still, if I decline your offer and assure you that I’ve got it under control, respect that and walk away. I know my limits, and I won’t tell you I’m OK if I’m really not. I promise.

5. When I can’t, it breaks my heart.

Like it or not, there are some things my disability prevents me from doing as a parent. For me, it’s mostly things that require a lot of balance without something solid to lean on. Every disabled parent’s limitations are different, but I believe we all share the same heartbreak and frustration when we have to explain to our children why we can’t carry them outside or toss them in the air like Daddy does. If you’re helping a parent with a disability in a moment like this, please don’t make a big deal out of it. Mom or Dad might feel bad enough simply because he or she needed your help in the first place.

6. The things you say affect me.

While you may be trying to compliment me by saying I’m “doing a great job as a mom, considering my disability,” comments like this aren’t actually helpful. Why? Because instead of helping to bolster my confidence, they create a slippery slope of self-doubt and make me question my abilities. Does “considering my disability” mean you still think I could do a better job if I were able-bodied? My disability is a part of who I am, both as a person and a parent, but it doesn’t define me in either role. Don’t get me wrong! We all need to hear we’re rocking this parenting thing once in a while, but if you think I’m doing a great job, just say so, and leave my physical abilities out of it. 

7. I am not an inspiration.

I didn’t beat some incredible odds, find the cure for cancer or ignore my own safety to save hundreds of people from certain demise. I’m simply living my life with the cards I was dealt. Just like every other person on the face of this planet.

8. Milestone moments are extra emotional.

Every parent beams with pride when their child rolls over for the first time or takes those first tentative steps. However, for parents with a physical disability, these moments may also bring with them a sense of relief and a twinge of envy. It’s hard to put into words how surreal it feels to watch your child easily navigate a task that is beyond your physical mastery, like running, jumping or climbing stairs without using a railing.

9. I’m just like every other mom.

I’m constantly juggling too much at once, trying to be a good role model and worrying about whether I’m making the right choices. My limits get tested, tantrums get thrown and there are days I survive on coffee alone. Still, my heart overflows with love. I proudly share when new skills are learned and wouldn’t trade the cuddles or sloppy kisses for the world. 

10. I am blessed.

Becoming a mother is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My daughter has taught me so much and shown me I’m capable of more than I would’ve ever given myself credit for. She is, without a doubt, my life’s biggest blessing. Becoming a mom has also made me more grateful for my disability, because it gives me opportunities every day to teach the value of open-minded acceptance and perseverance that I may not have had without cerebral palsy.

Michelle Keller with her family on a bench outdoors
Photo credit: KPhotography, LLC

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Originally published: September 15, 2015
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