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How I Became the 'One Arm Wondermom'

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March has been my least favorite month for the past 17 years. March 22, 2001 was the day my mother passed away. I was only 18 years old, in my second semester at college, and we were all shocked by her sudden death. My mother was my cheerleader; she was my rock, my motivator. I knew I could do anything because of her. Why is this any different than any other daughter who lost her mother at a young age? Well, I was born with a limb difference.

In 1982 I was born to two wonderful parents who were surprised, as well as the doctors, when I came out missing my right hand and most of my forearm. Back then they referred to it as a congenital amputation, though my arm just never fully formed. My parents were amazing and adjusted to a life that was going to be different. My parents treated me just like every other child. My arm made me different, but it did not limit my abilities. Throughout my childhood and adolescence I knew I could do anything. I enjoyed playing softball and basketball, I played the cello, got my driver’s license and my own car, did great in school and was on the debate team in high school. I never doubted myself.

When my mother passed away I was coming into adulthood — 18, almost 19 years old. The day she passed I knew how much she would miss in my life — my wedding, my career, and future children. It was up to me to remember that I could do anything. My life continued on; I got married the following year to my high school love, moved away (he is in the U.S. Coast Guard), and started my adult life. My husband and I moved around the first five years of our marriage to different states per his military assignments. We finally decided to have children in 2008 and welcomed our first son.

Throughout my pregnancy and birth of my son I was emotional, as any first time mom would be. I also had immense feeling of grief and loneliness. “How am I going to know what to do, and be a mom without my mom?” I thought. Funny thing about motherhood, we figure it out for ourselves. Some of us are lucky to be surrounded by mothers from our own family, and others figure it out on their own. I had plenty of friends who had children of their own and were there to support me and my new journey into motherhood.

The one thing that was on me was how to do all the normal tasks of caring for a baby with one hand. I did not know any other one handed/armed moms in my entire life. Carrying my son, changing his diapers and feeding him were all tasks I had to figure out how to do myself. I’m grateful that none were difficult to do and I instinctively knew how to compensate, but the anxiety and judgment I put on myself was the worst.

I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of attention that isn’t always positive. I did not want that for my children. I had always wanted children, thought I would be a good mom, but I always had reservations because I did not want my children to be persecuted for my appearance. Though society has become more accepting of differences, it’s still going to be some time before you can walk down the street without a second look when missing limbs or wearing a prosthesis that is visible. I have grown accustomed to them and know how to interpret looks or stares. They can be out of curiosity, pity, amazement or even disgust (those don’t happen very often). But I didn’t want my children to experience it.

Once my first son was born, there was no going back. I was just like every mom. I went to the store to get supplies, walked aimlessly around a certain store enjoying a fancy coffee and staring at my sweet baby asleep in his carrier, just to get out of the house. I realized then that I didn’t get looked at as much as I thought I would for having a baby. I had built it up in my head. I slowly became immune to any judgmental looks I might receive here or there. I became confident in my abilities as a mom. I knew I was taking care of my baby the best I could, and I was equal to someone with two hands. My child wasn’t lacking for cuddles, love or any needs, he just had a mom who had one hand!

Kim Stumbo sits outside, wearing a green dress and showing her prosthetic hand..

That’s when it clicked, I was pretty “bad a$$.” I did all these things with one hand that were exhausting for every new mom, but I did them just the same! A few years later my husband and I had our second son. This again presented unique challenges, so I thought. Two kids, one hand, hmm. Well surprise, surprise I didn’t falter. I had certain adaptations I used to make my life easier, but overall, I was again just like any other mom of two kids. I didn’t think twice about doing anything or going anywhere, I had my system. For anyone to be successful they need their own system, not just those with disabilities. Every mom has their way of getting their kids in and out of the car, into a cart, playing at the playground etc.

By the time I had my third son, I had this mom thing down. I had a 6-year-old and an almost 3-year-old. I had survived the beginning of school age kids, toddler years x2 and being pregnant with a toddler. I didn’t think anything could rattle my ability or confidence. Haha, I was so wrong. My youngest son decided to test my abilities further than I ever thought. After being hospitalized with preeclampsia at 26 and a half weeks gestation he was delivered via emergency c-section (my first one) and he was only 28 weeks gestation — a whopping 2 pounds, 12 ounces.

I have a medical background which is a blessing and a curse in these situations. I was an Occupational Therapy Assistant and had worked in pediatrics for six years at that point along with geriatrics for four years. I knew the complications that can come from prematurity — cerebral palsy, ROP, heart issues, developmental delay. I didn’t know what the future held for my youngest son and myself. I would handle it no matter what; that was never in question. I can only say we were beyond blessed that he survived, has no lasting effects from his traumatic and premature birth, and I had the support of wonderful nurses and doctors who never doubted my ability to participate in his care during his NICU stay or my ability to be a mother to a child with additional needs.

During his NICU stay I visited every day, helped with his basic care needs, held and snuggled him (once he was able to be held), and didn’t need any help once I was taught how they did the tasks. I only needed to adapt certain activities; mostly it was how they would hand him to me, or which side of the incubator I stood on to change his tiny diaper. Being in the NICU is a stressful experience for anyone; luckily my arm or lack thereof did not cause any additional stress. I maintained my confidence in my abilities and explained to the nurses who cared for my son if there were certain things I needed to allow me to still be his mother, even in this setting.

We were able to bring home our youngest when he was 10 and a half weeks old. He was still on oxygen, a very low setting but he needed it to maintain his saturation for the next four weeks. I learned how to carry him — the tubing, his monitor and his portable O2. It wasn’t fun or easy, but I did it. Thankfully after that first month home he became strong enough to come off the oxygen and has been great ever since! He had early intervention physical therapy and then speech therapy, but was discharged and completely caught up before he was 3 years old. Today you would never know his rough beginning by looking at him!

I now have two school aged children, which is the “next level” in parenting, haha. Now we aren’t the only ones teaching them, protecting them and directing them in life. They will be exposed to lots of different personalities, ideas and kinds of parenting. When my oldest started kindergarten I got the jitters again about my parenting skills. Now his classmates would know, see and be exposed to me. I never hid before; my arm was visible I answered questions for strangers and my children have an age appropriate understanding of why Mommy doesn’t have two hands. But a class of children would know their classmate’s mom was “different.” I wondered how many would be flat out scared of me, then reflect that onto my son, how many would think it was weird, and how many would just accept and not give it a second thought. My concerns and fears were never for myself; I could handle the reactions. It was always for my children; I never wanted my child to be sad because another person reflected their feeling of me and my difference onto him.

I decided I wouldn’t just sit back and let it play out, let’s address it. My mother would come to school at the beginning of each year in elementary school to do a presentation with me about my arm and my prosthesis. This helped me and got the questions out of the way first thing and then friendships developed as they would like any other child. I made a point to be visible in the school(s), to show up and be a regular sight. It not only has helped my children but other kids as well. They are now exposed to something they may not see otherwise.

Amputees are a smaller portion of those with visible disabilities, so it’s great when we have representation, especially upper extremity amputees. I have continued my involvement with my boys’ schools even doing presentations in classes regarding my arm, my “robot hand” prosthesis and turning them into educational moments and not just acceptance of those with disabilities and differences. We might end up with more people involved with biomechanics, prosthetics and science-based professions just from being exposed to someone like myself. I can also say that to this day I have only had one interaction/event that was negative with any child/student at my sons’ schools. That’s not bad, especially out of over 1,000 kids who have been in contact with me. I have explained to my boys that not everyone is friends with everyone, and that is OK. But no one should make you feel bad, make fun of or bully you for any difference you have or your parent/family has. Respect and acceptance are the key; friendships are not guaranteed. Thankfully my boys have always been 100 percent OK about my arm, just like me, they have known no different!

My boys are now 9, 6, and 3 years old, and I look back at where I started and can’t believe it. How scared I was to bring these tiny humans into the world, thinking I would harm them because of my limb difference. It’s the opposite. I think my difference has made me a better mom, because I strive to overcome, not limit myself or my children. They have given me a confidence I never had before. When you are responsible for another life, you become a superhero. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my boys, just like any parent. I am no different.

This story originally appeared on The One Arm Wondermom.

Originally published: May 21, 2018
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