My sister fulfilled her dreams of becoming a mother just ahead of my high school graduation, making me an aunt when the idea of babies was still just a vaguely positive notion to me. I always knew she'd be a mom — but me? It hasn't been that easy to ascertain. I have been a paraplegic using a wheelchair full time since I was 5, when a car accident left me unable to feel or use my legs from the waist down.
Aside from having a serious issue with stairs, I have a fairly normal life. I have a car (a Subaru sedan, modified so I can use hand controls), I live alone in New York City, and I can get around the city just fine. Certain adult achievements, though, have remained out of my grasp.
As a teenager, I thought I would want to have children. I had romantic visions of getting married right after college and having children right after that. Trying to find a college that was wheelchair-accessible alone taught me nothing would be "easy" — but I still hadn't quite considered that some later life milestones would come harder to me, too.
My niece, the first infant I’d ever seen that tiny, was like a crash-course in parenting for me. All excitement and exhilaration at this amazing thing I got to be a part of. But when she was about two weeks old, I was holding her in the living room of my parents’ house, and something on the back of my chair caused it to tip over. I held tight to the baby — and we were both fine — but the moment shook me. I immediately cried, which made her cry. I was afraid and sad, and so ashamed all at once. What if I had dropped her or hurt her in some way? What if my parents hadn’t been home, and I was unable to safely get her and myself off the floor? My reality was starting to settle in, and as she went into toddlerhood, it only became more real.
Everyday activities like buckling her in the car seat, safely fitting my wheelchair in the car next to her, and bathing her were more challenging than I would have imagined. When she started preschool, and I would pick her up in the afternoons, kids would always ask her about me. She was so patient and knowledgeable, explaining what was wrong with her Aunt Krissy, but it broke my heart that I had put her in a position to even need to answer those questions.
By the time I was 23, my thought on parenthood was that it would be utterly selfish of me to have a child. How could I potentially ever put another child through that hardship, and worse? I knew how much I had been picked on in elementary and middle school. I could only imagine what my hypothetical child would go through having a parent in a wheelchair.
I’d never get to play soccer with my child nor race them to the top of the stairs, and I feared for all the things they’d miss out on in life because of me. I was so afraid that if I were to have a child, they would somehow have less of a life because of me. I couldn’t bear that.
So I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that I didn’t want children. I told my friends that kids get in the way of traveling, that I wanted a busy career too much, and that parenthood seemed boring. Deep down, I knew I was pushing aside feelings that I didn’t want to confront.
Then, about three years ago, at the height of my self-doubt, my best friend had a baby, an adorable girl named Jessica. Those scary feelings I had when my niece was little began to creep up on me, but before I could back away, my friend handed her baby to me without a second thought. She had more faith in me than I had in myself.
The first time I had Jessica alone, she was about 10 months old. I was heading into the living room to change her at one point, and my front tire got caught on the carpet, sending us both tumbling forward. Jessica didn’t even realize what happened and laughed as we hit the ground. Yes, we were okay, but I had a hard time facing my friend when she got home that afternoon. It was that experience with my niece all over again; I felt as if I wasn't deserving of this special one-on-one time. I'm grateful that my friend never saw it that way.
Jessica's a rambunctious 2-and-a-half now, and she's grown me up with her in a lot of ways. The things I’m able to do and see with her have totally changed my mind about myself and my potential as a parent. I take her to the park, and we rough-house. I’m teaching her to golf, and we hang out all the time. She looks at me the same way she looks at any other person she loves. The chair literally doesn’t have a single impact on the way she interacts with me, other than she is finally starting to realize I can’t run up the stairs after her (thank goodness for baby gates).
A lifetime of hurdles can make anyone feel like they’re not “good enough” or not deserving of something as precious as parenthood. I spent the majority of my life looking at all of my (able-bodied) friends and viewing them as perfection, and thinking that because of my chair, I would never be able to be even half of what they are. Finally, I'm starting to figure out that's not the truth.
Here’s something true: I have a couple amazing friends who are in wheelchairs and have children. They’re as good parents as anyone else I know, making mistakes along the way and working their hardest to give their kids an amazing life. Sure, these particular people have spouses that do some of the things they can’t, whether it’s coaching soccer (for some reason, I have really romantic visions of soccer) or going hiking — but I've also learned that neither of those activities is required for a child to have a healthy upbringing in a family that loves her.
I know how much I love my niece and my best friend’s daughter: more than I ever thought I could love anyone. And I know how well I take care of them when I get to. I’m learning that, if I can love and care for someone else’s child so much, then my ability to be a good mother is only limited by the constraints I put on myself.
There are a lot of things that make someone unfit to parent, but in the last couple of years, I have realized that disability is not one of them. Everyone has their own struggles, and all children are going to have unique difficulties — and they’ll find something about their parents to resent as they get older no matter what. Why should I be any different?
I’m probably still years away from having children, and I can’t be sure exactly when or how it might happen for me, but realizing that it's a possibility I have no reason to discount has given me peace. It’s positively impacted the way I view myself and how I approach relationships. When it does happen, I’ll be as excited, ready, and (still a little) scared as anyone else. And, thanks to Jessica, I know my kid will be the one looking for the accessible ramp everywhere we go, or telling strangers that I’m in a wheelchair — and that it's really no big deal.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.