Listen to this Story
Narrated by Rebekah Taussig
The disabled community makes up one in four Americans, which means their lives are intertwined within the spectrum of all relationships. We’re focusing on the ways in which disability is intrinsic to everyday life, and how everyone is connected to it as part of the human experience.
When I clocked the two pink lines on my home pregnancy test, my body erupted with big feelings: fear, wonder, disbelief, regret, anticipation. In the midst of all of it, I also had an unexpected flash of hope that motherhood would finally catapult me into the club.
I’d been the only childless one in my peer group for years, clearly on the outside of the motherhood circle, separate and self-conscious with not much to add but chuckles and groans. No one was tapping their watch, wondering when I was going to procreate already — not because any medical professional had indicated I couldn’t have kids but because, somehow, my wheelchair swaddled me in a hazy cloud that obscured my sexuality and my uterus.
So when I realized I was about to become a mom, I wondered: Is this the beginning of a deep bond and camaraderie with other mothers? It was one of many questions I had about parenthood in a world that erases disabled people from the narrative.
Even as my belly grew over my paralyzed legs, I struggled to imagine myself as a mom. Part of it was purely practical. As my partner and I researched cribs and car seats, I saw hundreds of designs that were fundamentally incompatible with parents in wheelchairs. I’d also never seen a parent using a wheelchair put their baby in a car seat. What were the steps?
But part of my struggle to see myself as a mom was more abstract. Disability and parenting didn’t seem to coexist. When disability showed up in any parenting resources, it was always for nondisabled parents of disabled children. When I saw ads for things like detergent, or watched shows called Parenthood or Workin' Moms, nondisabled mothers were the ones being featured. It felt like my pregnant belly was breaking some kind of unspoken rule, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to do this. Without examples to guide me, it felt like I was on my own.
The day after my son Otto was born, he started crying and I couldn’t get him to stop. No matter how I held him or hummed in his ear or pushed my boob into his mouth, he continued. I handed him to his dad, ashamed that I was already failing this baby, still fresh from my womb. Micah, my husband, immediately started bouncing and pacing until the screams turned to whimpers and Otto fell into a peaceful sleep.
It was in that silence that I decided I was an imposter. It was a classic baby-soothing scene, one we’d repeat countless times over the next year, but the mismatch between who I was in this body and the role I was supposed to embody in that moment was too great. Each time I handed my inconsolable baby to his dad, I felt myself shrink.
That night was only the beginning, of course. There were so many ways I didn’t match the pictures of motherhood that were so deeply ingrained in my mind that I didn’t even realize they meant something to me. I didn’t push him in a grocery cart, carry him on my hip, support his early toddles with my outstretched arms.
The few times I took Otto out into the world — to the doctor's office, the bookstore, the park — people stared at us. My heart pounded under the scrutiny of so many long, neck-craning stares noticing the mom with a giant, bald baby on her lap. Some of the stares felt downright hostile, punctuated by furrowed eyebrows. Were they confused? Suspicious? Waiting for me to drop him?
Whenever I struggled or felt insufficient in my mothering, I didn’t think, “Wow, this mom thing is rough.” I thought, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a real mom.” I’d stumbled into the wrong room, only there was no door out and now I had to live here. I had to make a home where it seemed like I fundamentally didn’t belong.
One night, when Otto was only a few months old, I was watching a virtual panel of parents with disabilities when I learned that there are laws on the books in more than half the U.S. states — including the one where I was sitting in my wheelchair that very minute — that name disability as a reason to lose custody of a child. No proof of neglect or abuse is necessary, just the default assumption that disability and parenting are somehow incompatible. Otto slumped in a doze on my chest and I stopped breathing. We couldn’t ever leave the house again, I decided.
I tried to vocalize my self-doubts in the circle of other moms, that circle I wanted so much to be a part of. “Welcome to parenting!” they said. “Sorry, hon, but that’s how everyone feels.” I’m certain it was meant as a comfort. Like a lullaby, they cooed, You’re the same, the same, the same. We all feel self-doubt. We all struggle to adjust. We all have moments when we want to quit. Yeah, sure. But also, it didn’t feel exactly the same.
A few weeks later I sat on the toilet, watching Micah give Otto a bath. They were so perfectly content, smiling at each other between splashes, that they could have been in a commercial for baby soap. And I thought, “They’d be fine if I left. Better off, even.”
The feeling of being the one on the outside is so deeply terrifying — especially when it comes to adopting a new identity attached to a word as big as "mother." It’s not hard to understand why we hide our differences for the great, sweet relief of fitting in. We dole out assurances of uniformity to those around us too, confident it must feel good to hear, “Everything you’re feeling is normal. All of this is normal. We’re the same.”
Yet I wonder what we might find if we approached our incongruities with imagination instead of fear. I wish someone had told me, “What you’re experiencing is different, you are different, you have something different to offer. Lean into it.”
It’s easy for any of us to feel doubt under the towering shadow of parenthood. But our doubts are not the same. Is baby equipment designed with your body in mind? Have you seen any representations of parenthood that resemble you? Do you come from a history where people like you were forcibly or coercively sterilized? Did people write laws that claim who you are, fundamentally, provides sound reason to separate you from your child?
Our differences aren't limited to disability. We’re parents to kids who are wildly different from each other. The amount of money we have leads to vastly different life experiences. We become parents at different ages with different amounts of familial and community support. We have different personalities and life experiences and backgrounds. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The inner circle of mothers did give me their seal of belonging. They said “Welcome to the club!” with the best intentions. But it didn’t feel like acceptance. It felt like erasure. When sameness is doled out as the ultimate comfort, we’re perpetuating the idea that difference is something to avoid or fix. I wonder what new pictures of caring for our babies might flourish if we were released from the impossible task of matching. What if “Me, too!” weren't the only words of comfort at our disposal? I crave questions that allow us to be seen in our differences. Hearing “What is that like?” and “How does that feel?” could make space for differences inside a circle of belonging.
Otto is two now, and I feel less like a fraud than I used to. I can’t point to a single dot on the map where everything changed, except to say that I’ve spent more time here in this intersection between parenting and disability. I’ve seen our dynamics fluctuate — sometimes within a matter of days — when Otto’s ability or comprehension shifts.
My understanding of my responsibilities and values as a parent is sharpening, helping me weed out the nonsense from the essential. I still stick out at the park and the bookstore, but I’m learning not to shrink when people stare as Otto holds the hands of both his parents and strains in his attempt to drag me in my wheelchair, awkwardly, up the ramp to the library.
Our secret power is that we aren’t the same. Thank goodness. This is our own swath of earth we get to build on.
Rebekah Taussig is a Kansas City writer, educator and parent. Bolstered by academic knowledge and personal experience, she strives to tell stories that enhance and complicate the way we think about disability. You can find more of her work in TIME, on her Instagram, @sitting_pretty, or in her memoir in essays, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. You can follow her work and sign up for her newsletter at rebekahtaussig.com.