After ten years, the fact that I am a mother is not particularly newsworthy. Yet it can still catch me off guard.
Lately, Ethan ends each school day by phoning me at the library where I work.
“Mom, I’m going to the park.”
“Okay, Honey,” I say, trying to leave the surprise out of my voice. “Keep your cell phone on.”
During these calls, he sounds very grown-up. It’s clear he loves his new independence. He can walk around town with friends when, just a year ago, he had to wait for me to pick him up and could play in the park only if I were free to stay and watch him.
As strange as it is to hear him sound so grown up, it’s even more startling to realize that I myself am mature enough to be the parent, the one responsible for his health and well-being. The adult who signs his permission slips and gets him to a dentist reasonably often. The one who makes sure he understands his homework and eats enough vegetables.
I imagine teen mothers must have these thoughts; but I was in my thirties when Ethan was born. I’m middle aged and yet I still feel like a kid pretending.
Birth order has something to do with it. I was the baby of the family, my parents’ beloved surprise child, conceived after they assumed their childbearing days were over. I was coddled and prized, reason enough to hold onto the identity of a child. But my hesitancy to fully own my status as an adult has even more to do with disability.
Premature and frail, I needed a full blood transfusion at birth and spent my first six weeks in an incubator. My parents worried that I might not make it. Only after my first birthday did they let themselves believe I’d be alright. When I learned to crawl, I palmed the floor with my left hand; but on the right, I reached with a folded elbow. “Cute,” my mother thought, “Quirky.” But when I stood for the first time, at two and a half, I was unstable and pigeon-toed. It was then that they received my diagnosis of mild cerebral palsy.
My gait is awkward and slow, but I was never sickly or fragile. Still, my mother was nervous and overprotective. In our yard, she’d insist I wear a sweater if she felt chilled no matter how fervently I assured her I was comfortable. At the playground, she’d give me pats instead of pushes so that the swing barely moved; and when I drew near the tempting steps that led to the top of the slide, she’d whisk me away saying brusquely, “That’s not for you.”
As is true for many children with disabilities, my parents gave me mixed messages. What they said, on the rare occasions we spoke about my cerebral palsy, was that it was nothing, barely noticeable, that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish if I set my mind to it. But their actions told me otherwise. My mom was quick to do things for me — tie my shoes, clip my nails, butter my toast — long after I was able to accomplish these tasks on my own. Similarly, if I offered to help my dad as he hung pictures or painted sills he would decline, only to ask for the same assistance moments later from my able-bodied sister or one of our friends.
I was a good student, so I grew up knowing I was smart. But when it came to taking care of myself or others, I’ve always felt somewhat inept. To this day, the simple chore of doing a load of laundry feels beyond my abilities. It doesn’t matter that I have washed clothes with relative success every week since I left for college more than two decades ago. I feel daunted each time I set out to do it. There’s no logic to the feeling, except if you believe — as I do — that the children we were are very much alive inside of us.
I recently attended a lecture by parenting skills educator Patty Wipfler. She spoke about the emotional lives of children; among the many things I learned that evening was that long-term memory and emotions sit very close together in the brain.
In the house where I grew up, the washing machine was in the basement. The stairs were slanted and a bit precarious, and rather than teach me to take my time and walk down them carefully, my parents didn’t allow me to use them. Thus learning to do laundry was literally out of my reach.
I don’t mean to suggest that adult experience doesn’t also effect one’s self perception. My partner, Dan’s childhood was nothing like mine. From preschool through junior high, he went to a boarding school for blind students where independent living skills were part of the curriculum. Also, his parents were diligent about teaching him to be self-sufficient. Yet I notice he too, at ten years older than I, will often express astonishment over his status as an adult.
This past Easter we made a traditional dinner of ham, green bean casserole, and mashed sweet potatoes. After several steaming mouthfuls, Dan beamed at me. “This tastes like it was made by real adults!”
My first reaction was pure recognition. I too felt pleased and surprised. But then I had to wonder why. Together and apart, we’ve made countless, equally delicious meals. I’m certain that the root of this tendency in both of us is disability. Dan may not have been pampered the way I was in my youth, but he is blind, and people often treat visually impaired adults as though they’re children.
“Where’s he going?” I’m asked on trains, as if he can’t hear or speak for himself. And in restaurants, “Does he want coffee or tea?”
If it wasn’t so exasperating, I’d laugh. Dan has two master’s degrees. Meanwhile, my son has been ordering for himself since he was two years old.
It is common and far-reaching — from family members to perfect strangers — to infantilize people with disabilities. In part it’s because we do sometimes need assistance. Well-meaning people can be awkward and unsure as to how much and what kind of help to offer. Unfortunately there are also those who simply see us as lesser. The best form of activism, I believe, is to prove them wrong by living the richest, most accomplished lives we can.
But what about this sense of incompetence that so many of us have internalized? Why do we treat ourselves as if we were children?
I think it’s healthy and appropriate to marvel at some of my own accomplishments — a well prepared meal, my thriving child. I can recognize it as a form of gratitude. But I would love to approach my next load of laundry without feeling overwhelmed. Maybe the answer lies with that little girl who wasn’t allowed down the rickety steps. Maybe I can go down with her into memory’s basement and help her discover how very capable she actually is.