Review of Bigger Than the Sky: Disabled Women on Parenting, edited by Michele Wates and Rowen Jade
(London: The Women's Press Ltd., 1999)
Reviewed by Laura Hershey
[This review originally appeared at DisabilityWorld.org.]
One of the newer signs of the disability community's increasing confidence and complexity is our growing desire to become, and discuss becoming, parents. This is not to say that parents with disabilities is a new phenomenon. From time immemorial, people with disabilities have borne and raised children; and people already raising children have become disabled. But these parents have faced numerous obstacles -- as parents with disabilities still do -- and carried out their responsibilities in isolation from other disabled parents. The difference now is how we look at, and talk about, parenting with a disability. We're now more likely to view both the decision to parent, and the difficulties involved in that decision, through a lens of disability rights.
This perspective is evident throughout the 1999 anthology, Bigger Than the Sky: Disabled Women on Parenting. The essays, personal narratives, and poems contained in this volume cover many aspects of parenting with a disability, from the process of deciding whether to become a parent, to the ongoing challenges and joys involved in raising children.
For many of the women, the initial decision is neither obvious nor simple. Choosing children is always a weighty matter, but disability can add a host of complicating factors to the decision. Women with significant physical disabilities must contemplate what it means to nurture a child, knowing that hands-on child care tasks will be difficult or impossible. Alana Theriault, faced with the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy, raises this issue in her essay "Until Now." She writes, "I need help to care for myself in even the smallest ways. Can I care for someone else?" (p. 13)
Other women's concerns arise from even deeper doubts. Will the children of a disabled mother grow up with too many responsibilities, too little structure, or a life just a bit too far from the norm? A few of the writers consider the possibility that they will pass on a genetic condition to their children. For some, this causes worry and reservations about getting pregnant. For others, choosing to take that chance is a testament to the worth and quality of their own lives with disabilities, even when nondisabled spouses or family members express more negative reactions to the prospect. Deborah Kent explores this dynamic in her essay "Somewhere a Mockingbird," in which she discovers, to her surprise, that her husband is seriously concerned about the possibility of their child being born with her hereditary visual impairment -- even though he was able to accept her completely. "I did not know if I could bear his devastation," Kent writes, "if our baby turned out to be blind like me." (p. 47)
Some of the book's more painful and difficult passages come from women who acquire a disability midway through their parenting career. And yet these also offer some of the most affirming, hard-won insights. In "A Job for Life," Sue Firth admits that she occasionally fantasizes about either dying or being cured of her very debilitating fatigue. But her philosophy carries her through those difficult times. "My job as a parent hasn't changed since I became disabled, it's just the way I do the job that's changed," Firth writes. "I've always felt that my prime objective is to bring the lads up to be able to cope with life and it throws at you, and that's still what I am doing when I give them my presence, my time and, most of all, my love." (p 116)
In a society still torn by inequality and discrimination, raising healthy confident children is hard and necessary. The sense of
this important anthology can best be summarized by Wendy S Harbour's words in her essay, "A Few Thoughts about
Children." Writes Harbour, "A sense of pride in who we are carries over into a sense of pride in ourselves as mothers.
Whether you are disabled, deaf, lesbian, a person of color, or a member of any similarly oppressed group, you know that
your children will crawl forward with the weight of the world like lead in their diaper. The only way to ease their burden is
to raise children for the future -- children of possibility." (p. 20)
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