I am an adoptive parent with a physical disability. There may be a common misconception that having a physical disability makes one less equipped to parent, and therefore less equipped to adopt children. But I find that growing up with a physical disability has prepared me in many ways for the unique challenges of adoptive parenting.
I have had cerebral palsy from the waist down since birth, which impairs my gait. I walk on my toes with my ankles out and knees in. I have heard it described as walking like a T-rex. This is a blunt but pretty accurate description.
My partner and I adopted domestically, because we wanted an open adoption that would allow our child’s biological parents (birthparents) to be in their lives. That means that in order to adopt we needed to be selected by the expecting parents.
When we first started in the process, I excitedly called the adoption agency that we were planning to use, to make initial contact. When I told the social worker that I was disabled, she said “Oh, well, it will probably be a long wait, because birth moms will probably want a healthy mom.” I explained that I was very healthy and active. She responded, “Well, you know what I mean. Have you considered going through a Christian agency?” After that phone call, I felt totally hopeless. I feared I would never be able to raise a child because of my disability. No one would want their child to have a disabled mom.
As it turns out, my disability was not an issue for us. We were found by a young woman who knew that we were the family for her little girl. Our adoption agency had to rush our paperwork to get everything done in time for the birth. Sometimes in the adoption process it is hard to know whose version of perfection you are living up to: is it the expectant mothers or the agencies who are looking for Joan Cleaver?
While my disability may have been viewed as a barrier to adopting, growing up with a disability has prepared me to be an adoptive parent in a number of ways. First of all, I know that not everything has to look the same. I can still walk; it just doesn’t look like your walk. I can carry a laundry basket up the stairs: just not the way that you would do it. I can be a strong and loving parent, recognizing my own limitations. I had to make adaptions to carry my daughter when she was a baby. At age two, she is too big for me to carry now, but we still snuggle and tickle and walk holding hands. Above all, I can still build a strong and loving family: it just might not look like yours. My daughter’s birth family is part of our extended family. That doesn’t mean that I am any less my daughter’s mom, or that my family is any less of a family. It just looks different. I am very proud of the family that we have built together.
I have spent my entire life answering insensitive questions about my personal life. I’ve been educating people for as long as I can remember. When I was in the first grade, I was so tired of all the questions about my walk and the staring from other kids that I made a poster about my disability and presented it to every class in my elementary school. By the time I was an adult, educating people in grocery store interactions was just part of life. So I am well practiced in the art of addressing such personal questions when they come up around my daughter’s adoption, or when people ask me why she does not look like me. Sometimes I answer these invasive questions. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I care enough to share with the person in front of me. Sometimes I don’t. I hope I can show my daughter that answering such questions is really up to her.
Last but not least, my daughter and I both lost something at birth that we didn’t know that we had. Now, I am not saying that being disabled and being adopted are the same. Obviously, they are not. But I think there are some similarities in terms of both living with loss, and the evolving understanding and meaning of that loss over the course of our lives.
My daughter and I both have the “what if” factor. When we first brought my daughter home, I was deeply saddened that she had already lost something, and that she had no say in it. No matter what I did, or how much I loved her, I could never make up for that loss. She would always have the questions: What if I wasn’t adopted? What would my life be like? Who would I be? It reminded me of all the times growing up what I had wondered the same thing about myself. My disability is such a huge part of who I am that I often wondered who I would have been, had I not been disabled at birth. What path would my life have taken?
I hope that I can use these experiences to help my daughter navigate her own as she grows up. I will remember that, although I was sad at times, I never wanted to be someone else. I never disliked my life. I was just mourning an inherent loss. And so, when my daughter is feeling sadness related to her adoption, I will put my arm around her, and say;
“It is okay to be sad sometimes. It doesn’t mean you are not happy with who you are, or your life. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your dad and me. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be sad about what might have been. Please remember, all of this makes you the wonderful person that you are. You are stronger for the journey.”
–Mary Robison, Adoptive Parent