Cerebral Palsy

A Worthy Voice: An Adoptive Parent Who Cannot Carry Her Baby

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

Life and Death

In my line of work, I often get asked "What is so wrong with closed adoptions?" Well, the answer is, for some birth parents it's a lot like experiencing a tragic death, similar to a stillborn child.

I strive to educate people about the fact that whenever there is an omission of the facts, or we simply do not know the truth (about birthparent's reasoning for choosing adoption, or why a baby died minutes before delivering etc.), we tend to make things up to fill the huge void where there are so many unanswered questions (oftentimes, things like; I'm unworthy, the baby was unwanted or defective, or I'm a throwaway etc.).

Sometimes adoptive families feel as though life would be easier if they didn't know their biological parents, and that knowing an birth parent may aid in confusion in knowing who the "real" parent is. The truth is, the "real" parent is the one who actively parents, the person who takes care of the child, financially, physically, emotionally etc., however the birth parent is a huge piece of the child's identity and the child's life. There is simply never an advantage to maintaining secrecy for the adoptive parents' own satisfaction and ease or for any other reason.

Truth and openness always wins out. I have yet to hear of a scenario where knowing the truth was a hindrance or a misfortune.

I have known families to go through the awful pain and heartache of miscarriages, but never have I seen so closely the pain and anguish of having a stillborn child. This weekend I attended a funeral that devasted my heart, and completely restructured my thinking about life. The  funeral was for a stillborn baby, and not only the death of the baby, but the loss that the parents are experiencing.  The death of a baby is a profound loss. Attachment to a baby begins before conception, some parents read to their child, sing to their child, feel the child and fantasize about life with this child.  Not only have they lost a baby, but they've also lost the chance to see this child grow to become a living part of their family.

I can't help but let my mind wander towards adoption, and I have drawn comparisons between a stillbirth, and a closed adoption. In both scenarios birth parents go through excruciating pain in childbirth, and then are literally  never able to see the fruit of their labor. It's a tragic loss that deserves explanation, but in the case of a stillbirth sometimes there is never an explanation. People may never know why a death happened. In the days of old, when closed adoptions were the norm, this was a tragic loss of ever getting to know the life that you created and birthed.

To all, who hope to adopt someday please know that nothing the birth mother did or didn't do while pregnant with your child is directly related to their unique qualities, whether that's in the form of a disability or a superb ability. Whether it's Cerebral Palsy or super star athlete. We don't get to choose. And some people don't get to choose why they bear a child dead on arrival, or why merciless adoption caseworkers demanded secrecy surrounding the child that you birthed.

And, to all of those who hope to bear children biologically, we must know that nothing is ever a given. Every life (both in utero and out) is precious, and a miracle.