lessons i’m learning in my toddler’s dance class, and a Claire Bear update


In this room full of toddlers in tutus, absolutely no one is worried about their rounded belly under purple spandex. No one has given a thought to her chubby thighs in pink tights. Not a one has looked in envy upon the body of her classmates. Instead, as a boombox plays an instrumental of “Beauty and the Beast,” they giggle and grin. They grab hands and twirl. They hug and spin. They are grace in action, even as they regularly fall down.

Even as I feel my own infrequently-exercised thighs burning as we march with high knees and pointed toes around the room, I’m learning powerful lessons too. And they have nothing to do with poise or pointe, and everything to do with grace. Grace for myself and my perfectly imperfect body. Grace and love for the women around me, that I may see them as hands to hold and partners to dance with, not competition or something to compare myself to. Grace, even, for my toddler when she refuses to participate with the rest of the class on a particularly bad morning.

Six weeks of dance classes with Etta Jane are drawing to a close, and I am happy to sign us up for the next six. My happiness is doubled because this time, I get to sign Claire Bear up too. After a year and a half in developmental preschool, Claire has made a lot of amazing progress. Enough, in fact, that we feel ready to back off on some of her therapies. She’s going to be staying home with Etta Jane and me, and we’ll be seeing her PT on an outpatient basis. I am thrilled to get more time with my girl before she has to start real preschool all too soon, and I know she’s going to love dance class as much as Etta Jane and I do. I talked to the teacher and made sure that it would be ok if she had to wear braces and sneakers instead of ballet shoes, and was assured that she is more than welcome to join the class. Grace abounds. There was a point where I didn’t think our girl would walk, and now she’s ready to DANCE.

Dear me on diagnosis day:

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Over the past three years, there have been many times that I’ve thought about me on our Diagnosis Day, the day we found out that one of the babies then growing in my belly had spina bifida. It was my 27th birthday. We were excited to find out if our twins were boys or girls. We found out they were girls, and we also found out “Baby B,” the “one in the top bunk” had something wrong with her head and spine.  Continue reading “Dear me on diagnosis day:”

the #1 thing I want you to know about Spina Bifida isn’t about folic acid

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It’s apparently folic acid awareness week. Which means I’m on my soapbox again.

It started when I saw the posts from the Spina Bifida Association on Facebook, again letting their audience of people who already have SB in their lives know that SB can sometimes be prevented by making sure women of childbearing age are getting enough folic acid even before they become pregnant, as neural tube defects happen so early in a pregnancy that by the time you miss your period and start taking your prenatal vitamins, it’s too late. But I have a feeling if you’re following the SBA on Facebook, you already know that.

Continue reading “the #1 thing I want you to know about Spina Bifida isn’t about folic acid”

it’s not that hard, and i’m not that special

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Guess what? It’s still October, and it’s still Spina Bifida Awareness Month. Inspired by this post my friend Mary Evelyn wrote last year addressing reader questions about SB, I thought I’d cover a biggie that I’ve never answered before: How hard is this SB/special needs parenting thing day to day?

Like Mary Evelyn, I have to say: it isn’t.  Continue reading “it’s not that hard, and i’m not that special”

coming into awareness

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We’re sitting on the couch. Claire reaches up her dimpled hand and touches the knot just behind her right ear, mostly hidden in her loopy white blond curls. “I have an ouchy.” “Oh baby,” I say, “that’s not an ouchy, that’s your shunt! You have that because you have Spina Bifida. Your shunt helps your head feel better.” “Oh,” she says, “I have a buckle on my head.”  Continue reading “coming into awareness”

why I call myself a #spinabifida mom

Why I call myself a #spinabifida mom
#spinabifida mom tip: a small shopping cart makes an excellent mobility tool at an outdoor Easter egg hunt.

If you read my Twitter bio, you’ll notice that among the facts about myself I chose to include in my scant 140 character allowance, I use the phrase #spinabifida mom.

This means my feathers were somewhat ruffled last night when someone I follow (and like!), whose baby has recently undergone surgery, expressed bewilderment that some moms choose to identify themselves through their children’s illnesses. For one thing, my daughter’s disability is not an illness. It’s not something that we can treat and eventually put behind us. It’s part of who she is and has been since long before she was born. It has shaped our lives in many ways up to this point, and it will be a defining (note I said “a” and not “the”) factor in the rest of our lives. Spina Bifida will mean more surgeries. It will mean more therapies. It will mean doing many day-to-day life processes differently. It will mean concerns about the accessibility of public places and the adaptability of certain activities. It will mean advocacy and activism and acceptance. It’s just a fact that it’s a huge part of Claire’s life, and, because we are her parents, ours.  Continue reading “why I call myself a #spinabifida mom”

watching Frozen with my daughters: disability as superpower and the power of sister-love

My kids are only two, so I’m still not fully in the loop of kid-culture. Frozen largely stayed off my radar during its run in theaters, because I am NOT crazy enough to take these two to a movie in a theater yet, and I didn’t even see trailers because we don’t have cable and they don’t show ads for movies on Hulu very often. I’d see posts in my social media feeds from moms of older kids complaining about watching it for the umpteenth time, or having the songs stuck in their heads, and I even saw a few videos shared that related to the film, like those self-declared good-looking parents lipsynching. (Tip: unless you’re Derek Zoolander, never talk about how good-looking you are.)  Continue reading “watching Frozen with my daughters: disability as superpower and the power of sister-love”

inspiration?

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Although I finally closed comments on my “Not a Hero” post, likes and feedback continue to roll in. Nothing I’ve ever written has generated such a response before, and I am so thrilled and humbled. Perhaps most of all, the feedback that has meant the most to me is that of adults with disabilities, who without exception, have told me basically, right on, I’m not a hero, just a person living my life.

And while it may sound counter to my “not a hero” message, I find them, the people who have left these comments and messages, incredibly encouraging. Not in a patronizing way, but in a window to the possible future for my daughter sort of way. Just as I want my girls to know and see strong, smart women out in the world as encouragement, as windows to their possible futures, I want Claire to see normal, everyday people with disabilities to let her know that there are all sorts of possibilities for her life. Possibilities that include meaningful work, deep relationships, fun hobbies, athletics and exercise, and anything else she may so desire.

When we got our diagnosis, I knew nothing about spina bifida, and our doctors seemed to know very little about what we could expect for our daughter, because spina bifida includes such a range of disability and experience. This whole journey has been characterized by a deep hunger for knowledge on my part. I remember finding the blogs of parents raising kids with SB, and just putting a face, a beautiful KID face, to what was at first a scary and mysterious disease gave me so much peace. Now, as she grows, I find myself still hungry, not so much for facts, but for glimpses of what her life might be. And the more I read and hear from adults with disabilities, the more I realize that my hopes for her as a person with a disability aren’t that different for my hopes for my girls as future-women. I want freedom, autonomy, and bravery for them both. I want them both to have the courage to stand up to both sexist and ableist oppression that they may encounter in their lives.

It’s why I related so well to this post, which I found via Rachel Held Evans. The writer talks about seeing adults with disabilities in a new way as the parent of a child with a disability, and finding them inspiring, and in the piece she tries to draw a distinction between that and the patronizing, limiting “inspiration” I addressed in the “Not a Hero” post. I think, as Ellen seems to be saying in her post as well, that the difference is largely a problem with the word “inspiration.” We rightly bristle at the idea that our kids are “inspiring” just for navigating the world in the only bodies they have ever known– that’s no more noble than any of us learning to navigate the world in the only bodies we’ve ever had. But we also, like any other parent, are searching for role models for our kids. Not role models as in Batman or even Olympians, but actual people, whose lives look like their lives. We face a future full of unknowns, and we just want to see that there are lots of possible futures, and they’re good. I’ve heard moms of boys talk about finding good male role models for their sons. As a mom to girls, I feel no qualms talking about my desire for good female role models. And as the mom to a daughter with a disability, I look for the same.

I’m thankful my post has connected me to so many perspectives from so many voices I wasn’t reading before. I’m just starting out, and I have much to learn in order to best raise my daughters to be women in the world.

my child with a disability is not my hero

IMG_0128When we first began our journey with spina bifida, I didn’t know anyone with SB or anyone whose kid had it. One of the best things that has happened over the last two years is I have found other people who are going through the same thing, bloggers whose kids have SB, and message boards full of parents whose kids have SB. This community has been helpful and informative, but most of all, it has let us know that we’re not alone. Still, some things have become apparent as we’ve delved more into the special needs community that make me uncomfortable, and one of them really crystalized for me yesterday when chatting with a friend who also has a toddler with SB. Basically, as my friend and I agreed, it’s this:

The tendency of parents of kids with special needs and disabilities to say their kids are “heroes” makes me deeply uncomfortable. 

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. We see our kids go through so much more than most typical children deal with– surgeries, therapies, challenges, and pain, and we see our kids thrive and survive in spite of it all. We’re impressed by their resilience, and we want to express that. Also, in a world that marginalizes and devalues many people with physical and cognitive disabilities, we want to affirm the worth and value of our kids. I see no malice there.

But what concerns me is that calling our kids heroes is just another form of dehumanization and marginalization. Our kids are KIDS, first and foremost. They’re people, human beings, whose value lies simply in the fact of their personhood, not in milestones or hurdles overcome. When we put them on pedestals and call them heroes, we make them something other than human beings. And we give them a standard that, at times, may be hard for them to live up to. They might not always feel like being heroic. Sometimes they might just want to be kids, people, frustrated and fed up and overtired and hungry and in a bad mood and all the other less-heroic stuff we feel from time to time.

Having twins, one of whom has SB and one who doesn’t makes this really apparent to me. Both of my kids are just people, existing in the bodies they were given, facing any challenges that come their way. To borrow a phrase that I learned from Sesame Street*: having spina bifida is normal and natural and fine for my daughter. She’s not heroic for existing in her body any more than anyone else is, because she has always been this way. Calling her a hero is just another side of the coin from feeling sorry for her, and I don’t want people to do either. I want her to have the beautiful freedom to be a complex, complicated human being who both overcomes challenges and makes mistakes, who can be joyful and angry and every other emotion there is, with no pressure to be anyone but herself. She’s no hero, she’s something much more magical and mundane: a little girl, full of untold potential, just like her sister.

*We recently watched an old episode of Sesame Street which featured a young man named Rocco who happened to be blind. He is introduced to Elmo, and when Elmo finds out Rocco is blind, he says “I’m sorry.” Rocco tells Elmo he doesn’t have to be sorry, because being blind is normal and fine for him, just like being able to see is normal and fine for Elmo. I really loved it. Plus, Rocco is a great singer.

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