5. Challenges Facing Mothers with Disabilities

[15] Beginning in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, attention was brought to issues facing mothers with disabilities. In response to a number of highly publicized court cases, public debates ensued about the fitness of disabled women to conceive and give birth, and of disabled mothers to be parents. Supplementing these debates was an emerging body of research on mothers with disabilities. (n14) Yet, well into the mid 2000’s researchers decry a lack of research on parenting with disabilities.

[16] In 2003, the American Psychological Association published an article on misperceptions and flawed assumptions guiding research on parents with disabilities. The article identifies three particularly damaging, and persistent, assumptions at work in research on the topic:

Pathological assumptions frame most studies, revealing the widespread belief among professionals that disability severely limits parenting ability and often leads to maladjustment in children … Research typically fails to consider fundamental distinctions among disabilities, such as types and levels of functioning … Studies often confuse correlation with causation. When disabled parents have troubled children … researchers often presume that the disability caused the problem, without considering contextual factors such as poverty, parents’ history of being abused as children, substance abuse and a lack of adequate support. (n15)

As recently as 2008, in an article on low-income mothers with disabilities, both these assumptions and a continued “paucity of research” are cited as obstacles to the success of those who are parenting with disabilities. (n16)

[17] The research that does exist on mothers with disabilities identifies a number of common experiences that serve as obstacles to successful parenting, first and foremost, the absence of supportive networks of similarly disabled friends, neighbors, and co-workers. While all mothers rely on family, friends, neighbors and colleagues for help with the psychological challenges and practical tasks of parenting, such networks are harder to find for mothers with disabilities. “What parents with disabilities need is the support of from other people with disabilities (who can affirm) that they’re going to be able to do a good job.” (n17)

[18] Most parents struggle with doubts about their parenting abilities, but for parents with disabilities these doubts are confirmed, repeatedly, in the comments of strangers, health care professionals, even family members. Deborah Kent shares a particularly disturbing, but nonetheless characteristic, encounter between a stranger and a mother who is disabled. In this case, the mother’s disability is blindness.

As she was out shopping one day, carrying her baby in a backpack, a stranger launched into a vitriolic tirade, denouncing her for selfishly bringing a child into the world when obviously she couldn’t take care of it. A few days later she received an unexpected visit from Child Protective Services. There had been an anonymous report, which had to be investigated. Though the social worker found nothing amiss, and admitted the baby looked healthy, happy, and clean, the agency continued to call and visit for the next five years. (n18)

The intense surveillance of mothers with disabilities reinforces internalized self-doubts about their ability to be “good mothers.”

[19] In addition, because of prejudices about their ability to protect and care for children, young girls with disabilities are rarely given opportunities to learn and develop parenting skills. For example, many girls are active in babysitting their own family’s and neighbors’ children. Such experiences provide ‘hands-on’ training in the care of babies and young children. But disabled girls are rarely asked to babysit, and are discouraged from pursuing such opportunities. The lack of opportunity, combined with the need disabled women have to develop novel ways of parenting (ways that compensate for a variety of impairments), leaves such women further underprepared for mothering. It is no wonder that they doubt themselves, and no wonder that finding other disabled mothers is a crucial for their survival. (n19)

[20] There are also unique physical limitations that mothers with disabilities must face. For example, while sleep deprivation interferes with the cognitive functioning of all who undergo it, mothers who are already cognitively disabled experience more significant challenges as a result of this fact of a new parent’s existence. Mothers with chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, and mobility impairments suffer fatigue at higher levels than mothers without these disabilities. Chasing after a toddler, staying up with a sick child, bringing a child to school, then sports, then home for a meal,  helping with homework, and other daily activities of parenting are that much harder and more fatiguing for mothers with disabilities.  In addition, the mother’s own activities of daily living, her need to use accessible transportation, and need for accommodations at school and at work often mean she has less time available to devote to the needs of her children. (n20)

[21] In the past, the fact of these many challenges has been used to justify the denial of parenting opportunities and rights to mothers with disabilities.  Thankfully, we have learned through the advocacy work of many of these women, and through the growing body of research on women and disabilities, that they are often excellent parents. Thus, the response to recognizing the unique challenges facing mothers with disabilities needs to be the provision of  support services and resources that compensate for such challenges, and, perhaps most importantly, a widespread recognition of mothers with disabilities as  “good mothers.” We are also beginning to learn that in some ways mothers with disabilities are better mothers than those without disabilities.

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