Parenting with a disability
By Halldor K. Bjarnason
With some goals, the end is just the beginning. . . .
For 27 years, I wanted to be a parent. As a teenager, after working as a Beaver Scout leader and working a summer job with small children as a teacher’s aide, I knew that raising a child was an experience I wanted, no – I NEEDED, to have.
Along the road, I have had a lot of successes – achieving the highest honor as a Canadian Boy Scout – the Chief Scout Award, being awarded a Governor General’s Medal, a Courage to Come Back Award, and a Terry Fox Humanitarian Award, winning a gold medal/setting a world record at the ’88 Seoul Paralympics, and as a lawyer with a busy estate practice – many community service awards. As I have cerebral palsy, these accolades show a drive to achieve. However, these accomplishments pale when compared to the “big one” – being a parent. . . the process of creating, and then helping to shape a living, loving, contributing member of society.
The problem with parenting
The problem with parenting (especially as a male), is that unlike other goals, it’s not just a unilateral feat. You need a willing, engaged partner – at least for the initial process. To further complicate things, I had been raised in an environment where everyone had two parents, so the idea of being a single parent – if such was even possible – hadn’t even occurred to me.
While parenting – and loving – my child feels good, it also provides a way to affect the community… I believe that by my giving Elliot a loving and caring upbringing, he’ll grow to be loving and supportive of others.
As a result, for the 27-year quest, I worked on finding what I THOUGHT was the necessary ingredient – a spouse. Over the years, I dated many lovely, smart, delightful women. Unfortunately, none were the “one”. Finally, at 40, I concluded that the dream of being a parent wasn’t going to be fulfilled.
Beginning our adventure
Apparently God had other plans. . . Shortly after deciding that parenting wasn’t going to happen, I made another discovery – if you don’t practice safe sex, babies DO come. At 42, I became the father to the most wonderful little being I had ever met – Elliot. Our adventure together began about 5 hours after his birth. As I cuddled Elliot, my first words to him were: “Hi! I’m your Daddy, and I’ve been waiting for you for a very, very long time.” Elliot opened his eyes, reached up, wrapped his tiny hand around my thumb, and squeezed it harder than I thought was possible.
While Elliot’s mom had no interest in sharing her life with me, through mutual agreement (and later court orders), 10 days after his arrival, I started caring for Elliot a couple of days a week. With the help of my mother, I learned to pick up Elliot, change him, bathe him, and feed and nurture him. By age five, I began caring for him half-time.
As our adventure evolved, I realized that as a parent, the child’s arrival is just the beginning. My role is to create a model, to set a positive example and to help my child to become an active, contributing member of society. I try to accomplish this is by showing Elliot that he has one person in the world who is absolutely blindly nutty about him, and no matter what he does, he has no doubt that I still love him with every molecule of my body.
At the same time, my cerebral palsy has had an interesting affect on Elliot’s psyche. Elliot has evolved into an empathetic, kind, considerate little person – illustrated, in part, by the first aid kit he carries in his backpack, and uses to patch-up the “casualties” he passes on the school ground.
Empathy and compassion
From such an early age, Elliot’s desire to “contribute” has been intriguing. . . At eight months, one day as I was changing his diaper, I noticed that he was helping by picking up his little butt to make it easier to slide the diaper under him! Similarly, in response to my challenge in picking him up, at 12 months, he suddenly started lifting his arms each time I went to pick him up – making it easy to slip my arms around him.
At 20 months, I realized he was picking up on my concern for others. We were hanging out one afternoon when I got a call that a client only had a few hours to live – and she needed her will signed NOW. Not having time to find childcare, I bundled Elliot into my car, and raced to my client’s house. When we walked in her front door, Elliot’s usual giggling subsided, and he became very quiet – not frightened or sad – just quiet. When we entered my client’s room, on his own initiative, Elliot marched over to her bed. After stroking her blanket for a minute, he began stroking her arm, and then gave her a grin. Despite her pain, she smiled back, after which Elliot reverted to a typical little boy and traipsed off to inspect the flashing lights of her life support machinery. I’m told that after Elliot’s visit, my client lived three days longer than expected. …
At age 6, Elliot started insisting that HE be the one who helps me in restaurants. At a breakfast buffet on a trip during Spring Break, I made the grave mistake of asking a server to help me carry glasses of juice to our table. Elliot turned, and with hands on his hips and the sternest look ever, exclaimed: “Daddy, if you need help, you ask ME! Do you understand?”
While parenting – and loving – my child feels good, it also provides a way to affect the community. We need a world that has people in it who have compassion for others. I can’t change the world myself, or even make a small dent, but I believe that by my giving Elliot a loving and caring upbringing, he’ll grow to be loving and supportive of others. This will, in turn, make the community a better place for all.
There’s always a chance that Elliot will grow up to be an axe-murderer. But more likely, as I think of the tiny eight-month-old pulling his butt off the ground to assist in diaper changing, I believe this is a being who, as a result of having a parent with cerebral palsy, already understands compassion for others. With the right role model, a child becomes a contributor surprisingly early on in life – a long time before you would believe it possible.
Isn’t this the ultimate dream for a parent?