“How many children do you have?”
I steel myself for the telling of my own story.
“I have six children, aged from 2 to 19 years old.”
I begin to answer the questions.
“Yes, I was young when the oldest was born” (What does one look like when they “look old enough to have a 19 year old”, anyway?).
“I actually love that my kids are so spread out in age” (it’s not like you imagine from your place of having two or three children close in age).
“I guess I do have my ‘hands full'” (but I don’t like that phrase much. There is an undercurrent of negativity in it that makes me reluctant to say it. My family is not a task that I carry around with me that takes up space in my life I could be freeing up for something else.)
And then we get to the part where I respond, “four of my children have disabilities”.
This does not come up in every conversation about my family. But there are certain contexts in which it does, and the response is usually the same.
I see the not quite veiled look of horror and pity. I know what is meant by “Oh, you must be such a strong person. I couldn’t do what you do.” Occasionally someone doesn’t catch themselves in time and just blurts it right out. “You poor thing. That is so hard. How do you manage? That must be exhausting.”
I know that people don’t mean offence, and I’m not really offended. Mostly I’m just saddened that there is such a prominent assumption that children in general are “work” and that people with disabilities are more “hard”, “difficult to manage”, “exhausting” and generally “burdensome”.
The fact is that parenting- no matter who your child is, or what challenges they are born with or acquire- stretches all of us well out of our comfort zones. Loving and supporting are things that can cause stress and tiredness. The thing we don’t like to see is that stress in itself is not an inherently bad thing. Stress helps us move to growing and changing in ourselves, and these are good things.
I am who I am now because of my children. Not in spite of them. They have provided me with opportunities to become different than I was. I have grown as they have grown. But this is not the measure of their worth.
They have worth because they are. Their presence in my life is a gift. They are a gift. They are a gift just because they are here, they do not need to offer me anything measurable. They do not have to be capable of doing chores or caring for me when I am old to bring value into my life. They do not have to be “normal” to be perfect just the way they are. I am grateful for them, not because of what they do for me, or for what they contribute to society, but because they are here.
So those conversations with many other parents are difficult for me. I don’t know how to succinctly say all these things in one sentence when I am looked at with eyes that hold a hint of relief that they are not me. So I just smile, and even though it is inadequate, and even though I know they won’t quite know how to respond, I quietly say,
“I have great kids.”