Parenting is a tough landscape to navigate, and a newfound disability creates unique problems that require unique solutions. Dr. Marjorie Aunos is a psychologist conducting research on parenting with disabilities. Drawing from that research and from personal experience, Dr. Aunos explains why disabled parents are often the best source of parenting advice – because they have been forced to find solutions to fit complex needs quickly and effectively their whole lives.
None of us think we could make it as a disabled parent.
So when we see a parent with a disability, we doubt their capacity to raise a family.
And we doubt them, because we know that parenting is hard.
To find answers, most parents turn to expert advice.
And help exists in thousands of books and webpages – making Parenting _ a half of billion dollar Industry.
But each book and expert seem to be saying something different.
So despite wanting to do the best for our children, we sometimes don’t know where to turn.
But the most useful and creative parenting solutions_ rarely come from experts.
They come from parents _ with disabilities.
And believe it or not, this was my argument before I was in a wheelchair.
Let me take you back.
I am 25 years old, and I just successfully defended my Ph.D. dissertation on an unpopular and obscure field: Mothers with intellectual disabilities.
I am convinced that parents with disabilities can parent successfully, as I see many raising their kids despite society stacking the odds against them.
In fact, it is while watching these amazing moms that I found the courage to become a single mom, by choice.
And so, at the age of 33, I gave birth to my son Thomas.
My accident… literally came out of nowhere.
I had just spent a blissful week with my whole family at my parents cottage for New Year’s.
Thomas, now 16 months old, stayed with my parents, as I drove to work.
Suddenly, my car slides on black ice. And a truck is coming my way.
In the seconds that followed, I first thought: Shit! This is it. My final moment. I am pissed it is coming so soon, but I have lived a good life and I am proud of what I have achieved.
But then, I thought of my son. MY son. For whom I am his only parent. And so I asked to survive.
When I asked to survive, I meant: I want to return to the life I currently have.
But when I woke up in the hospital, I was told I had sustained a Spinal Cord Injury, which meant, in my case, I would no longer feel or move anything below my armpits. And I cried.
I had survived to be mom to my toddler, but now I just _ couldn’t imagine _ how I would parent him.
I knew rationally that parents with disabilities can be good parents. It’s what I studied for a living. But faced with my own newly acquired disability, I started to doubt myself.
How can I parent Thomas if I can’t teach him how to kick a soccer ball, or skate and play hockey?
How can I be a good mom if I can’t do it all anymore, if I can’t drive him to school or put him to bed on my own?
I realized I was at odds with my own research, with my own belief system. ANDI was afraid to face all the injustice parents with disabilities face.
On that hospital bed, I judged myself, the same way I had seen so many judge the women I worked with.
In a weird twist of fate, I became the subject of my own life’s work.
It took several weeks before I would be left alone with Thomas.
I was stuck in my hospital bed. Thomas was in his highchair.
I had laid wooden blocks on the tray before him.
We were about to make the tallest tower we could, when I see Thomas pick one block and throw it onto the floor. He then innocently looks back at me, straight in my eyes, waiting to see how I will respond.
In the past I would have bent down to pick it up without even thinking about it. But now I couldn’t. So I looked at the floor, then back at him and shrugged my shoulders.
There were clearly new rules to this game.
And even though I still didn’t know how I was going to make it as a disabled parent, I knew that from this point forward that there were rules we would need to re-invent or figure out for ourselves.
So even if it’s hard to imagine _ how do parents with disabilities navigate the treacherous waters of parenthood?
And what can we all learn from them?
When we become parents, especially first-time parents, we learn rapidly that parenting doesn’t come as naturally as we’d hoped. And with every new challenge, we end up:
But no matter how seductive those “solutions” might be, they usually fall short as they don’t take into consideration
What we find are the right answers but to the wrong question.
What we type into the search engine, is usually a problem-focused question – one that tries to identify the cause of the problem.
But for everyday parenting, understanding the cause of the problem may not be necessary. It costs us time and resources we don’t always have, and it doesn’t actually tell us HOW to fix it.
In rehabilitation, I told them I wanted to push my baby in a stroller.
We spent months trying to find a way that would attach a stroller to my wheelchair, so that I could use both my hands to roll.
But by the time we solved the problem, my son had become this very big and strong toddler, and with his weight and mine, it was too difficult for me to go anywhere.
We had spent months problem solving Me not being able to push both _ stroller and wheelchair. and the solution we came up with could no longer be applied – because we had focused on the problem and not the outcome.
Now, it must be said: Parents with disabilities are not better parents than non-disabled ones. We struggle too.
But there is one thing we do differently that leads to quicker, more efficient outcomes, that answers the parenting questions we should all be asking.
Disabled parents spend less time focusing on problems and more time finding solutions.
In my example of the stroller – if we had taken a solution-focused approach, focusing on my strengths and my son’s strengths, we may have come up with a different course of action – like having my son walk beside me while holding my scarf or him wearing a baby-leash. Because the solution I was actually looking for was for my son and I to be able to go out and about in our community, on our own.
A solution focused mindset, makes us shift our perspective towards our strengths and resources.
Several studies on psychotherapy demonstrated that Solution-Focused questions lead to more positive emotions and an increase in self-efficacy, or the ability to do things for oneself.
When we use solution-focused questions, we identify the goals we want to pursue and we craft and tailor the solutions that fit our values and lifestyle – making us less frustrated, more proactive and in control of what works for us.
I recently wanted to watch my son play hockey, but there were only two ways to get to the stands: A flight of stairs, or an icy ramp.
Obviously, I can’t do either.
If I want to watch his game NOW, I need a solution NOW. It doesn’t matter why the ramp is icy. What matters is the solution.
And the best solution we could come up with quickly? A group of hockey-dads carried me in like Cleopatra.
Being SF means that we will have an answer _ even if the answer is not perfect, nor permanent.
Because right now, being present in our kids’ lives is infinitely more important than solving the larger problem of universal accessibility.
That _ we can fix another time. After I’ve watched my son’s hockey game.
And even when I have the time to tackle the overall problem of universal accessibility, it is STILL not necessary to understand why Society is not fully accessible.
What I want to focus on is which solutions are we going to put in place from now on so that parents with disabilities and their children can be included everywhere.
What we focus on, grows.
So, the more solutions we find, the more obvious the future solutions will be.
Here are some of my favorite examples of disabled parents finding creative solutions.
A mom I know with a vision impairment wanted to go to the park with her kids, but she was worried about losing track of them. So she put bells on their sneakers. Her ears became her way to ‘see’ her kids.
Another mom I know who has an intellectual disability, knew she couldn’t help her son with his math homework. She accepted it, moved on and found someone else, from her church community, who could tutor him.
The solution that worked for them was to not get frustrated on something she knew full well she couldn’t do, but rather work as a team with someone else who could be more helpful.
One time when Thomas was a toddler, he didn’t want to get into the bath. So he hid under the table in the one spot he knew I couldn’t reach him. So I blew bubbles to lure him out and get him into the tub.
What I’ve learned from parents with disabilities, and from having become one myself is this:
I don’t need to understand why something’s broken to fix it.
When we stop focusing on solving problems and instead focus on finding solutions, it saves us time and frustration.
Maybe money too, as we can save on all those parenting books.
So, what can non-disabled parents learn from all this?
Consider a child who isn’t sleeping through the night.
The cause of ‘not sleeping through the night’ may be very different in different families. The solution too.
For example, some families may decide that co-sleeping is an acceptable solution, while others may prefer sleep training. Another might have the resources to hire a sleep nanny – while another family with similar resources might never approve of it.
The point is this: you might not need to spend months figuring out why your child isn’t sleeping through the night. Your family needs rest. Focus on solutions.
As parents, we do the best we can, with what we have.
So next time you see a parent, in your community or on TikTok – don’t judge them too harshly.
But do ask yourself: Which creative solutions are they using right now?
And if you come across a parent with a disability, don’t focus on what they don’t have that you do, but rather focus on what they do have that you don’t.
And maybe, they can teach you… something new.
“From the moment I first met Marjorie and heard her story, I knew that it was one that needed to be shared at large. Marjorie showed me that she sat in a unique position to teach her audience, as not only a subject matter expert, but as someone who has actually lived the life of a single parent with a disability as well. Her speech was nothing short of extraordinary, taking the listener through her emotional journey to where she is today, and what she has learnt from it. Despite using the medium of parenthood to translate her message, her message can resonate with listeners from all backgrounds. Marjorie’s overarching approach to problem solving is one of high value that everyone should seek to use in their everyday lives. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Marjorie and to learn from her experiences.”
Speaker Relations, TEDxWesternU
“As soon as Marjorie took the stage, she captivated the audience. Her presence was so incredibly powerful, never mind her speech. She spoke so beautifully from the heart, highlighting her experience as a person who worked with mothers who were disabled to becoming one herself. Not only did she inspire me to look at things differently, question my own biases, and challenge the conceptions society consistently and subtlety perpetuates about what it means to be a disabled person, but she also inspired me to own the stories we live, no matter how challenging some elements of our stories can be. She genuinely is such a kind person, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with her.”
3rd year psychology student at HuronCo-Director of Speaker Relations for TEDxWesternU
“Marjorie Aunos’ Ted Talk on how we can learn from parents and parenting with a disability is a revolutionary for society, the disability community, parents and families and the scholarship on relationships and social connectedness. Marjorie was eloquently able to put into words and articulate the powerful narrative that has been missing; how we need to highlight and magnify the resilience and adaptations that families headed by parents with disabilities make on a daily basis. This resonated within me, as we, disabled and non-disabled folks, have been socialized and internalized to view disability through a deficit lens. Marjorie’s examples propel us to look at how we can all learn and grow from the experiences of parents with disabilities. Hearing and reflecting on Marjorie’s authentic narrative reminds us that we, within our exclusionary practices, are missing out on how to foster relationships based on meaning, connection and need to shift our focus on collaborative solutions.”
Assistant ProfessorSchool of Social Work, Memorial University
“Marjorie’s TEDxWesternU talk encourages the audience to reflect on the experience of parenting and the challenges that come along with it. As a daughter, I deeply value the role that mothers have in our lives, and through a series of personal connections and a profound, thought-provoking parenting experience Marjorie communicates so much more beyond the length of her talk, inspiring others to adapt to life changing situations and continue to build a path from these experiences. I truly connected with Marjorie’s story, it was evident that she had a deep understanding of her academic field and her personal experience as well, showcasing the importance of recognizing different types of parenting and what this experience can look like. It was an honour to work with Marjorie, she is an inspiration to us all”
Speaker Selection Committee Member, TEDxWesternU
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Parents with Disabilities
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