A Stranger Said My Paralysis Was Unfair To My Kids. Here's What No One Told Them About Being A Mom In A Wheelchair.

"'I feel bad for her kid who has to live seeing his mom paralyzed.' I’ve heard comments like that my whole life, most of them unintentional criticisms of the thing I have no control over."
The author with her husband and two sons.
The author with her husband and two sons.
Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

FOOTINMOUTH7000: Although I feel a lot of empathetic [sic] with her and I salute her for her determination, I feel bad for her kid who has to live seeing his mom paralyzed. I mean that is unfair to the child.

That social media comment was plopped amid a feed of so many heart emojis and encouraging songs of praise after I published an essay on HuffPost Personal in January. The piece had been my first chance to offer the world a glimpse at what it was like to be pregnant and paralyzed. I was so proud! And then I saw that comment.

Unfair to the child.

I told myself that it was just one out of so many responses ― the majority of them heart-eye faces and yellow thumbs-ups ― but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t ignore it.

I’ve heard comments like that my whole life, most of them unintentional criticisms of the thing I have no control over. I was in a car accident in my teens. I flew through the air and landed on the highway pavement, pulling and stretching my spinal cord beyond repair. My whole world changed in the time that it takes to sigh at a really negative comment.

However, in the last 25 years, I have done so much for myself to be able to accomplish whatever I have in my sights. I became a teacher and a swim coach. I traveled across the globe despite unruly backroads and seemingly inaccessible lifestyles. I challenged myself beyond what I knew was possible by training for the Paralympics. I even became a wife and a mom.

Because I’ve been paralyzed and a wheelchair user for the last quarter century, it is all that I know at this point, and it is certainly all that my children know. I am who I am because of my disability, and my children know who they are too.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I realized that I was going to have to find a path for ― and by ― myself. There was no learner’s permit, no manual, no guide to tell or show me how things would go.

Fortunately, I am as stubborn as a mule wearing high heels in the rain. I wasn’t going to budge on the notion that things happen for a reason, and I determined to help them happen.

The author with her son Van on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria in 2019.
The author with her son Van on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria in 2019.
Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

I’ve had two children without any remarkable medical intervention. I am extremely proud of my body and its willingness to stand in that rain wearing high heels, proclaiming that it all can be done.

Don’t get me wrong: A little voice inside of me began snaking through my cerebrum the very moment that I became pregnant. It judged me and made me doubt my capabilities ― or rather handi-capabilites ― of becoming and being a mother. I vividly remember looking down at the pregnancy test, alongside my husband in our tiny bathroom. We were all full-teethed smiles, yet that serpent slithered right in and hissed, “Sssssssssssso, how will you even teach him how to walk?”

I honestly didn’t know. But what I was sure of was that I have always been blessed with the willingness to try. I suppose that feeling may ring true for many parents.

I have to climb high into that tree because my child is stuck? No problem. Jump in front of a moving vehicle to catch a toddling toddler? I got this.

I’m guessing every parent has known what it’s like to forget themselves for the sake of their little ones, and I am no exception. I knew ― I just knew ― I would figure out how to teach my kiddo to walk and fly across the monkey bars and do all of those things that I couldn’t possibly imagine doing for myself. Because I’m their mom.

I have learned to challenge my body with car seats and strollers, with staircases and soccer practice carpools ― even when I’m not sure how I’ll pull off whatever challenge is in front of me ― and I’ve succeeded. I have learned to try with everything I’ve got, and I have learned to ask for help. I have even learned to ask my kids for help, because sometimes that’s OK too.

As my children grew, I grew too.

The author and her son Orren on Halloween in 2019.
The author and her son Orren on Halloween in 2019.
Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

I have been gifted so much perspective about my disability and life with it from watching my kids watch me. I didn’t know that I was so strong before they told and showed me so.

Being able to wrap up just a little sliver of my own experience for them is everything to me. They have been privy to learning about things like the purest of empathy, overcoming adversities, challenging norms, and so many other beautiful and instinctive attributes that I believe every parent would want their children to possess.

When my firstborn was just a toddler, we went out for a walk around the block together — just us. I had taught him so many times before that he needed to walk right next to my wheelchair wheel, since it has never been possible to hold hands while crossing a street. He was always obedient to those commands because he understood their importance. However, that day, while out strolling around the neighborhood, my sweet boy did something that I will never forget. There was a slight incline in the sidewalk, and before I could even kneel my chest towards my legs to get the appropriate grip to wheel myself up the hill, my son came up behind me and offered a gentle push, just as he had seen his daddy do so many times before.

He gave me just enough help to get up that hill, and he didn’t expect or need a gold star or any kind of reward. He did it because he just knew it was the right thing to do. And, for the first time in my whole life, I realized how special my disability made me ― made him.

There are so many lessons that have been whispered to each of my children because of my wheelchair. There will be so many more.

For Mother’s Day this year, my 8-year-old son made me a card that included two poems written in his best curly handwriting ― because curly handwriting is fancy. The last line of his second poem reads, “[Mom] reaches the unbelievable.” How beautiful is that?

The author with her sons.
The author with her sons.
Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

Is my life ― are our lives together ― all curly handwritten odes? Certainly not.
Being paralyzed and having to use a wheelchair puts so much strain on my physical body and my physical health and I am in a near-constant state of dizzy thinking about how this affects my health and my longevity. I sometimes wonder will I always be there for them as they grow? I don’t know. But I only let myself worry about this for a second because worrying won’t do me ― or my family ― any good, and I have more important things to concentrate on.

Are there moments where I just can’t be there for them or with them? Those moments when I have to shoo my boys and my husband to go on without me across a suspension bridge in the rocky forests of British Columbia, or run down the highest sandhill at White Sands National Monument?

Of course.

Those moments are becoming more frequent as my sons get older and they become more adventurous and mobile. But I have created a very special pocket in my chest for those times, and I hold those moments close when I’m alone. Those moments are filled with the most bittersweet silences.

My paralysis cannot take me everywhere I want to go ― I’ve always known that. There will be times when my kids have to go on without me. There will be things that I miss.

Yet they always return to me with giant smiles and stories to share. I am not forgotten. I am missed. I am loved. And they are loved ― and they know it. And I wouldn’t trade what we have for anything in the world.

Ryan Rae Harbuck is the author of her memoir “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair.” She has been a teacher and a swim coach but enjoys being Mom the most. She resides in her hometown of Denver with her husband and two mudslinging boys. To learn more, please visit her website at RyanRaeHarbuck.com.

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