People don’t expect disabled people to be parents. People especially don’t expect disabled people to be the birth-giving parent, or for them to actively choose to be a parent.
As a disabled woman, my journey to pregnancy started a while before the first time I intentionally had unprotected sex. Since my teenage years, I have become increasingly more sick. I have fluctuating health conditions which affect pretty much every aspect of my day-to-day life, sometimes more, sometimes less, but unpredictably and (with current medicine) incurably. Last spring, I started using a wheelchair to get around outside the house — and in contrast to many people’s reactions, it has been liberating.
My worst period of ill-health, though, happened to coincide with when we started trying to have a baby. I should note that I am purposefully not using the phrase “trying to conceive,” as although conception starts a pregnancy, anyone who’s experienced pregnancy loss knows it doesn’t always lead to a baby.
I always knew I wanted children: I love kids of all ages, and always have. I wasn’t hugely fussed about having my own biological children until I met my husband, when the thought that I could create children with the person I loved gradually led to a desperate aching need to be pregnant. I started crying over my period each month as I waited for my partner to agree we were ready to start trying.
I was, as I think many are, still left with the hang-up from high school sex education that if I encountered the tiniest trace of semen, I would get pregnant. Even though I knew it wasn’t that easy for many people in my life, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional and physical toll trying to have a baby would have on my body. It certainly wasn’t helped by my doctor insisting I had to take prenatal vitamins the minute my IUD was removed, because apparently condoms wouldn’t stop me from getting pregnant instantaneously.
The first thing I had to do was find someone with expertise in taking medication during pregnancy. I take two pills daily, which have immeasurably improved the quality of my life. A lot of the messaging around medication in pregnancy, though, has the same underlying tones you find elsewhere in the parenting world: Do it my way, or your baby will die. As with everything in medicine (and life), it’s a balance of risks: Are the risks of not taking medication greater than the potential effects on your fetus and pregnancy? It’s hard to know the latter — as clinical trials aren’t carried out on pregnant people — but the former is often abundantly clear. I was given the option of changing to a different drug which had more data to suggest it was safe during pregnancy, but ultimately my partner and I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk if it didn’t work as well, and the time it would take to wean me off my current one and get on a new one — and then possibly back off it and on to a different one.
Then there was the (unsolicited) advice that I should just “enjoy myself” — the only time people feel compelled to comment about your sex life — which was unhelpful given my tendencies of obsessive anxiety, but also because of my physical medical conditions. Cramming as much of a certain type of sex as you can bare into your few fertile days might be enjoyable for some, but my body doesn’t produce energy in the same way as a healthy person. Every time I go beyond my limit, I have severe payback, and it takes me much longer to recover and regain my energy supplies.
I found out I was pregnant a week before our wedding — and then I wasn’t anymore. I barely had two weeks of being happily pregnant before I started to miscarry. It was a long, drawn-out process of traipsing in and out of the hospital, and every time I arrived in my wheelchair I was greeted with a condescending face tilt and a, “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
After my miscarriage, I was talking to a friend who said something along the lines of, “Well, babies take up lots of energy, you know.” Whether it was intended or not, the underlying message was: Are you really well enough to have a baby?
I am now halfway through my second pregnancy, and have suffered through many awkward, panicked moments when people see my wheelchair and make assumptions about what I need without actually asking me. There are many aspects of parenting that I expect I’ll need additional support with, in the same way that I need help with aspects of daily living. I am often terrified about what kind of a parent I’ll be, but that’s not because I’m disabled. If anything, I think it will make me a better parent. I am aware of my limits, and I know how and when to ask for help.
And Judaism has a lot to do with that.
The Bible commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind.” The obstacles don’t have to be physical, or intentional, to be prohibited by Jewish law. We need to take this further — it is not enough to simply not cause someone’s experience to be more difficult, or even to remove barriers already in place, but we should actively seek to create structures in our communities to meet people’s needs.
Judaism, with the central practice of Shabbat, is radical in how it values rest separately from productivity, not as a reward for doing or being “good enough.” My body needs to prioritize rest no matter what, and the fact that there is a day built into every week to do just that is incredibly affirming. It can be difficult as a student rabbi to carve out time for this around work, but I know it will be crucial to my spiritual and physical wellbeing when I have a child.
For centuries, childbirth was a communal affair. The postnatal practices still carried out across the Jewish world focus on bringing people into the life of the baby through a variety of rituals, from the role of the sandek at a circumcision, to the line from Leviticus we recite in synagogue services, “When a child is born, everyone rejoices.”
If the secular motto is “it takes a village,” the Jewish one is “it takes a community.” The Bible teaches us that a community is too heavy to carry alone, and so is a baby. I will not be parenting alone, but in partnership with my husband, our family and friends.
So yes, I am disabled and choosing to have a baby — and I’m sure I’m in the right place.