Category Archives: anthropology

I am a mother, too.

It somehow comes out both flippantly and emphatically from the podcast co-host’s mouth one afternoon:  “As a mother, your job is to grow them up and get them out,” she says, “to get them to be independent,” she clarifies.

I’m sure most people would agree with something like that, but in an instant, I’m on the outside looking in.  I’m tempted to consider that if I’m not mothering a child who will be independent, what am I mothering her for?  I’m tempted to believe that motherhood is decidedly more bottles and bullies and backpacks and basketball than surgeries and standers and hospital stays and wheelchair repairs.

But what if it’s not?  What if, even if motherhood isn’t shared, even if  it’s different, it can still be valid?  And what if some of those mothers on the margins can expand our ideas of what it means to mother, and what it means to care, to love, and to grow in relationship with our kids if we just let them in?

Recently as I’m writing up the research we did with kids with disabilities who are nonverbal and their families, I’ve been re-reading a treasure trove of a book by the anthropologist Gail H. Landsman on Reconstructing Motherhood in the Age of Perfect Babies.  In it, based on her research with hundreds of mothers, Landsman highlights the diminished motherhood of mothers of children with disabilities.  They have failed, she says to follow “the culturally appropriate trajectory,” which amounts to raising up a “normal child” (2009:10, 109).  Because ability is the “criterion for personhood” in the U.S., “the socially constructed reduced personhood of the [disabled] child is likened to the women’s experiences of motherhood” (50).

In her viral essay, “SuperBabies Don’t Cry,” writer, blogger, and mother Heather Lanier paints a similar picture.  She talks about how she did everything “right” in her pregnancy and her child was born with a disability.  She talks about how she blamed herself for her daughter’s disability, but she also talks about how blame suggests that we once had control in the first place.  And underneath this blame often lies a fear of disability, of what is different.  And what is different is emphatically part of being human.  “Here’s the thing,” she writes.  “If you buy into the false narrative that the body is controllable, that illness can always be prevented, then by proxy you are left with a disturbing, damaging, erroneous conclusion: the belief that a person’s disability is their fault.”

Like Lanier, part of my problem in seeing myself as a mother is that I’d subtly bought into some of these stereotypes about control, ease, and perfection, and so I don’t see myself as a mother so much as a keen strategist, a promising medical student, a scholar of disability, even.  Maybe it’s because my early days as a mother were so bittersweet–snuggly and hopeful, yet tinged, marred by the words “failure to thrive,” an MRI at four months, vomiting, a neurological diagnosis, so I suddenly wondered where I would fit in. What could a mother bring to these difficulties? What’s a mother to a child who needs hospitals and eegs and feeding tubes to diagnose, treat, and survive?

Indeed, I remember the way I tried, as any mother would in those early days, so unsuccessfully to keep Lucia comfortable, to keep her from screaming, not just for her sake but for mine. If I could get her to stop screaming, we could all find some peace, I’d think, we could all be okay, maybe she would be okay.

And when I couldn’t even manage that, I knew I had failed.  There was a moment where I had to drive all over town to find a pharmacy that would compound the medication that Lucia needed and on those drives she wailed in pain.  As we sat just outside the pharmacy, me holding her as she cried, an older woman next to me chided, “You have to talk to her, mama.  Talk to her, just don’t let her cry.” Oh if only my talking would have had any effect!  If only my child knew I was there.  And in that moment I felt that I had failed her as a mother. My mothering was a failure because my child was not okay, and while that wasn’t my fault, I could also barely offer anything to fix it, so sometimes retreating from her heart wrenching cries, willfully ignoring them, for instance, so I could keep my eyes on the road and my resolution all the way to the pharmacy in question or the hospital in many cases was the best I could do.

And of course, my best wasn’t just not good enough to make Lucia comfortable, it wasn’t good enough for me. I haven’t realized that until now that even though I’d navigated all the medical hurdles and the challenges with strength and grace, those triumphs didn’t seem to have much to do with mothering somehow, because behind the scenes everything still hurt.  We were out of control.  This was motherhood, too.

But gradually I realized that even though I couldn’t comfort her I could love her. I could accept her as she was. I was damn good at accepting her as she was, at loving her for who she is. She’d done the same for me somehow in those moments where I’d seemingly failed her, she’d always still receive me. There were more and more moments where as she opened up to the world I could see that she knew me and although I couldn’t fix things, she knew what it was like to have me nearby.

And so I began to write about this motherhood with all its aches and pains.  After a semester of teaching on disability and raising my own child, I wrote an essay about a child who was not to be pitied, because she is a beloved child nonetheless.  Today I realize that “I’m Not Sorry” was not just an essay about my daughter but also an essay about a kind of motherhood, my motherhood, which is not to be pitied but revered, respected, trusted, even included.  Indeed, writers like Landsman and Lanier, both mothers of children with disabilities, have opened up a space where motherhood is getting just a bit broader and roomier for those of us who may not have thought we fit or had anything to add.  Suddenly we wonder if the lessons from our motherhood have merit–if being both a mother and a nurse and a Medicaid expert and a therapist can be a tremendous combination, something that enhances the mother model rather than detracts from it.

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The moments I live for!  With Lucia on the porch.  My photo.

On one recent morning when I’ve looked forward to working from home, stealing a Monday morning from students, distractions, and the need to jump out of my pajamas, Lucia begins to whimper and then wail in pain as her nurse begins to get her ready to school. And although Sylvia is fully capable of comforting her and getting her ready, I realize something so crucial: “but, I want to be with her in her pain,” I think. And I run down the stairs and I peer into her crib and I scoop her up, knowing I can’t fix it, but knowing perhaps more fully than I’ve known most things in my life that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

And I suddenly realize that what makes my mothering significant is these moments, too, these moments of strife and sorrow that I choose with this child, even when I can’t cure or comfort, but when I quietly accompany her, arrested of my own powers and control, to wherever we must go. I go with her faithfully and fully, because as hairy and fraught as it may sound, I’m grateful for even this moment because it is a moment with her.  I grew to be a mother who learned through much strife and angst that it has never been my role to soothe or to fix it for my child, that I don’t control or choose the circumstances of our life, and without Lucia none of those lessons about loving or living would have been possible.

Thanks to this child, I am a mother, too.

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Simply gifts

It was one of the last few days of the semester, the time when spring is tempting summer and so this particular student and I had elected to head outside to talk.  As we settled onto the picnic table, she thanked me earnestly for all that she’d learned over the course of the semester, for my passion for ministry and students and for the class, but as she looked toward the exam she was to write, she had just one final question, she said.

“Do you really believe, Dr. Raffety, that people with disabilities have gifts for ministry?”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, questioning whether I’d heard or understood her correctly, as she went onto qualify, quite sensitively, but definitively her disbelief in what I had believed to be the central tenet of the course–the one thing I’d been trying to get across all semester.  It was a mixture of righteous indignation and bitter disappointment and bewilderment that took over me in that moment: just how might I convince her?  Where could I even begin?

That was in May.  Our study of disability, communication, and joy with families who have children with disabilities who are nonverbal began in April and has continued over the last few months.  And as we’ve spent time with these children and their families, we’ve been struck by how much the struggles of communication are exacerbated by, if not even caused not by the children with disabilities, but by an environment that refuses to consider or appreciate the variety of their attempts to communicate.  As one specialist commented to me, “Because people are often only looking for speech, they dismiss a lot of what is also communication.”

But might it work much the same way with gifts? I wondered.  Because able-bodied people are looking for certain types of gifts in people with disabilities, gifts they’ve seen before in other able-bodied people and thus recognize, perhaps they literally don’t have the ability to perceive other gifts because they’re hovering under the surface, imperceptible to the able-bodied eye?  

Less than a month into our study, a young woman from one of the families we interviewed died.  I’ll still never understand how just a day after her sudden death, her mother had the wherewithal to contact a group of lowly researchers to let them know, but she did.  One of our research assistants dutifully went to the funeral.  Not only at her packed funeral but in a subsequent follow up visit, her parents shared the tremendous impact the young woman’s life had had on so many people around her, but also what they believed to be her unique abilities.  As I listened to the interview, I noted how confidently her parents asserted, “She was an excellent judge of character.  If she didn’t like someone, it was because she could tell they weren’t genuine… We often learned to take our cues from her reactions to people because she could really tell so much about them just from being with them,” her mother added.  All this hypersensitivity and supreme ability from a 30 year-old woman who had physical and cognitive disabilities, limited purposeful movement and no words.

Was this family, especially still fresh in the throes of grief, generously but falsely attributing super powers to their daughter with disabilities?  Or might it truly be possible, perhaps especially given their daughter’s presumed dis-abilities, that she had a unique way of interpreting and interacting with the world that has something to teach us?  

I’ve always smarted at literature that pronounces the gifts of people with disabilities in terms that are limited and narrow–they’re notable for their wonder at the world, their slow ways of being, their vulnerability, even their joy.  Those don’t seem like bad things on the surface, but the sparseness, simplicity, and uniformness of them, the suggestion that people with disabilities fall into these staid categories primarily because of their disabilities does not take full stock of their complicated ways of being human in the world that include but aren’t reduced to their disabilities.  Of course, yet another suggestion, that people with disabilities exist as objects, not subjects through which able-bodied people can get in touch with their vulnerability and brokenness as distinct aspects of all our human nature, is also quite offensive.

There’s nothing broken about my daughter, thank you very much.

However, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I’d ever contemplated how my daughter’s own differences in communication, brought forth by her disabilities, palpably registered in her limited movement, vision, and verbal invocations, might yield not just gifts of relationship or gifts of perspective but simply, gifts.  I had long noticed that even when Lucia’s gaze was positively fixed on the ceiling or when she seemed little aware of her surroundings, when her father walked into the room, she’d giggle knowingly and even turn to smile in his direction.  With low vision and limited head control, it’s pretty clear that she’s not seeing him, but sensing him otherwise; we’ve suspected that she “knows” him by the sound of the weight his carriage (and only his) induces upon our creaky floorboards, because she doesn’t react to anyone else coming into the living room that way.

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Lucia snuggling with her father on the couch.  My photo.

I’ve long believed that Lucia also knows we’ve come home to our house and entered the garage by the way the light darkens inside the van and the bump into the threshold, at which she always starts smiling and giggling.  But just a few days ago, she started smiling even as we pulled into the driveway!  And when we came home late from our vacation a few days prior and deposited her asleep into her bed that night, but she ended up in our bed when she was crying the morning after, when I carried her downstairs into the living room, even before I could pronounce that we were home she beat me to it, erupting into giggles, without so much as turning her head to look around the room!

And so, a few days later when the child study team from Lucia’s school called and kept talking about how difficult Lucia is to reach, teach, and communicate with, I kept thinking, are we talking about the same kid?  Sure, she doesn’t roll over and she can’t purposefully reach for objects, yet somehow, despite having low vision and not being able to purposefully turn her head with much precision, she knows who her father is.  What’s the problem here, again?  I wondered.  My perspective had been so altered by what we had been seeing in our research study that I couldn’t see Lucia the way they saw her; in fact, I corrected them on it.  I told them I didn’t want to hear anything more about how difficult my daughter was.  Wasn’t it their job to perceive where communication was already happening and magnify it?  Why were they approaching her as if something was wrong with her when it seemed something was wrong with them?  (They didn’t like that very much.)

When I responded to my student’s question in May, I spoke from my experience regarding Lucia’s gifts for ministry and the gifts of some people with disabilities in our congregation.  Just a few days after, I discovered this beautiful article from Amy Julia Becker, that could have been the anthem for my course, intentionally titled, after all as it was, “Ministry with People with Disabilities.”

But I feel convicted that even my own musings as a researcher, a scholar of disability, and a parent have been necessarily limited and incomplete.  Looking back on months of our ethnographic study with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal, nearly every single one of the families notes the gifts of their children with ease; a dramatic portion of them question whether their children are really cognitively impaired or if it’s just the world that’s disabling them.  It makes so much sense–we believe that intelligence and gifts come in so many different forms.  We say that all the time, but perhaps we don’t really believe it.  But it was from the family of the 30-year old girl in our study, the person who had lived the longest, whose family arguably knew her the best and was the most familiar with her, from whom the most precise, dynamic assertion of gifts came.

As able-bodied people, we’ve got to actively stop denying and diminishing the contributions of people with disabilities because they’re not obviously or immediately available to us.  Just like the communication that is gainfully there, but simply different, the gifts are also decidedly there but often imperceptible given our own ableist lenses.  We’re going to have to learn to accept our own limitations in order to see differently, to believe, to anticipate that gifts come in seemingly curious forms.  They even disrupt the status quo, they disturb conventional knowledge, even knowledge of joy and humans and God.  

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Road tripping!  My photo.

The conviction of this research project has been that people with disabilities have so much to teach us about communication and joy and spirituality if we would just have ears to listen.  But my student wasn’t the only one who needs to be rid of her own prejudice and obstacles and ableism to really appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities.  That’s a lesson I’m learning everyday.  Indeed, I might have replied:

“Yes, I do believe people with disabilities have gifts for ministry, but sometimes I may struggle to see them.  That doesn’t mean they’re not there.  It means I have a lot of growing to do.  But I’m thankful that God has granted me a glimpse of them and I will continue to pray that I can learn to see differently and honor what God is doing in them and through them.  I pray that God grants you that, too.”

The inequalities that bind

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US-Mexico border, Agua Prieta, Mexico/Douglas, Arizona, 2003.  My photo.

This week we’ve seen children confined to cages, heard their screams as they’re ripped from their parents and witnessed our president bend to public and political pressure to amend his callous “zero tolerance policy” at the border. Yet, thousands of migrant children remain separated from their families, and I keep wondering if we’ve learned anything from all this. The government has wanted us to see a chasm between those families at the border and our own. In place of what could be a common humanity, a desperate dare-we-say American-like doggedness to seek a better life for their persecuted families, Trump and his allies have offered fraud, smuggling, and criminal behavior as self-inflicted explanations for migrant families’ plight. So perhaps what we’ve been faced with this week is the hearty evidence that not all families, let alone all childhoods, are created equal in America…

But isn’t this something we already knew?

We know that being needy makes you vulnerable in America, but whereas teenagers marching for “black lives matter” are vilified for lives lost, the white teenage activists from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High are praised for their activism.  It seems what we’re encountering is something even more pernicious than the inequalities themselves, rather the realization that not even all need is created equal.  Since the election, I have been desperately sharing my own story to keep the lives of families with children with disabilities, alongside the lives of so many other marginalized families, in view; however, it only recently occurred to me that by telling our story, I may be rendering further invisible families like the ones being turned away at our borders.

You see, while my family’s need for life-sustaining Medicaid for our medically fragile child elicits incredible sympathy, that’s largely because my daughter’s disability is often viewed as an underserved tragedy that has befallen a white, educated, hard-working, affluent, heterosexual couple. But while so many other families on Medicaid (especially families of color), equally needy to mine, are belittled for their poverty, chastised or blamed for the presumed neglect, fraud, or abuse that put them into the system in the first place, a common response to my family’s vulnerability is not just pity, but often, congratulation. We are heralded for our love and our sacrifice for our daughter. Meanwhile, the very nurses employed through Medicaid who tend to our daughter, monitoring her heart rate, seizures, and breathing overnight, are immigrants like those being turned away at the border. They work in unsteady employment for low wages, rarely receive healthcare, and they have either already left their children behind in their countries of origin in order to provide for them, or they leave their children in the care of others, so that my family can sleep at night.

These migrant families are part of what scholars have called the global chains of kinship and reproduction, stratified care work that elevates some families on the backs of others. If you think about it, certain groups of immigrants, children who are “rescued” through inter-country adoption or born through international surrogacy, are uplifted, generously welcomed into our borders and our citizenship, while the families they came from, foster mothers, surrogates, nannies, and other care workers, languish in the shadows, families already torn apart yet silently, incrementally, with little fanfare. Thus, the separation of families at the border is but a visible demonstration of the invisible borders we often perilously draw around our own family lives.

The myth of the modern family and this tireless invocation of the need for “family values” suggests that each family stands alone. Yet, in articulating my family’s story of need I’ve become aware of the ways we are uncomfortably and unevenly indebted to one another. I’d like to believe that with the outcry on social media and the political pressure brought by the public upon the administration’s immigration policies, a new kind of family values is emerging that does not deny, yet makes visible these inequalities and the families who have endured them in the pursuit of wellbeing and freedom.

But the challenge comes in both maintaining our common humanity and acknowledging the injustices that bind and separate us from one another. We cannot afford to look away, for it will cost us all our humanity. But we also cannot afford to go on living our fictional, solitary lives while asylum is being criminalized, need is being stigmatized, racialized, and vilified, and children with families are being abused and institutionalized.  My family, likely your family, needs these persecuted families, whether we choose to admit it or not.  If we cannot break the global chains of inequality, perhaps we can at least qualify and dignify the emotional labor that families like mine benefit from everyday.  We can refuse to participate in the politics that slander the need of some to elevate and fulfill the needs of others. We can turn away from pity and charity and toward justice, mercy, and grace.

And we can demand that America must do better by all of its families, especially those who have so painfully paid the price of vulnerability, so that others can thrive.

How it feels to be free

As we roll Lucia away from the face painting station on Saturday, a bright blue and yellow seahorse on her flushed cheek, I overhear the student ask the next little girl who’s climbed up into the chair how old she is.  “Four,” she replies effortlessly.  “Oh, you must be in preschool then?” the woman asks.

Lucia is four.  Lucia is in preschool.  But she doesn’t climb up on chairs or talk.  I rather marvel at the young girl’s speech and motor-skills until I remember that my kid is the one people sometimes describe as “really disabled,” that my kid is the one who’s developmentally behind, delayed, atypical.  It’s only in brief dissonant moments like these that I sense that my kid might be “other” to someone else or that our life might be considered atypical, because of course, to me, she’s just another four year-old with face paint, and we’re her parents.

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Face paint, complete with a smile.  My photo.

But I’ve often felt like I’ve glimpsed something other-worldly in my daughter when she laughs, because the giggles tumble so uncontrollably out of her taut little body, erupting out of her, they seem to send ripples throughout the room.  When we’re in public, I love to catch people, especially otherwise grouchy looking people, finding those giggles downright contagious, moved by the pure joy of the sound of her laughs, the generous, inclusive flash of her wide smile.  She lacks words, but in these moments words are obliterated, unnecessary.  She can’t really move on her own from her wheelchair and yet when Lucia laughs with true abandon, completely undeterred by anyone else around her, it strikes me that she is uniquely, utterly free.

Earlier that Saturday morning when Lucia and I sit there lazily in the living room, still in a stupor from a sleep study we completed the night before at a hospital an hour away from home, my husband says something astounding.  He reminds me, the anthropologist, that the oppressing milestones of developmentalism inflict not just stress, but moral judgment on many a parent.  Feeling as though it is up to you to usher your child through life’s varied stages with utmost precision is constraining and exhausting.  And by that yardstick, our four year adventure in parenting is one colossal failure.

 

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Lucia at her sleep study.  My photo.

But then, we’ve also been set free.  

We live life and we parent simply for the joy of it all.  We don’t worry if we’re doing it right, because all we can do is seek comfort and happiness for our girl.  We’re hurt when she hurts, of course, and there are times we wish we could fix things that we can’t.  That pain that she feels and that hopelessness that we often feel are not to be understated. And yet, because of all the things we can’t do as parents and perhaps some of the things Lucia can’t do herself, we’re also very free.

We can’t hardly do anything but love her, and so we do, one joy-filled day at a time.

And it’s weird, precisely because Lucia does so little, I feel like it’s easier not to get lost in what she does, but to get to know her for who she is–a generous, patient, gregarious little soul–and it reminds me that none of us are the sum of our accomplishments anyway.  So why do we let ourselves treat our kids that way?  As if life is mostly gain and growth, when they’re all we’ve ever wanted, just as they are.  Maybe it’s because deep down we’re not sure we’re really enough just as we are as people and parents.  We could always be doing more, right?  We are our own enemies of freedom, our own robbers of joy.

But before you say that we’re extraordinary or that Lucia’s extraordinary (okay, well that may be true!), let me tell you something else: there’s little in life that we actually control and when it comes down to it control is not at all what it’s cracked up to be.  What’s extraordinary is that in a world of such chance and circumstance and chaos, we three get to live life together.  We get granted these moments of joy and freedom that are other-worldly and grace-filled.

Now as a Christian, I tend to think joy is a gift from God, but whether you’re a person of faith or not, you may be able to agree that joy seems to come from elsewhere and only deigns to nestle itself between people with audacious graciousness–it’s always granted, never earned.  That’s the one thing I guess we’ve come to understand about parenting, too.  Its freedom is granted, but it also requires our willingness to let go of all the things we think are so important to receive it.  I’m sure it may look like many of those things have been stripped from us, wrested from our control in becoming Lucia’s parents, but I just don’t see it that way.

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Lucia smiling outside during spring.  My photo.

Because when Lucia’s gone, I doubt I’ll remember or cherish how well she stood in her stander, how efficiently she swallowed bites of puree, or even mimicked the sounds of our voices, but I’ll never forget the sound of her laughter.  I’ll pine for it, like I pine for nothing else.  And I’ll pine for the way that laughter bid me to laugh alongside her, when I wouldn’t have had the courage to laugh with such abandon on my own.  Without Lucia, I wouldn’t be a parent.  Learning to love Lucia, I, too, have been set free.

 

Telling my story

The other evening a few of my friends indulged me in asking about my summer research project on disability and joy.  I yammered on a bit about my excitement about what I might learn from families with persons with disabilities who are nonverbal, and then my husband spoke up.  He talked about the presumed extremes and edges for families raising children with disabilities, especially children with rare and life-threatening conditions like ours.  “Either you’re at one extreme, devoting all your time and energy into fighting this disease and finding a cure, or you’re slumped over on the couch, defeated and depressed, resigned and remorse that life is so cruel and painful.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing.  Although my husband has spoken of these extremes often, down to the very way he first framed our public announcement of Lucia’s diagnosis, I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me how these hostile extremes prey upon and distort the reality of life as we know it with Lucia.  Why didn’t I think to frame my project this way, I thought?  After all, isn’t it this insidious framing that makes the pairing of “disability and joy” so presumably unexpected and rare?

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Part of the announcement we made about Lucia back in 2015                                        (click here to link to the WHYY story).

These stereotypes about parents of kids with special needs, made it and continue to make it really hard for me to open up as Lucia’s been in a really trying and uncertain period of feeding intolerance. In our first ethnographic interview for the project this week, one of the parents spoke eloquently about the burden of communication that’s placed on she and her husband to keep the world appraised of her child’s medical status and progress report.  A few weeks ago on a Sunday where I’d finally resolved to open up about how overwhelmed my husband and I felt about Lucia’s feeding difficulties, I quickly found myself sandwiched between two platitudes–the one about God giving special kids to special parents and the other about kids being able to overcome their disabilities with hard work, and I just wanted to scream.

When well-meaning friends jump so quickly to wishing life was otherwise for us and striving to help we and Lucia overcome all her challenges, I feel shortchanged and silenced, because it starts to feel like our life’s everyday difficulties come as such disappointments to others, and then I feel the burden of having to help others find narratives of progress amidst our very chronic, circular story.  Of course you wish the best for us, but when that comes at the cost of your narration and my silence, I can’t help but feel you’re wishing away so swiftly and expertly the difference between us, without acknowledging that that difference is where my family and I live.  I know it may sound harsh, but in these moments I often feel as though people would rather experience my family’s thriving or failing as a spectator sport, watching from a distance, finding some sentimentality in it, and then going back to their regularly scheduled lives, buffered by that comfortable (manmade) chasm between us and our seemingly very different realities.

I’m aware that neither my humble ethnographic project nor my blog posts can suddenly or significantly alter the cultural scripts surrounding families with family members with disabilities (let alone people with disabilities, especially people who are nonverbal, but that’s for another post…), but I do believe there is great power in helping families tell their stories as they want them to be told.

When I came home from church that evening a bit emotionally battered and bruised, I thought about why those conversations stung so much.  They stung because the truth was that amidst great hardship, I didn’t feel that things were just hard on the eve of Lucia’s fourth birthday, I also felt exceedingly grateful.  And so I began to write parts of this post and I resolved to try again.  Yet another Sunday, I told my story with its mix of grace and hardship and beauty and pain and joy, oh yes, deep, resounding joy, to a few members of another family during coffee hour.  I remember the concerned look on their faces, their heads nodding, I don’t remember much of anything they said, but I certainly remember how I felt.  To be accepted as I was, not really by their words, but by their nods and their faces and their hearts, was like a balm to my soul.

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Resounding joy.  My photo.

They did me the honor and ministry of letting my story hang between us, but what may have been slightly uncomfortable to them felt so freeing and resonant and powerful to me.  I realized that I have tentatively decided to share my story on this blog over and over not always even so that others can understand, let alone feel better, but so that in this swarming world that buzzes and pulses and consumes and compresses my daughter’s life into sound bytes and platitudes and pity, I can simply hear my own voice.  I know it sounds selfish to put it that way, but perhaps the battle that parents with kids with disabilities are fighting is not primarily one against disease or difficulties but against the perception that their kids lives don’t matter or that their kids aren’t like other kids or their families aren’t like other families, because they can be summed up in stereotypes that pronounce their differences in cruel, inhuman ways.  The isolation isn’t primarily physical but social, one where you find yourself telling a story that should be yours but that either no one else wants to hear, or everyone else wants to narrate, resolve, and redress for you.

But stories always have more complexity, a life of their own, and depth beyond what we can ever imagine.  They’re just one more fabulous aspect of what makes us human–that we all have a story to tell.

Thank you for letting me share some of mine.  And thank you, most of all, for really hearing it.

 

 

What I learned in 2017

Looking back, 2017 on the blog will be remembered as the year I broke my silence, the year my writing became resistance.  Only a year prior, I’d begun sharing Lucia’s story, but this year, that personal side of politics became something that as a mother, a pastor, and a professor who studies disability, I just couldn’t remain quiet about.

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Speaking at an event at Princeton University.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But as much as there is to share about what I’ve learned this year, there’s thanks in order to you, dear readers, for hanging in with me throughout all the feelings and frustrations and for your own listening ears, your caring, and your advocacy.  Whether you’re a new reader, or you’ve been around for awhile, thank you for sharing our family’s struggle.  I certainly hope you’ll let me know which posts continue to resonate with you, what you like best and what you like least about the blog, what you’ve learned in 2017 and what you’re looking forward to in 2018.

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Love these two.  My photo.

Here is a look back in hopes that these lessons learned from the year prior will carry us forward in making this world more just, more healthy, more good, and more compassionate:

1.  Resistance is not just about marching and advocating, but writing, educating, and bridging the divides between us.

2.  It’s easy to underestimate people with disabilities, even for parents; thank God the joy God has given Lucia defies all odds! (And she is still loving school!)

3.  Unfortunately, people with disabilities cannot take healthcare for granted, but thank goodness for your advocacy this year!

4.  I’ve loved using the Enneagram as a tool to understand myself and those around me better.

5.  I’m so grateful for the differences God has made in all of us.

6.  “My Baby Wasn’t Born Healthy and Her Life Still Matters.”

7.  We must to learn to see differently.

8.  Christian calls for unity must not undermine difference.

9.  I fight because we are a Medicaid family and healthcare is about human dignity.

10.  There’s nothing like a little silence.

11.  And I will not give up in 2018!

(And a look back at What I Learned in 2016 if you’re so inclined…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something different

Do you like podcasts?  My current favorites are Happier in Hollywood, By the Book, GymCastic, and Pod Save America.

Well, I was pretty intimidated, but I recently gave an interview on Princeton Seminary’s new podcast, The Distillery.  You can listen to my interview, “The Gift of Difference,” by clicking here.

Give The Distillery a rating on iTunes and thanks for your support!  And leave me a comment below to let me know if you liked it or you have any questions.

Also, check out the conference on Disability and Youth Ministry I’m speaking at and helping to host in Princeton next February (mentioned at the end of the podcast) here.  Please come!  We need your perspective!

It’s nice talking to you for a change.  More in 2018…

 

The wisdom of percolation

The other week a colleague and I did a presentation for Ph.D. students about the job market.  She told them that when she started looking for jobs her own adviser told her that it’s not that difficult to find job, but to find a job that leads to or amounts to a career takes about four to five years on average in academia.

I could see the desperation and disillusionment in the students’ eyes, but deep inside, I sighed a bit.  Her words reminded me that we so often look at others around us and all we see is where they are now, the fruits of their hard work, and we assume things came quickly and easily to them, probably—no–definitively, more quickly and easily than they came for us.

But what if that’s not the truth?  What if I reminded you today that good things take time?  And that the good things that others have, those took time, too.  

See, despite my sigh, I saw myself in the eyes of those students.  Here I am not even three months into my new job and I’ve been beating myself up a bit, because I haven’t made it around to all that much of my writing, I don’t have a clear three-year vision for this appointment, and I’m not sure what role I can or should play in institutional change.

But it’s been three months.  

And my expectations crammed into those short months, for the next three years, reek of impatience, perhaps even faithlessness.  I wouldn’t expect to take a new job in a church and within three months implement dramatic changes.  No, I’d recognize and routinize the value in listening, observing, taking in what’s God is and has already been doing before ploughing boldly ahead.

So I’m drawn these days to something like the wisdom of percolation, to recognizing and valuing that if we people work hard for years beneath the shadows, then surely God needs time to work, too.  That perhaps we’ve got it all wrong: time is not against us, but for us, in that it takes time to understand, to learn, and to grow, and God wants us to have and to hold and to enjoy that time with God.  I would and can afford that time to my students, but it’s a bit more difficult when it comes to me.

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Fall in Washington, DC.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.

Maybe you are, too.

A Medicaid Story

It was an ordinary, sunny, Saturday morning when I crept downstairs into Lucia’s room to dismiss the night nurse.  “It was a beautiful night,” one of Lucia’s nurses, Viktoriya, purred in her thick, Ukrainian accent, flashing a wide smile, gesturing toward Lucia, still sound asleep in her bed.

I smiled, too, and sighed in relief.

Lucia hadn’t been having “beautiful nights” as of late: for almost a year now, she’d been screaming and crying out in pain in the wee hours of the morning and as she was just waking up.  The crying was so extreme that the nurses and even we, her parents, couldn’t comfort her.  Finally, we’d figured out that she was experiencing muscle spasms and cramps because especially in her sleep, she can’t move purposefully, so a low dose of Valium had recently been providing some relief.

But with Viktoriya (who mind you was a doctor in Ukraine), Lucia often had “beautiful nights,” nights that Viktoriya never took credit for, but rather rejoiced in innocently, as one would a gift.  And yet, we knew there was something special about Viktoriya, about the meticulousness of the care she gave, the extra knowledge she possessed about the medications Lucia was on and their interactions, even the way she played with Lucia, offering her therapy when she’d wake up early in the mornings.

As we neared the front door and we talked about the pulse oxygen machine–the pediatrician had asked to get the alarm rates to make sure Medicaid would approve its rental for the coming year–Viktoriya detailed with precision the attention she paid to Lucia’s heart rate.  “You see, when her heart rate starts to climb, I can see she’s getting uncomfortable, so I do not wait for her to cry,” she said, “I turn her.”  And she motioned.  “I turn her from side to side all night and she never wake up,” she said cheerfully.  “She sleep perfectly just like that.”

Even as I write these lines, I am in awe.

In awe of the devotion and care my daughter receives as not only she, but my husband and I all sleep through the night, all the while a nurse keeping watch, anticipating and aiding Lucia to find safety and comfort and rest.  It’s just no small thing that in a world where life is so difficult for Lucia, where at night she faces seizures and breathing and pain, a nurse not only keeps watch for the big things, but guards her sleep, attentive to her every desire, a desire even to move.

As Viktoriya left that morning, I scribbled a post on Facebook, letting my little world know what she’d done and been doing for us, and why Medicaid has been such a boon, a comfort, a watchman for our Lucia and for our lives.

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Cuddles with my girl.

I did this before I knew Medicaid was about to come under threat yet again.  I did this before I knew I’d begin losing sleep again not because of Lucia’s medical conditions but because of the care that may not be there in years, months, or weeks.

How I feel about Medicaid is how I feel about Viktoryia and so many of the nurses who have come into our lives–they are a gift.  We can’t possibly pay for the healthcare that Lucia would need to live and that in itself is frightening and humbling.  Yet the state and the federal government give us the support we need to live our lives as a thriving, joyful family, not just of 3, but of 9.

That’s about how many nurses, plus two parents, it currently takes to provide Lucia the round-the-clock care she needs to make it through the day.  Or maybe it’s more like 16–that’s the addition of the five specialists that Lucia sees on a regular basis, her medical care that Medicaid, too, helps support.  Or maybe it’s more like 20–that’s her therapists and her teacher at school, a special needs school where Medicaid helps supply equipment, her Medicaid-supplied nurse makes it possible to attend, and Lucia gets great education and therapy.

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I could go on.  I know the numbers are much higher still–it’s you, millions of people who pay taxes and the government, that help support families like ours, that make it possible for Viktoriya to play watchman at night so Lucia doesn’t seize uncontrollably, so she doesn’t wake up crying in pain, and so her parents don’t have to hold vigil night after night as they struggle to work and to care for her.  It turns out, I’m not just in awe of Viktoriya, but the abundance we have received through Medicaid, which is in no small part thanks to all of you.

But today, I am also weary.  Weary of the proposed cuts to Medicaid in this newest bill in the Senate, and weary of the plan to make savings from cutting people from healthcare who need it most.

Please join me in bombarding Congress with stories of gratefulness about children like Lucia and the gift of Medicaid by calling your Senators over the next few days.  Please share our story and Viktoriya’s story.  Please tell them that Medicaid is about people and long nights and “beautiful nights” and families like ours.  Please tell them what Medicaid has done for us.  And please tell them how thankful and in awe we are of the people who have provided for our daughter.

Psalm 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord
2   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications! 


3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand? 
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered. 


5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope; 
6 my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning. 


7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem. 
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.

Why Christian calls for unity in the wake of Charlottesville may be both racist and theologically unsound

Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America.  And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.

You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

Whose culture, whose race is dividing us?  Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).

Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore.  The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.

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Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here.  Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”  But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.

Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify.  There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.

There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ.  Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless.  And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.

If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice.  Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God.  You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us.  And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”

Of course, there’s so much more to read and do.  But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ.  Christians have got to stand for more than that.  We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.