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A stranger said that my paralysis was unfair to my children.  Here’s what no one told them about being a mom in a wheelchair.


FOOTINMOUTH7000: Even though I feel a lot of empathy [sic] with her and I salute her for her determination, I feel bad for her kid who has to live seeing his paralyzed mom. I mean it’s unfair to the child.

This social media comment was made amid a stream of so many heart emojis and encouraging songs after an essay was posted on HuffPost Personal in January. The play had been my first chance to give the world a glimpse of what it was like to be pregnant and paralyzed. I was so proud! And then I saw this comment.

I figured that was just one of many responses―the majority of them were heart-shaped faces and yellow thumbs up―but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t. not ignore it.

I’ve heard comments like this all my life, most of them unintentional criticism of something I have no control over. I had a car accident as a teenager. I flew through the air and landed on the highway curb, tugging and stretching my spinal cord beyond repair. Everyone in my world has changed how long it takes to sigh at a truly negative comment.

However, over the past 25 years, I have done so much for myself to be able to accomplish everything I set my sights on. I became a swimming teacher and coach. I have traveled the world despite unruly back roads and seemingly inaccessible lifestyles. I challenged myself beyond what I knew possible by training for the Paralympic Games. I even became a wife and a mother.

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

Luckily, I’m as stubborn as a mule wearing high heels in the rain. I wasn’t going to give in to the idea that things happen for a reason, and I decided to help them happen.

The author with his son Van on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria in 2019.

Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

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

Don’t get me wrong: a little voice inside me started slithering through my brain the very moment I became pregnant. He judged me and made me doubt my abilities ― or rather my handicaps ― to become and to be a mother. I vividly remember looking at the pregnancy test, alongside my husband, in our small bathroom. We were all toothy smiles, but this snake crawled inside and hissed, “Sssssssssssso, how are you even going to teach him to walk?”

Honestly, I didn’t know. But what I was sure of was that I always had the chance to try. I guess that sentiment may ring true for many parents.

I have to climb high in this tree because my child is stuck? No problem. Jumping in front of a moving vehicle to grab a toddler? I have that.

I guess all parents know what it’s like to forget themselves for the sake of their little ones, and I’m no exception. I knew – I just knew – that I would figure out how to teach my child to walk and fly through the monkey bars and do all those things that I couldn’t imagine doing myself. Because I am their mother.

I’ve learned to challenge my body with car seats and strollers, with stairs and soccer practice carpools―even when I don’t know how I’m going to handle the challenge in front of me―and I succeeded. I learned to try with everything I have, and I learned to ask for help. I even learned to ask my children for help, because sometimes that’s good too.

As my children grew up, so did I.

A stranger said that my paralysis was unfair to my children.  Here’s what no one told them about being a mom in a wheelchair.
The author and his son Orren on Halloween in 2019.

Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

I got so many perspectives on my disability and life with it by watching my children watch me. I didn’t know I was that strong until they told me and showed me.

Being able to summarize just a bit of my own experience for them is everything to me. They learned things like the purest empathy, overcoming adversity, 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 around the block together – just us. I had taught him so many times before that he had to walk right next to the wheel of my wheelchair, because it was never possible to hold hands when crossing a street. He always obeyed these commandments because he understood their importance. However, that day, while walking around the neighborhood, my sweet boy did something that I will never forget. There was a slight incline in the pavement, and before I could even kneel with my chest to my legs to get the proper grip to get up the hill, my son came up behind me and offered me a slight push, all as he had seen his dad have done 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 reward. He did it because he just knew it was the right thing to do. And, for the first time in my life, I realized how special my disability made me.

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 incredible. It’s beautiful ?

A stranger said that my paralysis was unfair to my children.  Here’s what no one told them about being a mom in a wheelchair.
The author with his sons.

Courtesy of Ryan Rae Harbuck

My life―are our lives together―are they 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 an almost constant dizzy state thinking about how it affects my health and longevity. I sometimes wonder if I’ll still be there for them as they grow? I do not know. But I only let myself worry for a second because worrying won’t do me or my family any good and I have more important things to focus on.

Are there times when I can’t be there for them or with them? Those times when I have to chase my boys and my husband to continue without me over a suspension bridge in the rocky forests of British Columbia, or down the highest sand hill in White Sands National Monument?

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

My paralysis can’t take me anywhere I want to go – I’ve always known that. There will be times when my children will have to go on without me. There will be things that I will miss.

Yet they always come back 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 his memoir “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair”. She has been a teacher and swimming coach, but she loves being a mom the most. She resides in her hometown of Denver with her husband and two sloppy boys. To learn more, please visit his website at RyanRaeHarbuck.com.

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