If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you know that I resist the notion of the Erma Bombeck God and kids with disabilities. Bombeck, many years before her death, wrote a vignette that involved God and an angel sitting up in heaven hand-picking special needs children for special parents. In the early years I found this idea affirming and comforting, but in recent years I have rejected the idea on both personal and theological grounds.
A few years ago I stumbled across a qualitative research article that explored this very idea with mothers raising kids with disabilities. Since I find research interesting I got kind of excited. Weird. I know. The research is summarized in a chapter authored by Gail Landsman in a book called Transformative Motherhood: On Giving and Getting in a Consumer Culture edited by Linda Layne if that sort of thing also interests you.
Landsman argues, as I do, that this idea of special parents being chosen for special kids is primarily to support the emotional well-being of parents who are raising able-bodied kids. But it is her rationale for this idea that is quite interesting. She reminds us that in our current world we have this sense that we can control things, including health and by extension the health of a foetus. And in many cases she is right. We can make the sick better. We can do things to increase the chance of a healthy baby. We know we shouldn’t drink or smoke while pregnant. We know to take pre-natal vitamins and folic acid. Some may choose to have pre-natal testing to identify any possible disabilities and some will even chose to abort that foetus. Landsman suggests all of this, taken together, has nurtured this idea that creating the perfect baby is well within our grasp. Our society often forgets, or ignores, the idea that things just happen sometimes to good people who do everything right. Life is not, and never has been, fair despite our need to believe it is.
For Landsman then, if we can create the perfect baby what does it mean for those of us who gave birth to a baby society considers not perfect? You will note I emphasize society here. Many of us “special” parents think our kids are perfect exactly the way they are. Landsman suggests society has two responses. Either the mother is to blame and did something wrong to create a baby with disabilities, or the mother has been uniquely chosen for a special gift because they are a special person.
Landsman argues that parents of able-bodied kids actually buy into both ideas. They will often choose to believe that their child is healthy because they did all the right things thus making them ideal parents and supporting their sense of control. However they will attempt to extend some form of “compassion” to those of us with kids with disabilities by suggesting our kids, seen as less then perfect and healthy, are a chosen gift to a unique and strong parent. This idea also allows many parents of “typical” kids to keep their sense of control while also hanging on to their idea of a benevolent God because that God has chosen parents for kids with disabilities who are uniquely gifted for the journey.
Landsman notes that this thinking then very easily transfers into the notion that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Parents of able bodied kids are often quite clear on the idea that they couldn’t handle the demands of a complicated kid. They know there is no way they could live the life many of us live. But those of us with complex kids? We must be different apparently. We are saints and superheroes chosen by God.
It is a nice story – this narrative society has created. Too bad many of us with extraordinary children don’t believe it is true.