'I Did It': How My Disability Has Made Me a More Compassionate Parent
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
‘I did it!’ shouts my two-year-old daughter. She does a vigorous jig to the music the doorbell emits. She presses it again, ‘I did it!’ Her arms flap; her hips wiggle.
‘I did it!’ are my daughter’s three absolute favourite words. She adores to do things by herself with no help from anyone else. She is very, very triumphant whenever she does something by herself, especially if it is something that she has not done before.
She likes to load the laundry by herself; then, she likes to put the capsule in herself (supervised of course); followed by shutting the door, and finishing by pressing the button. ‘I did it!’
Once the straps are undone, she likes to wriggle out of her pushchair; yank off her coat, then her shoes – each part of the process followed by a gleeful, ‘I did it!’
Multiple people, unconnected to each other, have commented on how independent Cassia is. It always makes me feel very proud.
People who know me often attach the word, ‘independent’ to me, frequently followed by ‘stubborn’. For the longest time, I thought these character traits were born solely out of having a disability. Growing up, I loathed well-intentioned adults taking things off me (heavy objects, laces, zips) without me asking them to. I was told time and time again that these people were just trying to help. A help they offered in abundance, regardless of whether I wanted it or not. It made me very determined to do things by myself.
Even recently, I have caught a look exchanged between my sister and my mother as an unwitting non-disabled person took something off me that I was figuring out my own /obviously struggling with. They thought were being helpful. Often, I can look as if I am going through a great big test, only to come out the other side. I will tackle a jar, put all my might into opening it, get a knife to pop it open. It may take a long time, but if I can do it myself, more often than not, I would rather do it myself. I’ll have an internal, ‘I did it!’ moment. And sometimes a vocal hiss-whisper, ‘yessss’.
This is not to say dependency is a bad thing. Sometimes, all you need is for an non-disabled person to quietly fasten a stiff case after you’ve thrown it in front of you, frustrated. You need someone to not make a big deal when you ask, ‘can you help me?’, even if they’ve been watching you stress over it for the last ten minutes. If you are really very intimate with a disabled person, then you may be at the level where you innately know when to step in and help. Here, I mean very intimate. I mean my Dad knowing to sit on my left side on a rollercoaster. So that he can grab my left hand when it suddenly let’s go and I have a mid-ride freak out that I am going to shoot into the air. But if a disabled person wants and can be independent, then you should not disrupt the space in which that happens, even if it would be quicker or more "efficient" if you intervened.
Although my daughter (as far as we know) is non-disabled, being miniature and having spent significantly less time on the planet, makes me, in a strange way, the non-disabled one out of the two of us. I am her carer. This has given me a new insight into what it must be like to be an non-disabled person watching a disabled person manage the world.
Cassia likes to go up and down the stairs unassisted. This can be agonising to watch because it can be very slow. I resist the urge to pick her up and carry her. It would be much quicker.
But why must it be? Does it really matter how fast we climb the stairs?
I experience what I imagine non-disabled people feel when they watch me do things (whether consciously or subconsciously): I could do that better, I could do that faster.
My intention is to help her, to move things along, but is that really a positive?
It is a positive in the sense that an action happens faster. But the speed in which we do things is not the only criteria to judge things on. In saving a minute or two by carrying Cassia on the stairs, she is losing out on feeling independent. I am refusing to let her have control of something that she can comfortably have control of because of a pre-determined notion that I am better at doing this.
I get the same urge to intervene when I watch her stretching to reach the buttons in a lift. The same urge when she precariously carries and rearranges her toys. The same urge when she only gets a single chickpea on to her spoon. It would be much faster if I did it, but that’s at a greater loss to Cassia, it means that she doesn’t get to say her three favourite words, ‘I did it!’
There are moments when Cassia simply can’t do it. And I am not advocating for completely hands-off parents, where toddlers just do as they please. When this happens, instead of violating the space of her trial and error, I hold back before I ask, ‘can I help you?’, ‘would you like mummy to carry you?’, ‘should Mummy do it?’ Asking rather than taking over.
Like all parent-child relationships, our roles will change as we age and our physical fitness changes. My disability will add to our difference in ability. Cassia already has the dexterity to pick up, with her thumb and forefinger, pomegranates and lentils one-by-one – something that would take painful concentration from my left hand. One day, I may well crave the words, ‘I did it!’ I hope that she will give me the space to have that moment.
 Though it sounds like a chaotic, entertaining film.