Navigating motherhood in a wheelchair: it’s about adaptation and love

By Ryan Rae Harbuck

“But I want that blue car with the flames on it!”

I try desperately to rationalize with this human being who has only been alive and developing for as many fingers as I have on one hand. Not even counting the thumb. 

“It’s just a little one! I want it! I want it! You’re a poop!”

The blue car with flames did not make it through our checkout line and the tears welled up and shook ferociously out of this little four-year-old face. I was overwhelmed paralyzed with embarrassment by the sheer noise and mass of the scene we created in the self-checkout line. A queue of hungry and hopefully sympathetic shoppers behind me, some with heads cocked softly because they’ve been there too. 

I wanted more than anything to pick up this mini maniac and charge out of there like a mama rhinoceros, child under my arm and flailing. I wanted to march him straight out of the store and into the car which would mostly stifle any residual tantrum. I wanted to disappear altogether.

But I couldn’t do any of that. 

A car accident in my teens left me with a broken back and a spinal cord injury. I became paralyzed from the chest down, without so much as a tap dance or toe wiggle. From sixteen on I was forced to create a life for myself from the seat of a wheelchair. 

Which I did.

I began by chasing down any semblance of normalcy I could. I went to college, I joined the swim team, I folded clothes for a living. And I did it all with my wheelchair nestled under me. Learning early on that I wanted to prove to the world I could do anything, I relied heavily on my stubbornness and will to do things independently. Those things combined with the innocence of my youth, I was able to accomplish more than I would have ever done in my long-lost able-bodied world.

Yet, it wasn’t until having children that my reckless abandon to be independent was forced to make room for rational senses and cautious behavior. Having kids meant that it was no longer just me in the world that had to own up to the consequences of my actions. Having kids also meant new challenges of accessibility and independence.

Even with arms stronger than most, I was never going to be able to carry this screaming child out of the crowded grocery store. His wails were deafening and my skin was burning hot with mortification. All I wanted was to pick up my kid and flee. Yet there is no amount of fairy dust that would grant this wish for my life. Believe me, I have tried. 

So, like any good Darwinian, I have forced myself to adapt. To evolve in my new surroundings. My entire adulthood has been spent learning how to change in order to survive. 

Kneeling down to the eye level of my inconsolable babe, I tried my hardest to explain that we are buying groceries and not race cars. To no avail. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you are Mother Teresa or Judge Judy, you will not win with a four-year-old. The kicking and screaming continued as his eyes looked only through me, longing for the toy aisle with the little blue car with flames somewhere behind me and the growing line of shoppers.        

Being a mom was something I always wanted for myself, but never knew the probability or possibility of it as a paralyzed wheelchair user. Until it happened. Just like most other parts of my life, I wasn’t going to let my wheels get in the way of doing something I wanted. Something I yearned for. Yet, becoming a mom who uses a wheelchair comes, inconsequentially, with its own set of bumps and bruises.

Nonetheless, I’ve learned how to navigate infant car seats and strollers. I’ve learned how to do playgrounds with extra dry mulch. I’ve learned how to snake around plastic toy animals spewed all over the floor. And, most importantly, I’ve learned how to be a great example to my children.      

My mind is keen to always pick up on the potency of life lessons and pass them forward to my children. There is a lot of adversity and struggle in my daily life that splays itself in all of its rawness and realness to my kids. They are there for it, as I am for them. They see me struggle with hills and heavy doors at times. They see me fumble with my hands because of years of use and abuse that have taken a toll on my dexterity and fine motor skills. They see me stop and wait for them at the bottom as they go climb a staircase, or a slide, or even a mountain. I wait for them a lot.

But I do it all with a smile because I know the gift I am giving them—having them fiercely integrated in my own disabled life—is teaching them how to be a better human of their own.

So, I took a deep breath and I tried again. I caressed my now sweaty child’s forehead, from all of the rage and exhaustion of the moment. I smiled at him and explained in my best efforts how we had already checked out and paid for our groceries, and how we had never intended to buy a toy in the first place. His shoulders sank down to his stomach and his wet eyes looked to me like I was the worst person on the planet. But his tantrum stopped. And, I managed to get him out the store doors and into his car seat.

He was still crying and still mad at me, yet he allowed me to be the one in control again. Whether he understood it or not, he helped me help him.

Ryan Rae Harbuck is the mom of two car grooming, mudslinging boys in her hometown of Denver, Colorado. Her memoir, WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A CHAIR is her first book and memoir, although she is currently working on several picture book concepts, a middle-grade series, and a novel based loosely on her experiences as a wheelchair user. 

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here