I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age two. It affects my legs, and I walk on a walker. I’m a strong-willed person who always strives to be independent to the best of my abilities, so I complete most of my daily routine on my own. When I put my mind to something, it is hard to convince me I can’t achieve it.
Now, I am the mother of two boys, ages four and two. They mean the world to me, and I’m grateful to have them. The moment I found out about my pregnancies, I committed to learning everything needed to care for them. Google was my best friend and still is as they are getting older.
However, just knowing how to care for them without proof was not enough in the world’s eyes. A barrier I faced as a disabled parent is not having a custody agreement in place for my kids. This is something all parents should have, but it’s even more important for disabled parents to have because we are already seen at a disadvantage. I’m sharing my experience because no one told me that without a proper agreement in place you are assumed unfit just because you have a disability. People sometimes count us out when it comes to parenting and that is a painful reality to live through.
I was three months pregnant when my ex got angry with me and took custody of our oldest son without my permission. He felt I should only have supervised visits. This shocked me because I had always been our son’s primary caregiver. We had never been apart, not even in the hospital. When I refused supervised visits I was not allowed to see my son, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I would beg and plead with my ex to give me back my rights as a mom because legally I knew his actions were wrong. Some even agreed with him because of my disability. It was devastating.
The effects of not seeing my son weighed heavily on me. I couldn’t eat, sleep, and I felt helpless. The only thing that kept me going was my unborn child. It was important to me that I did not have the rights to my second child unfairly taken, so I went to court and filed for custody of my son. My second son was added after he was born. The road to seeing my son again and getting legal parenting rights for both of my kids was not easy, but it could have been easier if I knew what what I know now.
I had to take classes, have my home evaluated, and be medically evaluated by my primary physician. I also had to prove I could care for my kids and be left alone with them. The other parent only had to have his home evaluated. While I’m grateful to have proof that I’m a capable mother, it hurts to have to prove it simply because you are disabled.
It was almost a year when I was reunited with my son, and over two years before the case would be resolved in my favor. Imagine having to introduce yourself to your child all over again. No parent should have to do that. On the bright side, I feel that this happened so that I could help other disabled parents
One of the things I learned is to prepare during pregnancy. Sit down with your partner, married or not, and discuss both of your roles in the child’s life physically and financially. Write down what you agree on and both parents should sign it and have notarized copies. Even if you don’t have to take legal action, keep it as a reference. If you have more children after agreeing, just reevaluate it. Take parenting, CPR, and any other class that prepares you for parenthood.
Another thing I learned is having a custody agreement in place doesn’t mean there is conflict. It protects your rights as a disabled parent. So many make the mistake of waiting until a conflict arises to take action, but the truth is this something you want to have to keep conflict from occurring. Your partner (if they are not disabled) should never want you to be seen at a disadvantage because of your disability. They also should want you to have fair rights because this is your child too.
The most important thing I learned from my experience is not to be afraid. I didn’t act sooner out of fear. Not fear of the other parent, but my circumstances. I thought I didn’t have enough money; I wouldn’t be taken seriously; and that I had let my son down by not taking what was offered to me so I could see him. But after pushing those fears to the side, the need to stand up for myself became stronger. I’m so grateful because I get to see my kids every day and know my rights will never be compromised again. As disabled people, we have been overcoming obstacles our whole lives. Just look at this as one more thing you have to do for your voice to be heard.
Lastly, I want to encourage that if your parenting rights are being compromised go to your family and friends for support. It doesn’t matter what type of support it is as long as it’s helpful. There were times when I needed to vent, yell, and cry. Even if your loved ones have an opinion that differs from yours, listen because you will need a real-world perspective. Use their advice as strength to keep going if you want to give up
Parents with disabilities are still parents. We are capable of teaching, caring, and providing for our kids despite our barriers. We should never have our rights taken or questioned because we are seen as the weaker parent. The person parenting with you shouldn’t see you that way. But unfortunately, this is a barrier that we have to consider when becoming parents. But I am proof that this barrier can be broken.