Six months into our pregnancy with Henry, after our bombshell diagnosis of spina bifida, Lou and I would make regular treks up to Park Ridge to see our Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist, who kept us abreast on how the baby was doing in utero. Since I’m ridiculously extroverted and I adore small talk, I started chatting up the receptionist as we were filling out some paperwork, post-appointment (Lou, his usual introvert self, was probably silently willing me to stop talking). At this point, we had already been told by two separate doctors that Henry would be totally paralyzed from the waist down.
We started talking about her kids — three girls! — And I asked her if she preferred girls, or if she might try for a boy. We both quickly agreed that the baby’s sex wasn’t really that important — boy or girl, they were blessings.
“Oh, I like girls, but it doesn’t matter to me!” she exclaimed. “You know, as long as they’re healthy and running around!”
I felt it and Lou felt it, simultaneously — that hot knife of grief in the belly. I think he actually winced. I laughed, bewildered, and said something like, “Lol I know right? Hahaha otherwise it would be awful, wouldn’t it, if they couldn’t walk???” and then slumped back to the waiting room with my paperwork.
Later, on the ride home, Lou bristled. “She works for a maternal-fetal specialist,” he grumbled. “What was she thinking? Healthy and running around? What the hell?”
That phrase has haunted me, ever since we found out that our child would be born with a birth defect. As long as it’s healthy! People chirp at you, when you talk about finding out the gender. Boy? Doesn’t matter! Girl? Who gives a sh*t! Nothing else matters but perfect health! And once you discover that your kid isn’t healthy, it almost feels like a threat.
Because what if it’s not healthy?
That phrase terrifies me. Because we’re talking about our children — an arrangement that’s supposed to be unconditional — and as long as they’re healthy! is alarmingly conditional. Everyone’s happy for a new baby and congratulations are in order — but only under certain criteria. Right? And if baby doesn’t meet that criteria, well, all bets are off. All the congratulations vanish. Your support system bottoms out from under you. People start whispering.
It’s not wrong to want a healthy baby, make no mistake. Nobody prefers a medically fragile baby. Nobody wants to see her child suffer. So we wish for health. We make ominous, defensive, vague statements. Everything will be OK — unless it’s not!
Let’s retire that phrase. Shall we?
It’s time to stop putting health on a pedestal.
Is health important? Uh, yeah, duh. Is it the summit of our human experience? Is it the sole quality off of which we should determine the worth of our children? No.
We need to move past this fatalistic attitude we have that says a life with a disability is tragic and hopeless. We need to get over the idea that a handicapped baby is better off dead. We’ve had handicapped presidents, for God’s sake. We’ve had handicapped Olympic medalists. One of the most sought-after motivational speakers on the planet has neither arms nor legs, and I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he’s smarter and more physically active than I am. For the love of God, one of the most poetic and well-written books in existence was written by a man who could only blink his left eye.
When we say as long as it’s healthy! we’re negating all the unlimited potential we have as human beings. We don’t need to be “healthy” to be heroic. And we shouldn’t need to be able-bodied to be considered human beings.
And when we say as long as it’s healthy! we’re telling parents that our support as a society is conditional. Have a healthy baby, and you’re golden. Come back from your ultrasound with a special needs diagnosis, and we’ll need to start discussing your options.
Come on, society. We’re better than that.