When you ask even socially liberal parents-to-be if the have a preference for their future child’s hair colour, eye colour, height, sex, etc., the response is often the same: “We don’t care, just as long as they’re healthy.” Unfortunately, the mantra, “as long as our baby’s healthy,” reinforces ableism in our society. Lately, however, I have become obsessed with this itty bitty phrase.
I am currently a PhD candidate in Gender Studies writing a dissertation on the topic of motherhood. Because of this, I am very sensitive to the media’s constant mother-blame, the shaming of pregnant people’s bodies, and numerous other ways people throw shade at parents in our society.
I am totally sympathetic to how challenging it is to raise a child, how much pressure this puts on people and how little help society provides parents in most cases. I think about parenting issues every day for at least nine or 10 hours. I care about everything from the need for subsidized childcare to strategies for combating post-partum depression. I do think, however, that words can matter just as much as social policies.
When your child is born, if they happen to have chronic ear infections or reduced vision, or fit into any of our other socially constructed categories about what it means to be “unhealthy,” would that make your baby less loveable or valuable? Because that is what is implied when people waiting on the stork to arrive say, “I don’t care if the baby looks like me or my partner, as long as little Eloise/Asher/Tate is healthy.”
The message is loud and clear: When “health” is everything you allow yourself to care about, you might not find your child satisfactory if they were “unhealthy.” Come on, that’s messed up!
Even if you yourself end up having a traditionally healthy child, stating this personal mantra suggests that everyone else in society who does not has a less desirable kid. Um, that’s pretty harsh and unfair, right? So let’s admit it, this common refrain really is a reprehensible thing to say.
Fitting into a socially accepted box of what society considers to be “good health” is actually very difficult to do. Any adult who’s ever been to a doctor for any reason should know that. So, if your kid turns out to have a heart defect, are they somehow a disappointment? If your child has severe asthma and can’t play sports, will that completely destroy your bond with the little one?
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not here to attack people’s reproductive rights. If a pregnant person feels unable to carry through with a pregnancy for any reason after an ultrasound, it’s their body and therefore their choice. No one has a positive obligation to hand one’s uterus over to the growth of a being they don’t feel up to hosting. I don’t care why that is. For me, that’s just a given.
However, when parents do decide to enter the great unknown of parenthood by having a baby, they should not love their tiny human any less because it has a cleft palate, autism, or develops leukemia at the age of four.
Believe me, I get that parenting is probably harder than anything in the world, including doing CrossFit and studying for the New York bar exam. I know that it can be challenging to give unconditional love to any child, no matter what their health status. However, we must abandon the popular rhetoric that suggests a parent is obligated to embrace their child no matter what they look like, or what genitals they’re rocking, except if that child is in less than perfect “health.” Symbolically, it enforces ableism by suggesting a good parent shouldn’t care about things like sex or hair colour, but it’s only natural to want an able-bodied baby with a good immune system and a naturally sunny disposition.
Of course, I do understand that it can be very challenging to have a child who is not traditionally healthy in North America today. This is no fault of the kid, however, but the fault of governments that often provides inadequate healthcare and leave parents to go it alone when it comes to care work. This, however, does not make it okay to fear and insult people who are not considered traditionally healthy. Rather, we should seek new ways to facilitate the flourishing of individuals with a variety of health needs.
Ultimately, the refrain, “as long as they’re healthy,” makes it seem like individuals who are less healthy are less valuable and less loveable. In short, it’s just a mean and untrue thing to say, so please, let’s stop saying it….
This article was originally posted at The Huffington Post. Cross-posted with permission.