How Come It’s “We’re Pregnant” But It’s Not “We’re Disabled”?

I don’t know when it became fashionable to identify pregnancy as an adventure à deux.  It always seemed lopsided that pregnancy excluded men from throwing up, having swollen ankles and shrewish moods.  I’m not even talking about all those forever changes like stretch marks, a bigger butt, and wider hips.  With the possibility of gestational diabetes, postpartum depression, or miscarriage, the adventure becomes a challenge, albeit one that affects the relationship although it is physically experienced only by the woman.

Not to make it one-sided, men’s experiences are extraordinary, too, and may include being the target of a woman’s whacky moods or being the late-night junk food scrounger.  For guys, it hits that the two of you are now a family, with all the attendant expectations to be the one who forevermore protects and provides.

Without a doubt there are many, many women for whom pregnancy is a delightful experience. The glowing, the growing, and giving life is an experience like no other.  Pregnant women and moms belong to an exclusive club that has unbend-able  membership rules.  So even if it was the two of you being pregnant, only one of you, in the strictest sense, is a mom.

It’s the same when a woman is disabled or chronically ill.  Only one of you is impaired even while both of you — your relationship — can be impaired.   Having an invisible disability can be the worst of all.

Our society looks for proof; needs to name it; needs to touch it or otherwise experience its reality.  You can’t be “a little bit pregnant”; you either are or you’re not.  Pee on a stick and you prove it.  With invisible disabilities, there’s no pee test.  For some people, taking it on faith is harder than believing that what isn’t seen is true.  For example, not being able to prove the existence of god doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist.  Obviously, it’s the emotion surrounding belief that counts; to disbelieve or doubt a person’s physical or emotional perceptions is tantamount to discrediting someone’s very existence.  The truth of it is immaterial, while the emotion surrounding such thoughts is what counts.  The thoughts may even be rooted in jealousy of a sort – “What, so you get a break but I don’t?”  “Buck up, you’re just being lazy.”  “I worked all day but I still have to make dinner and do the laundry and get the kids to bed before I can sit down and catch my breath and where are you? in bed.”

Quantification when invisible disability is present requires a different yardstick but most of all it requires belief, support, and compassion.

Adding a stress load to any system that is already compromised results in a predictable, and usually disastrous, outcome (think of how a building with cracks in the foundation responds to an earthquake).  The same thing happens when an already dysfunctional body system is unable to respond well when stressors are piled on.  Such stressors may include walking through a mall or having relationship difficulties.

“We’re pregnant” or “we’re disabled” is an implicit bonding between partners.  Life-changing events happen from which there is no return.  Legal sanctions apply in both situations:  the 20% of women, nationwide, who are disabled are entitled to lifetime support; children until they reach the age of majority.  Society doesn’t seem to have recognized that the “we” of marriage with children and the “we” of disability in a relationship are the same thing.

To say “we’re disabled” says that both partners are in it together, that there is emotional and physical support of the partner who is less capacitated. Pregnancy usually involves the active participation of both partners while acquiring disability isn’t chosen by either partner.  Parenthood never ends, just as disability does not; a major difference is in the expected trajectory – that parenting gets more pleasurable once the nest is empty, while disability often does the opposite.  Disability is different in that there is no consent, no pre-planning, and certainly no enjoyment in acquiring the condition.

Kathe Skinner is a Relationship Coach in private practice.   Specializing in relationships, especially those with invisible disability in the mix, she offers both in-person and web-based programs for couples.  See http://www.BeingHeardNow.com to find the right program for you!

©Kathe Skinner, 2012

“If you have multiple sclerosis, you’re treated with respect.”

The following assertion was made by Maxine Cunningham, founder and director of Empowered Walking Enterprise/Ministries.  My response follows.
“Dignity is not a word that we often hear in connection with how we treat persons with a chronic mental illness – YES if you have cancer, ALS, multiple sclerosis, etc. Dignity and full personhood – that we might be whole.”

As a therapist with multiple sclerosis, and a Board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association, I can assure you that those with physical illnesses, esp hidden ones like cancer, ms, lupus, Crohn’s diseaes, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, etc., are not always treated with dignity.  There are still people who will not hug someone with cancer for fear of “catching it”.  An ms client was escorted from a grocery store after she fell into a display; the assumption was she was drunk, not that she fell because of balance problems.  Read about my own experiences with people’s assumptions, misperceptions, and misunderstandings on my blog, ilikebeingsickanddisabled.com. and in my article for the government’s site, disability.gov, http://usodep.blogs.govdelivery.com/2012/07/25/looks-can-be-deceiving/.   Mental health issues are as much a part of invisible disability as physical health issues are.  Parsing them dilutes the effectiveness of advocacy.  Without ignoring the special needs of any group under the umbrella of “disabiltiy”, it might, at some point, be worthwhile to give up the “me” in exchange for the “us”.

Kathe Skinner is a Relationship Coach specializing in coaching couples whose relationship is impacted by invisible disability.  She lives in the Front Range of Colorado with her husband of 26 years, David, and their 2 hooligan cats, Petey & Lucy.
© 2012, Kathe Skinner