Reasons why feminism is a good prerequisite for having a child with Down syndrome

This week I read another memoir written by a parent of a child with Down syndrome.*  As is the case with many, many of these memoirs, the first half of the book was a story of a parent struggling with grief and sadness, with loss, with the horrible, horrible bummer of having a child with Down syndrome.  I was so disappointed.  Haven't I already read that story a billion times?  Aren't we tired of that story and ready for a new one?  And for goodness sake, can you not start the story with a chapter that's about how great things are now?  You know that new parents are picking that book up and thinking, "Oh, no--this is just as bad as I feared!"

At any rate, one of the things that struck me while I was reading is that I didn't have the same year-long struggle that many folks have to adjust to having a child with Down syndrome, and at least one component of why I didn't have to struggle that much is the fact that I was already a feminist when Maybelle came along.

So, reasons why feminism is a good prerequisite for having a child with Down syndrome:

Maybelle's sense of styleBeauty standards:  I'm already quite skeptical of them.  I want Maybelle to have her own, unique beauty, like so many of my students do.  I want her to look funky, distinctive--not to fit into the homogenous, stereotypically girlish mode.  Please see the picture on the left for an example of Maybelle's awesome looks.  I love all the ways that she's visually distinctive.

Activism:  It's not that I want Maybelle's life to have additional challenges, but long before she was born, or even conceived, I knew that she was going to be an ethical person in a fucked up world. What this means is that I'd always envisioned her as an activist, because activism is a necessary component of ethical humanity.  So she'll have some easy targets.  And we already have tools.

Recognition of social construction:  As you're all well aware, I'm into the social construction of everything. Before Maybelle was born I already had a scaffolding in my head of societal oppressions and how they operate.  Adding one new concept into this framework--the notion that disability is socially constructed, and that these social constructions can and should be changed--wasn't a paradigm shift.  It made perfect sense almost immediately.

What this means is that it was pretty easy for me to see Down syndrome as embraceable human diversity, not a problem, a flaw, a defect, not something to freak out about or want to "solve."  It's a component of who Maybelle is, a component that's embraceable.  All the bad beliefs and energy about Down syndrome are socially constructed.

Ready-made community:  Certainly our friends and families were pretty much, "Down syndrome?  Whatever--it's Maybelle!"  But the larger feminist community--my students, for instance--only needed the tiniest bit of coaching (like I did) to see things from a feminist disability studies perspective, and now they're all over it.  They see Maybelle and there's not a bit of weirdness.

    *This wasn't George Estreich's The Shape of the Eye, which I'll review here very soon.


    Shannon Drury said...

    Feminists DO make fantastic parents! This post was excellent--I plan on sharing it!

    Anonymous said...

    Excellent articulation of something I've felt, in a much different capacity, about parenting and feminism. I wish everyone was a feminist. Or even that they were more willing to recognize status quo and all the limitations and forced dichotomies that the status quo represents. We'd be a much more sympathetic society. I hope anyway. Because I sure do spend a lot of time asking people to challenge the norm. I'd hate to think that all my pushing is for naught.

    Erica said...

    I am sharing this on my Women's Health blog for my students!

    Bryan Walls said...

    I saw on Boing Boing a link to the following, with clothing designed specifically for people with Down syndrome.


    Heather said...

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this!! I had never thought about how radical critique in one sphere might play out over the life course in this way!! So helpful!! Please write a memoir that operates outside of the prevailing tropes about disability.

    Terri said...

    I agree--When I was the president of our local Down syndrome group it seemed that half of the new parents I spoke with were grieving and half weren't--and a year later you couldn't tell which were which. I think the grief reaction itself is part of the social construct of disability.

    We did not grieve either--I was perpetually surprised. I would start to worry about some thing or another and someone with wisdom or a relationship or experience that was helpful would walk in... pretty amazing really.

    Excellent post!

    APPR=CRAZY said...

    I have spent a lot of time explaining why I don't read memoirs of parents of kids with Down syndrome. You pinpointed that exact feeling I have when I pick up one of these books! Love every sentence of this post!

    Kelley said...

    I think identifying as an activist and having for many years, been highly critical of all the silly, nonsensical values in our society definitely helped me "get over it". Sorry to admit it but i still went through the grieving and all that bs but yeah, my feminist identity-the one that proudly stands up and says "your norms are f*cked" was definitely a huge part of how I dealt with the diagnosis and continue to rock my role as parent now!
    Reading this helped me realize just how much!

    Anonymous said...

    I just happened across this post, and I'm so glad I did! I raised a son by myself, who had learning disabilities. Feminism gave me the framework and the strength with which to challenge the oppressive conception of "the normal" that reigns in schools. It also gave me the confidence to resist the gender straight jacket, and to paint my son's toenails red when he asked me to. Feminism is the deepest form of humanism, for everyone.