I remember standing over my hours-new baby, about to change his diaper for the first time. The fanfare had ended — my boisterous cheering section cleared out; my mom, gone. The birthing room, accustomed to the bustle of nurses and equipment and pacing women in labor, settled into a visceral stillness.
It was me and my baby, alone, when it suddenly hit: I had no flipping clue what I was doing. Who had left me alone with him? Who thought I could handle this? I had read the pregnancy guides and tracked his week-by-week growth, but nothing prepared me for the nitty-gritty details of newborn care. Latch positions. Diaper counts. Skin rashes and sleep schedules and alarming shades of poop.
I remember a heavy fear swelled inside me, filling the space my baby left vacant.
And if someone else had been in the room, witnessing and evaluating the ordeal with a printed-out checklist, I probably would have flunked the Motherhood Preparedness test. She would have seen the way I awkwardly held my baby’s ankles in the air, struggling to stop the thick flow of tar-like poop staining his tender skin. She would have seen my frantic insecurity, my amateur diapering and swaddling attempts, my soft cries.
Maybe she would have deemed me too young, too immature, to be a mother. I was only 22 at the time, with the face of a high schooler.
But what if I had something else stacked against me — like maybe I was still in school, living with my parents. Maybe I came from the wrong neighborhood. Would that affect how an evaluator perceived my capabilities? What if I had gotten pregnant by a dead-beat guy, and was a single, young mom? Would that raise any red flags?
And what if I had a handicap of some sort, making the new-mom learning curve drastically steep? Could someone take away my baby for that? Turns out, if my IQ was lower, or if I was classified with any kind of disability, there very well may have been an evaluator standing over my shoulder, judging my every move.
The recent New York Magazine cover story, “Who Knows Best,” describes the “alarming frequency” by which children are ripped away from their handicapped parents. According to the article, 37 states still have laws on the books that say a disability is enough reason to take away person’s parental rights. And citing a 2012 investigation published by the National Council on Disability, the rate of those with intellectual disabilities losing their children can be as high as 80 percent. 80 percent!
Of course, many people with intellectual disabilities are incapable of raising children — leading to neglect or abuse. Research shows intellectually disabled mothers can exhibit less sensitivity and empathy toward their kids, and can have trouble with the most basic tasks, like treating diaper rash or providing regular, nutritious meals.
But then there are other cases — like that of Sara Gordon. At age 19, Gordon — who is labeled intellectually disabled, with an IQ of around 70 — had a baby girl. She was a single mom, low income, relying heavily on her parents to help care for her baby while she finished school. And although her IQ was low enough to be classified, she is described as being “borderline.” She can read and write, but has trouble with basics such as reading the hands on a clock or paying attention in large groups.
The author of the article, Lisa Miller, describes Gordon, now 22 years old, as “charming,” “good-natured,” and “obsessed with fairness.” But in the hospital, she was overwhelmed with information and she missed a feeding. Her appearance was unkempt, her enunciation imprecise. She was young and poor. And so, the nurses deemed her baby at risk and called the authorities — who took the baby from Gordon’s arms, gave her to a foster family, and then put Gordon through a series of tests, hoops, and legal proceedings for the next two years.
So where’s the line? What’s the magic IQ number? At what point can someone come into your hospital room and remove your baby — which might as well be a limb, an organ, a vital and real part of you, interconnected on a cellular level. As the article asks: “How smart do you have to be to raise a child?”
It’s a slippery slope, leading to questions of emotional intelligence and morality calls — asking not only if a child can stay with her parents, but whether she should.
“If social workers from children’s services entered your home to assess the adequacy of your parenting, what would they see?” writes Miller. “The parent face you post on Instagram? Or a person who’s maybe sometimes too impatient or absent-minded or preoccupied with work, who’s prone to sulking, nagging, yelling, or drinking a third glass of wine?”
What if someone was evaluating your physical and mental health, employment history, home cleanliness (including the contents of your refrigerator), and your financial resources? What if someone was standing over you as you changed, fed, and soothed your newborn— not helping, just observing and judging — as they did to Gordon?
Gordon’s story does have a happy ending. After two years of limited visitation, as she watched her toddler bond with another woman called “Mama,” her case was deemed as discrimination and the two were joined at last. But at what cost?
I can tell you this much, when I was alone with my baby that first night, there’s something an evaluator couldn’t see: She wouldn’t have seen the hundreds of nights we had spent alone together before that point — alone in the same body. She couldn’t measure the connection of two beings whose hearts beat in the same vessel. I may not have known how to change his diaper, or what a feeding schedule was, but I knew him. I knew his hiccups, his movements, his presence. He knew my voice as the soundtrack that echoed around him.
That would be true, disability or not.
That’s not to disregard the danger of neglect and abuse — we should absolutely be protecting those children — but is taking a baby away from her mother, her home, in those tender first days always best? That innate connection between mother and child is real and has the power to teach us, expand us, and motivate us to find the help we need as parents. Taking away a child preemptively, based on a classification, doesn’t take into account what we learn through motherhood. It doesn’t take into account the benefit of a support system, the benefit of community outreach and help.
Some forces in the universe are too big to quantify with test scores and too nuanced to define with stereotypes. And taking a child away from a mother — based on assumptions, IQ numbers, appearances — can cause deep emotional wounds that are more damaging than a disability classification can ever measure. — Michelle Horton