Womanhood in Disability

Illustration of an older woman, and a younger man in the reverse cowgirl position

What is womanhood to you? How do you define yours? Your essence? 

It’s a question I get a lot; not only about my Womanhood but my Disability. I surprise myself with how patiently I respond every time I’m asked if I am aware of my existence. 

“But…. You are in a wheelchair…” 

Recently, I was asked what I was looking for in life. This retort was in response to my answer. 

“I’m looking for companionship, somebody to spend summer with and do things with,” I had said.  Isn’t that what we all seek at some point of our lives? Most of my friends are married or in committed relationships themselves, and naturally I don’t want to be the third wheel whenever we’re hanging out. Sure, I have single friends, but companionship is what I’m after.  

It’s strange having to assure adults that I am aware of my ask – and of my Disability. Nevertheless, I am still a woman worthy of things that others desire. So I often wonder if the question is asked with an inquisitive nature; to find out whether I can pass the humanity test, let alone the womanhood one. 

I always wonder what partners tell their friends about me; or if they tell them anything about me at all. Am I the dirty secret that they joyfully conceal because they are afraid of having their humanity questioned too? Or are they afraid of being judged because they found a disabled woman desirable? The questions that able bodied people tend to have – sometimes held silently, often asked indirectly – insinuate this apprehension. Those questions and doubts are always connected to how physical we can get. I can only imagine what it would be like if I were to show up pregnant! It’s my biggest fear. Ironically, it is one of the few ways the world defines womanhood: by our ability to carry life. Even then the value of womanhood is up for debate should the pregnancy be less than picture perfect and, God forbid, result in a child that is blemished in some way, end in a miscarriage or a choice to give up your kids for adoption. And if you are unable to fall pregnant? Well, all your womanhood is in question!

What is womanhood at all?

Pre-Disability, I was told that my womanhood was in jeopardy because although I was able bodied I hadn’t taken to domestication, to the horror of my family. The running commentary would be that because I was smart enough to get myself a job to look after myself, the fear of being single forever didn’t have to scare me because I could provide for myself. Had I wanted to get married then I would have had to understand that domestication would be expected out of me. 

“Ribbon hands” was my nickname. I used to be embarrassed until I realised that I didn’t have to subject myself to physical labour when I could argue myself out of chores – a skill I acquired in my mid 20s before I was a mother. Giving birth to my daughter bought me a pass into womanhood. I was “lazy” but at least I could still have children. 

My sperm donor used to be the one who would take care of the chores. I might have been unable to tell my family where to get off but choosing mates who understood that physical labour was not my portion, I declared upfront. I didn’t want to set people up with false expectations about possibilities that will never be, so I told him that I don’t do chores and he was happy to…until he decided that he wasn’t happy with it anymore. This happened to be right after I gave birth, so he figured that being a mother would motivate me (I’m wondering out loud here). I’m asking myself this because I remember how excited he was at the thought of me having another kid within a year after my first pregnancy. I had just experienced what looking after another person was like and it wasn’t something I was looking to take up again. I had a mildly stressful pregnancy so my fears were more than a few. I still remember how he told me that nobody would want to be with me when I decided to leave him and he gleefully mentioned how my being a mother meant that I wasn’t woman enough to be wanted by anybody else: after all I had committed a crime by being a mother (It’s funny how that notion zig zags with misogyny, a never ending dance that I hate.) 

The thing about having a mother who dislikes you is that you learn to find your identity in other ways. I have lost count of the times I’ve gone home and broke the news that I was in yet another relationship and my mother always asked, “How?” But then she asked that about my many friends that would show up. When she wasn’t warning them about how terribly lazy I was, she was asking them why they liked me. I would hear them telling my mother about the traits they liked about me, so that is who I became: who my friends told my mother I was. Shapes of me came together from strangers who thought more of me because they were willing and able to include me in their lives. 

I remember going on a date and when we arrived it was a room full of men (about 6) and 3 women. The men sat down and pointed us towards the kitchen. It was my first time meeting my date and his friends. I thought it rude and odd to expect labour from me and the other women in the room and I decided to sit down next to my date and held on to his hand for dear life. There were comments about my lack of domestic skills and I mentioned that I was on a date; I wasn’t told I would be doing chores at a stranger’s house. It earned me a reputation for being “stubborn” for the 6yrs I was with my then partner and I would do it again. Who cares about what people think of you, right? (I can’t believe I used to go on dates with strange men at night with no fear in sight. How things have changed!) 

Physical presence is overrated until it’s time to be there and to show how you deserve to be welcomed into a space because of the labour you can provide, which for my Disabled body means that my womanhood has been questioned not only by strangers but by family too. I’ve been asked how I have sex since my legs don’t work. I might have missed a class in biology but last time I checked sex involved more than legs. I mean I could be wrong. When you think about things like that, you see how silly it is because Disabled people – Disabled women – are human regardless of their mobility. And I know that it’s been my song for the past 5 years and people do get tired of being reminded that we are disabled, and sexual, and mothers, and feminine, and sexy, and acceptable regardless of how we stand or in this case, don’t stand in crowds.

I wake up and shower every morning and when the hot water hits my body and runs down my back and my legs, I often have the strangest thoughts. One of them is how ableism works in people’s minds; that they can’t see human bodies that aren’t like theirs. Diversity in existence includes disabilities, but then again human nature is very odd as I’ve since learnt. 

I wonder what would happen if I showed up pregnant and disabled. Wouldn’t my womanhood be shaken then? I’d love to know. But what I do know is that in my Disability and my loudness, my laugh, my sense of adventure, my humour, my charm, my newfound ability to make hay while the sun shines…those are things that define my humanity and my womanhood. 

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