If you knew how many attempts I’ve made at this you’d laugh! But Suzi asked if I’d like to contribute, and I would, so I guess I’m just going to have to get used to writing in a new style – I don’t suppose anyone really wants to read an essay at the moment.
Anyway, Suzi wants me to talk about the perspective of a disabled feminist – so I’ve decided to share a story with you.
A few months ago, during a phone-call, my mother asked me if there was any point in her still keeping my old baby clothes. I can still remember looking through them as a child; they were stored in my old pram body, I have no idea what’s happened to the metal frame. I was fascinated by them. Partly, I suspect, because the idea that I had once been so small was just so strange and partly because I liked seeing how much care my mother took of them. I found it reassuring. The care given to these tiny clothes seemed to demonstrate how much she must have cared for me as a child; the possibility that one day I too would have tiny infant of my own to care for; and that she would be dressed, at times, in my old well loved garments; it was the past the present and the future all tied together.
My mother’s comment made it clear that she was abandoning hope that I would provide her with a grandchild. It underlined something I knew, that it was getting very unlikely that I was going to be a mother myself. I was incredibly hurt by my mother’s comment. I knew it was a rebuke, the idea that I had let her down by not providing a baby.
So far this is story that many able-bodied women will know or have seen. But let me give you a little of my background.
Seven or eight years ago, when I was about 30, I knew time was getting short and I knew I wanted a child. Circumstances hadn’t worked out, my long term relationship had ended some time previously and there was no real sign of a new one coming. so I started thinking – could I do this alone? Getting pregnant didn’t seem like the real problem, that was the reality of being unable to work alone, broke, and looking after a child. While I thought I might be able to cope I was not naive enough to think that life as a single mother was going to be easy.
Anyway I thought about this, mulled it over – I became more convinced it was something I wanted to do, and I was open with my close friends about my thoughts. Of course just when you give up hope of a relationship they do have a tendency to appear! He was one of the people that knew of my plan and I was clear that us getting together only meant that I was prepared to delay getting pregnant by a year or so – if at that time he didn’t want to be part of it that was fine, but it was going to happen.
One person I hadn’t shared this plan with was my mother. A year later and my partner and I began planning. We both had disabilities, the same one in fact. So I talked to my doctor about how to go about this and give my child the best start I could. Step one would be reducing my medication, we both knew that this meant a big increase in the amount of pain I was going to have to deal with, and that almost every other symptom I had would get worse but it would be worth it.
It was at this point, with a partner on board and my doctor not just on my side but almost as excited by the idea we were – which would have been a minor miracle if I hadn’t spent several years finding a decent doctor, that I talked to my parents.
My mother wanted to know if I was sure – I didn’t bat an eyelid at this, I assumed she was just be a protective mother but I had no idea what was really behind the question, or what was coming next.
‘Do you really think you should have a child with him?’
Now I was worried, had she seen something in him that I had missed? But no that was not what she meant.
‘I mean with his condition he really shouldn’t be a parent should he.’
At that point I felt sick. I remembered the little things my mother had said in the past. When a mutual friend of ours had committed suicide after battling with severe depression as well as the same condition as I had, my mother had said ‘perhaps its better that she is has been removed from the gene pool, the whole family is a bit…’
I pointed out that he had the same condition as I did – she ignored that. I repeated the point adding that I thought it was probably slightly more relevant that I had the condition, after all I was the one contributing a life support system as well as DNA to the child. ‘Well I’m just trying to be helpful’, she said.
Those words are so … I can’t think of the word, but it feels like every time I have to deal with other people’s problems with my disability they excuse their actions by saying ‘Well I’m just trying to be helpful – there’s no need to be ungrateful.’ And now I had to hear it from my own mother.
I don’t know how to explain the level of pain this caused me; even if there had been a chance of there being some truth in what she said it probably would have hurt, but my condition is not genetic; it will have no known impact on my ability to carry a child to term, or on that child’s health.
But really, what could I expect of my mother? I have to remember that she trained as a children’s nurse, that she had dealt with neonatal babies, and all this happened at a time when it was normal for a disabled baby to be taken away from its mother, at a time when it was thought that she would be better off is her child died, and if that child was disabled enough it would simply be left uncared for in a room, probably the sluice, to die, slowly of neglect and starvation. I have no idea whether she was one of those people; I know it is easily possible, but how do I ask her? And how can I expect her to understand how much her opinion, her frankly eugenics-based opinion hurts and attacks me. When she was a child the Nazi’s forced sterilisation on approximately 400,000 disabled people. The compulsory sterilisation programme for genetically undesirables virtually ended in 1939 when the Euthanasia Programme was introduced – it is estimated that in the 4 years the programme was in operation at least 70,000 people were murdered. As if this wasn’t awful enough the Allied authorities were unable to classify the sterilisation as war crimes because by the end of the war at least 11 European countries and 29 American states had passed similar legislation with regard to “unfit persons” which included both Black and disabled people. Compensation could only be provided by the West German authorities if the claimant could prove that they were not genetically alcoholic, epileptic, feeble minded, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, or in any other way disabled. So in their eyes no crime had been committed?
This is the world my mother grew up in – how is she supposed think about me. I am her daughter but I am also one of those people. The ones you don’t see on TV, or at school, or at work, or in the media. Don’t think I’m not furious, at her, and the world which condoned these actions. I am. Yes, my mother and I had a massive argument about it – the idea that she was using the theory of eugenics horrified her, she was angry with me for making such an accusation.
We pretend now that this didn’t happen – bigger things have happened and dealing with them has subdued that topic. But I am left caught between a mother who wants me to provide her with a grandchild but doesn’t want me, a disabled person, to breed. So, when she asked her question about my old baby clothes, all that followed was a hurt and painful silence on both sides.
 J. Morris 1991 page 48
 Ibid. page 49 & 54