As a Christmas gift, my parents bought a subscription to Chirp magazine for M, and in it was a snack idea: a sailboat made out of a cucumber filled with cream or cottage cheese and some animal and fishy crackers along for the ride. So, a few weeks ago, I decided to tackle recreating this for M.
While creating this snack, I had to make a few adjustments since I didn’t have all of the ingredients on hand. For example, in place of fishy crackers, I used animal crackers (a lion and a elephant) and told M the boat was sailing down a river in the middle of Africa. I placed it in front of her and she said, “You did it, mom!” (It’s as if she knew this was no small task for me.)
Mom of the year? Well, I will say I was pretty damn proud of myself. Creating beautifully crafted snacks is definitely not my forté. I was so proud of this feat that I texted my sister and mom a photo with a caption that read “Holy F*ck! I made this!”
Later, I wondered what else I could create with food (we were after all in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, what else was there to do?). Pinterest came to the rescue with “donuts” made from apple slices, food colouring infused cream cheese (or Peanut Butter) and sprinkles. Relatively easy, right? When M saw the Pinterest image, she ran to the fridge and grabbed an apple. Before long I was slicing the apple into thin circles. I looked back to see M walking toward the table while juggling all five containers of sprinkles in her tiny 3-year-old arms. (She is always eager to use her sprinkle collection.) I made the apple donuts, too, meticulously cutting out of the core of each slice and slowly “icing” the now donut-shaped apple slices.
It was a fun adventure and I was proud to create this for M. But, the process was slow. My hands moved at a frustrating pace. Two simple snacks took me well over an hour to create. And yes, they were simple, because I would not have attempted them if I didn’t think they would be. For the average non-cerebral-palsied (is that a word?) parent, these snacks would take at most 10 minutes each.
I’m not, nor ever will be, the mom to create these complex snacks (I’m fortunate to have surrounded myself with a multitude of talented family and friends who can do this kind of stuff for M when it’s really needed — like her birthday parties). I did it that day and I was proud I attempted it, but as I reflected on the process I wondered what my true motivator was. Was I wanting to do something fun and creative for M as a way to motivate her to try new, exciting food combinations? Partly, yes. Was it my internalized ableism telling me that only the best parents make elaborate snacks? Also, yes. Deep down inside, deeper than the part of me that says “who cares about your ability to make a snack!? You’re an amazing mom!” lives another gnawing voice that says, “You never make the time to do this for her and so you must in order to prove that you’re a good mom…”
So, there it was, my internalized ableism, disguising itself as cucumbers and apples, telling me: “if you don’t turn me into a perfectly crafted snack, you’re failing as a mother.”
(Hell, you don’t have to be disabled to sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough as a parent. Am I right?)
WTF is Internalized Ableism?
Let’s pause first. You might be wondering, what is “internalized ableism”? New term for you, too?
I first learned about “ableism” in 2020, circa June. Ableism was such a difficult word for me to understand. I read and read and read – instagram post after instagram post, article after article – searching for a way to make sense of it. How does it fit into my life? How much does it dictate my daily actions? How much of my inner voice is speaking from an ableist lens? How do I walk the line of wanting to push myself to accomplish more and knowing when that desire is fuelled by ableism? (I’m still contemplating this one … I have SO many questions. If you might be able to help, let me know!)
Ableism is defined as “the favouring of non-disabled individuals over those who are disabled.” It’s injustice, prejudice or discrimination solely on the basis of disability. Ableism comes in many forms: direct, indirect, systemic, internalized, and microaggressions. It perpetuates the idea that disability is different, less than, and should be excluded; non-disabled or “typical abilities” are superior. (Source: So, What Is Ableism?)
From what I’ve read however, I believe it to be so much more that that. In fact, I’ve learned that ableism is also present in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. It is deeply ingrained into the fabric of our culture. We live and breath it every day. It’s so pervasive that disabled people have internalized it and then allow it to dictate how to live. It tells disabled people to bend over backwards to accommodate this society built for non-disabled people. When we ask, “where do we fit?” ableism tells us we don’t.
I see it like the devil on the shoulder, except it’s not telling me to do something evil, perhaps it’s worse than that — it whispers that I’m not enough because I’m disabled. It mocks me for walking differently, talking differently, and holding something with only two fingers. It taunts me for not being able to efficiently create snazzy snacks for my child. It tells me that I shouldn’t take 20 minutes to crack a dozen eggs, and that holding my breath while trying to decorate a cupcake is just plain silly: “what’s wrong with you? Breathe!” It even tells me disabled people should not be parents.
My experience with my internalized ableism manifests as a voice inside my head that tells me how things should be done (and being a perfectionist doesn’t help). I’ve been listening to that voice… for a long time.
When I look back over my life, I can think of a multitude of examples where I have gone above and beyond to “fit” into this ableist society. I didn’t feel as though it was my place to protest, but I also wasn’t aware that there was an alternative.
I did not leave my house alone with M for her entire first year of life due to my internalized ableism. I’d allow it to speak to me like this:
What if M cries while you’re out? People will stare at you and will assume that her tears are a result of your inability as a mother. Clearly she feels uncomfortable or unsafe in your disabled arms. People will see how poorly you care for your child; the way that you pick her up, hold her, or feed her is simply not the right way. Your movements are too awkward, no wonder she is crying. People will gasp and worry that you’ll drop her. You’re not fit to be a mother. What were you thinking having a baby?
Harsh? Well, it’s legit. This is how I thought. This is internalized ableism at it’s finest. (Follow the hashtag #AbleismIsTrash to listen and learn more about just how trashy ableism is.)
Telling Ableism To Shut Up
All is not lost! There have also been many times where I’ve told my internalized ableism to shut up. I’m proud of those moments. Like when I would place M in the mamaRoo and let her feed herself the bottle because of the tendonitis that had developed in my arms. Ableism said I had to hold the bottle for her, while carefully holding her in my arms. But, I just couldn’t. And guess what, that’s ok! Instead, I sat with her and helped her gain the strength and confidence to hold her own bottle. As a result, she was holding her bottle and feeding herself at 5 months old. Her general strength as a baby, I believe, was a result of me allowing her to be independent. I had no choice, I couldn’t cradle her all day long.
Ableism told me I should walk down stairs while carrying M. Instead, worried about my balance, I’d sit on my bum, place M on my lap, and bump down the stairs, one by one, pretending to be a train; M shouting “choo choo” and pumping a fist in the air like a conductor. She loved it.
Rejecting Ableism Makes Space For Growth
When I reject ableism with a nuanced, creative approach, growth happens — within me, within M, and within anyone else who witnesses it. Yes, we are allowed to approach things differently. Parenting calls for creativity, resilience and the ability to pivot — this is why disabled parents make exceptional parents. We have to tell ourselves and each other that more often.
Now that I know what internalized ableism is, now that I have put a name to it and have identified it, I can confront it. I am less fearful of it creeping up on me unexpectedly.
Ableism will still tell me that I must create cucumber sailboats and apple donuts, but at least I can call it out. I have the power to allow it to push me on the days when I feel up to the challenge. On the days when I’m tired, or had enough, I can also tell it to take a hike. I don’t need to be or do more – I’m enough as is. I know it will always be an internal fight. It will always challenge my mental strength; it’s likely to never disappear. But, now that I know how it disguises itself, I won’t allow it to fool me. I’m the one in control.
I’m learning more about Ableism every day. This blog post is merely my experience with it thus far. Is ableism a new term for you? How have you learned to recognize it within your life? How do you challenge it?
“Ableism will only begin to improve once the disability community has a seat at the table.” (@DisabilityInsight) If you see yourself as a disability ally, what are you doing to bring disabled perspectives to the forefront?
Here are three ways to combat ableism that couldn’t be easier.
10 thoughts on “Apple Donuts, Cucumber Boats, and Internalized Ableism”
“Parenting calls for creativity, resilience and the ability to pivot — this is why disabled parents make exceptional parents. We have to tell ourselves and each other that more often.”
Another thought provoking blog post from Taryn. Very introspective of her to call out what her inner voice often tells her. I’ll bet many can relate in their own way.
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Thank you, Mikie, for sharing your thoughts! Happy to hear you found it relatable.
So enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing. I have noticed how wonderfully independent and strong Mia is in so many areas. I loved how easy it was to put her to bed, didn’t have to worry about gently laying her in her crib like you often have to do with babies not to disturb them. She would do a roll no matter how I placed her! It always made me smile, perfectly adaptable.
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Thank you for reading, Barb! So happy you enjoyed it and thanks for sharing your memory of M.
This is amazing Taryn – a fantastic writer and amazing parent!
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Thank you for your kind comment, Kerry! And thanks for taking the time to read.
This was an amazingly well-written and insightful blog post! Taryn, you are such a skilled writer. You evoked memories of my struggles being a “good” parent in the early stages of my disability. I couldn’t do the stairs often in a day and likely had the only 20-month old who knew her colours and could navigate stairs with ease because I would send her upstairs for things I would identify by colour. I felt a lot of guilt but had no options. I sure could have used your insights back then. Keep writing, Taryn! Your voice is important and speaks to many of us.
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Leanne, thank you, first of all, for taking the time to read and comment here. I truly appreciate that you shared your very important story. It was nice to read how resilient children can be and how a parent’s disability is an opportunity for character growth in children. Your daughter was definitely raised to be a strong and independent young girl and woman!
Very insightful. We in Rotary are working on being more Diversified, working for Equity and Inclusion but often don’t think of disabilities as a part of “bias, racism”, etc. Thank you for opening our minds to Ableism to be mindful about it. Thank you for your talk yesterday and for your little library on CBC this morning. Please contact me.
Thank you for your thoughts and comments, Richard! Thank you for reading and your willingness to learn more!