Lucy and James Catchpole – disability & parenting in the Guardian & Observer
Behold our ENORMOUS FACES in the Observer Magazine. They sent a photographer round the weekend before – a very lovely man called Jon Attenborough. (He has an impressive moustache, reminiscent of photos of my grandfather in the Second World War – an RAF pilot. Also, I suspect we forgot to give him a macaron. He definitely deserved one.) Anyway. We had a chilly, but rather idyllic afternoon in the garden. So we knew there’d be an article, but we were not expecting it to be quite so large.
The magazine and the Guardian online printed quite long extracts of our chapter of We’ve Got This – with my quote as the Guardian headline, which was a surprise. It’s odd to see something so personal, banged out on my laptop in a difficult week over the summer, printed in big letters in a national (international?!) publication.
It’s all still available on the Guardian website, link here, but I wanted it here on our blog – personal words on a personal blog. The piece is a bit oddly truncated in parts, inevitably – it’s chopped from a longer chapter. If you’d like to read it all, look out for the whole book. (Here’s our affiliate link, in case you’re determined to buy it.)
We are both disabled, but our disabilities are very different, and the world has always treated us very differently. James is the epitome of the “good disabled”, as far as everyone is concerned. When we met, you simply had to adjust slightly to the unusual shape of him – and that was it. And isn’t that just the dream disabled person, really? A whole leg missing – the clarity of it! But, like many disabled people, I was a category error. People seem to be particularly suspicious of significant disability when it’s invisible. So when we met, I was the bad disabled. The hard-to-categorise.
Back then, I could pass as non-disabled, but was actually very limited. At first, I appeared to be the non-disabled girlfriend of an amputee – a “carer”, perhaps? Then we were both crutch or walking-stick users – did we meet at some sort of special club? After that, the tragic phase: a wheelchair user pushed by a man with an artificial leg. A terrible accident, maybe? Now that I’m a full-time wheelchair user, society finds me far less troubling. Now there’s a clarity to my situation, just like James. I miss walking, but it’s a relief to fit so neatly into people’s expectations.
Parenthood was something I desperately wanted. We both did. And feared it, too. For both of us, putting my capricious, fragile body through pregnancy and birth was terrifying. But for me, there was an extra dose of fear. I was terrified of the world’s response to my pregnancy. Really, the idea that I would selfishly use my difficult, burdensome body to grow an entirely new human – completely unnecessarily – felt like taking the piss.
So, when I became pregnant, I steeled myself for our first, difficult meetings with midwives and doctors, expecting to have to justify my decision. To be infantilised. And, of course, at times I was. But largely, that isn’t how it turned out. Instead of the disapproval I expected, the doctor at my first scan responded very differently. “I don’t think anyone could fail to be impressed by you,” he said. This was totally new to me. Somehow, by becoming pregnant, I had jumped out of the difficult-disabled category and joined my husband in the supercrip camp.
I did not expect motherhood to legitimise me. And yet it has. I think motherhood, or at least my motherhood – as the wheelchair-using mother of non-disabled children – acts to cancel out a lot of the things about me that the world found so disquieting. There are so many ways disabled people are infantilised – we’re frequently just not seen as adults. But now, whereas before I had been infantilised, my children seem to act as an automatic pass to adulthood. Where I expected motherhood to open me up to even more judgment, it has had the opposite effect.
Lucy Catchpole, The Guardian & Observer – We’ve Got This
We were matchmade by a friend who has always said – only slightly defensively – that the match occurred to her not because we were both disabled, but because we had other things in common and, anyway, she just thought we’d get on, all right? And our friend was right. On our first evening together, we worked out we had a lot in common. But when it came to our disabilities, we discovered our experiences could not have been more different.
I’m an amputee – missing all of one leg – and have been for as long as I can remember. I get around on crutches. For me as an amputee man, I’ve always found public perception to be ostensibly positive. You’re thought of as heroic – superheroic, even. As a kid, you’re “amazing”, “a trooper”. In your 20s, people start assuming you were a soldier and that you gave your limb for king and country. Then if you walk fast, climb stairs easily or do any kind of sport, you’re “inspirational”.
So that was my life as Amputee Man. But then I morphed into Amputee Dad… As you might imagine, having a baby just added a new dimension. There’s already a brilliantly unearned halo effect in being a dad out and about with a young baby. You’re clearly doing better than just “helping out” and that’s enough to buy you some very indulgent looks. The bar is low, let’s face it. Being a capable father of a newborn on one leg and crutches clears that bar with some room to spare. Women have cried, then come over to tell me they are crying.
James Catchpole, The Observer & Guardian
This book is the US, British, international edition published by Scribe – there’s also an Australian edition which does not include our essay. If it looks like the book above, you have the right book! (Unless you’re trying to avoid us of course…)
– Lucy Catchpole
Great article and Congrats on the spread in the Guardian!
As far as being legitimatized, beware as you get greyer it flips a bit and you start noticing that folks give off vibes of your imminent burden on society.
Yes I’m sure that’s true. Well, a brief reprieve was something!
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