Upon learning that my unborn child would likely have Down syndrome, a million thoughts ran through my mind. Having no experience as a mother, or with people with special needs, I felt particularly disadvantaged. While in a session with my therapist, I shared my concerns and asked how I might teach my child that his disabilities didn't have to define his existence.
My therapist asked me to close my eyes and to ask myself if I saw myself as "disabled" in some way. "Is there anything about you," she asked, "that you believe holds you back or keeps you from living to your full potential? If yes, you might consider this a disability of sorts."
My answer came speeding through my mind like a car dashing and dodging through traffic—my disability was being black. My therapist looked at me straight on and said, "Heal your own perceived disability, and you'll be able to help your child overcome his."
When I was growing up in the '70s, my father made it his mission to educate me about the plight of black people and the evil doings of white people. As an adult, I came to understand that my father's disdain for whites and his constant spewing really just gave me a lot of information about the inferiority of blacks and my own inadequacy.
Fast-forward about 30 years, with me asking myself, "How do I overcome this belief that the color of my skin is holding me back?" I anticipated that one day my son might come to me saying he can't achieve something or doesn't fit in with others because he has Down syndrome. I wanted to be able to convey to him that I relate to his challenges. I, too, felt for many years that being black meant I couldn't do something or fit in. I knew I would have to prove to my son that I was able to rise above my perceived disability in order to help him do the same.
Today I'm worlds away from the self-loathing and self-defeating woman I once was.
I began healing myself by exploring my late father's unhappiness. I learned from his siblings, cousins and friends that when my father was a young man in the 1950s, he was entrenched in a struggle for equality and societal acceptance. His self-worth was not reinforced by his own family, and he unwittingly passed on to me a sense that the world was a mean place toward blacks and that I would never be good enough. I began to find compassion for him and see my father's humanity. I came to believe that he simply did the best he could with what he had to offer.
The next leg of my journey included reprogramming my old beliefs with new, healthy, loving and true ideas about myself. I started looking out into the world to find black people who inspired me. In addition to Oprah—an African-American woman who is not defined by her race—I thought about Maya Angelou, Shonda Rhimes and bell hooks. They helped me to undo my old ideas about myself and to replace them with new possibilities.
I began accepting my kinky hair, brown skin, and naturally muscular body just as it is. Now when people comment on how muscular my arms are, rather than grimace I reply, "Thank you." Today I'm worlds away from the self-loathing and self-defeating woman I once was. And my newfound self-love makes me feel really ready should the day come when my son says his disability is the reason why he can't.
Already, my son is ahead of the game because when I look at him, I see possibilities beyond the moon. Unlike my father, I don't see the world as cruel place for people who are different. I see that people with all levels of abilities and backgrounds have unique gifts to offer the world. As a mother of a child with special needs, I believe it is my responsibility to help him fulfill his potential. And I can't succeed if I haven't been successful at fulfilling my own.