Home > Disability Rights > A Word on “Warrior Moms”

A Word on “Warrior Moms”

Warrior Mom: it’s a title many parents claim proudly, and a term most autistic people react to with horror and fury. Why?

Well, let’s start with the dislike. Many in the autistic community associate this term with a particular (and largely American) parent community that refuses any concept of autism acceptance. In this model, mothers are waging war against autism itself, avidly seeking cures and preventions, viewing their children’s condition as tragic and wholly undesirable. Autistic people, understandably, view this as a war against them, their very existence. It hurts to think that their own parents wish that they had been born different… even if it is only to spare them the struggles they face. They hate the implication that parenting autistic children is inherently a struggle, because that makes autism itself seem like a horrible thing. There has been a lot written about this elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point.

But there’s another interpretation of the term “warrior mom” as well, and I think it’s a valid one. The distinction is crucial: both see themselves as fighting for their children, but while one type is fighting to “fix” what is “wrong” with their children, the other is fighting for their children’s right to exist as they are and have the best possible autistic life.

And it is a fight, make no mistake. It’s hard enough to give any child a good life, but parents of disabled children must go far above and beyond. I see many of my clients’ families waging this war constantly — and yes, usually it’s the mothers who are on the front line. This is a war against the judgment of strangers and family members alike, against school systems that drag their feet on providing reasonable accommodations, against professionals skeptical of these kids’ talents and potential, against bullies of all ages.

These moms are warriors because they make millions of phone calls trying to get through to someone who can actually make a positive difference in their kids’ lives. They are the ones calling for IEP meeting after IEP meeting, just trying to get their child into a classroom that doesn’t make them miserable. I see mothers who don’t speak English as their primary language struggling through legal papers trying to make sure they don’t miss a single accommodation their child has the right to have. They take time off work for classroom visits to make sure their kid is being taught at an appropriate academic level. 

These moms are tenacious. They spend years clawing their way up waiting lists for the best PTs and OTs and accessible summer camps and the teachers that other families love. They drive for hours to visit the one provider who is actually helping their kid’s digestive problems, then spending another two hours on hold trying to convince their insurance company to cover the visit. They fight their homeowners association or landlord’s rules so that their kid can have a trampoline or kiddie pool or companion animal or whatever they need. 

These moms endure a lot. People yell at them for not “controlling” their child, kick them out of places for being disruptive, and deluge them with well-meant but infuriating advice. They often have to fight against their own personality or their own cultural norms in order to advocate for their children. The work is, of course, worth it — but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting, intimidating, or overwhelming.

So this is why, unlike many in the autistic rights community, I don’t automatically get angry when I hear terms like “warrior mom” or “super-mom.”  Because plenty of mothers truly deserve those titles, for reasons that don’t reflect negatively on autism at all. So let’s put the blame where it belongs: on the society and systems that make life harder on all of us, autistic people and parents alike. And let’s work to change it. Because no mother should have to become a superwoman just to get their children’s needs met.

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Categories: Disability Rights
  1. July 23, 2016 at 7:32 am

    This use is certainly better, but it still centers the non-disabled person in worrisome ways, making the fight all about the non-disabled person doing it. We don’t refer to disabled advocates that way. Maybe we should, but we don’t. Generally, outside the disability community itself, we are sidelined as “self-advocates” and are not positively reinforced for fierceness or tenacity fighting for our rights (although we are often praised for fighting to overcome our disabilities.) I think we really do need another term for parents advocating on behalf of their children that reflects this, like “parent ally.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Restless Hands
      July 23, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Excellent point. We definitely should refer to disabled advocates that way too! And I do regularly point out to parents and therapists that their kid/client is working harder than most adults ever will!

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      • July 23, 2016 at 7:24 pm

        There’s this pervasive model in autism, and other disability as well, that implies that disability is something being done AT nondisabled people (parents, classmates, bystanders.) The idea that, while others are affected when one has a disability, the person most affected is the actual disabled person. . . doesn’t seem to compute.

        I don’t know if she originated the phrase, but Jess at Diary of a Mom is quoted as saying “Your child is not giving you a hard time. Your child is having a hard time.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Megan McLaughlin
    July 23, 2016 at 9:18 am

    I try to be the mom described above, but I agree with Nightengale that the disabled/differently-abled person should be the focus–especially as they grow older and are able to advocate more for themselves.

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    • July 23, 2016 at 7:19 pm

      Yes and I think part of shifting the focus would be a shift in language when describing non-disabled parents who are either advocating on behalf of their children or doing more general disability advocacy. I like the use of the term “ally” for the latter since that is the term used for other people advocating with communities to which they do not belong. I’m not sure what term to use for the former. Parent proxy? Parent amplifier?

      The other piece is a systemic recognition about what advocacy can look like, with advocacy goals in IEPs starting at a young age and a recognition among parents and professionals that advocacy does not require fluent verbal speech. Advocacy is making a choice with picture symbols. Advocacy is saying “no” or holding up a hand to indicate people are getting too close. Advocacy is pressing a button saying “I need a break.”

      (Yes I’m having fun writing a talk about advocacy to be given to a group of professionals as a conference for transition issues in autism. I’m a disabled advocate as well as a disability professional. I’m not sure they are going to know what hit them.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Restless Hands
        July 23, 2016 at 7:50 pm

        The term “amplifier” seems apt. My clients may do the self-advocating things you mention, but in most contexts those things get ignored unless there is a verbal adult present who is very insistent about having that communication acknowledged, understood, and respected.

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      • July 23, 2016 at 8:02 pm

        It won’t let me reply to you so I’m replying to me. How autistic of me to be talking to myself.

        So. . . I think we need to put a lot of adults on behavior plans to notice self-advocacy and amplify it. And to notice self-advocacy in behaviors as well as words. A kid consistently running away from a particular situation is saying something quite clearly. It’s then up to us what to do about it. We could behaviorize away the “non-compliant” behavior. Or we could respond to it as a stated preference and respect the preference (or, if we can’t, for example if the thing ran away from is a needed medical procedure, make it as better as possible) We could write into IEPs that a child is to be given a choice within parameters whenever possible.

        Have you read “Ask and Tell”? Like many co-written books it’s a bit uneven but it has great chapters written by Stephen Shore and Kassiane Sibley about advocacy and disclosure and teaching these skills in supported steps.

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  3. July 23, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    I also think the disabled person should be centered, and I have something else to say:
    Some of the parents I know who are like that will fight, and be the kind of “warrior” parent you describe, but in my experience parents like that don’t tend to label themselves that way. Rather, it is those who fight against autism who tend to use that label, and that is why the term “warrior mom” is hated within the disability community.
    The parents at Respectfully Connected (http://respectfullyconnected.com) are a good example of the type of “warrior parents” you describe in this article, but, true to form, they don’t use the term “warrior” to describe themselves. They also center the kids, which is important.
    In short, “warrior mom” is kind of a loaded term; in an ideal world, it should mean what you say, but in practice, it tends to mean mainly the kind of parent who “wages war” against autism itself.
    Loaded language can be a tricky thing indeed; there can be statements you agree with literally but have a horrible meta-meaning you would not defend in a million years, and this phenomenon occurs within many communities, not just the autism one.

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    • Restless Hands
      July 23, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      Yeah — that’s something I’ve always had a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around — I mean the thing about language that has not just denotation and connotation but also, I don’t know, contextual meaning, perhaps? “Loaded” language. As someone who is often unaware of cultural contexts, I run into trouble because I might use the language without understanding what other people associate with it.

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    • Restless Hands
      July 23, 2016 at 7:56 pm

      I guess I worry about alienating or unfairly judging parents who may claim terms like “warrior mom” because they hear it and it makes sense to them but they don’t know the negative association. In advocacy circles, we tend to be very careful and particular about language, but there are plenty of people out there who just aren’t at the point of understanding something as nuanced as who is being centered by the terminology.

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      • July 23, 2016 at 8:03 pm

        So maybe we shouldn’t vilify people who use the term, but we should also come up with a better term and spread it around?

        Liked by 1 person

      • July 24, 2016 at 10:28 pm

        I think coming up with a better term and spreading it around is a good idea too. And I understand the trouble with loaded language; many of us autistics have had trouble with it, and one I know of even accidentally reblogged an anti-Black Lives Matter meme because of that kind of phenomenon, only to be told that the meme was racist, so she promptly deleted it.
        Too bad that most magical creatures already have strict connotations that don’t fit, otherwise they’d be perfect. And “superhero” is also loaded. It’s tricky. The best I could think of was “Leia moms” after Princess Leia, and maybe “Kenobi dads” for fathers who play the same role – after all, the only Kenobi is Obi-Wan, and of course you can’t use “Luke” because it’s a common name or “Han” because he is cocky and arrogant. Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi both lead and fight for the benefit of the light side of the Force, so I suppose those terms aren’t too bad.

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