Editor’s Note: Annette Ross was living the fairy-tale life. She had gotten her degree, met the man of her dreams, started a family, and bought a house. Life was moving along beautifully until the day she went to the hospital to give birth to her second child. The excitement of welcoming another daughter to the family was brusquely interrupted when, during labor, an epidural gone wrong left her paralyzed. Despite this plot twist, Ross and her husband pushed on to create their own version of happily ever after. Wheel:Life writer Betsy Bailey talked to Ross about her injury, motherhood, and her career as an author.
My injury really threw me off my game. I was in a wonderful place, and I had worked really hard to get there. When I was hurt during childbirth, I was shocked because I didn’t believe this could happen with an epidural. I was thinking it must have been a mistake or misdiagnosis and that I would walk again. I couldn’t even fathom that I wasn’t going to stand up and get out of that hospital bed. I went from being a walking person in control of my life to wearing diapers while taking care of a newborn and two-year-old. I was in complete denial. It took me a long time to settle in and accept that I really did have a spinal cord injury.
When I got home, I got angry. It was complete darkness for me. My anger wasn’t directed at anyone or anything but at life itself.
How was I going to do anything with my daughters and feel competent?
The house wasn’t accessible, and I was dealing with the awkwardness of learning to use a wheelchair. Luckily, my husband, Bill, had a job that allowed us to get someone to help out. My parents also moved in for a bit, and Bill’s parents were on call until I got my bearings. It took a while to do that because the first couple of years, I was one hundred percent focused on walking again. I was not going to relent to the wheelchair. I told myself I would get up and walk. I would do what it takes. I would work harder than everybody else. That was my attitude then, and the physical therapy kept me going. I was doing it every single day for hours along with taking care of the girls. There was no world that existed for me where I was a mother not walking.
Babies, Babies, and More Babies!
I hadn’t entertained the idea of having more children. My doctors actually thought it wasn’t possible after my injury, but then I got pregnant! I remember thinking the pregnancy would kill me. I went to the hospital last time to have a baby, and I came out not walking. The trauma of that had me thinking something else horrendous would happen with my third child as well.
Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and my third pregnancy somehow rebooted my system. I ended up getting my bladder function back. I was using a catheter at the time, and then one day during physical therapy, I managed to go to the bathroom on my own. It was amazing. Some healing happened with that pregnancy.
After my third child, I got pregnant again really quickly and had another daughter. At that point, we weren’t planning on having more children, but I did get pregnant again and unfortunately, had two miscarriages. That was really tragic and quite tough on my husband. Then, at age 45, when I thought I didn’t have to worry about it anymore, I got pregnant with Georgia, who came out perfect!
Now, I have these five beautiful daughters, and I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything.
Dealing with Judgement
I took a lot of heat for having so many children. People were actually mean to me. One woman — I’ll never forget it — said, “I’m trying to get pregnant. What makes you think you have the right to have more kids after this happened to you?” referring to my paralysis.
The thing I heard the most was, “I can’t believe your husband stayed with you. You’re so lucky that he did.” I always ask people why they feel that way. All of the sudden, my worth as a human being is shot down to nothing because a doctor on drugs burnt my spinal cord? I’m no longer worthy of my husband’s love and devotion and everything else we committed to in our vows?
I think it says a lot about how people perceive their own marriages and the fears they have.
That’s how I learned to think about it, but at the time, I was really shocked that other women would say that to me. Aren’t we all women together? Shouldn’t you be rooting for me?
The obstacles I face being a mom are all related to accessibility. Soccer fields? Forget it. Outhouses? Forget it. When my kids have a soccer tournament, there are multiple fields to navigate in my wheelchair. There are outhouses everywhere, but only one is accessible. Not only do you have to find it, but it’s usually the furthest away. Those sorts of obstacles are annoying to me, and they do make things hard on the girls. All they want to do is play their game.
Flying can also be a drag. It all depends on the staff working that day. Some people are very helpful, but others are bothered and don’t want to be inconvenienced. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are still not well thought out where disability is concerned.
Don’t we really just want access to living? That’s all I want.
I feel bad enough if I’m an inconvenience to others or if it makes things more difficult on them, but I just want to be included. I’ve found that’s really hard for some people. They just don’t want to disrupt their usual way of doing things.
The last thing I want is to become this angry, old woman in a wheelchair just because I’ve dealt with these issues for so long that it becomes intolerable. It’s really hard, though! I try to let things blow past me, but I also want change to happen because it’s just not right. There is a lot of behavior in the world as a result of lack of awareness and because people are fairly narcissistic in general. People think about themselves and doing their own thing.
I think my girls have an innate sense that other people have needs because they’ve lived with me. They know how to help me when needed, and they can judge by looking at something if my wheelchair will fit. I’m with them a lot, and I love them to pieces, but there are things that we haven’t been able to do. I can’t really take a hike with them, for example. My injury has never prevented me from fully loving them and guiding them throughout their lives, though.
Being in a wheelchair is not a hindrance to love, and isn’t love what kids really need?
Writing About Love and Loss
Editor’s Note: Ross’ first book, ‘Where Fairy Tales Go: A Love Story,’ was released in 2016. It can be purchased here on Amazon.
I wanted to write about my suffering and about God. The book is also about my husband, the great love I have for him, and all the things I saw him going through after I got hurt. I felt bad about how my suffering affected him. My injury really threw him for a loop.
He carried the disappointment of not being able to be the hero.
He felt the guilt of being there when it happened and not being able to save me no matter what he did.
Love is the real thread in the book. I wrote about how I don’t like those pithy sayings like, “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe them, and I don’t think they have any weight. But, I do think you can make something beautiful from suffering. I do think you can see life through a different lens and a broader perspective. Do I wish I could have gotten there without suffering? Yes, I do. And I think I could have. I think I was the kind of person who had the potential to do that. Certainly, the suffering brought me there quicker. I had to get there, or I was going to be bitter and unhappy. That’s not what I would have wanted to girls to see as they were growing up.
My father was dying when I was writing the book, and I wrote a lot about his love for me and the things he taught me.
It’s huge in life to know that you are loved.
People underestimate that. I have gone through this life without a shred of doubt that a couple people have truly loved me to the point where they would have done anything for me. That’s been a beautiful part of my life, and I talked a lot about that in the book. It’s really not that much about my injury, but rather about loss and making amends.
I’m writing a book now called Five Years in California, and it’s about loss in a different way. I’m missing my community and home in Connecticut, still missing my father, and going into middle-aged adulthood. That’s another whole thing to reckon with.
Sharing My Experience On-Screen
I’m in a movie coming out called Any One Of Us. It’s about Paul Basagoitia, a mountain biker who got hurt doing a stunt. The director brought in several people living with SCI and did extensive interviews with us. We’re sort of the voices along Paul’s journey while he’s going through it in real time. The film is premiering at South by Southwest in March. You will be moved by the things some of the people say.
Honestly, it’s poetry. It’s raw and heartfelt, but it’s poetry.
Advice for Aspiring Moms Living with Disability
Your love will never have any limits, and everything else can be figured out. It’s amazing the things you’ll figure out. You have to make little adjustments, and if needed, get help. I’ve seen people do it, and I’ve done it myself. I had a lot of help, but I was also innovative. I’ve known women with higher injuries who have figured it out. Nothing can diminish the love you have for your child. No one can replace your love as a mother for your child, even if they can do something physical that maybe you can’t.
Don’t be afraid. I’ve always believed love is bigger than fear.
All information contained in this article was extracted from a phone interview with Annette Ross.
About the Author
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!