by Luanjiao Aggie Hu
What does it mean to be an expectant mother with a physical disability? And what does it mean to be an expectant mother who is an immigrant in the United States?
I am deeply aware of my multiple identities. As an expectant mother with a physical disability, I understand my privilege in having a full-time job and supportive spouse, in having acquired skills to do research for information I may need and achieving the social mobility that transformed a once rural village girl in China into a worldly educated woman with a PhD degree. I am a rare statistic in the community of disabled women, as research has consistently shown the multiple disadvantages women with disabilities endure. As an immigrant and disabled woman in US academia, I also find it common to occupy a niche and oftentimes marginalized social position. Being an expectant mother now has further prompted me to reflect on my experience navigating a new chapter in life.
Disability affects my pregnancy to some extent. My disability has evolved over time and so has my understanding of it.
I am currently a below-knee amputee and wear a prosthetic leg. By the time I became pregnant, my disability had long been a normal part of my life and identity. I am proud of how disability has enriched my life experience and perspective. Without my disability, I would not strive for and choose a path of international mobility and be where I am today. Through my international learning and unlearning journey, I have grown to be a firm disability advocate. Soon after I knew of my pregnancy, I proactively sought information from my prosthetist. I disclosed my disability (which can be non-apparent at times) to my healthcare providers and asked questions to better prepare myself. How will the expected weight gain in pregnancy affect my prosthetic leg use? How will using a prosthetic leg affect my childbirth experience, as I usually remove my leg for better blood circulation when not standing or moving for an extended time? And how do I prevent a swollen residual limb in pregnancy so I can wear my leg without causing any pain? These are some of the additional questions to consider to better manage my disability while expecting, besides every other little thing that a nondisabled pregnant woman should be aware of.
Meanwhile, I find that my immigrant identity, in addition to my disability status, has also affected my experience notably. The current global pandemic greatly impeded international travel, especially between China and the US. With draconian COVID policies enforced in China and mind-blowing flight expenses, I have come to the harsh realization that my family in China and I will not visit each other for years, regardless of any significant life events – graduation, wedding, childbirth, etc. Unfortunately, I am not alone in paying this price.
Without physical presence and support from close family members, being an expectant mother in my case means that I must recruit all resources available to navigate pregnancy in an unfamiliar healthcare system while transitioning to a new job and managing a cross-state home relocation. Actively seeking support from different communities and peers has been empowering. For example, I have joined multiple WeChat-based* online immigrant communities of Mandarin-speaking mothers (including expectant mothers) in the US. Some of these communities are location-specific while others include members across the US. One community of over 200 members was just formed based on similar due dates! Communities bring magic and power, as Alice Wong wrote in her edited book Disability Visibility. Women in these communities share diverse birth stories, childcare lessons, and recommendations or pitfalls for purchasing baby stuff, etc. Connected by common motherhood, women in these communities also offer emotional support for peers who encounter difficulties in their mothering experiences. In the age of working from home and lacking in-person interactions while expecting, these communities of support can be comforting and help dispel feelings of isolation.
Being an immigrant comes with vulnerabilities and restrictions. I often find myself exerting extra energy, time, and money to navigate the convoluted US immigration system. One not-so-interesting encounter:
Earlier this year, I received a call from a Baltimore number. Having worked at Johns Hopkins University and visited Johns Hopkins Hospital regularly for prenatal care, I picked up the call, thinking it might be legitimate. It took me some time to realize it was not. The male caller claimed to be an agent from the notorious Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He demanded I cooperate with his investigation, saying he had evidence that I had violated immigration law by not updating my “alien registration number” in a timely manner (“alien” being a legal term for internationals who live in the US without permanent residency). To prove his identity, he asked me to visit the ICE website and locate the Baltimore office contact information. To my surprise, the caller number matched the contact info on the website. Appalled and confused, I asked the man to send me written notification before I would engage him further. Words of intimidation and bullying followed before I hung up. I immediately tried to contact the international scholars’ office at my institution, while searching online for any similar documented spam schemes. Meanwhile, the man kept calling nonstop, 12 times, before I could block him and make another call for help. I was correct to have hung up. But this incident reminded me of my vulnerability as an immigrant in this country. At one point in the call, my imagination was going in all directions – What if the man was correct, and I have indeed unintentionally violated some obscure immigration policies? Would I be deported while expecting, and what should I do then?!
Being an expectant mother with a physical disability and an immigrant brings new layers of experience and challenge. I hope my sharing a glimpse of my experiences and reflection here can be useful to others who may go through similar journeys. It is new, challenging, and hopefully manageable as well.
* WeChat is a popular multi-purpose social media platform commonly used by Chinese.
Luanjiao Aggie Hu is a postdoctoral fellow at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy.
Access Aggie’s Tedx Talk, “What Does Freedom Mean to Me?“