Outsider to Insider: Rethinking mothering support

Image of Marjorie walking with her young son  Image of Marjorie cuddling her young son while seated in her wheelchair 

This week I had the great privilege of attending a lecture given by Dr Marjorie Aunos. Marjorie is both a colleague and friend, from the West Montreal Readaptation Centre in Canada. She has made a huge contribution to what we know about people with intellectual disability (ID) who are parents, and is a world expert in the field of parenting with ID.

In January 2012, on her way to work, Marjorie's car slipped on black ice into the path of an oncoming truck. In a quarter of a second she became a paraplegic. And her life changed.

There were skills to learn, and skills to relearn. There were long weeks in a hospital bed as her body recovered. One of Marjorie's greatest concerns was, "How will I care for my son?"

Women with disabilities are vulnerable for a number of reasons. Mothers with disabilities are even more so. Support services for people with disabilities are typically ill-equipped to deal with the complexities brought about by parenting.

Children don't always follow the rules. They are unpredictable. What meets their needs one minute, might create a meltdown in the next. Marjorie's son was 16 months old when she had her accident. She is, by choice, a single mother.

Women with disabilities and significant mental illness are significantly more likely to have their children removed from their care. Very often this is not because of evidence of abuse or maltreatment, but because child protection services can't believe that a woman with a disability can provide good enough care for her child.

When a woman with disabilities is also a mother, questions are often raised. For example, how can a mother properly supervise an active toddler from a wheelchair? Or, how will she recognise what her child needs if she has an intellectual disability? But the answers, rather than seeking solutions, are often couched in prejudice and assumptions about what she is unable to do.

For Marjorie, this meant weeks lying in a hospital bed, watching the door and waiting for a child protection worker to walk through it. She had all her answers prepared. She was ready to fight for her ability to mother her child.

I was deeply struck she drew on my own research to describe her experience. In 2012, with Prof Llewellyn, I published an article describing research into the experiences of women with intellectual disabilities who had their children involuntarily removed from their care. I have since been involved in some research about the experiences of mothers with significant mental illness who have had their children removed.

The women who shared their experiences with me faced significant socio-economic disadvantage and some struggled to provide everything they wanted to provide for their children. All loved their children deeply and wanted the best for them. None doubted themselves as mother of their children. When an authority took their children from them they suffered paralysing grief and loss.

Before her parenting was even questioned, Marjorie described her fear that an external agency would deem her an unfit parent and take her child from her care. How could she prove her parenting competence from her hospital bed? The imbalance of power between mother and decision maker was never more stark to her.

Context and support play a huge part in how we all care for our children, and manage our daily lives. Few of us are islands, nor should we be treated as such. Very often it is women who are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of others in their households, particularly when it comes to children. And very often, it is the support of those around us, who enable us to do the daily juggle.

Marjorie is a fantastic mother to her son, now 6 years old. He was never taken from her. She mothers as the rest of us do: with support from those around her, including, at times, professional services.

At Dinner on the Table we think there's a better way to support women made vulnerable by disability. Women should never be asked how they will care for their children alone. We're creating a cost effective way of meeting the needs of women, as well as the needs of those they are responsible for. And, you know what? We're meeting your needs too.

And that changes the disability services game.

Too many balls in the air? Let us take care of the meals. You gather the people, we'll bring the food. Delicious, healthy, family-style ready made meals delivered to your home.


Dinner on the Table is a Sydney caterer and social enterprise, gifting cooked meals to families living with disability. With every meal you buy and every event you invite us to cater, you are also helping vulnerable families by putting dinner on their tables.

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