Fathering with a Spinal Cord Injury
This Father's Day, Peter Collman, who sustained a spinal cord injury as a result of transverse myelitis, reflects on fatherhood.
By Pete Collman
Mentorship is a funny thing when it comes to fatherhood. If you are lucky, you have a dad or another father figure to emulate when the time comes to be a dad yourself. When you are a father with a physical disability, it may seem like no one can possibly know your concerns or trepidations. Rest assured, you can do this. Many of us – I call us wheelchair daddies – are proof that it can be done.
It is difficult to believe my kids are in their teens. Time goes by so fast from diapers to dating. Like many fathers, life tends to be a whirlwind of have to’s and must haves – late nights at the office, bills to pay and marriages to maintain and nourish.
Yet, there are plenty of memories more worth placing in the forefront of your brain. Those precious thoughts of holding your son for the first time, your daughter’s first ballet recital and being the adhoc photographer at every major event in their lives.
Most fathers have these thoughts in common, but in my case, there is a wheelchair present in every one of these memories. You see, being a wheelchair daddy is paradoxical. It is just the same as being any other dad, yet completely different.
My kids rarely thought of me as a wheelchair user except for the times the world around them was ever ready to remind them of this fact. There were moments when my kids would be sheepish in introducing me to their school friends or times that my son said he wished I could play soccer with him like other daddies. I won’t lie, those moments stung, but they were the exception, not the rule.
I remember how both my children were understanding and helpful, always ready for the push up a hill or help off the floor from a bad transfer.
My fatherly advice centered on familiar territory that resonates with most dads.
“Try your hardest.”
“Never throw the first punch.”
“Respect your mother.”
“Look people in the eye when you talk to them.”
However, due to the uniqueness of their dad being a chair user, some of our talks centered on the specificity of treating ALL people with respect and dignity, being aware of those different from ourselves and our collective responsibility to assist others when there is a need.
There were also times that they saw their dad unashamed of his disability, celebrating his “uniqueness” as a Paralympic hopeful in wheelchair fencing. They were young when I was still competing, but even if memories weren’t readily available, they now know that I had pushed myself for something greater in life – because of my disability.
During these teenage years, there isn’t a lot of talk about the origin of my disability. There are no in-depth discussions on those touch and go hours in the ER, the struggles of rehabilitation or the years of perseverance to become as independent as I could be. Maybe chalk it up to these self-focused years of adolescence.
But there will be a time when my hardships and lessons learned will come in handy during the difficult days that my kids will undoubtedly face growing up into adulthood. I will be there with words of encouragement -- the same words that seem a bit cliché but nonetheless true: Never give up, appreciate what you have, avoid focusing on what is missing and find strength in yourself, but know that no one can do it all alone.
I smile as I write this because these are the words from my dad while I was battling through rehabilitation over 30 years ago. I guess the past is truly prologue.
My advice to new wheelchair daddies is not to overthink it. Your kids will love you for who YOU are.
It just so happens that your brand of fatherhood is conducted from a chair.
Your life experiences, tough as they are (or were), are blessings for your family. As your children grow, they will see these life lessons embodied in your actions and love of life.
Keeping it rollin’, wheelchair daddy. You’ll do fine.
PETER COLLMAN lives in Prague, Czech Republic and is raising two great kids. He is a technical writer for a software and mainframe company. When he is not writing, he works on his photography. As a former United States Paralympic hopeful and member of the U.S. Wheelchair Fencing Team, he was exposed to the adventures of international travel. He enjoys discovering new places and learning about other nation's respective histories.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.