New motherhood is hard for everyone, but it was especially challenging for Rachelle Chapman, 30, who made headlines in 2010 as the "paralyzed bride.” Just weeks before her wedding, a pool mishap resulted in Chapman breaking her neck, which left her paralyzed from the chest down.
At first, she feared that the life-saving medicines she’s now on would keep her from having a baby, but last April, thanks to help from a surrogate (who also happened to be a college friend) Chapman and her husband, Chris, welcomed daughter Kaylee Rae into the world. Raising a baby as a quadriplegic has its obstacles, but Chapman has embraced them head on, just as she’s done with every other aspect of her life since the accident. Here, Chapman shares in her own words the parenting lessons she’s learned since becoming a new mom.
Support can come from unexpected places
It had been nearly a decade since I’d had any contact with Laurel Humes, my incredible surrogate. She and I met through Chris in college but had lost touch other than being connected on Facebook. Then she’d seen something I’d posted online about wanting a surrogate and all of a sudden I got a message from her telling me she’d been hoping to find an opportunity to carry a baby for someone. Now, she’s become one of the most important people in my life. We formed an unbreakable bond during her pregnancy: I came to all of her ultrasounds, she sent me updates regularly, and Chris and I stayed with her and her husband in the days leading up to Kaylee’s birth. I know she will forever be a part of our lives, and I am so grateful for her. It all goes to show that there are so many kinds of love out there—we just need to be open to finding them. Laurel was so selfless when deciding to do this for us. My whole family talks about how grateful they are for what she did; our parents wouldn't have grandkids without her! She will always be connected to our family, and when Kaylee can understand, I will be sure she knows what Laurel did for us.
It really does take a village
Before I was hurt I was extremely independent and working as the head of a senior citizens center where I taught aerobics. Because of my injury, which left me in a wheelchair and with very limited use of my hands, I had to learn even before Kaylee arrived that it’s okay to need help, and to ask for it. My mom moved in with Chris and me after my accident (she stays five days a week), and her help since Kaylee arrived has been immeasurable. Every day she shows me what it means to be a selfless, tireless, positive parent. Ours may be the extreme example, but family or close friends want to help—and when we let them, even if they don’t do things exactly as we would, everyone wins: You and your partner get a break, your baby gets exposure to new, loving people, and your family and friends get to feel useful.
Focus on the big picture
If there’s one silver lining to my accident, it’s that it’s given me perspective. Because I’ve already had such bad experiences, things that might feel like a big deal to somebody else, might feel small to me (like Kaylee crying nonstop for an hour). Chris and I both realize that what really matters is the bigger picture. I’m grateful we have a healthy, happy baby, so dealing with poopy diapers and throw up, losing hours of sleep, or having laundry pile up never feels like the end of the world. I just want moms out there to realize that you can get through this without focusing so much on the little things.
There’s no one right way to parent
I have a modified crib and changing table (it’s actually a converted desk) that helps me care for Kaylee from my wheelchair; I keep coming up with new ways to use our Boppy; I use bibs with magnets so I can get them on Kaylee easier; and Chris and I shower together, so we bring Kaylee and her playpen into the bathroom with us. But having a disability is not the only reason to experiment: All parents have it within them to be creative, to come up with solutions on their own, to go beyond the usual parenting advice and do what works for them. Just trust that you know what’s best for you and your baby, and try the tweaks that will make your lives easier.
Play to your strengths
Moms and dads don’t always have the same styles and strengths—and that can be a good thing. For example, I’m a bit of a night owl, so I can stay up with Kaylee for the late feeding—and then Chris can do the mornings. Or in the middle of the night, Chris can get her and a bottle for me—then get back to sleep while I’m feeding her; that way he's not doing it alone, and he doesn't have to stay up with her. There are also probably things that stress you out, but not your partner, and vice versa—and it can help you both to recognize it. I can be a very still person, and I don’t really get anxious. When Kaylee’s screaming and crying, that can make Chris feel anxious, so that’s a good time for me to take her. I can handle that—I can hold her as long as she cries. So Chris steps in to do the things I can’t, and I step in on those high-anxiety, intense moments.
A sense of humor is paramount
When Kaylee would have temper tantrums—arching her back so that she was nearly impossible to hold, screaming till she was totally red-faced—Chris and I would call her “the exorcist.” Making fun of tough situations helps us not take them so seriously. And if you think about it, babies act like frat boys—farting, puking and passing out with no shame whatsoever—and that’s pretty funny. I just try to take as much as I can in stride with motherhood. I can’t style my own hair, and one time, my mom accidentally sprayed Pledge in my hair, instead of hair spray. Another time, Chris forgot my wheelchair in the driveway when we left to go see family. Laughing these kinds of things off makes life—and parenting—a whole lot easier.
Germs may not be the worst thing
It’s easy as a new parent to become fixated with germs—sanitizing obsessively and wiping down toys the minute they fall on the floor. But with a wheelchair that goes everywhere I do, it’s basically impossible to keep everything completely germ free, and so far, Kaylee doesn’t seem any worse off because of it. I’m not suggesting that you let your baby lick the escalator handrails at the mall, but I’ve seen firsthand that casual germ exposure is clearly not the worst thing in the world!
There are many—beautiful—ways families come together
Many quadriplegic and paraplegic women can successfully conceive and carry babies to term; I personally couldn’t because of a life-saving blood pressure medicine that I’ve had to take since my accident. So when Chris and I were ready to start our family we chose surrogacy. But there are many factors that go into deciding how to start a family—whether it’s adoption, IVF or surrogacy—and it’s upsetting when people are judged or questioned for their decision. My story has been in the media and I would sometimes read the comments and a lot of people were like ‘why doesn’t she just adopt, she’s an awful person because she didn’t adopt.’ Adoption is a beautiful thing but there are a lot of different ways that people would like to start a family and it’s everyone’s prerogative how they want to do it. We all deserve respect and the basic understanding that parenting is parenting, now matter how your family is formed.
Want to learn more about Rachelle, Chris and Kaylee? TLC will be airing an hour-long special about the couple’s journey to and through new parenthood later in 2016.