Everyday Questions

My prosthetic arm

For most people thalidomide probably isn’t an everyday word.  You might know vaguely what it is–a drug that was used for morning sickness in pregnant women that turned out to cause birth defects in babies–but it isn’t likely to come up in conversation very often.  Unless you’re me. :)

“Are you a thalidomide baby?” is right up there with “What happened to your arm?” in freqently asked questions.  I was thinking about these questions as I listened to an MPR broadcast of a really interesting speech by the FDA Chief on balancing innovation with protecting the public because the speaker mentioned that it has been 50 years since thalidomide was found to cause birth defects.  She also mentioned that the drug was never approved for general use in the US, though some women received it as part of clinical trials or obtained it on their own from overseas.  In any case, I’m not quite old enough to be part of that.

But thalidomide isn’t really the point of the question.  The point is why.  People really want to know why I have one arm.  Most people assume car accident.  Some actually go so far as to start asking questions about the [fictional] accident.  When I say that I was born without an arm, it doesn’t give them what they are looking for.  There’s no bad guy.  There’s only chance to blame, and that isn’t good enough.  Kids, in particular, have a very hard time making sense of what is really a non-answer to an unanswerable question.  I could reference “amniotic band syndrome,” and sometimes I do, but even that is a more complicated way of saying “some things just happen.”

I guess that’s why I like the picture book Just Because by Rebecca Elliott.  As I wrote on Books in Bloom, “The book opens up the idea that there aren’t answers for why some people can do things others can’t. Sometimes the answer is ‘just because.'”

Now if only there were a similar book for adults….  Until someone comes up with that book (hint, hint), I need a more reassuring explanation stat.

What people want to know

I got more than I bargained for when I took Ladybug to the neighborhood park this afternoon.  A school group descended upon “our” park, and it wasn’t long before I became a bit of a park celebrity.  Kids were crowded around me and calling their friends over: “This lady only has one arm!  Check it out!”

While it wasn’t what I expected when we left for the park, I am happy to provide a safe space for kids to ask questions of someone who looks different.  I was born with one arm, so I’ve some time to get used to answering questions.  They quizzed me on the usual topics.  How do you peel a banana? How do you write?  How do you hug?  A few kids were concerned that it hurt, and I assured them that it didn’t.  They were also amazed that my daughter, who quietly played in the sand nearby seemingly oblivious to the crowd around me, did not “look like me.”  I explained, to the best of my ability, that it isn’t genetic.  That it’s just something that happens.  My usual line “Everybody is born differently, and this is how I was born” sometimes comforts kids and sometimes doesn’t.

One little girl seemed particularly concerned for me.  She asked, “Do you need someone to take care of you?”  I just smiled and said that I take care of myself just fine.

I’m happy to answer questions.  Check out Fake Arm 101 to get answers to the usual questions.  Still wondering something?  Feel free to ask.  :)