Tiffanie DiDonato is a mother unlike most you’ll ever meet.
DiDonato – who has a form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia – cannot lift, chase or go out alone with her very able-bodied son Titan, who just turned 3. As a child, she underwent limb-lengthening surgery, bringing her from 3’8″ to 4’10” and giving her the chance to live an independent life.
“He’s catching up to me,” says DiDonato, 34 (who co-wrote a memoir, Dwarf, with the author of this story). So when her husband and Titan’s father, 29-year-old Eric Gabrielse, is at work as a staff sergeant in the Marines, she comes up with creative ways to parent Titan.
“Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a mom is to stop comparing myself to other moms. I parent my way,” says DiDonato, who lives in Swansboro, North Carolina, and uses crutches or a wheelchair due to the nature of her type of dwarfism. She is expecting her second child this fall. “I do what works for us and I love my son more than all the fish in the sea. That’s what matters.”
Below, DiDonato shares more of her story with PEOPLE.
Do you ever worry about being able to take care of your son?
There are certainly moments when I say to myself, ‘How the hell am I going to do this?’ When Titan was about 9 months old, he started this kicking phase, so when changing his diaper, I had to get really close. Sometimes I could dodge his feet, but I’ve caught a few swift kicks to the face that knocked me to the ground. So I had to adjust my changing tactics. I’d grab something shiny and interesting, like key chains or my husband’s dog tags, and let him examine them. I’d be done changing him before he’d know the difference.
Now that he’s older, does he help you more?
Stairs are my nemesis. Always have been and always will be. One day, after grocery shopping with Titan and Eric, I was making my way up the two stairs to the mudroom and Titan paused from bolting inside, turned, and took my hand to help me up the steps. I never, ever expected to have him do that. I must have thanked him a thousand times and now I call him ‘my little hero.’ Ever since, he pauses and reaches for my hand on the steps. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Walking long distances is also a challenge for me. After about 40 minutes, a wheelchair becomes helpful. On one particular trip to Walmart, Titan decided to grab the handles and start bringing me around. Granted, he needs to work on his steering, but there wasn’t a person who passed by who didn’t smile or compliment him. And he just did it, all on his own. It makes me wonder: Does he notice that Mommy is different? Or does he simply see it as a chance to help out someone he loves, because I help him out, too? Either way, I hope he’s learning that we should all help each other out in this life. And if that’s something I can teach him by having dwarfism, that’s cool by me.
Speaking of others, what sort of reaction do you get from people when you’re out with your family?
Just recently, a new neighbor moved into our cul de sac. When Eric came home from work the neighbor asked, ‘Is your son old enough for a truck piggy bank?’ Eric said, ‘Sure.’ Then the neighbor asked, ‘So how old is your daughter?’ To be honest, it doesn’t bother me any more when people say things like that. At first it did, but now, if someone thinks I look young enough to be a teenager? You can’t buy that in a bottle at Walgreens!
Eric, do you ever worry about Tiffanie caring for Titan alone when you work long hours?
ERIC: Not really, no. What if something happens? What if Titan gets hurt? Those are things that any good parent keeps in the back of their mind when they work. It doesn’t change just because my wife has limitations. And even saying the word ‘limitations’ with my wife in the same sentence is wrong because I see her accomplish so much every day. There is no one better to be with my son while I work. If something needs to get done, believe me, she’ll find a way. She takes the Marine Corps motto and puts it to work: She adapts and overcomes.
Could your new baby have dwarfism, Tiffanie?
No. When I was pregnant with Titan, we saw a genetics counselor at Duke and I learned more about my form of dwarfism than I ever had growing up. Both parents have to be carriers for their child to have diastrophic dysplasia and Eric is not a carrier so our children will not have this form of dwarfism. However, our children will always have one part of the gene, so one day, their partners should get a blood test to see if they are carriers.
Do you think Titan realizes his mom is different from other moms?
I was never a kid person growing up. To be honest, children scared me. They ask questions, they run around wildly and, though not maliciously, they stare. But after having Ty, I find their genuine curiosity amazing. It’s like: sure, they notice something is different, but they’re fascinated with their world. I’m sure Titan sees there’s a difference between me and Daddy. But the real question is this: Does he care? I don’t think he does. I’m Mom. I’ll always be Mom whether I’m 5’10” or 4’10.” As long as I don’t see myself as inferior just because of my dwarfism, then Titan will have no reason to, either.
Do you think Titan will learn unique lessons growing up with you as his mother?
I hope he learns compassion. I want him to learn to fight for what he wants out of life, because you’re not just born with everything. Sometimes you will have to make sacrifices and struggle for what’s important to you. I hope he learns that God didn’t make everyone the same for a reason. Because how boring would that be, if we all looked alike? I want him to learn that what makes life beautiful can be found in our differences. Not in our similarities.
What makes your relationship with Titan different and special?
Even though I never want to let Titan see me struggle or be in pain, I realize that desire is not very realistic. My mom sees it, my dad sees it, Eric sees it. Life is hard. So, when I have those days where my body is raging war against me, and I can’t hide that from Titan, I hope he realizes what doesn’t break you, it only makes you stronger. And I’m the perfect person to prove that to Titan. No one else can show him that. But I can.