Paralympic Gold Medalist Mallory Weggemann on Her Pregnancy: 'My Paralysis Will Not Be a Burden for Our Children'

The Paralympic swimmer — due with her first baby in March with husband Jay Snyder — wrote a powerful essay about confronting ableist stigmas surrounding motherhood, which she has shared exclusively with PEOPLE

Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann
Mallory, Jay and their dog Sam after celebrating their baby shower, hosted by Mallory's mom and sisters, earlier this month in St. Paul, Minn. Photo: Becky Ankrum Photography

Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann and her husband Jay Snyder have invited PEOPLE to follow their journey as they grow their family. Below is an original essay she has shared exclusively with PEOPLE.

"But really, what type of mother could you be?"

As I sat in line at the store with my items stacked in the basket on my lap, I felt my heart sink and, in an instant, went numb.

I had only been paralyzed for a little over a year, I was just 19 years old and had yet to find the courage to ask what my paralysis meant for having children. Did I wonder? Nearly every day. It was among the laundry list of questions I had for what this meant for my future.

Yet in a split second, with a throwaway comment from a complete stranger, I felt one of my biggest fears surface.

I made my way back to campus and straight to my dorm room. There I was, over 1,500 miles away from my loved ones, alone and feeling the weight of the realization that the biggest hurdle I was facing had nothing to do with adapting to my new body, but doing so in a society that no longer saw me as worthy.

It has been nearly 15 years since that day and unfortunately, I still face the cruelty of others' ignorance. Although with time, I have learned that another person's perception of me isn't a reflection of myself or my worth — but rather of their own unconscious bias and insecurity.

Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann
Becky Ankrum Photography

Now, here I am all these years later, happily married and preparing to welcome our first child next month. In many ways I am living the very life that, at each turn, I have been told isn't for me.

Dating? Forget it. "Who would want to be with a woman in a wheelchair?"

Getting married? Not built to last. "10 out of 10 marriages that require care-taking will fail."

Thanks, Dr. Phil but we have been happily married for over six years and are more in love than ever before. And yes, my husband helps me, but guess what? I help him too, because this is a partnership. Love isn't despite; it is all encompassing.

Having a family? Not for people like me. "Can you even have sex?" Or "Will you be able to have children?" Or "What type of mother could you be?" Or "That's not fair for your kids to have to deal with."

And now, here I am eight months pregnant, and throughout pregnancy the comments have continued. Some are your usual offenders that pregnant women face and others are layered in microaggressions that stem from ableism. "You're pregnant?" Or "I didn't even know that was possible." Or "Should you really be going out on your own?" Or "Is that safe for your child?" (The that being me independently parenting).

And worst of all are the comments shaming me for being pregnant in the first place — those that imply that our child, who we fought so hard for, is better off not coming into this world than having me as their mom.

Each of these comments and questions are just a highlight reel of the things that are said to me on nearly a daily basis. All comments rooted in ableism, and all based on the toxic belief that disability is less than, and something to be feared as a "worst case" scenario, followed by questions of "quality of life."

This life I have built isn't worst-case scenario. My quality of life is leaps and bounds beyond what I ever imagined for my future. And while my disability is a big part of my identity, who I am as a person doesn't start and stop with the fact that I live with a disability.

For years I have been passionate about changing the narrative around disability, intimately realizing the most disabling factor of living with a disability in our society is navigating a world that is still riddled with unconscious bias and ableism.

We have all heard the phrase, "It is hard to become what you do not see." But the layers to that extend far beyond any one individual person. We form our perception of place based on what we see emulated in the world around us. Meaning, if I don't see disability accurately represented in all sectors of life, then it is hard to perceive that as an avenue for me. Similarly, when others don't see disability portrayed as one of the many faces in our world, they begin to perceive that void as a lack of belonging, as if that part of the human experience isn't for "people like that."

I have long thought about what drove that stranger, many years ago, to speak those words to a young woman. Could it be her own insecurity? Sure, maybe she was navigating through a hard season herself as a mother and saw me, someone she perceived as less than, and thought to herself, "If I can't do this how can she?" But that isn't just insecurity —it's the definition of ableism.

Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann
Becky Ankrum Photography

Maybe it was because of this bigger conversation surrounding representation: She hadn't ever seen accurate representations of disability, let alone a woman with a disability as a mom, so in a split-second, unconscious bias kicked in and she thought to herself, "She can't be a mom, she is disabled." Still rooted in ableism, but also begs the question: Why do we carry a limiting belief of what is possible for individuals with disabilities? Could it be because we don't showcase authentic representation which, by nature, creates a void that implies a lack of belonging?

So, to the woman in the checkout line all those years ago: I am going to be an empathetic, compassionate, loving mother. One who will do whatever it takes to fight for her children and raise them with the knowledge that they are worthy, that they belong. They will be loved, supported and encouraged to lead with purpose and heart because my husband and I fundamentally believe we all have the power to evoke change in this world — and we know they will be no exception.

My paralysis will not be a burden for our children. The fact that the world sees their mom as different will be the very thing that makes them empathetic and willing to embrace other's differences.

Will they have different experiences? Yes. I mean, after all, I am training for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, so in 18 months they will be in the stands with their Daddy as they cheer Mama on.

Will our children gain a unique perspective because their mother rolls rather than steps? Without a doubt. They will learn first-hand how to be creative and the power of adaptability.

Will my paralysis change the type of mom that I am? I certainly hope so, because it has made me a better person in every other aspect of my life.

Motherhood will be another part of my identity — a reminder that just because I live with a disability does not mean my disability is all encompassing. And together, as a little family, hopefully we will change perceptions and offer a path forward for others who dream to see themselves represented in the conversation.

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