The montage you see when couples have babies in films goes like this: they’re hugging over a positive test, weeping at the first scan, stacking up presents at the baby shower – and then it cuts to a perfect baby in their arms.
My partner, Stuart, and I spent a few years trying to start a family, with a few heartbreaking losses along the way – so we knew it wasn’t like the movies. Five months into a new pregnancy, we finally felt confident enough to share our good news with family and friends.
The baby wriggled so much that scans proved tough, so it wasn’t surprising at our 20-week scan when they asked us to go back and double-check his heart. It seemed like a small detail, so I even told Stuart not to take the day off work. The heart was fine, but during the scan the young radiologist went very quiet and told me she had to call in her boss. They conferred over the screen before I was told, bluntly, that our child was one of the rare cases where their arm didn’t grow below the elbow on the left side. And, by the way, he’s a boy, she added.
The shock was intense; I’d just never pictured our baby as anything other than “perfect” in the conventional sense, and my first reaction was to consider all the things that would be harder for him. I left the hospital and walked to a cafe. It seemed like every person I passed was ostentatiously using both hands.
As luck would have it, a friend’s husband was sat in the cafe; when I told him our news, he told me all about his sister, who has one arm and a fabulous job in fashion. Later, on the phone, my mum reminded me of the time she’d spent as a social worker helping children with prosthetic limbs. It became clear to me that this baby was absolutely meant to be ours.
A quick search online led me to communities for children and adults with limb difference, as it's called, like Reach and Lucky Fin, where happy kids bashed drums, played football and more. I became obsessed with spotting others like our baby on the street and once reversed at speed down Hatton Garden – not easy at eight months pregnant – to check out a cool young guy in shades holding a MacBook under his small arm.
I’d just never pictured our baby as anything other than ‘perfect’ in the conventional sense, and my first reaction was to consider all the things that would be harder for him
Our son, Kit, joined us two weeks later, after a tough birth where the cord was wrapped around his neck, leading to a week in intensive care. When your heart’s in your mouth and your baby’s in an incubator, covered in cables and pumped full of oxygen because his lungs aren’t so good, a small arm is the last thing on your mind. I decided to stay in the hospital to be near him, sleeping on a camp bed in the next room and joining for his feeds around the clock, even when it was too early for him to be breastfed. I just wanted him to know I was there.
One sleep-deprived 3am feed, I went next door to see socks on both his hand and arm. I knew one had been there for a day; he had a cannula in his tiny hand and the sock stopped him scratching his face trying to get it off, but why was there one on his small arm? The nurse, who’d been so kind to me, told me she didn’t want anyone to stare at his “deformity” and think he belonged in the “carnival”. I realised with a shocking suddenness how many times in his life he could face this kind of ugly prejudice, and how much it would tear me apart every time. I was so surprised that I said nothing at the time, but woke up furious and had it added to our notes that our little boy was perfect and we would never want to cover him up.
Now, a few months in, our gorgeous boy is happy and healthy. His small arm is simply part of him; we never think about it. On the rare occasions anyone asks about it, it’s with curiosity and kindness, and we’ve loved seeing him progress fast. Yes, there will be skills where we have to work on it together more than most, whether that’s buying an add-on for his bike or helping him devise hacks for tying his shoes, but every child has strengths and weaknesses – I’m still a terrible swimmer!
I’m grateful for the time we live in; this increased recognition of difference, whether it’s Lauren Steadman doing an amazing job on Strictly, a Gillette advert highlighting a one-armed US football star or Bristol start-up Open Bionic’s fantastic work building Marvel-branded prosthetic arms so kids can be bionic superheroes!
Finding out that our son has a small arm made us think harder about what kind of parents we wanted to be; my hope for Kit is that he grows up to be curious, kind and empathetic. Whether it’s visible or invisible, everyone’s different – and that’s a beautiful thing.