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Interview: Debbie Urbanski on “On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies”

Tell us a bit about “On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies.”

I’ve been interested in the idea of speculative non-fiction these last few years: what if you took a certain emotional element of your life, put it in a speculative setting, and then wrote about it? So on the one hand, the emotions in this story capture my experience raising my son, who has autism, and my struggle to work through what I needed to work through, accept the child I actually have, and figure out how I can best be a parent to him. On the other hand, this is a fictional story about a world where children are snatched from under the lax eyes of their parents and replaced with a different child from another world.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I was going through a particularly rough time with my son a while back. This was before he got diagnosed. We were just a million miles away from the happy mother-son image I planted in my head when he was born. I remember feeling like, I am not meant to be this child’s parent, and he is not meant to be my son. There’s no way. I’m not prepared, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I think I’m failing. I started reading way too many parenting advice books and then, after the diagnosis, I buried myself in books about autism. I wanted so badly to understand my kid and how he saw the world.

I know it’s not a pretty thing to bring up, but I think when you’re given a challenging child, a child you didn’t expect and weren’t prepared for, there is this journey of acceptance you have to go on. At least, I needed to go through it. Where you ask all sorts of questions and say all sorts of things which don’t sound so great, such as: This is not the vision of parenthood I had. This is not the vision of a family that I had. I have no idea what I’m doing. Where did my dream child go, the one I thought I was going to get? If I do the right things, and read enough books, and go to enough therapy, will I get that dream child back?

It seems within everyone’s best interest for the parent to work through these questions, answer them as best they can, and then move on to accept, appreciate, and love the child they’ve been given. (Change the world, not the child!) But I wanted to write a story about what happens before that acceptance: the struggle and journey for acceptance. The parents who make it through all those awful questions to a land of acceptance but also the parents who, for whatever reason, can’t get there. I don’t think we tell the stories of the parents who are failing enough.


What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

One book that stood out to me in my reading about autism was Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. It’s an amazing, beautiful book about parents who are raising children who are different from them, and it shows, I think, just how transcendent parental love can be (and also how parenting can be really, really hard). There’s a great chapter about raising autistic kids, where Solomon referenced these old changeling folk tales from Martin Luther’s time, which may have been how people in the 16th century explained children with autism (among other disorders). Solomon discusses comparisons between the changeling myths and how certain modern-day parents still view their child with autism (their original child being snatched away, almost overnight, and replaced with the autistic version of their child—and how the parent then does everything they can to get their “real” child back). Solomon also talks about how autistic individuals do not, of course, want to be seen in this way. (“Being seen in light of the ghost of who you were expected to be is a kind of emotional violence for many disabled people” – Amanda Baggs). I began reading through as many original changeling myths as I could—a good number are available online (this web site is an amazing resource), and I read several essays from the autistic/neurodiversity perspective. Out of a lot of reading came this idea for an advice booklet to help parents whose emotional states were similar to my own. I wanted to imagine, what if those changelings and their myths were actually happening in modern times? Also, I wondered, what makes it possible to learn to love the child you didn’t expect, versus those parents who are doomed to repeat the same several hundred-year-old story of not letting go of the child they thought they had?

Though the Changeling stories are extreme, I think there is still some truth in them: parents may struggle to accept the child they’re given; and parents may be willing to try a lot of things, even some things which seem extreme or harmful, to “cure” their child of autism. I’m not advocating for those kinds of therapies, or even for the idea of “curing,” but I understand why such therapies exist, and how parents could be drawn to them. Andrew Solomon calls it part of autism’s ongoing “literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm.” It’s a seductive vision for parents who are struggling.


What would you want a reader to take away from “On the Problem of Replacement Children…”?

I hope I’m stating the obvious that this story should not be taken as an actual parenting manual about how to raise one’s children. But in case that’s not obvious: I am not advocating, in any way, that you follow the advice in this story! If you feel like you’re failing as a parent, get help from a recommended therapist, or another trusted community resource, and stay hopeful, and try to talk to other parents who are in your situation but who made it to the other side. Knowing everyone’s situation is so unique, I hope parents who are struggling to accept, for whatever reason, their children as they are, keep struggling until they make it to a better place.

I write about things not to judge them but to try and better understand them. I used to write a lot about cults, for instance, though I would never join one and wouldn’t necessarily suggest you join one either. But I wanted to understand what drew people to cults, even the vilified ones, and what people might get out of being a cult. Likewise, with this story, I wanted to try and understand how a parent might choose between “fixing” their child and acceptance (and, at the same time, try and understand my own choices I made with my son, especially at first). My hope for the reader is that maybe this story can be a small window into the emotions of some parents during a messy, complex time.

I realize the reader might feel that my story’s parents should not have these emotions and certainly should not act like they do. It might be difficult to read this story without thinking, ‘What they are doing is very, very wrong and putting this sort of behavior in a story is also very, very wrong.’ Another version of the story would be where all the parents who do bad things to their children are punished. Or else no parent ever does anything bad to their child. Or else the Replacement children abandon their parents and go off and have a much better life by themselves. But I think those stories would simplify the situation as I know it, and they wouldn’t have been honest ones for me to write.

I did struggle with this story being so neurotypical-driven and told pretty much entirely from the parents’ perspectives. The parents’ stories are important ones to hear, but at the same time I feel the story of the Replacement children, told from their point of view, still needs to be told, but at some other time.


What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a book of connected novellas/stories, about aliens and cults, for about, I don’t know, six years. I think about writing a historical YA novel, and I’m in the middle of writing a few stories far out in the future, about the last generation of humans on the planet.


“On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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2 Responses to “Interview: Debbie Urbanski on “On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies””

  1. List Making Part 1: the joy of post-its - Debbie Urbanski on February 20th, 2017

    […] note: an interview with me is up on the F&SF blog where I discuss the background to the story that’s in the Jan./Feb. issue of the […]

  2. Pixel Scroll 3/29/17 “Scrolls! They Were Inwented By A Little Old Lady From Pixelgrad!” | File 770 on March 29th, 2017

    […] and Science Fiction, January/February 2017. Although you have to buy the issue to read it, the author interview about this story shows why that might be something you’d want to do […]

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