Earlier this week, I ran into the grocery store to pick up a few things. Plopping my 10-month-old daughter into the buggy seat, we made our way down the aisles collecting items we needed while she diligently tried to grab anything she could from the nearby shelves. I met eyes with other shoppers here and there, and I winced when I saw a few of their faces full of what makes me dread going into public places: pity.
Like most pregnant women, I assumed my baby would be totally healthy and perfect.
Every ultrasound and prenatal checkup went fine. When my daughter was born on her actual due date without any complications, it seemed like all was going according to plan. What I did not expect was the diagnosis of a congenital cataract in her eye that would require surgery followed by years of wearing an eye patch several hours a day to give her the best vision possible.
We all bear the scars of motherhood and childhood, though some are more visible than others.
There are many circumstances that lead to kiddos who don’t look entirely “normal” by typical standards. This may mean a physical deformity like a limp or lack of hair, using a wheelchair or other device for daily activities, or perhaps a behavioral diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, to name a few. Whatever the cause, it’s hard to see your child be looked down on. When out and about and a stranger stops, gives me a sad smile and says, “Oh poor thing, what’s wrong with her?,” I rattle off the same response I’ve likely already made twelve other times that morning. But what I really want to tell them and you, dear reader, is this:
It’s ok to ask me, but please be kind.
I get it. We live in the South; we’re a conversational, up-in-your-business kind of bunch. You are curious and want to know why my daughter is wearing the funny patch over her eye, and that makes sense. But think of me, and my impressionable daughter who will one day soon understand everything you say to or about her. I would love to talk to you about how she is crawling and into everything, how many teeth she’s cutting, and the gorgeous dimple on her right cheek when she smiles. What is hard — painful even — is to hear people who don’t know anything about us speak sadly or unkindly about her from a few feet away. It makes me want to leave my groceries right in the aisle and go load up in the car.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no desire to hide this part of her story. If I could tell you all the joy my daughter’s “issues” have given me, the disappointment in your voice would disappear. I am deeply proud of the things Elsie has already overcome in her short life, but these are things to be celebrated and not pitied. I believe that her beautiful body was created with care and intention from the God who loves her more than I could, and I pray she grows up with the confidence to know the same. I’ve had some really wonderful conversations with strangers about their own child’s struggles that have made me feel known and encouraged. I’ve also had people speak tenderly to my daughter, accepting the patch on her eye as part of her abundant charm, and it has lifted my heart for days to come.
Regardless of what many would consider to be an imperfection, please join me in cheering on the people around us who may look “different.” And when your young daughter or son points and asks loudly (because they are innocent, filterless kids) about my Elsie’s “bandaid” on her eye, know that it doesn’t bother me that they noticed, but the way you will now react just might. Rather than shushing them in shame or making a sad remark about something being “wrong” with my child, take a minute to tell your son that everyone is unique and special, and bandaids help us get better when we are hurt. Or tell your daughter that even if we look different or weird to each other at first, there is always common ground to be shared, and maybe we can say hello to this cute baby and see what you might have in common. Then you and I will smile at each other across our buggies and move on with our day, both feeling like we are trying to be the best mom we can be. Let’s show our children what it means to celebrate differences, always choosing to be kind to each other. Tracie Loux has written a really helpful article with practical examples on teaching your children to interact with those who have special health needs that I highly recommend reading; it’s available here.