About five years ago, when my son Carter was seven, I took him with me to the post office to mail some packages. It must have been spring or summer because I can remember too clearly what he was wearing: the yellow nylon basketball shorts he’d inherited from one of his brothers and a bright yellow t-shirt that almost exactly matched, an ensemble he favored for many months.
That outfit, adorable as I found it, didn’t do anything to make my redheaded son less noticeable or distinctive when we were out. Whatever he wore, wherever we went, he spun. He wind milled his arms, chanted, and touched everything. He was a tiny yellow dervish.
This particular day, the post office day, I was seven years into parenting a child with disabilities. I had heard to whispered conversations between friends about that kid over there. I’d endured the looks, the sounds, the tsk tsk tsk’s. I’d tried on a variety of responses: direct and angry, quietly disdainful, fake ignorance.
But the man in the post office was a new breed, a person the likes of which I hadn’t met before that day. As I waited in line, corralling Carter’s whirling so that he didn’t bump into any people or knock down displays of boxes, the man in line behind me spoke up, saying, “Your kid is out of control.”
Pause for three beats because I was stunned.
“There’s a neurological cause for that behavior,” I said. My face felt as hot as if it had been slapped. I registered the quiet that had settled in the post office lobby, among the other patrons if not my still-chanting, still-twirling son.
Louder now, the man said, “Even if he’s a brain-damaged brat, he’s still a brat.”
My blood was thundering in my head, my heart bruising the inside of my chest, and I wanted to scream at that man, to fill his face with all the words and all the rage I’d experienced in the seven years since my son was born. I wanted to cover him with my anger at the church nursery lady who sniffed with annoyance when she had to send for me during service. I wanted him to feel the whip-crack of pain I felt when my father-in-law said send him to me for the summer and I’ll straighten him out. I wanted him to feel the pain and frustration of a dozen meetings at school and 100 doctors’ appointments that were more like wars than collaborations. I wanted him to understand.
People like that man can’t understand, or if they can it would take far more than a short exchange in a post office to make it happen. In any case, I couldn’t scream anything at that man. My little boy in his yellow shorts was there, and while he was still spinning, still doing his Carter-moves, still unaware of the silence in the room and the bitter exchange happening between his mom and a man we didn’t know, he would have become aware if I’d yelled. He’d have been afraid, and he would have been even more afraid when the man yelled back, and who knows? Maybe some other people in line would have jumped to my defense, and then a few others could have joined in to let me know exactly how disruptive my son’s behavior was and we could have had a regular battle royal right there at the Steve Schiff Memorial Post Office.
All of which my little boy would have witnessed.
Sometimes the strength of mother-love is not in the ability to hoist a car off a trapped child, but to keep the words within one’s mouth. I gathered Carter close to me and hissed at the man, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” I turned to face the front of the line and while I waited for my turn I could feel that man behind me, the arrogance and ignorance of him.
That evening, after Carter was asleep, I talked to my husband about the episode. It was more like ranting than talking (as so many things were then) and I broke. That’s not to say I’d been all of-a-piece before that; I broke often back then. But this breaking was about being understood, about living in a world in which most people believe all child behaviors are the result of parent behaviors; where many people would sooner offer a judgmental word than a helping hand; and most people think pediatric mental illness is at best make-believe and at worst, a parental excuse.
I broke because I had believed the world would embrace a family in crisis and in fact, most people would prefer we disappear until the crisis is over, or as long as our child acts in ways that are different from the way most people his age act. I broke because I had been trying to make people understand and they don’t, and that hurts.
Since then, I have practiced saying you have no idea what you’re talking about in every situation. It works best when I hiss it between my top teeth and look people dead in the eyes.
About the Author
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the hours just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style.
Find links to almost everything she does on the internet at about.me/AdrienneJones.