A few weeks ago we had a pretty unpleasant experience when a group of people laughed at Hero’s little hand. It was a group of adults, and they actually laughed. What made it worse was that they had a child with them who, following their example, strained across to stare as well.
Hero had been sucking her little hand like a dummy. It’s happened before, when someone reacted with innocent wonder at the idea that she could somehow fit her entire fist into her mouth. It’d certainly be some party trick if it were true! Only, on that occasion, the person in question had the decency to be deeply apologetic when they realised that she didn’t actually have a fist to fit in.
Unlike that previous time, this one was a whole different kettle of fish, causing a cascade of emotions that knocked me for six for a while and seemed to encompass a whole spectrum of bewildering feelings.
When I first noticed them laughing and pointing I just stared in horror. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Surely, surely, people don’t still do that kind of thing? The world’s moved on from the medieval times, when being different singled you out. Now we have disabled presenters on TV, we have a whole raft of paralympian role models. We have no room in our lives for ridicule and prejudice like that anymore.
And then of course you have to ask, what exactly was funny? What could possibly be funny about child who was born without a hand? It’s not tragic. It’s not terrible. It’s not even bad, despite what they might think, but it sure isn’t funny.
This one is obvious. I couldn’t just stand by and watch someone ridicule my daughter. I was obviously going to march right up to them and say… what exactly I would have said in the theatre of my mind, I don’t know, but it involved a lot of gesticulating and unrepeatable words.
Needless to say, I didn’t march across the restaurant and start swearing blue murder at these people (although a tiny piece of me wanted to). My intense hatred of conflict aside, I tried to picture Hero doing that. I pictured her marching up to someone, her face contorted with rage, reeling off a load of swear words and giving them what for.
What a horrible thing to imagine. That aggression and that anger is the last thing I’d want Hero to parrot. And we are, despite not having a clue what we’re doing, her biggest role models. She will look to us for how to react in these situations and I won’t teach her manners as poor as those who were laughing. We don’t want her to have to live in a world where feeling that level of rage is the norm. Right now, she’s so innocent and sweet and lovely. To see that level of anger and rage mirrored in her face would feel like the end of her wonderful childlike innocence.
I’m not sure what word to use in this context. It’s not grief, but I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t ache. It did. A lot.
It was heartache at learning that someone could be so utterly cruel to my beautiful, talented and just all-round awesome child, that they could be so cruel to anyone’s child. It was heartache at realising that, despite having been lulled into a false sense of security, she is going to have to deal with incidents like this throughout her life from time to time. I dread the day when our wonderfully happy child, who loves almost everyone she sees, realises that somebody is laughing at her or judging her unkindly. It was the understanding that she will have her own demons and insecurities to overcome and that, no matter how much we build her up, idiots like that might be able to knock her down in a careless second.
After a ten-month honeymoon period, after ten months of hearing nothing even slightly unkind, to learn that this stuff will happen was frightening. And worse than the knowledge that this kind of thing might happen, is the fact that we will have to deal with it when it does. We can’t deal with it how we might want to, as over protective and instinct-driven parents. We have to deal with it in a manner that we’d like to equip her with. We need to model a response that shows her how to take the moral high ground.
Although we might want, even if just for a second, to leap hell-for-leather off of that moral high ground and drag any unkind and insensitive soul into the mud – we just can’t. Although we might want to just cry hysterically and let those people make us feel less than we are – we just can’t. We have to be better than that, because she deserves better role models than that.
We want her to know that it’s ok to feel upset, that it’s ok to feel angry from time to time, but that you cannot let those emotions rule you and dictate your actions. You can wallow when you need to, but you shouldn’t make decisions that you might regret based on those flashes of red.
What happened next…
In the end we chose to walk away. I hung back, allowing the party to depart before us so that we didn’t have to bump into them on the way out. By the time we got to the car I was shaking and crying as all of the above started to rush about my head. I didn’t know how to react then and I still don’t now, because I’m not just responding for myself anymore, I’m responding for Hero as well. That complete immobilisation is something we as a family now need to find a solution to. Will we come up with some choice educational phrases or will we simply learn to ignore it? Is there a perfect response to an imperfect situation?
Finding an answer to this is made a little more complicated by us both approaching the situation from entirely opposite directions. My husband wasn’t as upset as I was and, from his foundation of self confidence, he won’t ever be as upset about that kind of experience as I will. He’s much more able to separate himself from the unwanted opinions of unknown people, whereas I will always take them deeply to heart. His upset will come on the day Hero understands what’s happening, the day she is upset is the day he’ll be upset, where as I will feel it all in advance as well.
It’s taken me a few weeks to process what was a few short minutes of experience, to distil it into something I could put into words. I too wanted to follow my own advice; I didn’t want to commit my flash of rage and deep upset to the pages of time. I wanted to slow down, to take a step back and to understand what had really happened. Initially people told me to feel sorry for the people in question, but a few weeks ago I simply couldn’t do that. Time is a miraculous soother, however, and I now see the point people were making. How much poorer their lives must be, as well as the life of their child, living in the world of intolerance they’ve created. At the end of the day, it’s their loss and not ours. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
Perhaps more helpful to remember, both for Hero and for myself, is that for every one person who is mean or insensitive, there are hundreds of thousands, if not more, who are are accepting, curious and kind. May the odds be ever in our favour!