“Parenting a Unique Child” Strategy #7: Get Out
Addy’s first two years of life saw her tagging along everywhere with my husband Keith while he constructed our house. He’d frequently plop her in the Baby Bjorn carrier, facing out, and take her along on errands to Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menard’s (often all in one day).
He has a gift of interacting easily and casually with everyone; he small-talked with electricians in the wiring aisle and chatted up every awkward cashier. Addy learned, just by watching him, how to speak casually to other humans, no matter how different.
She joined the game, gleefully leaning forward in that carrier, kicking her chubby little legs and yelling an ever-louder, “Hi! HI! HI!!!!!” to every introverted plumber & roofer they passed in every aisle.
If I’d been on duty, I would never have taken her along on as many errands as Keith did, and I wouldn’t have broken out of my introvert’s shell with nearly as much small talk with strangers. In hindsight, I see the serendipitous value of all their trips outside the home. Through them, she watched and then copied all kinds of comfortable, casual, social interactions.
In the early years, be intentional about getting your unique-looking child out into the world, a lot, with you. They need to see many, many different interactions with the outside world, but they need to be safely in your arms while you handle every encounter with good humor and grace.
Your child needs to hear you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the cashier who’s a little slow. Your child needs to hear you make polite small talk with the plumber behind you in the checkout line. And your child needs to hear you answer “Is that a burn?” with grace and gratitude, because then she’ll know how to answer the same way someday.
It’s only by modeling it that you’ll teach it. Get your kid out to the store and out to the mall, put down your phone, make eye contact, say please and thank you, and let people ask about your kid’s strange face. Those encounters build up a repertoire of responses for her to use when someone asks her later. That’s how she will learn grace, confidence, and the ability to move on smoothly from awkward encounters.
You don’t want to send her to school having only overheard a dozen impromptu interactions about her face in her young life. The real world is the best place to learn it, and safely in your arms is the best way.
This kind of intentionality takes time and effort. It’s so much simpler to run errands alone on your lunch break! But your child will benefit from the tedious errand-running experiences that might otherwise be missed.
That might be you, your spouse, a grandma, or the daycare lady; whoever it is, give them permission to bring your little one out into the world for lots of little unplanned interactions. Over time, your child will be empowered to socialize gracefully, with a wonderful variety of other humans, regardless of how different she might be from them.
When you encounter other humans and they comment on your child’s face, there’s an overwhelming array of responses, not all of them nice, running through your head.
I have been there.
I have heard the misinformed, “Oh, that’ll go away!”
I have heard variations on the ever-humorous, “Wow, didja slap her?”
I have heard meddling old ladies tell me, “Get some sunscreen on that baby, she’s burning!”
I have felt defensive. I have felt like screaming. I have felt like rolling my eyes and snarking.
I don’t. In spite of overwhelming temptation (and a culture that tells us to be offended by every word and look), I don’t. I give them room to be human. Because I’ve been deeply humbled in a few encounters with other humans myself.
Allow me to share 3 of those encounters with you here; three times when I’ve embarrassed myself with my own indignance and pride.
I’ll continue the theme of how we ‘encounter others’ in my next post, but for now, just let me share my embarrassment with you today.
Parents, I hope these encounters help ease your mind and empower you with grace when encountering humans in the world, even when you’re not feeling very gracious.
1. I’ve written about this one before, but it bears revisiting.
One day, I was standing in line for ice cream at a crowded, noisy, charming small-town candy shop. Little Addy (probably almost 2 at the time) was in my arms, looking backward over my shoulder. Suddenly, a guy behind me boomed out with a loud voice (BOOMED! AUDIBLY!): “HEY! SHE HAS A BIRTHMARK!” My back stiffened, my arms tightened, my jaw locked; I checked Addy to see if she’d heard, and began turning around slowly (expecting, I suppose, to death-glare the nitwit into submission, because acting on any other maternal instinct would have gotten me arrested).
Before I could turn all the way around to glare down this ignoramus, he continued, “JUST LIKE ME!” And, voila, there before me stood a tall, handsome, confident young man, maybe 30 or so, with a HUGE port wine stain on his face that was indeed just like Addy’s, only even bigger and even darker. It wrapped up onto his scalp, which was proudly clean-shaven.
He wasn’t ignorant. He was confident – and I saw in one glance that it must have been a hard-won confidence. He had earned it. He definitely knew more than I did. His enthusiasm was contagious, and it was exactly what I needed.
This marked stranger was generous and happy to welcome us into his club. I was ready to crawl into a hole, but we struck up a conversation about laser treatments instead, and he warmly answered my many questions about his experiences growing up with his stain.
I have never forgotten that feeling of welcome, of relief in finding the camaraderie I hadn’t even realized I’d been seeking.
And I’ve also never forgotten how close I came to shutting out such a rich experience, simply because I ignorantly assumed that anyone speaking a single word about my daughter’s birthmark must know less than I do.
2. Addy underwent her first laser surgery when she was 5 weeks old, and then for the next two years she had a surgery each month. So we spent a lot of time at Children’s hospital, hanging out in the pre-surgery waiting room with other families about to be admitted for various minor outpatient surgeries. Dr. Z. scheduled his laser surgeries for the same day each month, and the play area was often dotted with other port-wine-stained kids and their apprehensive parents.
One morning in that waiting room, around her 9th surgery, I struck up a conversation with a mom whose healthy-looking 12-year-old daughter was sitting beside her. Addy was crawling all over my lap, and her unique face came up naturally in conversation. I began telling the mom what Addy was here for, and how Addy’s had a number of surgeries already, and how her face gets bruised every time. (At this point, we had more experience than many other laser-surgery parents there, so I was used to answering questions.)
This mom replied that her daughter was also here for a laser surgery with Dr. Z. I pointed to the play area and inquired which little one was hers, since the older kid next to her was clearly fine. “Oh, no, it’s this one,” she said with a laugh, putting her hand on her twelve-year-old. “She’s got a port wine stain all over her back, and also all the way down both legs, and it’s really thick, and she’s had a ton of laser surgeries already. We lost track ages ago. She’s on swim team, since contact sports aren’t great for her, and she used to get embarrassed about wearing a swim suit, but she’s just had to make peace with it now that she’s on the team. We try to laser it whenever we can…”
I was amazed. This healthy girl was hiding a stain like Addy’s? And an even bigger one? And I can’t see it? And an even thicker one? And she’s had more surgeries? And she’s struggling with uncovering it for swim team?
The whole time I’d been talking to this mom, I’d been assuming that she probably didn’t know much about port wine stains, and that I was ‘informing’ her, while in fact she knew much more than I did. Again, I wanted to crawl into a hole, but she was gracious and warm.
3. When Addy was just a month old and her port wine stain was still very dark, Keith & I brought her over to a friend’s home to meet his whole family, including his parents and his younger siblings (whom we ourselves didn’t yet know very well).
In that first month of Addy’s life, I had already received a lot of warm but maddeningly erroneous encouragement from ignorant people telling me, “Oh, don’t you worry, that birthmark will go away.” Even the nurses at Addy’s birth had said it. I had wanted to scream at every single wrong one of them: “No it won’t! Not without laser treatments! A LOT of laser treatments!” They’d meant well, but they’d been confusing port wine stains with hemangiomas, and by the time that first month had passed, I’d had it *up to here* with bad advice, and was ready to snap if, so help me, I had to hear to that glib dismissal one more time.
We arrived at our friend’s house, and two younger sisters enthusiastically began giving me & Addy a tour of the house, talking over each other as we went. “Ooo, what’s that thing on her face?” “Is that a birthmark?” “That’s so cool! Our little brother has one—“ “Yeah, but it’s like almost gone now—“ “Yeah, it’s like SO MUCH lighter than it was when he was born—“ “Because it was SO DARK when he was born—“ “But it went away!” “Yeah! Hers’ll go away, too!”
There it was. I wanted to snap. If they hadn’t been so charmingly exuberant, I would’ve just about lost it. But I kept my cool because I love this clan. I tried to diplomatically cut in with, “Well, you know, this isn’t a hemangioma, it’s a port wine stain and –“ “Yeah! Yeah! That’s what he had!” And they were off again, chattering on the tour, completely oblivious to their own ignorance.
Later, we all gathered back in the kitchen to chat and to “ooh” and “aah” over Baby Addy, who was now asleep in her car seat. Our friend’s mom gently pulled me aside and asked me with a sidelong glance at my baby, “So… Have they told you about Sturge-Weber syndrome?”
I looked at her, dumbfounded that she would know about Sturge-Weber, a series of difficult complications unique to port wine stains. She called over her youngest son, brushed his hair off his forehead and said, “This is where his port wine stain was; you can still see spots of it.”
The other siblings started excitedly talking over each other again: “Yeah, it was really dark!” “And he had LOTS of surgeries!” “And he had other problems from it, too!” “Oh yeah, he definitely had other problems, too!”
Ahhhhhh… okay… So, when the sisters had said it had gotten lighter… they’d actually meant that it was lighter *after* a lot of laser surgeries… And they were trying to encourage me, to tell that me that it could get lighter with those surgeries… And they were living with Sturge Weber Syndrome on top of it.
They’d known exactly what a port wine stain was. They were walking that same path, many steps ahead of me. With many, many more bumps along that path. And I had tuned them out, not even hearing their wisdom between the lines.
In each of the three moments above, I had assumed, without even trying, that the people around me were somehow more ‘ignorant’ than I; that they somehow needed to be ‘educated’ on My Baby.
The truth, in each instance, was that their bumbling hid not ignorance, but wisdom – which I could heed or ignore at my peril.
There’s a 4th story here – but in this one, the tables were turned. It has nothing to do with birthmarks, but it definitely made me chuckle.
Back when I worked in banking, I got into the elevator at the end of a workday. I worked on the 26th floor of a building filled largely with bankers and lawyers, and every stop on the end-of-day descent added another suit.
The doors opened to a law firm floor, where a family was waiting to get on – a lawyer, his wife, and their young son. It appeared that Mom and toddler had visited Dad’s office at the end of the day to pick him up, and now they were all leaving together.
This mom looked tired and frazzled, and she spoke just a bit sharply at her toddler when he ran into our crowded elevator. I smiled at the boy; he was cute, and he wasn’t doing anything naughty (other than being a toddler, and he could hardly help that).
As she navigated his empty stroller into the elevator with deep sighs, she looked at my obviously pregnant belly and my indulgent smile, and said to me with pursed lips, “Ahh, well, this will be you soon.”
Ohhhh, sweetheart. I laughed out loud with my hand on my belly: “This is number three,” I clarified for everyone.
The suits around us chuckled. She turned beet red.
She had probably assumed by my suit, age and departure time that I must be expecting my first child. Not an unreasonable assumption. And she had therefore assumed that she knew more than I did about toddlers; this clearly left her indignant that I, an ignorant stranger, would dare to silently comment on her mothering with my naiively indulgent smile.
In fact, I’d been in her shoes (twice already), and I’d had those days (twice as many). I’d had many, many of those days. Only with, ahem, TWO toddlers at once and a very pregnant self, thank you very much.
So even when you think that someone’s behaving ‘ignorantly’ and you’re annoyed, take a deep breath and give them room to be human. Not only will you keep yourself from saying something that hurts them, but you’ll keep yourself from saying something that embarrasses you.
Because if they’re interacting with you at all, there’s probably a reason why. They probably see some common ground. And there’s a good chance that they might actually know more than you do. Assume the best, give them grace, and listen for their wisdom between the lines.
It’s good to be back! For the last year, I’ve been writing more for my mother than my daughter over at CaringBridge (FYI — she’s doing great!).
But Addy’s EBC speech (below) brought me back here, and I’ve been wanting to share a sweet story with you from a recent outing.
Keith and I were walking with the kids through a Macy’s department store one afternoon. We move slowly as a herd, and passing all the shiny things in the jewelry department slowed us down even more. With plenty of time to glance around at the other patrons, I saw a woman standing with her husband at the jewelry counter. As she turned her head back and forth in conversation between her husband and the employee helping them, I noticed a big, dark, red splotch on the front of her face.
I stared, like any good 5-year-old would do, but tried to be at least a little bit discreet while I determined if it was a birthmark or a burn scar or something else. With each mark being so personalized & unique, it can be hard to identify from a distance; you just know there’s something big there.
She didn’t notice me staring, thank goodness, but I quickly realized that it was because she had locked in on Addy. She was staring at Addy.
I nudged Addy to get her attention from the shiny things for a second, turned her toward me, and whispered excitedly, “Don’t turn and stare, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lady over there with the exact same stain you have.”
Whenever we encounter someone else with a unique feature, like the darkness of a birthmark, the baldness of alopecia, the stature of dwarfism, or the gap of a missing limb, I treat it like a celebrity sighting. It’s all in the attitude – a combo of “Ohmygoodness they have something super-unique too! Agh!” and “Be cool, be cool.” With that, my children have learned that people who ‘stick out’ (like celebrities, or Addy) are totally positively awesome, and that they might (like a celebrity) not want to be disturbed. With small children, one can never teach too much discretion.
So when I told Addy there was another person just like her nearby, her eyes got big and excited and she got twitchy as she itched to turn and look but knew better. She stage-whispered, “Where?” “Behind you.” Addy turned naturally as if to look at more jewelry, glanced at the woman discreetly, then played it cool, turning to me, “It’s even on the same side!”
I got the impression that the same thing was happening between the couple buying jewelry. I thought about introducing ourselves, but hesitated; this woman was a bit older than I was, which means she had grown up before the unique-is-awesome attitude pervaded the culture as widely as it has by now. People from Generation X and earlier don’t always have good memories of growing up with their unique feature; some came from families that never spoke of the birthmark at all. They’ve made reluctant peace with it, but they’re sick of being noticed in public; in their experience, being noticed isn’t a good thing.
There wasn’t much time to think about it, though, because the next thing I knew, the woman was leaving her bag with her husband and walking toward us. I turned expectantly, as if we were going to engage in the usual polite grown-up introductions, but she walked right by me and, without saying a word, engulfed my daughter in a bear hug.
Addy hugged her right back. They stayed there for a long, long moment, and I heard this stranger speak quietly into Addy’s hair: “You are so beautiful. You are so beautiful. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. You are so beautiful.”
And that’s how we met. After detangling from Addy, the woman said to us, “I’m so excited! I mean, I often see other birthmarks, but it’s really rare to see someone with a stain, just like mine, on the right side!” We talked about how pretty it is, the way it ‘sweeps’ up to the hairline. Addy told her proudly that she’s had forty-something surgeries, and the woman nodded: “I had thirty-seven.” I just about fell over – this woman’s stain was really dark! These two birthmarks were similar even in their resistance to treatment. “Keep zapping!” she encouraged. Addy told her about having a tube down her eye, and getting checked for glaucoma, and the woman nodded, “Yep! Me too.”
I’m so grateful that this woman came over. I’m grateful for her confidence. I’m grateful for her willingness to bear-hug a stranger’s kid. My daughter got to meet someone like her, someone she could identify with, someone who’s walked in her shoes first.
Addy talked about it afterward like she’d been personally approached by a celebrity.
And, in a way, she had.
Over a year ago, a gorgeous young woman from London named Millie found my blog and sent me a wonderful note. We corresponded a bit and I’m copying excerpts of that correspondence here, because it’s context for the beauty you’ll see below.
But the real reason I’m sharing Millie with you, dear reader, is her beauty, her creativity and her confidence.
(And her incredible ART PROJECT. You’ll see that below. READ WHAT SHE SAID ABOUT IT. All the rest is context.)
Here is Millie’s first note to me last year:
I’ve written out three different messages and failed to send them but I will send this one!
Your daughter’s confidence and smile have been the light in my life when I’m feeling low about my port wine stain (uncannily similar as mine covers also my right cheek, lip, nose and forehead slightly!).
Regrettably, I have covered my birthmark with makeup since the age of 11 (starting high school – now 17) but previously felt no real qualms about my appearance; I was a confident, happy, feisty little girl.
Hitting such a low of wanting facial reconstruction surgery a few months ago, the beauty of your daughter has been my inspiration to accept myself and use my suffering as a tool for creativity and awareness.
Turning 18 in May, I’ve decided I won’t let something which I have no control over determine my life, and have been practicing looking people straight on and in the eye (something unthinkable less than a year ago). I am trying to diagnose my reasons for hiding part of myself and my consequential shame of my appearance.
I am using my final A-level art project to look at changing society’s perceptions of physical differences. Your website and Adelaide have been a huge inspiration for this. I hope to someday meet my role model!
My sincere gratitude,
Even without ever having seen Millie, I grabbed the chance to point out the beauty in a birthmark like Addy’s (after all, I know the shape of that stain by heart):
“… Parenting [Addy], and pondering her stain, I’ve come to appreciate that every human, no matter what their appearance, struggles with their uniqueness. None among us is anatomically perfect; some simply have more obvious imperfections. Slender runway supermodels wish that they had Sofia Vergara’s curves, while Vergara-esque curvaceous babes wish they had Heidi Klum’s legs. Even the greatest beauties can point to another human’s unique features with envy.
…Or, said a different way, any beauty can point to her own unique features with contentment. I wish more would; so few do.
I want to share with you something that occurred to me shortly after Addy was born: look at the*sweep* of her (and your) port wine stain. The way it starts in the middle, then sweeps upward as it goes toward the hairline?
Now look again at all those makeup advertisements in magazines and on billboards. Look at what they tell you to do with your blush, your bronzer, your eyeliner, your eyeshadow, even your hair: “Sweep up” for the most flattering effect on feminine features.
Look for “the sweep” in other places, too – the shape of a basic Venetian carnival mask, for example; it sweeps away from the eyes, out and up toward the hairline. Instant glamour.
Everyone else needs masks, makeup and hairdos to approximate nature’s flattery; you and Addy were born with it.”
After Millie’s final art project was complete, she sent us THIS:
“…I have just handed in my A-Level art sketch book and final piece, and, as I mentioned, decided to look at changing society’s perceptions of beauty. I ended up using this as a tool for experimenting with my own appearance and difference: my port wine stain.
I played with typically beautiful images in society (BAFTA awards, the cover of Vogue, art work, etc. that we automatically accept as beautiful) to display differences. I played with the idea of symmetry, using a butterfly, and used makeup to emphasise rather than hide my birthmark.
I decided to do a final piece which celebrated my birthmark, using the artists Gustav Klimt and Chris Ofili as decor inspiration.
This was a strange, terrifying and liberating experience, but I am so glad I have done it. Your blog really was a turning point for me; rather than crying about my mark and wishing it wasn’t there, I am now seeing it as an opportunity. I think about what you said – the upward swish complementing natural beauty where others need makeup.
When I went for my last laser, I couldn’t wear makeup; so even in the car to the hospital I didn’t allow myself to make eye contact with anyone for fear of seeing them stare… Every time I do this it’s very strange but again, liberating, especially this time because I didn’t try to hide… After a few weeks (of not wearing makeup while the bruising went down) I actually went for a no-makeup run with my sister — the adrenaline made me run faster!
… I have grown in the sense that I now wear makeup for society rather than for myself… When I’ve cried to my mum, she said ‘patrons and people who change the world don’t have it easy.’ I want to somehow help society see that different doesn’t automatically mean bad.
After picking myself up off the floor at the gorgeousness of her face and Klimt-inspired work, I replied:
“Thank you so much for sending!! …I’m thrilled, inspired, and humbled to have served as any sort of encouragement on your journey! It can be hard to forge something new. So many people tie beauty to perfection without realizing it, and even those who are trying to embrace imperfections make the same mistake by hushing any admission of ‘error’; it feels quite liberating to admit that something’s an error, and still see that it’s beautiful.
I’d love to see more of your project!”
Luckily, she obliged, and explained her project in a bit more detail:
“I have [attached] a photograph of the BAFTA award I made using a cast of my face, then sprayed bronze and filled in my port wine stain with gold leaf. (I purposefully made the birthmark worth the most).
[BRILLIANT, no?! Read that part again – she made the birthmark worth the most…
There is a picture of my final piece: a mixture of oil painting, collage, gold leaf and mosaic. I included the butterfly picture I worked from as well.
…The theme set by the exam board was ‘Flaws, Perfection, Ideals and Compromise’ which basically set up a stomping ground for me to play around with this, which I’ve wanted to before in my art but couldn’t out of fear and shame. This time it felt a little different…
(We’ve enjoyed more correspondence since then, but for the sake of brevity I will leave this exchange as is here.)
Enjoy Millie’s art, dear reader. She is a treasure!
In the seven years that I’ve been pondering unique marks and distinguishing characteristics since Addy’s birth, I’ve come to appreciate the simple yet profound truth: every human is unique. And therefore beautiful. And vulnerable.
Addy doesn’t hold a monopoly on being different. She may have a more obvious imperfection than you, but you’ve also been singled out, felt embarrassed, tried to hide, and wanted desperately to blend in.
Haven’t we all?
Keith pointed out to me early in baby Addy’s life that a bully will find anything to bully – in other words, even if our daughter didn’t have a port wine stain, she could be made fun of for being short, or being tall, for being outgoing and happy, for wearing glasses, or even getting the highest score on a test in school.
We decided early to find the silver lining in baby Addy’s port wine stain: knowing that any child can (and will, at some point) be singled out & made fun of for some uniqueness, we’re intentionally grateful that our brilliant daughter has a mark on her face; we would prefer that life’s bullies fixate on something skin-deep (for which we can prepare her, as you’ve read on this blog here), rather than her intellect, joy, or exuberance (which are so deeply tied to her soul).
In other words, our journey isn’t unique. And yet, it is. Addy entered the world with a giant, attention-grabbing stain on her face, and even after almost 40 mark-lightening laser treatments, it still gets questions. If a bully’s looking for something to single out, here it is. We face the challenge of building her up to be simultaneously aware of and comfortable with her flaw, both humble and confident. We must be honest with her, build her self-esteem, and prepare her for a world full of flawed, and sometimes cruel, humans.
But really… This is what every parent faces. Your challenge, as much as mine, is to launch a confident, well-adjusted, healthy-self-esteemed child into the world, while protecting them from its cruelty in the meantime. Not every child is born with an obvious splotch on their face, but every parent still shoulders the burden to guide wisely, and dances that line between shielding and exposing, protecting and empowering.
If we do our job well, Addy will know that she may be uniquely flawed, but that every other human around her is, too – and that they deserve the same grace and kindness from her that she might ever hope to receive from them.
Confession: As you’ve seen here, I get excited when I see someone else with a port wine stain. Really excited. But suddenly, I face That Dilemma, now from the other side: do I ask them about it?
Running through my head: Will they think I’m too forward? Am I touching on childhood trauma? Do they hate their port wine stain and hate their life and hate their bullies and hate their parents? Will I bring all that up by being one *more* person to remark on it? Or, worse, will they think I’m a backward hick who’s never seen someone different? Will they patronize me and give me a lecture about how we’re all alike inside in spite of our physical differences and I shouldn’t even notice differences like that?
But… I’m on your team, man! I want to know about your stain! What’s your story?? What have you learned? What should I tell my daughter? Did you treat it? Why? What was it like? Would you do it again? Do you ever cover it up? What else do you know about it?
Usually, all this panicked thinking takes too much time and I just end up casting long, meaningful glances in their general direction while we’re standing in line, and hoping they’ll look up and suddenly notice a comrade in my daughter’s lovely similarly-port-wine-stained face, but instead they pay for their latte and walk out, perhaps vaguely aware of some stalker-like presence nearby.
Maybe next time.
Okay, kudos to the parents of a Starbucks barista who was working down in Indianapolis sometime between 2008 and 2010 (and may still be there) – you did it right. Not sure what you did, because I have no idea who you are, but I know you did parenting right.
Here’s the story: a few days after Addy was born back in 2008, my uncle from Indianapolis called to tell us that he had just been served by a Starbucks barista sporting a port wine stain like Addy’s, and that she was supremely outgoing, lovely and confident. Her parents, he said, had clearly raised her to be comfortable with herself, in spite of (or especially with?) the port wine stain painted on her face. Our family here in the Twin Cities cheered – then we could do that, too!
Randomly, two years later, my husband’s mother’s cousin (seriously) traveled through Indianapolis, stopped at a Starbucks, and saw a lovely barista with a booming personality and a distinct port wine stain, who clearly loved herself and her face. Cousin was so impressed, she just had to tell our family. And we cheered again.
So, well done, Starbucks barista – your beautiful personality and confidence in yourself have inspired our family. And kudos to your parents, whoever they are, for whatever they did to raise you well. You’re lovely and you know it. Keep it up.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that Kindergarten has been kicking my butt. (*My* butt. Addy’s been doing great. I’m ready for afternoon naps again.) Over a month since my last post? Yikes…
I’ve been thinking about an evening a few years ago when Keith and I went out to a restaurant for dinner. We spotted a young couple at a nearby table that intrigued us. The girl (maybe late teens or early twenties) had her hoodie pulled up so far on her head that she practically created a tunnel to her face. Her shoulders sloped down and she looked uncomfortable with herself, shrinking from view. She chatted quietly with her boyfriend across the table. This was a girl who clearly wanted to not be seen. (So, naturally, I stared, but I’m a bit of a voyeur anyway.)
After a few minutes of watching her out of the corner of my eye, I finally saw the cause of her discomfort when she turned her head to talk to the waitress: a big, bright port wine stain shaped just like Addy’s, right there on her face, splotched on her cheek (and, if I recall, up onto the forehead) like spilled paint. Ah-ha!
I met Keith’s eye to see if he had noticed it, too. He had. We silently nodded to each other (the annoying way married people do, covering a whole conversation in a single look, but for once we actually shared the *same* conversation, a rarity). Anyway. One look, and we solemnly understood that this girl in her hoodie represented everything we DID NOT want for our baby girl: embarrassment, shame, and a certain… defeated comfort in her slouched posture. She had lost, and that was okay with her. As long as she could hide that face.
Interestingly, this young woman’s hide-from-the-world posture is precisely what attracted my attention in the first place and made me want to look more. Her defeated slouch made me wonder what her story was. Meanwhile, many people have told us that they hardly notice Addy’s stain because her personality is so grandiose, so immediately engaging that they simply don’t have time to wonder about her face while she’s telling them about her favorite movie and favorite princess and inviting them to sit down and be comfortable while she talks (and talks, and talks, and talks…).
So I wonder if that young woman had been ashamed of her face her whole life (with lax parenting), or if she learned to be ashamed later by the reactions of life’s trolls and bullies. And, if it was the latter, how can the parent of an innocent, confident kid like Addy fend off that impending shame?
Certainly lots of truthful affirmations, honest compliments, and confidence-building habits all sound good for sculpting a kick-tushy confident kid, but will it be enough, when the trolls come out, to prevent that kid from shrinking into a sloucher in a hoodie?
A few weeks ago I took my two youngest kids on a routine trip to Wal-Mart. (Don’t judge – as soon as Trader Joe’s offers carts with locking straps for multiple kids and enough inventory to render further errands unnecessary, I’ll be the first one in the door; until then, it’s Wal-Mart.)
As I was saying – I took the two little kids shopping and, as usual, one of them had to go to the bathroom halfway through the shopping trip. So we made our way alllllllll the way to the back of the store, past the bikes and kid toys (seriously, I know your game, Wal-Mart), to the Family Bathroom right next to the employee break area and the “Apply for a Job Here” kiosk. While I was unloading my offspring from the Awesome Multi-Kid Cart, I noticed that the guy at the computer kiosk applying for a job had a port wine stain JUST LIKE Addy’s. But darker. It was pretty cool. And I wanted to know more.
But wait… I don’t dare ask about it. But, man, I WANT TO. I really want to know about this guy and his port wine stain, and on a scientific side I’m FASCINATED by the resemblance to Addy’s – this must be what Addy’s would look like if it was never treated… and it’s dark… really dark… which means it was never treated… So, I wonder if he suffered through it before treatment options were available, and therefore hates the very mention of it… or if he chose to keep it even after treatment options became available, and therefore loves it…?
Ahh, crap. Never mind, kid’s gotta pee; we disappear into the restroom, and when we see him sitting there a few minutes later, I still have no idea what to do, so I just keep walking and say nothing, leaving him there to click away at the kiosk alone.
I wonder what his story was.
I took my kids to the doctor’s office for a checkup recently. While I stood at the desk (in the super-quiet lobby area) filling out forms, Addy suddenly turned to me and asked in a loud voice “Mommy! Why that girl not have any arms?” I froze. She jabbed her arm out to clearly point: “Right there! Why she not have arms?”
Well, this was a completely new experience for me. Ever since Addy was born, we’ve experienced staring kids, curious adults, and parents’ awkward reactions when their kid asked them loudly “HEY! MOM! Why does that girl have a RED FACE?” No problem; until recently, Addy was too young to hear the inquiries, and we know little kids are curious. We often just reassured the other parents with a smile, not sure why they felt so awkward around us. It’s okay, we’re cool with it.
But that day in the waiting room, the tables were turned; suddenly, I was the parent who was terrified that my curious three-year-old’s questions would be overheard by the girl who was, in fact, missing both arms, and I wanted to do anything to shut her up before I was branded as some backward, insensitive, ignorant lazy parent who can’t even teach her kids to accept other human beings for what they are in our postmodern hypersensitive age of diversity! (*gasp*) What would people think?! ?
I halted her questions with an awkward combination of The Mommy Death Stare and a loud “shush!!” (yeah, smooth), muttering something about needing to sit down and wait “very, very quietly” for the appointment. Go figure – the only place to sit down was right next to the young girl who, sure enough, was using her toes to leaf through the pages of the book she was reading, as there were no arms beyond the shoulders.
Then the girl looked up from her book with a soft smile and said quietly to me, “It’s okay, she can ask me anything she wants. I’m used to questions.” [“PHEW! So she doesn’t hate us. Good.”] I smiled and thanked her. She continued, “I don’t mind it when little kids ask me. It’s the older ones who aren’t nice.”
Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I’ve never minded kids’ questions; until recently, it’s usually just been the young ones who have noticed and asked about the stain. So before I label us as the ‘confidently proud and matter-of-fact’ modern parents I thought we were, I have to admit that we’ve never really been the target of any malicious teasing. Maybe there’s an inner ‘shaken and insecure’ parent waiting to emerge with the right prodding? Probably.
At least now I understand better why parents silently freak out at their kids’ noisy observations – they’re afraid they’ll be branded as terribly incompetent parents. And, like the graceful young girl in the waiting room, I’ll reassure them that it’s okay to ask. No, I don’t think you’re backward or insensitive or a bad parent. Even the most hypersensitive, postmodern parents have curious three-year olds…