Yesterday I took my one year-old to the local playground. The morning’s rain was still collected in puddles at the bottom of slides, and the grass fields alongside were full of hidden marshes that threatened to pull my slip-ons from my feet. I had hoped everything would be drier, but none of this bothered my son who threw himself with predictable glee into the occasion. So I ignored my adult sensibilities and threw myself into following him over, up and down every surface he decided to conquer.
That playground is usually bustling with preschoolers, and their parents making small-chat that they don’t mind being over-heard. But that day, it started off just him and I, gradually drying off each slide and tunnel by our own movement across it. By the time another mother and her two children arrived, the sun and the efforts of me and my own son, had made the playground a much more attractive option.
I had been contemplating taking my boy home by then, but I took the chance to engage in some social activity for both me and my boy. I pointed out their arrival to him, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “do you want to go say hello?” His face lit up and he hurried over as fast as his 17 month old legs would carry him. This included arriving face first on the ground on the way, but that only slowed him down long enough that it took him to find his feet again.
The mother looked so together, with her younger one year-old daughter, and her four year-old son. Polite and beautiful children, well-dressed, bright eyes and smiles. Our children interacted and shared around their mutual perfection. Just two mothers, three children, in a playground between rain-falls.
I correctly guessed the age of her son, and we chatted about what school he would be attending. I mentioned my own five year-old was currently at school. “Oh yes, which one?” I answer. Gosh that’s not local is it. Well, no. I don’t explain that he’s attending the special needs unit there because of his autism, since that so often kills the conversation (other mothers usually have no idea what to say to that, or say something unintentionally insulting); I specifically only supplied the name of the mainstream school that his special needs class is located within.
More polite chatter. I like this woman. She smiles a lot behind her large sunglasses. She loves her children, enjoying their joy. In a lull in the conversation, I decide to mention that we do live local, it’s just my son is attending a special needs unit at that far-away school. She asks why he doesn’t attend XYZ (the name of the special needs school which actually runs the classroom he attends at the mainstream school. If I have completely bamboozled you at this point, I direct you to my post that explains what a “satellite” class is.)
So I tell her, that he does attend XYZ, just in the form of a satellite class run through the mainstream school. And then it’s my turn to ask a question: How did she know about XYZ in the first place (the name of local special-needs school is not a generally known thing). So she says, she had a Down syndrome child.
I tread carefully. It’s none of my business. I could smile and nod and shift the conversation away, or I could gently enquire. I decide on the latter. “Had? Did he…?” No, not dead. She’d given him up, though I know from our conversation that she still had him with her until at least six months old. He had been her second child – the elder and younger were with her at the playground. Another family that lives near her have care of her Downs child.
She starts to apologize for being emotional, and I can see behind her sunglasses that she has started crying. I want to hug her, but social norms stop me invading her space. She puts together sentences while she tries to contain herself. She tells me that she thought everything might turn out “OK”, that the development would “come right”; we agree that hope can blind you to reality. She tries to explain, I tell her she doesn’t have to. I’m not judging her. I understand. I have such a strong need to make her understand that this stranger she has just met in the playground, with a special-needs child, understands why she gave up her own.
I don’t. How could I? My child is autistic, he doesn’t have Down syndrome. I have no idea what it would be like to have a Down syndrome child. But having a special-needs child does make me understand that I don’t understand; that I can’t presume to even begin to grasp the challenges she faced, or how hard her decision was, how long it took her to make it, or all the reasons why she made it. Just like people who have never had an autistic child have no idea what I’ve been through. That is what I understand: That I don’t understand. And so I will not – cannot – judge her.
What I can do, is see her pain. Pain that is so real and so vulnerable that my own eyes teared up in response to hers.
We share a few special-needs platitudes as the sky darkens above: We talk about not taking a child’s development for granted, and how enormous the differences are between normally and differently developing children. I realise as we speak that what I have been through over the past years have brought me through my “grief” about my child having special-needs, to a place of understanding and acceptance about it, in a way that she doesn’t seem to have. Her grief and confusion still seem to occupy her; preoccupy her. But I am only observing this, and speculating, there is still no judgment here, only an effort to give her an outlet for a few minutes, until the rain starts to fall.
I apologize that I must go. My little man is worn out, and the rain is coming in. But it was nice to meet her and we agree we mutually look forward to meeting again. As I walk to the car with my toddler in my arms – his cuddly little body too tired to perform his usual wriggles - I realise we never got each other’s names.
That night in bed with my husband, I should be falling asleep but I’m thinking about her. I tell my husband that I think she is brave; that it must have been so hard to give up a child when you realise you can’t give it what it needs. Can’t? Won’t? Even as I say this I realise I don’t know enough to pronounce her brave. He says what I’m thinking; that “brave” isn’t really the right word. Is there a “right word”? I eventually fall asleep not knowing the answer to that question.
In the morning I decide to write a blog post about it, called “The Crying Stranger in the Playground,” and I wonder what my readers will think.