The Crying Stranger in the Playground

Rain Study 2

Image by amandabhslater via Flickr

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.

This entry was posted in Parenting an Autistic Child and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Crying Stranger in the Playground

  1. nostromo says:

    l think its a courageous decision..maybe that’s a better word than brave.

  2. Stef says:

    The readers are crying along with you…

  3. Tsara Shelton says:

    I love this question. I am often trying to explain to my children how important it is to meet new people. Make connections. My thought is, it’s an opportunity to get to know ourselves in a way that is quite special. By explaining ourselves to a stranger we are able to discover with intention who we are and be uniquely honest. I also find that by listening to a new person with new thoughts and an unknown history we are especially able to get to know our truest selves. I’m often surprised by my opinions when given a chance to have them without a history of understanding. My point is that I think by giving her child up the Crying Stranger in the Playground made a … decision. There is no real way to label someone else’s decision. However, her choice to share so candidly and reach out to another mother on a rainy day was definitely a gift. One that would be wasted if it wasn’t remembered, shared and used as a way for others to truly get to know themselves. And your willingness to listen without judgment was an opportunity for her to see herself however she chose. To reintroduce herself to her world by sharing her story with a stranger. I think THAT was a kind and beautiful decision!

  4. Carters says:

    Wow, what an incredible blog post. I believe that one can extend “not understanding” to ‘people’ in general. None of us can really understand what each is going through in their own individual lives and trials and difficulties they face. People so easily judge on the outward outcome. Thank you so much for sharing the power of listening without judgement. xxx

  5. sharon says:

    I’m crying too. Stupid hormones.
    I think she was wise rather than brave. For whatever reason she knew she could not care for the child to the best of her ability. In my former life as a social worker I saw the terrible consequences when parents did not know this about themselves. Whether her decision was one motivated by her or her childs best interests I suppose we will never know, but knowledge one way or the other would provide nothing other than an opportunity for us to judge. You handled this complex exchange with so much skill and compassion. I am sure she is most grateful to you for that.

  6. Jen says:

    I think it is a Brave thing to do. Anyone who is that emotional about giving up their child did not come to that decision lightly or without a lot of careful consideration. My heart is breaking for her. This is a beautiful story.

  7. Rachel says:

    Wow…. I know I would have been a lot more judgmental; just reading the story leads my thoughts in all kinds of directions, and none of them are particularly kind. I wonder: Did she only want “perfect” kids? Did she feel stigmatized by having a child with Down Syndrome? Did she fear what the neighbors thought? Did she fear the social isolation it might bring? Did she feel that having a child with Down Syndrome was a bad reflection on her? Did she not want to deal with the potential bullying, the fight for services, and everything else that comes with having a special needs kid? I wonder.

    But Sharon’s comment helps bring me back to center. If the woman were incapable of raising the child properly, for whatever reason, she was right to relinquish the child to someone who could do the job well. Maybe she could have worked through whatever her limitations were, but maybe not, and meanwhile, the child might be spending his life craving all the things she could not give. I hope the child’s new parents love and adore him, because when it comes down to it, it’s not about the mom. It’s about the child she brought into the world.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Some of those thoughts passed through my head too, but there was nothing at all to be gained by putting them to her at the time, and I still wouldn’t have been left with enough “information” to judge her even with those answers. She could have felt all of those things and still turned out to be the best mother in the world, or felt none of those things and turned out to be the worst. What was done, was done, and she clearly hadn’t made the decision lightly, and what she needed from me at the time wasn’t the voice that was clearly already playing in her mind, about regrets and maybes and if-onlys. It was a chance for me to gift her a little peace if I could, so I tried.

      These situations are never black-and-white, never easy. And at the end of the day, we just do the best we can for the ones we love and have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

  8. Jack (Wife of Jack) says:

    Sometimes it’s easier to tell complete strangers the brutal truths about your life. The really hard, prickly stuff that is impossible to express to someone with a vested interest. Complete frankness with strangers has no real danger, there are very few fanatics in our society and you are less likely to come up against someone rude enough to express religious or moral outrage. Unfortunately in other countries you may not have this freedom. I will add however that this safety does not translate to the internet. Anonymity allows others to judge you without the social discomfort of a real live person in front of you.

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