I was expecting a lovely afternoon at the park as I walked down the street with my sons toward the toddler playground near our house. It has a spider web climbing structure made out of rope that my boys were excited to play on. But when we got there, I was immediately met with one of my biggest pet peeves…older kids on the little kids’ playground. The five girls looked to be 13 or 14 and were more than old enough to be playing on the older kids’ playground 100 yards away. My good mood immediately shifted to annoyance as I hoped these girls did not disrupt the free play of my little boys.
I sat down in front of the giant spiderweb climbing structure. The idle chat of the teenage girls was amusing. They were very cute and giggly, as young girls are. They talked about the boys they liked, their favourite classes and how much homework they had. I wondered why a bunch of teenage girls had chosen the kiddie park as a place to come and talk about their day.
Less than ten minutes after we arrived, a woman, who I assumed was one of the girl’s mothers, came over and told the girls they had ten more minutes before they had to leave. Looking at her they said, “okay,” and they got up and headed towards the equipment to play. Three went to the slide and two walked toward the spider web where my sons were busy climbing.
It was right about this time my older son was reaching the top of the climbing structure. “Mom…mom! Look at me! Look how high I am! Take my picture!” He called down to me. I took my iPhone out to take my little boy’s photo. But before I could push the button to take the shot, one of the girls stepped directly in front of me blocking my view. She was completely clueless to the fact that she was in my way and she stood there obliviously chatting with her friend.
After a minute or two they decided to climb the giant web. The were having fun bouncing on the ropes as they made their assent. However, this made the whole web quite wobbly. My little boy at the top felt scared and wanted off. When he called for help both girls froze. One of them looked directly at my son and said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there.” I felt annoyed. Here they were on the little kid equipment and they didn’t think to stop and look if there were any toddlers in the way before they started jumping on the ropes. “That’s okay,” my little boy said happily, “I was getting down anyway.” Once the boys were safely off, the girls continued making their way up. I took my sons to the other side of the playground to pay on something else.
I couldn’t help but feel aggravated watching the girls sit on the ropes and chat. Right next door was the playground designed for older children. Yet here they were in the kiddie park inhibiting my sons ability to play on the playground designed for them. I looked disapprovingly at the adult who had brought them here. I watched as she sat and said nothing while the girls clumsily and thoughtlessly took over the playground. It was clear to me why these kids were environmentally clueless. They were not being taught any different. I felt like the mother was doing a disservice to the girls for not directing them to the other playground. Instead of teaching them to be aware of small children and the impact of their presence, she allowed them to play in an area that was not appropriate for them.
I watched my little two year old climb the ladder to the highest platform and push his way through the girls legs to reach the top of the slide. My older son saw his little brother going down the slide and ran over to join him. When he reached the top platform I heard the voice of one of the girls. “Hey there,” she said to my son. He smiled and waved but said nothing. The three girls at the top blocked not only the entrance to the slide but also the entrance to the little bridge that led to the other section of the structure. I watched and waited silently, curious to see how my five year old would handle the situation. “Which way are you headed?” one of the girls asked. He happily announced that he was going down the slide and they all smiled at him. The girl blocking the entrance to the slide stepped to the side so that he could go down. “Girls…time to go,” called the mother watching the girls.
The two girls on the spider web began walking back and were so deep in conversation that they didn’t even see the slide in front of them. The girl on the left bumped into the end of the slide with her knee. Her arms went up defensively as she stopped abruptly. The girl on the right of her felt her friend stop and, in turn, ducked. Their arms reached out frantically in front of them but were met by nothing but air. All of a sudden, I knew. These beautiful little girls weren’t clueless and they weren’t on the wrong playground. These little girls were blind.
My perspective changed in an instant and I could now see subtle things I hadn’t seen before. I was amazed that they compensated so beautifully that even watching them I had no idea they couldn’t see. They moved with a confidence and fluidity I never anticipated from someone that has severe visual impairment. They looked at each other when they spoke and even climbed on the rope web with sure feet. They had no assistive devices or animals. They defied everything I thought I knew about what a blind teenager would be like. I watched in amazement as one of the girls felt her way to the fireman pole. She slid down it and called to her friends, who followed one by one. Guided by the voice of their teacher they each felt their way across the playground to the entrance of the park.
I felt horrible. I interpreted them stepping in front of my camera and climbing next to my son as them being clueless. But now I realized I was in fact the clueless one. How could I have been so hypocritical? My own children have an invisible disability caused by a rare neurological movement disorder. I should have known better than to make assumption. These little girls faced great adversity and they handled it with so much grace. They did not deserve my judgment and I did not deserve an explanation for their presence in the park. I judged them without all the facts. I assumed because they looked typical and seemed able bodied, they were. I had been annoyed at children who were doing absolutely nothing wrong. It was a realization that instantly soured my stomach.
Making me feel even worse was the fact that I have been on the receiving end of this kind of judgement and I know how bad it can hurt. I absolutely hate when people judge my choices with my children. Just because my choices don’t make sense to a passerby doesn’t mean they don’t make sense. And yet here I was, passing by, judging this teacher. I no longer saw an adult who had failed to teach these girls appropriate playground etiquette, but instead saw a beautiful person with a very special career working with blind teens. Counter to my initial assessment, she had made a very calculated and thoughtful choice bringing them here. They were in a fenced in area that the girls were clearly familiar with. The soft mulch was the ideal surface should they trip or have an accident. The lower height to the climbing structures allowed the girls the freedom to move and climb and be normal kids without the risk of a high fall. I was so disappointed in myself. I had became the thoughtless adult who judged a caregiver’s choices when I didn’t have the whole picture.
I now knew that these girls were incredible. They were kind, they were confident and they were very aware of their surroundings. Watching them leave the park I felt nothing but respect for them. It’s funny because I’ve spent so much time and energy and effort to cognitively and consciously stop judging other moms. Moms like myself. Moms who make seemingly odd choices because they have extenuating situations. But what I had failed to realize was that special needs moms have special needs children. The judgment that moms face is simply a reflection of the judgment the children receive. It’s the kids’ bodies that work differently. It’s their brains that are wired uniquely. I’m the one who feels the judgement now, only because my kids are little and they are always with me and in my charge. But what happens when special-needs toddlers grow up to be special needs teens? Special needs grown ups? The judgment I face will transfer to them. It will no longer be my strange choices, but theirs. They will be expected to fit in with society and behave like the masses, except they won’t because they can’t. And while they won’t owe the world an explanation, the world will expect one. People like me will judge them.
Standing there watching my sweet little boys play together I couldn’t help but be a little heartbroken. In judging the girls, I had failed my own kids. I’m acutely aware of hidden disability and special-needs and yet I still fell into the trap of judgment. How could I raise my boys to feel like it was okay to be themselves and do things differently when their own mother jumped to conclusions about people who were facing unique challenges and struggled to adapt to a world that was often harsh and unaccommodating?
It’s funny how life surprises us when we’ve let our guard down. When we are not paying attention it can teach us things and change our perspective by illuminating the faults in our existing view of the world. Sometimes these moments are big and hard to miss, and sometimes they emerge from the obscure. Today it happened on a giant spiderweb while my kids were playing at the park. The girls’ inability to see me allowed me to see myself. They showed me that awareness does not necessarily equate to change. They reminded me that kindness and compassion is a choice we must constantly make.
So to the blind teens in the park today, I am so glad our paths crossed. I feel beyond blessed to have people like you as a part of my community. You humbled me. You amazed me. You made me a better person. I hope you continue to use your tremendous abilities to defy the expectations of the world around you. You stood tall, you overcame and you serve as tremendous role models for my children. I thank you.
If you believe in ending the cycle of judgement known as “the mommy wars,” then please join me in making a commitment to supporting our fellow moms. To join the Motherhood Movement go to mommitment.org and make your #mommitment today!