We were exhausted — tired and emotionally raw.
Our little boy was finally stable and home from the hospital. He was in so much pain; I was actually surprised and relieved he’d finally fallen asleep. He was almost 2 years old and had given us quite the scare.
His feet seemed to stop working, and he vomited relentlessly until it became red and streaked with blood. He had no fever and every test had yielded normal results. His discharge papers read, “Undiagnosed. Suspected underlying neurological condition.”
We were given referrals to neurology as well as some prescriptions and sent home. It was a beautiful summer day and our little boy slept in the carrier as we walked to the pharmacy to fill his prescriptions. Standing on the corner waiting for the light to change, I became so lost in thought pondering what could be wrong with my precious boy that I almost didn’t hear her.
My husband’s abrupt “Excuse me!?” snapped me out of it. I looked up to see the whole street corner staring at us. I felt immediate confusion by the appalled look on the woman’s face. What happened? Did we do something wrong? I could think of nothing.
We were just standing there waiting for the light. She had aggressive body language, matched only by the angry look on my husband’s face. “I said he’s old enough to walk,” she said gesturing to my child sleeping soundly against my husband’s chest. I stood looking at her, my mouth literally gaping. Did she really just say that?
People were staring at us, waiting to hear what we had to say. I instantly became self-conscience. I wondered if everyone felt this way? I spent the last week in a nightmare and had just been told my sweet child probably has a mysterious neurological disorder. Now I felt like the whole world was judging me for it.
We just stood there silent. It was as if we both decided simultaneously she was not worth engaging. My husband’s jaw was tight, and I could tell he was upset, but he turned his head and ignored her. But apparently our child in a carrier was too much for the woman to take. She reached out and tapped my husband on the shoulder forcing him to acknowledge her. “You are not doing him any favors treating him like that,” she snapped. “He should be walking!”
I was truly caught off guard. I was humiliated as I looked around at all the people starting at us. Was she really questioning us as parents!? Especially after all we’d been through? Could this one act of carrying our sick son be enough to announce to the whole world we were not doing right by him?
I felt so judged, isolated and misunderstood. It made me feel all alone and inadequate. I wanted to do more for him, but how could I? I was giving him everything I could.
Standing on this corner looking at this woman, I tried to think of something clever to say to make her understand. But, in my emotionally exhausted state, the only thing that came was stunned silence. My husband, however, was not as lost for words. He said to her softly, yet firmly, “Not that it’s any of your business, but he has some neurological issues and was just released from the hospital earlier today. So no, he can’t walk right now.”
There was an audible gasp amongst the audience. No one expected this response, and all eyes turned to the woman to hear what she would say next.
She was stunned. Her indignant self-righteousness was fading but not gone. She looked at my husband, still holding her aggressive posture and said flippantly, “Well, I didn’t know that.”
This response surprised me. It was as if her lack of knowledge made her actions justifiable. “No, you didn’t,” my husband retorted. “And you may want to consider that fact the next time you feel the urge to walk up to parents and publicly judge and insult them. We are doing everything possible for our sick child. The only one not doing him any favors is you.”
And with that she turned around and ran away.
This short interaction has had a lasting impression on me. And not just because of her audacity but because I can relate to what she was thinking. While I’ve never walked up to a mom and criticized her, I have thought things to myself not too dissimilar, and it made me feel awful. Here I was in an extraordinary situation wishing others would understand and I was guilty of thinking the same things.
My husband’s words hit me like a hammer. I’d silently judged without stopping to think that maybe I didn’t have all the information. The thought that I could have dismissed a mother in desperate need of support, a mother like myself, deeply bothered me.
It was not too long after, I witnessed a scene in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. A woman was standing there watching her son melt down, doing nothing to control the situation. He was maybe 4 and was sitting on the floor screaming at the top of his lungs with his hands over his ears rocking back and fourth. As she stood there watching, a man walked by and scoffed at her. He was trying to maneuver his cart around the screaming child. He said to her, “Lady, control your kid. People are trying to shop.”A week ago I would probably be thinking something like, “Why isn’t she removing him from the store?” But just coming off my public judgment on the street corner, I decided to change my approach of silent disapproval. I too had something to say to her. So I walked up to her.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “This was my whole day yesterday. Gotta love life with toddlers.” The woman said nothing. “Honestly,” I continued, “It happens to all of us. Don’t worry about it.” I gestured to the man who was now further down the aisle.
The woman broke into tears. She explained that her son was recently diagnosed with autism and he would melt down for unknown reasons. Right now, in the cereal aisle, she had no idea what triggered the meltdown or what to do about it. She did know that touching him or attempting to move him would only upset him more.
This woman was in a difficult situation and doing everything she could. Sadly she was only met with judgment. As I reached for my box of Cheerios, I told her to hang in there. I reassured her she was doing a good job and was a good mother. To my surprise she grabbed me, hugged me and said, “I really needed to hear that today.”
Her words hit my heart and echoed what I’ve felt so many times before.
Over the years I continue to think back to those two events, and they have been forever burned into my soul. Because of these two random encounters I feel compelled to offer words of encouragement to parents who I catch publicly struggling. I force myself to smile approvingly at parents who seem to be doing the odd and unconventional, and I am constantly surprised. I’ve met a wide range of unexpected and extraordinary circumstances.
The 8-year-old girl who was saying mean things at her mom in the kitchen store was angry that her dad had just been deployed to war.
The mom who was indulging her son with candy every time he fussed was fighting cancer and had no energy for a battle of wills.
The dad who was on his phone at the park while his son begged to be pushed on the swing had just lost his mother.
In years past, I might have silently disapproved of these interactions. But because of one mean stranger I was able to offer words of encouragement, load a tired cancer patient’s car for her and push a grieving man’s son on the swing.
The more extraordinary situations I uncover, the more I realize at one time or another we all fight something extraordinary. We all fight things that make us feel alone and desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures.
When these things happen, we do what we must to survive. Sometimes that means our parenting choices look strange. These are the times when the world feels harsh, but we need it to be kind. I truly believe if anyone should have compassion for parents, it’s other parents. What we really need is support, not judgment.
So, to the random lady on street, I can’t thank you enough for making me realize this. You hurt me and embarrassed me. But, you made me realize I was guilty of forgetting that my battle is not an isolated one. You reminded me we all struggle and none of us have the whole picture. You changed how I see others and how I approach them. You connected me to my community and gave me compassion for the unconventional.
But mostly, you opened my eyes and showed me something extraordinary.
A version of this post originally appeared on Raising Dystonia.