I Dread Play Dates for My Child With Special Needs. This One Was Different.
“She’s doing so well,” his mom says to me.
We sit under a huge tree with a blanket beneath us and a cool breeze around us. I watch from behind my sunglasses as my 2-year-old daughter runs laps around the playground. Her blonde pigtails bounce with each step, and her giggles dance through the air. Her playmate walks a few steps behind her. He smiles as he inches closer and closer to where she stands. When he reaches her, he trips. She bends down to comfort him, and just as quickly, they’re off again.
“Thanks. She really is,” I respond. I’m filled with gratitude as I think back to this time last year when we attempted a park play date with other kids her age. She couldn’t keep up. They climbed fearlessly up the playground steps as she stumbled just to walk on the uneven, mulch-covered surface. They went down the slide with relative ease while she tried to hold her head and body upright. As the other mothers talked and stood a safe distance away from their children, I was right by my daughter’s side trying to help her navigate the playground equipment and doing my best to help her physically interact with her friends. I went home that night and cried myself to sleep.
I normally dread play dates. Park play dates are the worst. For me, they often resurface old worries and insecurities about my daughter’s progress and future. They remind me of the permanence of hypotonia in both of our lives. But when the opportunity to have a park play date arose with another mom and her son who also has hypotonia, I couldn’t pass up on the chance.
“Watching her really gives me hope. If she can do all of this, maybe he will, too,” his mom whispers, as she brings me back to our current reality. “She is just doing so good,” she repeats with a wishful smile on her face.
I know what his mom wants and needs: reassurance. She reminds me so much of myself, searching for other hypotonia success stories, promising myself that if that kid could walk, run, jump and dance, my daughter would one day, too.
What she sees on the playground is my daughter running enthusiastically, walking almost effortlessly and exploring her surroundings excitedly. What she doesn’t see is my own doubt. My concern over the fact that my daughter still can’t climb the playground steps unassisted. My bruised and bitten arms from one of my daughter’s meltdowns. My own desperate need for reassurance that things will turn out OK in their own way.
I decide to share with her my hidden fears and concerns, and together we search for reassurance. We question the impact hypotonia will have on the lives of our children. Will other kids be accepting of our children? Will friends include our children despite their differences? Will people value who are kids are over what they can’t do?
As we share, I watch as her son puts a bucket on his head and makes a silly face. Laughter erupts. He has an awesome sense of humor. When he scrapes his knee, my daughter lovingly takes his hand and walks him over to his mom. She has such a nurturing heart. They both smile and laugh throughout the entirety of the play date. There’s no doubt they’re happy kids.
What more could a parent or a friend ask for? Humor, kindness and happy spirits. Sure, they aren’t going to be swinging from the monkey bars any time soon or racing down the playground fireman’s pole with ease. But does that really matter? I’d rather be an expert at kindness than be an expert slide climber.
As the play date comes to a close, I give his mom a hug. I want to promise her that in a week, a month, a year, her son will be wildly dominating this playground — running, climbing and exploring — but I can’t make that promise. I wish I could tell her what the future holds for her own son, but the only truth I know about the future is that there are no guarantees. The one thing I’m certain of right now — in the present, sitting in this park — is that one’s worth can’t be measured solely on a park playground, and for that, I am thankful.
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