It was the morning of the last day of school. The cluster of moms and dads at the bus stop was breaking up, now that we had, for the last time until late August, waved goodbye to our school-bound kiddos. Walking home, I fell into step beside two neighbors--two other moms, Karen and Jill. We walked leisurely, as Sam had already headed home with Max.
The topic of our conversation turned to him. My Maxwell. My confident and creative little boy who had worn his My Little Pony jammies to the bus stop. There had been looks...and a comment...but he's not bothered by other people's opinions of his clothing...or maybe he doesn't notice? He's often lost in his own world of rich, complex imagination.
That morning, walking towards home with the other moms, Karen mentioned how pleased she was to see that we allow Max the freedom to express himself through his wardrobe. I responded that that--the clothing--was the least of our concerns. We don't care what side of the aisle he shops on, just as long as he feels comfortable (and loved and supported) in his own skin.
I went on...a big concern of ours right now is Max's big brother. Since the beginning, Evan has had nothing but support in his heart for Max. He has answered friends and neighbors who question Max's clothing choices. "Pink isn't just for girls! Pink is a color. Colors are for everyone!" he has said, and my personal favorite: "Well, this little fella here just happens to like wearing dresses."
But he's getting older. His social life is changing. Will he start to feel societal pressures to fit in? For his brother to fit in? Of course he will. But will he, one day, hear some kids laughing at the dress-wearing boy on the bus...and join in? Or worse...will he resent his brother, and us, for putting him in the position of having to choose between joining in with his friends or sticking up for his family?
My heart aches with worry for our future. Can't we just stay right here, where it's safe, forever?
We're doing what we can to give Evan the words he'll need to educate his friends about Max so he won't, hopefully, be put in an impossible position.
"In our family, we wear what we like."
"They're not girl clothes (toys/accessories) until a girl is wearing (playing with/using) them."
"He feels more comfortable in dresses, but I feel more comfortable in pants."
"Everyone gets to pick their own favorite things."
The other mom walking with us, Jill, cut in.
"I never thought about giving words to Michael. He's had to hear comments about Ben and, now that he's older, he can stand up for him. We probably should have given him a statement or phrase, though, to have at-the-ready when he was younger and didn't know how to answer questions about Ben."
Ben is Jill's older son. He has autism. He also has an intellectual disability. His younger brother, Michael, has witnessed kids staring at his big brother....has been asked hard questions about his brother....has heard negative and hurtful comments made about his brother. And now that he's older, now that he has the words, he can say, "Please don't use the R-word. It's offensive." (And when he's even older, he can use even stronger language, when necessary.)
Michael and Evan are in not-so-dissimilar situations. And despite their differences from one another, the fact that Ben and Max stand apart from the rest of society puts them in not-so-dissimilar situations, too.
Jill and I were remarking on how our situations, though miles apart on paper, are strikingly close when it comes to a Mama's Heart. Our worry for our boys who don't quite fit into the mold that our society has created for them....Our worry, not for the boys themselves, but for what society has the capability of dulling out of them in an effort to fit them into those molds.
We were walking, noting similarities, marveling at the fact that we all...literally all of us...moms, dads, siblings, friends, anyone who has ever loved another person...we all share the common thread of worrying that, for whatever reason, the people whom we love will experience pain related to the fact that we don't all, always, fit into the perfect little boxes that the society...which is made up of US--we people who love other people...has created. We made a connection during that conversation...a human to human connection.
Jill stopped me.
"Sarah," she said. "I have to apologize to you."
I couldn't possibly imagine why.
"The other day--it couldn't have been but two days ago--we were walking, Karen and I, and we saw Max. I asked her, 'What would you do in that situation?' I was gossiping about your situation...and Max. I was judging. And I'm sorry."
I didn't really know what to say.
She went on: "And now, talking to you, realizing that you are struggling with the same worries and fears that I am...and that we're both just trying to do what's best for our kids and figuring it out as we go...we're all going through the same thing, even when our situations looks so different from the outside."
I nodded. "And if I may be so bold, Jill," I said, "I'm sure that people have looked at your family and have imagined what it would be like if their child had autism. They, too, have probably wondered, 'What would I do in that situation?'"
It was a defining moment, that conversation....that connection made. One I've replayed in my mind many times. I admire Jill's honesty. It took guts to say what she said. Major guts.
Is having a child with autism the same thing as having a child who is gender-creative? Nope. I know that Jill and her family have had, and will continue to have, struggles that I will never begin to understand....struggles that will last a lifetime.
I also know that the world has changed, and will continue to change, in the way we view, treat, and support people with autism and intellectual disabilities. It is no longer socially acceptable to toss around the R-word. We no longer isolate people who are cognitively impaired from the rest of society. We teach our children not to stare or point at people with mental and physical disabilities, while explaining to them that everyone's brain and body develops and grows differently, but that we're all human beings. We're all the same...because we're all different.
So let's start teaching our kids not to stare or point at the little boy in the dress, okay? Let's explain to our kids that everyone's brain and body develops differently...and some boys' brains and bodies just prefer dresses to pants.
To a little kid, this world is mysterious. They are learning new things about it and their place in it everyday. So let this be the new thing they learn today:
Clothes are for everyone. Toys are for everyone. We wear, and play with, what we like.
Jill, who once questioned our parenting decisions in letting Max twirl through our front yard in a sundress, has now pledged to be a force for good on Max's behalf. That human to human connection we made while walking home from the bus stop changed her worldview. And as for Ben, he already had an ally in me. Oh, what a difference one casual conversation can make.