When my firstborn Luke was a toddler I took him to the various wading pools in the Seattle area. I’d put on my bathing suit and peg leg (the leg I use in the water), pack a lunch and look forward to a day at the park with my son.
Inevitably we’d be swarmed by other young children. I was like a flower full of pollen and they were the bees. Questions galore were thrown at me: “What happened to your leg?” “Hey, what is that thing?” “Did it hurt?”
I felt compelled to answer their questions. I already felt like a freak to them. If I took the time to be a nice-kind-mommy lady, then I’d help break down any stereotypes of disabled people. I knew kids may not have developed those stereotypes yet, but if I ignored them or didn’t answer their questions, then I was afraid that I, perhaps the first disabled person they had ever encountered, would lodge that stereotype deep into their psyche forever. Yea, I took on a lot of responsibility.
It didn’t take me long to recognize that I was putting the needs of the children unknown to me ahead of the needs of my own child. This is how my son found out about how I lost my leg. Not a sweet mom-to-son chat, but by me telling strangers my story.
I also took on this duty with adults. At least children are naive, usually sweet and simply curious. With adults I knew I had a stereotype to break down, but the strangers I encountered were appalling. I didn’t understand how it helped them to hear a 30 second sound bite of my story. And when they asked THE question, “Did it come off right away?”, I was always too shocked to do anything but whisper “yes”. My day shifted after these encounters. It was hard to go on after re-telling, yet again, the worst day of my life.
During the second summer of this, Luke said, “Mommy, will you stop talking to those kids at the park?” I had felt caught in a merry-go-round of responsibility and he gave me the out I needed. I spoke my therapist and asked her how to stop. “Why do you answer their questions?” she asked?
“Because they asked!” I said, feeling like I was stating the obvious.
“They have parents, you know, who are perfectly capable of telling their child what happened to you.”
Clearly she wasn’t getting it. “But those parents don’t know what happened to me.”
She gave a little laugh. “All the parents need to tell their child is that you lost your leg and wear a prosthetic leg to get around. End of story.”
Huh. Really? Wow.
For the next week I practiced my answers to the children. Armed with an arsenal of responses, I packed another lunch for Luke and I and drove to the park. I was so excited to use my new skill, to set my new boundary. I got out of the car, took Luke from his car seat and grabbed our picnic basket. Come on, World, give it to me, I can take it, I thought.
Do you know what happened? Nothing. Barely a stare. Nary a question. Seriously. I have to admit, I was disappointed. And then it dawned on me. I got what I wanted. A peaceful day at the park with Luke.
It’s still rare that total strangers ask me what happened, children or adults. I’m fine if acquaintances or friends ask me about it, that feels appropriate. But a stranger at the grocery store line? No. Once I became clear about where my boundaries were, that’s what I sent out to the world and it’s what I received back.
It’s a good thing for me to realize in all parts of my life – Know my boundaries and kindly let other people know what they are. People won’t hate me if I honor myself.