Since I began blogging here, I have shared life lessons my children are learning from having a mother with a disability. Many of these lessons will likely benefit my children and help them on their path to adulthood. Yet, there are some life lessons I wish I could shield them from such as people’s ignorance. However, life is such that we often have to take the good with the bad and these life lessons are no different.
One of these bitter lessons stems from something sweet and innocent – curiosity about someone who is different than you’re familiar with. It is usually obvious that I am missing my arms and if someone hasn’t noticed, he or she will once I’m seen in action! I don’t mind people noticing; it’s a natural reaction, but what was perfectly acceptable one moment can quickly cross the grey line between innocent curiosity and a blatant invasion of privacy.
Last summer while stopped at a red light with my foot resting on the steering wheel, my son from the backseat exclaims, “Mom, that man is taking a picture of you!” I leaned forward to discover a passenger pretending to play with his phone. I know what he had just done and he knew it too. He had just crossed the blurry line between appropriate and inappropriate. I was shocked that someone could be so brazen. I should have rolled down my window and said something, but I froze in unbelief. My son was very upset. He began exclaiming that he would beat him up and that he could do it! His rant continued into the grocery store where he stomped around trying to explain how upset he was. He being only 7 years old already knew that our privacy had been invaded and his protective instincts had kicked in. Although I am not one to promote violence; it was endearing to hear him want to protect me. My heart broke for him as we talked about what had happened.
Of course, people have and will continue to notice I drive with my feet. Months later I had someone notice my unique way of driving. We exchanged smiles, perhaps some surprised laughter on their part and I did what any armless person would – I waved hello with my foot. My children noticed my giggle and asked what was going on. I explained what happened and no more was said about it. The other driver hadn’t done anything wrong or offensive. He noticed, we both tried to smile off the awkward moment and then I drove on. My children weren’t upset this time because it was clearly not an invasion of our privacy. Pulling out a camera phone to take a picture is.
In another instance, my children and I were returning to our van when a man noticed I was opening the door with my foot. Instead of forcing himself to stop staring once we made eye-contact and exchanged smiles, he continued watching as I shut the door, buckled my seat-belt and drove away. For him, he was watching something amazing. For my kids and me, the moment felt like a circus act happening in slow motion. Oh, how I wanted to roll down my window and tell him to wipe that grin off his face and to stop freaking my kids out. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t want to stoop to something I’d regret. After all, he wasn’t trying to be hurtful; he was just oblivious to common curtesy.
My children don’t often hear unkind comments from others, but they do see perfect strangers stare incessantly, drill me with personal questions, expect a hug after a 30 second conversation or less; or gush over my children when they help me with shopping. Yes, I ask my children to push a grocery cart and retrieve items from shelves; tasks that are challenging, but not impossible for me to do and which I thank them often for doing. However, I don’t think a big deal needs to be made over something they ordinarily do. A simple, “that’s really nice you are do willing to help your mom,” is sufficient.
Yes, my situation is unique and people are drawn to those who inspire them, but I often feel this happens at the expense of my family’s privacy. While shopping last year with my children, a stranger approached us showering me with compliments and questions, and moments later expecting a hug – a personal display of friendship, trust and connection. A sincere compliment or a heart-felt hug is something I do appreciate and value, but I prefer it be from someone that has shown a genuine interest in getting to know myself and my family; not someone that has just approached us out of curiosity and a need to fill a personal void.
I am very open about my amputation and answer questions all the time. I happily clear up misconceptions and accept curiosity as a natural part of being human. What I am learning not to accept are actions or comments that invade my family’s privacy or border the line of inappropriate. A picture capturing my unique way of living, a gaze that turns into blatant staring, a barrage of personal questions or forced displays of affection are such examples. As I mother I feel a greater need to protect my children from it. This past February, a group of women asked to take their picture with me and although I was a little flattered, I politely declined citing that I wanted to protect my children’s privacy. I also hoped to empower my children into standing up for themselves.
We could avoid it all if I just stayed home, an option I would never entertain. The unique way my family and I live will always be noticed. Our privacy may always be compromised, but I control how I will handle it. For my children, I will say “no” if a hug feels unnatural, I will decline to answer questions that are too personal and I will use my voice to correct an inappropriate action. Above all, I won’t hide myself away in shame.