At five-weeks-old, my son was admitted to the hospital for some testing. He was fussy and I was exhausted, in that glassy-eyed new-mom sort of way, but I remember the day was sunny and we had high hopes for a short stay. I checked us in, signed our paperwork, and watched as the receptionist cooed over the wriggling lump of cuteness in my baby carrier. She pulled out one of my son’s tiny legs from beneath the baby blanket and, placing the hospital identification band around his ankle, she said, “What a darling. Look at him keeping his legs so still for me. Most babies kick and thrash around when I try to put these things on! What a good boy…”
And that’s when I decided to make everything get real weird.
Without taking a moment to reflect, without stopping to check myself or put the breaks on my mouth, I dropped this juicy little tidbit on the unsuspecting woman:
Cue the record scratch. Cue the crickets.
I immediately regretted my words. I swear the poor woman broke out in hives. She lowered her eyes and, after some intense silence, stammered out:
“Oh. Umm… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean… I’m just… so sorry”
She didn’t speak another word and, since making a complete stranger feel guilty/foolish/uncomfortable wasn’t on my “to do” list for the day, I felt terrible. Smooth move, Self.
I want to be very clear here: I was not angry with this woman in the least. Her innocent comment about my son and his unmoving legs? I was totally cool with it. I guess I was just trying to make conversation or something– ya know, a bit of light chit-chat about the weather and babies and motherhood and paralysis and BIRTH DEFECTS. No big deal, right?
Instead of learning my lesson, I continued this clumsy truth-bombing for over a year. I was basically punking any well-meaning stranger who happened to cross my path. No one was safe.
There was the older gentleman at the camera shop who noticed my stroller and commented that my son would be “running all over the house in no time!” To which I smilingly chirped:
Or the woman at the park who went on and on about how fantastically clean my kid’s shoes were:
I wasn’t being very helpful. While each of these interactions had me feeling rather embarrassed, the victims of my overzealous sharing were left uncomfortable, confused, and in many cases just plain sad. I was adjusting to this new identity, this new normal of ours, but I wasn’t quite sure what the rules were. My penchant for TMI conversations didn’t come from hurt feelings or defensiveness or even the desire to spread awareness– it came from insecurity and inexperience (and also, from being a knucklehead).
I was so hyper-aware of our situation that when strangers assumed my child was on the typical trajectory for milestones and growth, I didn’t know how not to set them straight. It was like being stuck in one of those commercials where everyone thinks they’re eating delivery but you know they’re really eating DiGiorno. How can you not shout that kind of truth into the void? That kind of secret can not be contained!
Except that sometimes, it should be. So, after a year or two of awkward missteps, uncomfortable conversations in the checkout aisle, and realizing that these comments weren’t good for anyone, I came up with a little checklist to help me think before I share.
Three questions to ask before talking about your child’s medical condition with strangers:
- Will you ever see them again? If the answer is “no” then maybe you can skip the 15 minute neuroscience lecture and just move on to talking about the weather. Does the check out girl really need to know what a shunt is? Or be set straight on how long my kid will be needing to wear diapers? Probably not. If you will be seeing this person again (especially if you’ll be seeing them regularly and forming a relationship with them) then perhaps sharing more is a good idea.
- Did they ask for information? If a stranger starts in with some mom-to-mom small talk but is not actually seeking out information, then it’s probably okay to let any (harmless) assumptions lie. Thinking that everyone is as interested in learning about gross medical lingo as I am, is probably not the best way to go. If they don’t ask, then I needn’t feel obligated to tell. So what if they think my kid is “tall enough to reach the kitchen counter by now?” Sure! I can go with that…
- Will sharing information be helpful or beneficial to the conversation? This is probably the most important question to ask. Basically– what’s my point? If I share some info about our family’s experience, will it be helpful to this person? Will it benefit them in anyway or is it simply a knee-jerk response to “set the record straight?” If someone is spouting common misconceptions about disability then yes– saying something would be helpful. But if they’re remarking on the cleanliness of my kid’s shoes? Maybe I can let that slide.
Now things are a bit simpler. If someone asks, I don’t mind answering. And if I feel like sharing, I share. But I’ve got a better filter now. And if a stranger wants to gush about what a “good boy” my son is for keeping his shoes shiny and clean, then I’ll chuckle and nod and keep our diagnosis to myself. Because, honestly, it doesn’t matter why they think he’s a good boy– he just is.
And his shoes look fabulous.
So, who’s been there? Anyone else have trouble adjusting to small talk after your child was diagnosed? Have you ever over-shared about your child’s medical history and regretted it? Aren’t Simeon’s shoes the cutest?