by Meg Murry at Respectfully Connected
There’s been talk of walking in other people’s shoes again. These shoes have trod upon children, trampled them, and yet. If we’d only walk in those shoes for a day, it’s said, we’d understand.
Well, I won’t walk in those shoes. I won’t try them on for size. Many would have you believe it was the children who put their parents’ feet in those shoes, but that is a lie. We all choose our shoes.
Here, try on mine. Walk in my shoes with me for a moment, will you?
Walk with me back to a cold winter’s day over five years ago, in a hospital room, here, where I give birth for the first time. Walk with me to the moment that I become a mother, the moment that I first meet my son. This birth didn’t unfold exactly the way I planned, but none of that matters as I reach out for him, hold his slippery body in two hands and bring him to my chest.
We meet each other’s eyes. I recognize that my role in making him has come to a beautiful conclusion: he is perfectly and wonderfully made. He is as complete a person as I am, and now my role is to care for him.
Walk with me now to our warm little home, and lie down with me on the floor of my baby’s new bedroom. We stretch out together in a big swath of sunlight pouring through tall windows. Blankets are spread across the hardwoods, and a few toys are scattered around for him. There’s one that he especially likes, a brightly colored musical toy he can operate by himself, pressing a large button to activate a little song accompanied by flashing colored lights. He pushes himself up on his chest, watching with an expression of wonder, then sinks down to bring it toward his mouth and suck on the handle happily.
Again and again he plays the song and smiles. I watch him and feel a quiet joy.
Let’s walk forward another year or so. Charles is a toddler and walks around well; he’s a busy boy, always exploring. I keep plastic bowls and food containers in low cabinets so he can pull them all out and play, which he does often. As when he was just a baby, I admire his curiosity and inquisitive nature. I enjoy watching him investigate his world and his methods make sense to me.
He likes to turn on and off light switches. At home this is fun, when we go out it keeps me on my toes - people don’t always think it’s cute. A librarian yells at me when he flicks the switches before I can stop him. At friends’ houses, people start to question me, their smiles a bit forced. “Does he always do this?” This is the very first time I realize Charles might be different from other children. But then other people tell me, “Oh, all little boys like to do that. They grow out of it.” I decide to believe them, though somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder, “why should he?”
Walk with me now to the following year, but let’s walk faster - this passage is dark and I don’t want to linger here. This is where a family member tells me that Charles needs either an autism evaluation or just a good spanking. This is where we where we try the evaluations and testing while he tries to hide and run away. This is where I google “autism” by day and find nothing but fear and dread in the page results; this is where by night I stay up too late trying not to think of tomorrow, or of anything at all.
This is where I follow the advice of people who don’t understand, putting Charles in time outs when he most needs me, putting him through classes he hates, for “socialization,” pushing him fearfully toward developmental milestones so that he won’t fall “behind.” I stay his hands from the light switches. I put away his musical light-up toy. I have another baby now, I go through the motions of caring for two children, but I am lost.
Look here as you walk with me: we’ve come to a fork in the road now. To the left, the path is darker still - as dark as night. The forest is thick and obscures the way. As we stand at the entrance to this road we hear parents crying out from the trees, grieving. We hear whispered words that raise goosebumps all over our skin: Symptoms. Intervention. Compliance. With one foot on this path, I try to take Charles’s hand, but he’s just out of reach.
No. That’s not the way.
Look here again with me at the fork in the road. There’s another path on the right. There, the sun shines over a meadow. I hear in the distance there is laughter and singing, the sounds of children playing. I gather my sons to me again, Charles takes my hand. Walk with me, this way.
We are walking with others now. The other parents here walk with a gait that’s at once careful and easy. For a time I let them lead, and then I walk beside them. We are friends. I see myself in them, and they in me. New people join us, following this path. Our children run free, barefooted, spinning, climbing, flapping, laughing. There are no milestones here, only growth. There are no interventions here, only encouragement. There is no compliance here, only freedom.
This is where I draw close again to my firstborn child, and give him back the sense of self that I wrongly tried to steal, on that other road - that dark place that I’m quickly, mercifully forgetting. This is where I pull Charles out of school, and say no thank you to further testing and evaluations. This is where I stretch out beside him on the floor again, to see what he sees.
This is where my husband and I nourish Charles’s interests, bringing him to hardware stores to look at light fixtures. We notice light fixtures everywhere and take pictures to show him later. This is where Charles becomes friends with his brother Sandy. And it is where I draw closer to Sandy too, because it’s safe to open my heart here. This is where, as it happens, I find my own self. Here among friends.
I want to show you, on this walk, that your child is not your circumstance, they are a person. They don’t put your shoes on for you; only you can do that, by choosing the values that will serve as your foundation. The fork in the road is before you whenever you choose to see it there. You can always take the other path.
Walk with us, will you?