Tuesday, November 28, 2006

They Used to Call Me Fatlip

Today at story time there was a young girl, probably four, who only had one arm. We happened to be sitting right next to her and her mother. She only had about 5 inches from the shoulder on the "missing" arm. I'm 31; I've seen plenty of this in my day. But today, I saw it through my children's eyes and I braced myself for one of Benja's loud and inappropriate questions or one of Avee's loud and obviously sympathetic "ooohhhhhhhhh babies" that comes when she sees something she thinks is an owie. I wished so badly that I knew the "right" thing to say. I distracted Avee as she repeatedly tried to reach for the girl's sleeve and look up it to find the missing arm. Benja never noticed, and I was relieved.

As is pretty much the case with most things in parenting, I'm at a loss for the best approach. I'd like to teach my kids about other children they will encounter who will be different. I'd like to teach them appropriate responses and behaviors. Adults just look the other way or ignore---and kids won't do that.

When I was a newborn, I developed a "fat lip". Quotations because that's what we called it, not because it wasn't really fat. It was huge. It was purplish and for quite some time, the only thing people saw when they looked at me. (Oh, that and the RED HAIR) I grew up being gawked at, made fun of, and questioned all the time. I learned to cope with it. Sometimes it was really hard and other times, it was sort of fun to stand up for myself or be an expert on face deformities. When I was very young my older siblings taught me to say, "I'd rather have a fat lip than a fat head!" when rude people called me Fatlip. I can remember being appalled (if 5 year old children can feel appalled) by adults who would gawk, point, whisper, and sometimes even say, "Did you know you have a fat lip?" SERIOUSLY PEOPLE!!!! To this day, those kinds of reactions from adults, shock me. It may have been more reflective of where I grew up than anything else though.

I grew up. My lip grew down. My parents used this lip as a tool for the forming of my character. I prayed every night, "please bless my lip". I learned to pray for what was best, not for what I wanted. I wanted it zapped, but I rarely prayed for that. I can still remember the night when I went to pray for my lip and realized, my prayer had been answered. I was about 18. It had been unnoticeable for at least 4 years at that point. I still have a bump. I see it when I look in the mirror. No one else does.

There were some people who approached me about it, that I had no problem talking to. They were kind, naturally curious, and non-judgmental. Even kids can perceive that stuff. There were others who just wanted to ask first so they could tell other people. I always knew the difference.

I was thinking about this today, after we saw the girl with only one arm. She knows she's different. She's felt the stares. Maybe she's cried that she can't do some things others can. She probably has already learned to zone out the nosey people around her. But she's also a child who probably likes to talk, and maybe her parents have been able to help her be proud of her differences. If I were her mother, what would I want her experiences around other children to be? Would I want it ignored? Would I want it acknowledged and for her to have a chance to express herself? I don't know. I can't remember what I wanted as a child with a "deformity." I just remember learning to deal with whatever came my way. I always knew when people said nothing, that they really wanted to. And then others who immediately asked about it were rude. But what is the happy medium?

I'd like to know if anyone has any firsthand experience or even passed on wisdom for dealing with situations like today. I know that probably, some awkward conversations will have to happen---but just as a mom who's winging it most of the time, I'd also like be somewhat prepared.

And tomorrow I'm going to tell you about a little boy we encountered whose mother was debilitating him far more than being born with one arm could. You don't want to miss part 2, At McDonald's Playland.