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.


No Cool Story said...

And yet another thing I like so much a bout you: you are so thoughtful (therefore appealing to the masses).

I don’t know that I have met many people who are so interested, as to ask questions (real thought provoking questions), ask for advice and be willing to learn (real life lessons, not goofy ones) in order to pass all this knowledge to your children. Dude, you are such a good mom.

This story reminded me of my own experience with my kiddos: they were about 6 and 4, we attended a very large well known church and (I just found out this a few years ago from a documentary on TV) our Pastor’s son has a facial birthmark (that’s him in the picture). I had seen him singing in the choir, but it never occurred to me to talk to my kids about people who looked different.
So one day we are leaving church and I see Geoff coming to wards us…Firstborn just freezes there, holds my hand and as he meant to scream and run away. I said a quick prayer, knelt in front of him and very calmly told him to look at me, I took Fashionista's hand and his and told them that sometimes people look different than the rest of the people and that’s just the way it is, that boy walking was a child of God who loved him, that he’s someone baby, just like they were my babies, that he had siblings, grandmas, grandpas who love. Looking, staring, getting scared, pointing, asking questions is just out of the question, can you imagine how sad it would be for him to go through any of those things?.
Phew. You know the amazing thing, to this day, they remember that little talk we had.

I guess you always need to pray first :)

PS:More about Geoff
PS2: Sorry again about the long comment. This is such a good post of yours as usual.

Cyndi said...

What great advice NCS has for you. When situations like that come up with Andrew I explain to him that it is inappropriate to point and stare, but that he should approach the person and talk with them and ask them about themselves. I think the more kids are told not to ask or acknowledge (out of politeness or ignorance), the more afraid they are of the differences. If he is too shy I will show him how to ask appropriate questions and not be afraid by going up to the person and talking with them myself. I used to be very uncomfortable around people with handicaps or visible differences, but the more I speak with them and am around them the more comfortable and understanding I've become. I think that is true of children as well.

Code Yellow Mom said...

NCS has the exact right idea.

One thing I would add is that when an outburst happens or a not-quite-appropriate question just comes out of one of your kids' mouth, resist the urge to get embarrassed yourself or to get out of there as quick as possible (which is totally what my impulse is - cut your losses and EXIT! :)). Instead, use it as a springboard to talk to the person who's different, to show the right way to ask a question, maybe give an apology ("I'm sorry - Benja is just becoming aware of people's differences and doesn't quite know what to do when something surprises him. What would you like him to know about you / your arm / etc?")and even to make a friend of the person. It takes a little backpedaling, and is sometimes tricky not to sound condescending, but it is so worth it for your kids to see that other people, no matter what they look like on the outside, have feelings and opinions and are actually really neat and worthwhile people on the inside - AND they often would rather talk about the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room rather than having people hush their children or pretend it isn't there.

Can't wait for the McDonald playland story.

Breit Mama said...

When I saw the title of this blog, I laughed really hard. I don't want anyone to think that I am insensitive, I laughed because it brought back my conversation with you about your supposed fat lip! By the end of your post I was in tears, imagine?! I thank you for this post. I was brought up believing that it is best to ignore and retreat when someone elses differences are apparent whether it was skin color, deformities, etc. I know that this caused me to be scared of others growing up. Now that I am a mom, I try to show my children that others are different and that is what makes us special (even if I myself am still have to work on that belief!) All of the comments posted so far are wonderful - NCS for making it all so clear to me exactly what to say to my children and code yellow for helping me form a back up plan. I just hope you realize exactly how special you are - fat lip and all!

Thoroughly Mormon Millie said...

OK, the fat lip thing caught me too, and I wondered how it was that people would call you "fatlip" - if you had a propensity for being hit in the mouth, etc. Very intriguing title.

I'm so sorry you experienced this as a child, but how sensitive it's made you to other people with physical differences. How much more tender your heart is toward them. It's amazing what we're given to help us become more like our Father.

I loved NCS' comment and it just made me bawl, especially the part about the person being someone's baby and a child of God. She is full of sweet charitable goodness like that and always knows exactly what to say. I also loved CYM's and thought, wow, that's a smart idea, anticipating that your child might pop out with a rude-sounding remark.

Beautiful post.

No Cool Story said...

Since when did you switch to Beta?

I LOVE CYM's idea. That's truly the heart of the matter; it's like there are two extremes 1)Ignore the person 2)Point, gawk and ask inappropriate questions.

The middle point, which CYM brought up has understanding, acknowledging and acceptance. Wow! That’s so wise :D

Great post, last night when I was going to bed I was still thinking about it.

AJ said...

This is a topic I deal with daily. My 5-year-old son has autism. He doesn't talk, has unusual behaviors, and stands out in a crowd.

It does not bother me one tiny bit when children stare. They are curious. They are learning about differences. It does bother me when grownups stare. They are plain rude. If they want to talk to me about my son- I'm happy to tell you all about him. But don't stare at him like he is a freak. He's a kid.

I was at Mcdonalds a while back (it seems McDonalds is where we learn lots of life lessons)and a child seated near us- he was probably 3- was asking his mommy what was wrong with my son. The mom looked at me, a little embarrased, not sure what was appropriate to say. I said, "It's ok. He has autism. He's 5, but he is developementaly about 18 months."
So the mom turns back to the child and says, "What a lucky mommy! She gets to have a giant baby! See his diapers? He's just a giant baby, so be nice." I loved it.

seven said...

I have a friend (I'm sort of a mentor to her) who's in the youth group I help lead who is missing her left arm just below her elbow. Sometimes we talk about it (like the time she asked me to teach her the Cup Game and we were able to figure out a way to do it using just one hand) and sometimes we don't. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, other than I guess it would be good to teach your kids that people look different, like NCS said, and that they should get to know them and who they are inside. Once you know them, it's not really an issue anymore... One time I noticed that she was wearing her "Promise Ring" on her right hand, and I wondered why. Then I remembered that she doesn't have a left hand. And I thought that it was sort of amazing that I didn't have a hangup about it anymore (when we first started hanging out, I wasn't sure how to address it, or even whether I should. Now she's just my friend, not anything else). Not that I ignore it... we talk about stuff sometimes, and I'll ask questions, but mostly I'm just humbled by her great attitude and the way she goes for things instead of saying, "I can't do that... I only have one arm."