Monday, September 12, 2011

Feel Free to Stare... I Would.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. - Ephesians 4:2

I don’t notice it much anymore as I enter a room with Elise and we are greeted with stares, whispers, and wives nudging their husbands to turn around and see what just walked into the room. After so many years of wheeling Elise around in a big honking wheelchair while she stares off into space or, even worse, hits herself in the head over and over, I am so used to the reactions that they don’t even phase me. Truth be told, they never did. I’m pretty hard to offend when it comes to the reactions of people when first confronted with Elise.

I know that there are many parents of special needs kids who are sensitive to the rubbernecking, gawking, and questions or comments that their kids receive out in public. I just don’t happen to be one of them. I try to remember the times that I have peered around a corner to get a look at someone who may be physically different than the average Joe. Anyone would be lying if they didn’t admit to times that their own mouth hung open when they witnessed a child with a major disability or sickness waiting in line with their parents at the grocery store. To avoid getting my panties in a wad over each gaze that lasts a little too long, I think about the person’s intentions. Are they trying to make fun of Elise? No. Do they want to make me uncomfortable? No. Are they deliberately trying to be rude and disrespectful? Of course not. So, what that leaves us with is plain old curiosity. Most people are simply curious to see a little child who cannot walk, doesn’t talk, and has a love for pacifiers at the age of 7. Instead of rolling my eyes and mumbling under my breath, I decided years ago to turn this situation on it’s head.

I think of it this way:

How awesome is it that God has given me an opportunity that not many have to interact with strangers and, hopefully, show Jesus’ love? God has given me something that typical families will never have. I can share our story, our faith in Him, our struggles, and our victory over such a tragic situation by just going out with Elise. I embrace this as something unique that sets us apart from every other “normal” family at Chick-fil-A. If I don’t have Elise with me while I’m out and about, I just blend in. Nobody cares about my story. Not one person would strike up a conversation with me. Elise is the catalyst. Sometimes it is just someone saying hello to her. Other times, people may specifically ask what happened to her. I welcome these comments and questions. More of us special needs moms should see these situations as an opportunity to show Christ rather than showing anger, disgust, or impatience.

So, instead of feeling like it’s the world against me, I just smile. You would be surprised at what a smile can do. It lightens the mood. It softens everyone’s heart. It opens up conversation. So many times, I have been at my son’s baseball practice, or in the middle of Target when I will get one of these inquisitive gazes. I am a pretty good judge at this point at knowing whether the person is just looking or wants to talk. A quick smile from me gives the onlooker a chance to realize that I am welcoming questions, comments, or just a compliment on her dress (I love those). There have been several instances in the past 7 years that a stranger has walked up to Elise and I and asked if they could pray over her. How cool is that? I can only thank God for these people who so swiftly come in and out of my life, never to be seen again.

The most beautiful thing I have experienced when it comes to public situations with Elise, is when someone brings their own child over to “meet” her. It is almost always a little girl - or several together. Boys aren’t interested. They walk by, keeping their gaze on her, and decide that there are more interesting things to move on to. Little girls, though, are always bewildered by her condition. Why is she sitting in that chair? Can she play? Why is she sucking on a pacifier? A little girl at church came straight up to Elise one day and boldly asked, “What happened to her? Is she OK?” I simply explained Elise in the best way I knew how to a child, and it satisfied her curiosity. She now smiles and waves to us in the sanctuary. Another little boy once asked his mother why Elise was sitting in a wheelchair. I would give a million dollars to see the look on his mother’s face again as she fuddled her way through a not very well thought out explanation. She told him, “Isn’t it neat? She doesn’t have to walk around all day like you. She gets to be pushed around in a chair!” I just knew as she walked off that she was kicking herself in the butt for that comment. The best thing to do in those situations, though, is to laugh. She didn’t mean anything by that answer. She just found herself caught up in the web of -- “What can I say that won’t be offensive?” As parents of special needs kids, sometimes in our eagerness to just feel normal, we expect the rest of society to not act human anymore. Don’t look, don’t comment, don’t question.

I realized from the beginning that WE are the ones who stand out. We are not a typical family. What they are seeing is not the norm. It won’t ever be. I just had to say, “Face it, Ashley, you are now the elephant in the room.” To me, it is much more uncomfortable when I walk into a room with Elise and everyone immediately looks the other way. It can be comical to see the different ways people can divert their eyes from Elise, trying not to offend. Then there are the times that seeing Elise has been very upsetting to certain younger children. One little girl couldn’t peel her eyes away from Elise as we ate lunch after church one Sunday at Souper Salad. She actually cried through the meal, stealing looks over at our table. Oh, how I wished her mother would have brought her over to meet Elise and see that she was ok. I hated that it was such a terrifying experience that will stick in that girl’s mind forever just because her mother was too uncomfortable to come introduce her to us.

So, don’t worry about it. Feel free to stare. Maybe next time, though, come ask me about her. I would love to talk!

Instead of being bitter, be pleasant

Instead of being offended, laugh.

Instead of showing anger, show restraint

Instead of showing irritation, show God’s love

(This post was not written regarding people who are rude and crass to our kids in public. I do not brush that off. I also know that some moms of special needs kids may not share my views. This is just a representation of how I feel in my specific situation. We are all different with how we feel and deal with our kiddos!)


  1. Thank you for writing this! I'm new to beings special needs mom, Evelyn is only 6 month old, I'm very thankful for your post. I hope I can have your confidence and strength. Thank you for sharing! -Haley

    1. Haley, I am so glad that you enjoyed my post! I remember being new to this "special needs" world, and I know how hard it is to not know what to expect. God made YOU Evelyn's mom, and He sure knows what He's doing! (I love her name!)