February 6, 2010

Little Foot

I generally choose not to write about Hannah Jane's little foot, as we call it, because it happily remains a non-issue for our family. But, I have received a few questions from other moms who have children with mild differences somewhat akin to hers about socialization issues and bullies. Sometimes I wonder if avoiding the issue actually makes it more of an issue than it needs to be. So here are my thoughts, words of love from one mom to another, and fears.

Hannah Jane was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS), where little fibers land on the fetus and restrict growth from that point on like a rubber band around a veggie in your garden. In our boundless love for her, we freaked out. We did all the tests, poured over the ultrasound video wondering how we missed it. I was in the throws thinking backwards in that unproductive but totally human way that we all do, fearing for my child. Had I done something wrong? Was God punishing my child for some offense I had committed? Foolish talk of a mom in despair.

Now 6, Hannah Jane can run barefoot and play without her prosthetic foot, which basically serves as a shoe holder because her little foot is the exact size as the opening in the top of a shoe. We are blessed in the level of severity of her difference. And over our short 6 years as a family with a lovely little foot, we have been through a variety of phases already with regards to her self image.

I remember the first time I took her shoe shopping so that she could put in her two cents about what to wear. I was strong on the outside as she begged for shoes that were sparkly and beautiful and would never fit over her prosthetic foot. When I got home I handed her to Joe and cried in the bathroom for a good long time. I am fine with saying no because they are too expensive or because they are impractical, but saying no because she is different and can't have the shoes that other girls her age have...well, that broke my heart. Sometimes these little differences make the normally shallow quite important and heart wrenching.

There were her first weeks in preschool when she was sporting a pastel paisley printed prosthetic to which I had glues a thousand little rhinestones. All of the other little girls crowded around her and oohed and ahhed about it. She beamed with pride. When I picked her up, she bragged about how all of the girls wanted to be just like her and wished they had a prosthetic foot as well, but that she was the only one special enough to get one.

But that pride disappears easily when the girl she calls her best friend says that her foot is weird. When the bully at the playground says her foot is ugly. When the boy at the library says she can walk because her foot isn't just like his even as she runs around him in circles with bare feet. I recall with vivid accuracy each time I have witnessed the cruelty of a child, or a parent for that matter, and the rage and love that I felt all at the same time. I haven't always handled it well.

When the little boy in the library said, "You can't walk." She replied politely and then proceeded to display all of the wild kid like things she could do with her body like skip, flip, twist herself into some knotted up yoga pose. The boy kept repeating, "Yeah, but you can't do ____!" To each challenge she confidently issued her rebuttal. She handled herself like a pro. I was proud of her brilliance, but I was not so confident. I looked at the mother who sat not 2 feet from her son, watching his complete idiocy, and said nothing until I finally couldn't take it anymore and removed our family from the area. It was after we had found a different quilt to sit upon for family music time at the library that the mom came over and said, "I hope that didn't offend you or hurt your daughters feelings." I smiled and allowed her to leave with her dignity in tact, but inside I was raging! I was mad at myself for not stepping in, for not grabbing that kid by the collar in front of his mom and telling him what I really thought of kids like him, of their mothers, of myself for not knowing what to do. I know it would have been the wrong thing to do, but I am her advocate. I am the one to whom God entrusted her for protection and nourishment of both body and spirit. I felt I had failed. I felt that my polite demeanor was not meant for these situations. But Hannah Jane seemed unaffected.

There was a time, years later, when she was not so unaffected and I was not so polite. A much older girl, maybe 11 or 12, asked to see Hannah Jane's foot. I watched and listened from a distance to see how she would handle this one. She said yes and showed the girl. The girl gasped and backed up and told her that she was gross. Hannah Jane looked at the floor, seemed to gather her spirit about her, and then looked up with a smile at the girl and suggested hide and seek. The girl made another rude comment and I called Hannah Jane over. "How's it going over there?" I asked. She smiled and said that all was well. "Are they nice girls? Is everyone treating each other with kindness?" She nodded, less enthusiastically this time. "I heard what she said. How did that make you feel? It's okay to tell her how her rude words hurt you." She confided that it made her feel terrible, but that if she called the girl out, the girl might not be her friend. Arrow through the heart! I explained that a) that girl is not our friend and we do not need friends who are mean. We must demand more from the people we chose to surround ourselves with and b) if no one ever tells that girl how mean her words are and reacts properly, she will never learn the power of words and when she grow up, she will not understand why no one wants to be close to her.

Hannah Jane strutted back over to see the offender again, and as I leaned in to try and listen to how it was going, the girl's grandma came over. "I was wondering about your girl's unusual foot." she said. "I noticed your kid was wondering too, and she was quite unkind. You need to handle that." The woman looked shocked. She actually had the nerve to say, "She didn't mean any harm. She's just a kid who doesn't know any better." I though I must be on some cruel hidden camera show. Was she really saying that? "She is quite old enough to know that she is being mean. My kid is half her age and she knows when she's being mean. She'll never be kind if you don't teach her how." The woman promptly called her kids to get their shoes and they fled the scene of the crime. We also got our shoes and left. My energy and morale had been zapped by such close proximity to what was clearly a family that had accepted meanness as a generational disease.

In the car, Hannah Jane cried over the cruelness that she had endured. I cried as I explained that her difference gave her an insight into the human character that other people didn't have. She could see people's reactions to the different, to the super special, and she could see who they really are on the inside. Sure, she would see a lot of ugly, but she would also see a lot of beautiful. I also explained how lucky she is that she is part of a family that taught her about kindness and wise words. We talked about how sometimes we are the ones chosen to help people understand the value of kindness.

We also talked about friends. What makes a friend? If words are powerful, and we know they are, let's use that word correctly. At the time of that incident, we were newcomers in a unique town. Non-Mormons in Utah, we were dealing with being the outsiders, having to work a little harder to make connections. This made Hannah Jane a little more willing to tolerate bad behavior from potential play mates. The last thing I wanted was for her to decide, so young, that friends are the people from whom you tolerate abuse. Not healthy.

I explained that she never has to tolerate bullies, but that she should understand that often mean children are handicapped in a different way. They are handicapped by their ignorance, by the lack of people in their lives who show them love and model kindness. Sometimes we have the unique opportunity to be the one that teaches someone a healthier language of love. Some people have never learned it. Certainly the girl on the playground had a role model who was insensitive and out of touch with how to approach people with love.

Do I have advice for new moms in my situation. Well, sort of. If you possess the secret to giving your child a steel plated spirit and to dissolve bullies into thin air (meaning, if you are super human) use your powers, Super Woman. If you are average like me you need to develop a different set of skills. You must be able to project strength and hide tears until you find an unoccupied bathroom stall. You must be slow to anger and judge, and if you can't you must at least pretend to be. Shield your child's eyes from your righteous anger and share with your child the wisdom of the adult heart, hoping that it finds a home in hers. You must see the handicap in all of us. The playing field is level if you have the mind to notice. A missing foot is not so severe a handicap as a missing virtue and your child, wise beyond her years, will see that soon enough. Never give in to self pity. Your child will be the guilty party once in a while, and when they are, don't let their difference be an excuse. There is a higher standard for all of us to aspire to. They are no exception.

That's it. There are no magic bullets. Steel yourself for the times in the valley of self pity and doubt, and don't forget to look up once in a while or you just might miss the times that you and your child are soaring in the sky. Soon, you won't even think about it until someone e-mails you and asks, "how do you handle this?"

With love from one momma's heart to another's,
Momma Skyla

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