In the foyer of every elementary school there's a gaggle of moms standing in a tight circle, waiting to pick up their kids. You'll find these same circles at mom and baby yoga, the new moms' group, the kids' hip hop class, and community soccer.
In the ten years I've parented my son Aaron, I've never cracked that circle.
I've walked past that circle hundreds of times and nobody has ever shifted – even slightly – to make room for me to join in.
I'm the invisible mom – the one whose son has a visible disability.
Most days I breeze past, pretending I don't care that I'm not standing with those neighborhood moms in their Lululemon outfits, baseball hats, and ballerina flats. When I'm feeling vulnerable, I put on my own hat and charge past, willing myself not to look up in case my eyes fill with tears.
This is what different feels like – it lives tight in my chest in the place where tears are born. I'm so intertwined with my son Aaron – and protecting him from this pain – that my pain gets all muddled up. If I know I'm different as a mom and don't belong, how soon before he knows he's different as a kid? Or does he know already? I shake my head and dismiss that unbearable thought.
I once heard the head of inclusive education (in which children with special needs learn alongside typical kids in general ed classrooms) for our school board give a presentation about building friendship opportunities for our children. "You parents of children with special needs need to make an extra effort," she said smugly.
That comment infuriated me at the time, and it infuriates me now. She told us to host "extra fun" parties and invite children from the classroom. Her message was that we need to overcompensate for our kids because they'll be excluded by parents of typical children.
So the reason my son has had only one birthday party invitation from school in the past two years is because I'm not fun enough? If I was super fun, would my playdate requests for Aaron get answered?
Instead, the little notes and contact information I slip into his classmates' backpacks are ignored, and I'm at a loss for words to tell Aaron why Matt isn't coming over to play.
Aaron's teacher tells me the kids talk in the classroom about inviting Aaron to their birthday parties. But I dig through that damn backpack every evening, and I've never found an invitation.
If I could summon up all my boldness, I'd march right up to that circle of moms and ask why they're ostracizing my sweet, vulnerable son. I'd ask them if they've ever been left out and how that feels. I'd ask why they are doing that to my 10-year-old boy who loves Beyblades, Legos, and Xbox just like their boys do. I'd tell them not to be afraid of Aaron, and that I'll translate if they can't understand him when he talks. That I'd supervise the playdate to make sure things went well. That Aaron is a little boy who just wants to have friends.
It's as if our society doesn't feel a responsibility to include those who are different. Is it only up to us, as parents of children with disabilities, to force ourselves into their circles and demand social inclusion for our children? A community who excludes one is not a community at all.
I do know that Aaron needs to feel loved. (And so do I.) Because that's what we all crave in this world.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Bloom, a magazine on parenting children with disabilities by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. It is reprinted here with permission.