Lately, I’ve been walking around the house, muttering to myself, Bad Mom. You know, the kind of lower-case bad mom stuff – like when you let the kids watch Shrek and The Incredibles and Stuart Little 2 back-to-back, or realize you’re feeding them chicken nuggets for the third time this week. I used to say it out loud – “Bad Mom!” – but then one day, my four-year-old Annabelle said, “Mommy, why do you always call yourself Bad Mom?”
See what I mean? Bad Mom.
So I try to control the volume, which only makes me think it more. Cotton candy at the zoo? Bad Mom. Letting Annabelle out of the house in January in a sundress? Bad Mom.
And the whole Bad Mom thing is only made worse by the fact that I’m also a Working Mom. A couple years ago, I was at a kid’s birthday party (is there any other kind anymore? I sometimes wonder) and this woman I don’t know very well, but whom, frankly, I have always considered something of a bitch, sidled up to me. “So,” she said. “Are you a full-time mother?”
“Oh no,” I answered, stepping right into her trap, not really hearing what she said over the din at the train table. “I still work. Still writing, but I’m an editor now, too. I work at home, sometimes, but….” My voice trailed off as I realized what she had said. By then, the woman, who has a law degree from someplace fancy but, natch, has chosen to stay home with her precious son in the frog-faced rain boots he refuses to take off, had disappeared. Off, I’m certain, to sample the potato chips, none of which would stick to her skinny hips.
“YOU BITCH!” I wanted to yell. “You married another lawyer! Of course you can stay home! I married another journalist! I’m fucked! And guess what? That’s a lie! I don’t consider myself fucked at all. I’m lucky I have to work! I’d have to be heavily medicated if I stayed home. And even so, I’m a little crazy, so get away from me, with your froggy-booted son and your self-righteous attitude and your perfect haircut.”
Of course I didn’t say that. I ate a handful of chips, which I’m still trying to diet off.
See? Bad Mom. At least when I’m saying it to myself, it drowns out the sounds of the others saying it. And since Sophie was born, I hear it in my head more and more. Like I said, Annabelle is four -- technically, four-and-a-half. My mother, who loves a party, celebrated Annabelle’s half birthday last week by singing her granddaughter half a song, making her half a card and presenting her with half a cookie – decorated, I’m sure, with some old frosting she found in the back of a cupboard. My mom’s creative, but not the best housekeeper. Bad Grandma! I’d say, but she prefers to be called GaGa, and really, there’s no such thing as a bad grandmother.
So, back to me. Or rather, back to Sophie. Sophie’s two-and-a-half. No one thought to give her half a card on her half birthday – mainly because you’d have to be a pretty sophisticated two-and-a-half-year-old to appreciate such nuance, but also because Sophie is retarded. She has Down syndrome.
And no, I didn’t know before she was born, and yes, it’s been very hard. She had heart surgery at three months and only minor health problems since then, knock wood. But still, it’s hard. When Sophie had her heart surgery, my husband Ray remarked to a family friend who’s a pediatrician, “Well, we scaled that mountain!” “No,” the friend answered. “This will be more like shooting rapids.” He was right.
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____________________________Sophie’s therapists often comment that Sophie is very advanced cognitively, but behind on gross motor development. “Just like her mother!” I quip, keeping that Special Needs Mom smile plastered on my face. The other day I told our new nanny, “I’m not really your typical special needs mom.” “Well, what is a typical special needs mom?” she asked.
Not just Bad Mom.
In Sophie’s short life, I’ve already written quite a bit about what it’s like to have a retarded daughter, about how I don’t think retarded people should wear overalls and how I don’t see how it’s funny to make fun of retarded people when you have a retarded kid. I feel very strongly that people out there in the mainstream could use a dose of Down syndrome that’s not sugar-coated. And, to be honest, again, I guess it’s a defense mechanism – I want to get the Retarded Kid thing out there before you do, and I’ll throw in a Bad Mom, too, for good measure.
But recently, I had one of those seminal Mom moments that really makes you suck wind, that makes all the junk food and movies and 11 p.m. bedtimes-on -school-nights look like they came straight from an article in Parents magazine, advising how to raise your toddler right.
My friend Trish has a ten-year-old daughter, Abbie. We love Trish and Abbie, and both are in love with my daughters, particularly Sophie. I call Abbie the Baby Whisperer. I can’t wait til she’s old enough to babysit. She could probably do it now, if society allowed. She’s pretty wise.
The other day, Abbie was trying to fix her hair. “Mom,” she said to Trish, “my bun looks retarded.”
“Now, Abbie, don’t you think, out of respect to Sophie, we shouldn’t use that word anymore?” Trish replied.
Abbie snorted. “Mo-om, Sophie’s not retarded. She has Down syndrome. Don’t you think you’re being a little broad?”
Ah, the mouths of babes – or, rather, tweens. Trish and I had a tender moment in the retelling, and of course I loved Abbie that much more.
The sweet lull ended abruptly. I hung up the phone and said it out loud, this time. BAD MOM. Jesus Fucking Christ, what kind of mother calls her kid retarded, particularly when she’s not?
For about a week, I walked around thinking, “Maybe Sophie’s not retarded.” I suppose it could happen. I refuse to read anything about Down syndrome, but Ray has read everything, and insists you can’t have one without the other. Still, maybe.
We’ll know for sure in a few weeks. By the time Sophie turns three in May, she’ll have been assessed up and down, tested by therapists, social workers and maybe a psychologist, to determine just what services she’ll get from the government. These all depend, I’m told, on whether she receives the diagnosis of Mentally Retarded. If she passes the test, she’s not retarded. If she fails, she is. I’m promised the people doing the tests will do their best to get her to pass, so the government can avoid paying for more therapy.
I’m also promised that Sophie will fail. A few days ago, I sat with Sophie’s Early Interventionist (I’m still not sure what that title means, after almost three years) and watched her watch Sophie paint. Sophie put a little on the paper, but most of it went in her mouth or on her hair. She looked like a little green Martian with a blonde bob. The EI was checking things off on a list. (The therapists are always doing that.) “Hmmm, I see that Sophie is not putting two signs together,” she said, meaning two words. Sophie knows quite a bit of sign language.
“She does that!” I sputtered. “I see her do that all the time!” Of course, I couldn’t come up with a single example. The EI just looked at me kindly, with this, “Oh, isn’t that sweet and sad, the mom thinks her kid’s smart, but really, she’s retarded,” look on her face.
For a while, I Bad Mommed myself over that one, too. Then I changed my
mind. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to see the best in your child, even
if it doesn’t quite exist – yet. Soon, Sophie will be putting two and
three words together. Soon, I hope, she’ll walk. She’ll understand what
a half birthday celebration means, even if it takes me years to teach her.
And even if she’s a Retarded Kid and I’m a Bad Mom, I’ll relish every
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