It has never happened to me.
Then, one day, I experienced a revelation, a small moment of epiphany which threw a rather unexpected light on the matter.
It happened on the road to the check-in desk at Manchester Airport. Myself, Daddy, Big Sister and Freddie were part of a long and winding queue of people and baggage that moved with glacial slowness across the departure hall. It was an adventure for Freddie, who had never been to an airport before, but he was surprisingly content to sit in his buggy, munching raisins and watching the world go by (probably because it was stupid o’clock in the morning and he wasn’t quite fully charged yet).
This gave me rare leisure to take full notice of what was going on around me – it was a long time since I’d last been in an airport, so it was a novel experience for me, too. After a while I realised that a particular woman was gazing very intently at us. At first I told myself I must be mistaken. But no, she was definitely staring.
Then I realised something else – that I had absolutely no feelings whatsoever about it.
It was just a fact that I had noted but had no particular interest in, like the fact that she had grey hair and a pink jacket. I was completely at peace. Maybe she wasn’t aware that she was staring. Maybe she was just curious. Perhaps she imagined that babies with Down’s Syndrome weren’t being born anymore because ‘there’s a test for that, nowadays.’ (My answer to that: the test is not compulsory, and neither is termination in the event of a positive result.)
Did she think I was misguided, trying to take a ‘disabled’ child on holiday? (Excuse me, but I think I know best what is, and is not, feasible for my family. I live this life day-in-day-out, you do not.)
Was she inwardly hoping that we weren’t on the same flight, expecting that Freddie would be disruptive? (Do I look like a novice? See that monkey-shaped bag – it’s crammed with toys, gadgets and snacks. He even has his own portable toilet seat. Your loud jewellery is more likely to disturb people than he is.)
Freddie wasn’t acting up, so it didn’t seem likely she was about to give me a piece of her mind. My response to anyone criticising my parenting skills is this: ‘are you an expert on raising children with Aperger’s/Down’s, because if you are I would be glad to hear any advice you can give me. But if not, might I respectfully suggest you keep your opinions to yourself.’
I have been a special needs parent for a long time now. It has made me resourceful and resilient, and given me confidence in my abilities as a parent. It didn’t matter what she threw at me, there isn’t much I can’t handle. It was a liberating, empowering moment. If I don’t care what people think, then they don’t have the power to make me feel bad. They don’t have the power to make me feel that I need to apologise for bringing my children into the world, or taking them out into it; or for sometimes needing to do things differently to everyone else. My children have a place in this world that they are entitled to, without apology.
Maybe we have been the subject of stares and comments, but I just haven’t noticed, because I just don’t care what other people’s opinion is of our situation. Perhaps I should care more, after all, ignorant prejudice will hold our children back far more than any disability or condition.
But for now, not caring is the right thing for me, because it means that I have no inhibitions about living life the way we need to live it, about introducing Freddie to the world, and the world to Freddie. I hope that in our small way we can demonstrate that, in many ways, we are all more alike than different.