Going on one’s first playdate almost feels like a right of passage. You dream of your child meeting their new best friend, and imagine them growing up together side by side. You’re hopeful to find a new best friend yourself, a new mom who understands what you’re going through, and start planning future dates for lunch, coffee, shopping, mommy and me classes, and maybe even double dates with your spouses before you’ve even really met. It will be perfect! But what if it’s nothing like that? What if you have absolutely nothing in common except the fact that you’ve birthed a child recently? What if you have completely different approaches in parenting? What if your child is developmentally delayed and their kid is running in circles around yours?
I will never forget our first play date. I was excited to get out of the house with my new family of three and visit with friends we had made in our birthing class. They had a bit of a heads up with my son’s story — we discovered some abnormalities in the many prenatal ultrasounds I had and I shared them with my class. We had not seen each other since our birthing class sessions ended, which happened to be the week I gave birth. Since then, our son, Oscar, endured a month and a half long NICU stay, four surgeries, and lots of therapies. He had just had his feeding tube placed, and we were still figuring out our way around feeds, as there really is no exact science in what will work for your child. It’s all trial and error - at least it has been and continues to be for us. On top of all of that, I had just been informed that my son may need assistance walking, if he ever learns how to — a revelation that I was still wrapping my brain around, having been completely in the dark of my son’s delays. I figured, he’s premature, he’ll catch up eventually, but a miscommunication amongst our therapists ended up in a shocking session for me when one assumed I was aware of his eventual need for an adaptive stroller or wheelchair and referenced it in a session.
Onward we trekked with formula, medicine, a 60ml syringe, extension tube, gauze, diapers, wipes, and all the other diaper bag essentials. We would have our playdate and nothing would get in our way! We arrive to be greeted with the aroma of spaghetti bolognese, the pitter patter of tiny feet, and a glass of wine. Ahhhh, sweet relief. We don’t have to cook and we can sit and relax, I thought to myself. You see, with an eight month old who is content to be in his rocking chair or on his play mat, and isn’t crawling yet, one gets used to sitting to eat or cuddling with your baby on the couch. This was not the case for our new friends. Their little tyke, born just a month after ours, was stacking blocks, crawling on the couch, saying “mama” and “dada”, and was curious as could be. I look down at my son, lying on his blanket and realized that the only other children we had been around at this point were other developmentally delayed children receiving therapies at our Children’s Hospital in Louisiana. This was the first time we were around a child who was developmentally appropriate for his age. I suddenly felt like a ton of bricks had been dropped on my head. This little boy wanted to play with my son, but all he could do was lay there. He wasn’t sitting yet, and he hated being on his belly. His delays were suddenly glaringly obvious — a new feeling for me. So this is where we are supposed to be? These seemingly simple milestones seemed so, so far.
My mind races, and I think of my son’s future. Will other kids ever want to play with him? What if he’s in a wheelchair and other kids ignore him? What if he’s bullied? What if play-dates are a lost cause for him? What if he’s never independently mobile? Will he ever make friends? Will other parents invite us over or will they think we’re too complicated to entertain? Will other kids call to invite our son over to play? My heart sinks and aches at the thought of him being ignored for a stupid piece of equipment, like a wheelchair or feeding tube, getting in the way of cultivating friendships. My son is the sweetest baby ever! He loves to cuddle, he’s ticklish, he has the best head of curly hair, and a contagious laugh. Why would anyone overlook this because of a piece of medical equipment? Why would anyone think of him differently because of a piece of plastic coming out of his belly, or a set of braces, or a walker, or a wheelchair? I don’t feel different from other moms. I feel rather normal — this is all I know. After all, we all have to eat and get from point A to point B one way or another.
“There are a hundred ways to skin a cat”, as they say.
Luckily, kids don’t really think this way. They don’t see the extra equipment and tubes, and if they do they simply ask what it is, say “oh”, and move on. Simple as that. In fact, my son’s curls have been quite the conversation starter - and not just with the ladies, with other kids, too. Everyone wants to come up and run their fingers through his hair. Eventually, people learn of his delays and complexities, but no one has run away from me in fear or pity. Since our first play date, we have enrolled in Kindermusik classes, which Oscar loves. He is able to sit unassisted for a good bit now, at 15 months, and seems to enjoy the new perspective this gives him. He loves the sound of other babies and especially loves the xylophone and colorful scarves we use in class. He laughs, sometimes making himself fall over, but I’m always right there to catch him. The other toddlers usually crawl up to him to touch his hair, which is kind of endearing, and Oskie doesn’t seem to mind. Last week we even went on a lunch date with a new friend of mine who’s daughter has Spina Bifida. Oskie even sat up in a high chair without it being stuffed with blankets! The other little girl shared her book about puppies with him, pointing to his head when she got to the page with the poodle. “Yes, their hair does look the same, doesn’t it?”.
At the end of the day, I still don’t know what Oscar’s future will look like. I don’t know if or when he’ll start walking. He still isn’t crawling. We continue with therapies 3-5 times a week, take him to Kindermusik, and expose him to as many places and people as we can manage. As far as play dates go, we need you, parents of typically - or non typically- developing kids to help us out. Don’t be afraid of the extra bells and whistles we come with. They are usually more intimidating looking than they actually are. We aren’t looking for pity parties - we want to talk about all kinds of stuff, not just surgeries and treatments, in fact we are yearning to talk about other things. We need your kids to learn from a young age that different is normal. We are all different, and that’s what makes the world a wonderful place. Use our playdates as a teaching moment for your children, in patience, acceptance, and loving people for who they are, not what they look like or for what they can and can’t do. We are just like you, new parents navigating how to raise a child with no rule book or directions. We can relate to each other, even if our stories look quite different.
Let’s all make an effort to be inclusive, accepting, patient, and loving. It will be better for each other, for our children, and in turn, for our world.