You know, sometimes I think God just gives us what we can handle.”
Oh, I’d heard this one before. I get it a lot, in fact, from well-meaning people who aren’t sure what else to say when faced with a mom who is living their greatest fear, with a child who calls into question the very root of their human quest for perfection. I’m never quite sure why anyone’s god has to come into it.
WALLS OF GLASS
by Abby Braithwaite
“Which one’s yours?” I asked. I hadn’t seen this mom before, but she smiled like she wanted to talk, so I started us off the easy way.
What followed was the best conversation I have had in eight years of through-the-glass parenting. Once or twice a week I find myself sitting on a hard bench on one side of a big glass wall with a handful of other parents, connected by nothing more than the fact that our kids are engrossed in the same activity on the other side of the glass.
There were three groups of kids in the gym that Friday morning, teetering across balance beams, bouncing high on the trampoline, kicking over in sideways cartwheels. I am dreadful at small talk in any situation, but something about these classes really clams me up; for the most part, I’d rather just sit and watch my son, enjoying the fact that, with his sister in school, I can focus on just one kid for a little while. And maybe sneak in some Facebooking on my phone when he’s not looking, truth be told. But I try, and this conversation flowed right from the beginning, a welcome interruption to my quiet watching.
“Oh, she’s the one in the pink, right there,” the mom next to me replied. I followed her finger over to a little girl on the balance beam, poised like her mama, her perfectly straight brown hair hanging tidily over the back of her pink leotard, face locked in concentration as she moved one foot in front of the other, working her way to the “Freeze—Ta-da” as she jumped off the beam and smiled up at her teacher.
“Oh, what a cutie! Mine’s the only boy, he’s in the yellow shorts and Batman tee-shirt.” I pointed to a rag-tag group of four- and five-year-olds perfecting their donkey kicks and working up to handstands on the far side of the room. “How old is your daughter? Is this her first class?”
“It’s our second week. She’s almost three. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone.”
“It’s crazy fast, isn’t it? Is she your only?” I asked, and she nodded. Pointing to my son I went on, “His older sister has a developmental disability, so with her I got to watch this beautiful slow dance of development. With him, it’s all just gone so fast. Stuff that it took her a month to learn, he mastered in a week. It blows my mind how fast it all goes by, and I sort of miss getting the chance to watch it all play out so deliberately like it did with her.”
It wasn’t a new thought, and it wasn’t the first time I shared it, but I don’t typically go around outing my daughter to people before she meets them. In my life as an advocate for families of kids with developmental disabilities, her story mingles with mine, and I am aware that she has been over-shared since she was just a few months old, when I started writing, speaking in public, and sharing our journey to try to make the world just a little better for everyone. She has been used as exhibit A for families trying to decide whether or not to continue their pregnancy of a child with Down syndrome, and her picture has graced the pages of the Washington Post. Aware of the burden I put on her long before she could give permission, in her daily life I try to give her a chance to tell her story first, to let her have some control over how the world is introduced to her.
But somehow, before we had even exchanged names, something in this woman’s openness, in her calmness, in her presence, brought out the comment, and the conversation blossomed from there. Soon enough she was telling me the story of the ten miscarriages she had had since her daughter’s birth, I was talking about my daughter, my advocacy work and the gifts it had brought. She told me she had just learned she was pregnant again, and that she was dreading it, knowing already how it would end. I could see the exhaustion in her body, and believed her. We didn’t throw pity at each other, we just talked. She was careful when she talked about her worry that the miscarriages were caused by genetic abnormalities, I was mindful of her grief when I talked about the joys and trials of life with two young kids.
Two women with no visible scars, but with plenty of stories under the surface, we had somehow found each other within the chaos of this kids’ play center. I had just finished my first week of an online writing class, had just been reading the first comments on a piece I wrote about my daughter, and when I mentioned the class, she gushed, “Oh, I was just thinking you should write. You are so eloquent, you have such a great perspective to share.”
And so we talked about writing, and its pitfalls, and we talked about self-care, and her work as a yoga teacher, and the gift that she gives, the healing she brings. We talked about country living, and the importance of kids growing up on the land, how lucky we both were to have the chance to give this gift to our kids. We exchanged names as an after thought—“Deborah,” “Abby,”—and a warm handshake.
Her daughter’s class finished first, and little Sophie came out to a warm hug from her mama, clearly a cherished little girl. As she helped Sophie change her shoes, stroking her perfectly smooth hair, Deborah looked over her shoulder at me and said, “You know, sometimes I think God just gives us what we can handle.”
Oh, I’d heard this one before. I get it a lot, in fact, from well-meaning people who aren’t sure what else to say when faced with a mom who is living their greatest fear, with a child who calls into question the very root of their human quest for perfection. I’m never quite sure why anyone’s god has to come into it. I tend to believe life just happens, and we rise to the occasion or we don’t. Usually other people who have had sideways journeys into parenting feel the same way I do, so I was surprised to hear her explaining both of our journeys away so tritely. Tired, and a little disappointed to be back on such familiar territory, I said, “You know, I think we don’t know what we can handle until we have it in front of us, and then we learn just what we can do.”
But then she continued, “Yeah, but I think maybe that’s why I had all those miscarriages, because He knew I couldn’t handle what you do.”
I felt like I had walked into a wall, as my blood rushed to the bridge of my nose and my head swam. I stammered something-nothing in reply, and in the few moments it took her to get Sophie’s shoes tied and her jacket on, I sensed that she was at least a little aware of her blunder. But she smiled and went on her way, with a “See you next week,” and I followed up with a “Yes, and good luck!”
After she walked away, the power of her statement swept over me. I couldn’t imagine the grief and exhaustion that one miscarriage must bring, let alone ten. I couldn’t imagine how that could somehow be preferable to the joy and exhaustion of my exuberant, vivacious, stunningly beautiful and very present 8-year-old. But somehow, in her journey to process her grieving, she could know that there was a reason all those mutated fetuses were rejected by her body, that at least she was better off than me, that there was a worse outcome than the empty bedroom next door to Sophie’s, and the boxes of carefully folded hand-me-downs collecting dust in the attic as they waited for a baby who never would be.
It was a few weeks before I saw her again – we missed a class, they missed a class, and then she was back on the bench to my left, looking tired. When I asked how she was doing, she shared that she had, indeed, miscarried again, but that she was doing ok. I extended my sympathies and we went back to watching, silent now, and soon enough I picked up my conversation with Olivia’s mom on my right, staying safe in gymnastics land as we discussed whether or not we would be accepting the invitation to move our kids up to the pre-competition level. We agreed that gymnastics is not, in fact, the key to making our kids good people, that our kids were just fine in this class, and went back to quiet watching, glancing at our phones when we thought no one was watching.
Deborah and I see each other every couple weeks, never quite making eye contact, never making it past a cool hello, the wall of otherness between us as solid as the glass that separates us from our children’s tumbling practice.
Abby lives in Southwest Washington State with her husband and two young children. She enjoys the country life, and gets outside with the eagles and cranes when she can. When she is not at home, she can be found trying quietly to make the world a better place for all children to grow up in.