In my last blog post I talked about watching a production of The Flick. For me, the play explored disability as a nuanced construct. I talked about how it made me realize the degree to which my own thinking about disability—my daughter’s in particular—has shifted over the last couple of years. This week I’d like to talk about my other response to the play. It’s about friendship, but not the quasi-friendships explored in the play; rather, it’s about my own.
We attended the play with some of my husband’s colleagues. I’m always disinclined to meet his professional friends because the conversation is often limited to “shop talk,” but dinner conversation this time was surprisingly enjoyable. They turned out to be interesting, fun people. Still, I wished I’d seen the play with someone else.
When I returned Sam’s call during intermission, she was distraught about her homework. By the time I’d talked her down, speaking calmly and reassuringly beneath the din of the lobby chatter, I was a bit worn. I could have used some calming and reassurance myself. Instead, when I returned to our group my husband was reassuring his friends. Not to worry, Sam and I were both fine. Was this the first time we’d left Sam alone? Was that the problem? It was a well-intentioned question from my husband’s concerned friend. I knew she was kind to ask rather than pretending nothing was amiss. But all I thought was, “I want my own friends here. Not someone who cannot know why I have been squirming since ten minutes into the play, who cannot know that Avery’s distress amplifies my concern about my child’s emotional well-being, about her job prospects, and especially about her ability to recognize friends who might take advantage of her. When was the last time your child fell apart because she was afraid to start reading Frankenstein?
I left the play convinced that I’m no longer capable of friendships with people whose children are typical. Special-needs parenting is my primary identity now, both professionally and personally. People at school know me as the mom who runs that diverse learners parent support group; people in the neighborhood know me as the woman who coordinates those brunches for “special moms” and answers email questions about sped law; I know me as the mother who marshals her energy during the day to prepare for come-what-may when her daughter walks through the door after school. This is my identity. I’ve settled into it. It informs almost every meaningful interaction I have.
Friendships among adults, like friendships among children, grow, transform, and sometimes die. We are most drawn to people with whom we share interests or circumstances. Friends who work together often find the relationship frays if one person moves to a different job. If a friendship developed while both people were single, the marriage of one is hard to negotiate. New babies are even more treacherous. As our concerns about infants, sleep patterns, toileting and endless visits to the park occupy most of our brains and most of our time, the interests that joined us to our non-parent or even experienced-parent friends recede into the background—at least for a while.
The same shift occurs when only one partner in a friendship discovers that the parenting journey she anticipated the two of them taking together will not be her journey. I remember Sam’s diagnosis. I distanced myself so quickly from the other preschool parents, especially friends whose company I had cherished as we were navigating the first years. Watching their children pained me; being around them evoked so much jealousy I was ashamed of myself. Over the years those feelings have diminished, but I still feel more comfortable with my people. My people live the concerns and challenges implicit in fluently speaking the language of therapy protocols, IEPs, special rec, and sensory overload. I can explain the vocabulary but not how living it changes the metrics for success that we use as cause for celebration.
I ponder the nature of friendship often, and I think my first assessment after The Flick was probably too harsh. Perhaps if I had known and trusted these people, met them even once before, I might not have been so determined to isolate myself. At dinner we found common interests, and by the end I judged them far more generously. In the world of raising Kelly I have acquaintances whose children are all (not) charming their parents with their entrance into adolescence. Some of these people have become friends. I have friends with whom I connect over similar professional aspirations, and I even have some friendships that I’ve regained from previous lifetimes. Still, my life is special needs and it is with these friends that I feel best understood. They share my identity.