About seven years ago, we headed to our 20-week ultrasound, eager to find out if we were having a boy or a girl. The pregnancy had been so smooth – easy even – and it felt like nothing could possibly go wrong that day. Until a physician came in to inform us that our son (who we had just learned was a he!) had an irregular right hand. They actually couldn’t identify the number of fingers or what his hand looked like, only that it was not fully formed.
What did that mean exactly? We wouldn’t find out for another four months until our son Cooper was born – glorious, perfect Cooper with his husky cry (which has since grown into a husky voice) and his head of full, thick, black hair. He was born with just two conjoined fingers on his right hand, which had to be surgically separated when he was only seven months old. Although his hand will never look like yours or mine, his list of life possibilities is as long as anyone else’s. You try beating him at Super Mario Kart. Chances are, you can’t.
Cooper has inspired me every day, despite the concerns and anxieties I experienced prior to having him – asking whether he’d be able to do things, whether other people would accept him. Today, when I look at Cooper, I see nothing but endless possibilities and I know he’ll be more than okay. He reads to me. He grasps concepts and facts so quickly my head spins. He cares for his friends and family to infinity and beyond. He scores soccer goals, does high kicks with his yellow belt in tae kwon do, draws amazing modes of transportation and characters, and goes on adventures followed by his forever-loyal stuffed puppy – appropriately named Puppy.
Unfortunately, there will be those who see Cooper, and immediately see nothing but his obvious difference. It is my ultimate hope that he is able to surpass the expectations of all those who discount him. However, it can be hard to do that when the ones doubting him are only seven or eight years old.
If you’re a parent like me, with a child who has an obvious difference, here is my advice. Although, I also have a disclaimer: I’m still learning as I go. Maybe you can share tips or best practices with me!
1. Love him. So obvious. I tell Cooper exactly why I love him every day – because he’s so smart, so caring, so funny, so thoughtful. I regularly tell him all those things because A) they’re true, and B) I hope upon all hopes that my love is contagious and that he will catch on to love himself in the same way. The world is not always kind, as we all know, and his first and best defense is confidence and a strong sense of self-worth.
2. Stand up for him. Although I’ve explained some of the reasons why Cooper is amazing, he’s only seven. He’s just learning now how to talk to others about his difference. While he’s figuring out the best ways to respond to those who respond to him, I try to show him how. I give him short and memorable phrases to use and play out different scenarios when he can use them. I try to show him it’s okay to address comments head-on, and to answer questions when people are curious.
3. Talk to him. Cooper typically doesn’t talk about most topics unless I gently prod him. I try to ask him from time to time if anyone has asked him about his hand, as a way to check in and see what kind of coaching he may need from me. Mostly, I remind him that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks as long as he believes in himself.
4. Remember he’s just a kid. Even as an adult, I don’t always feel like having to be a spokesperson, so I have to understand that he, too, won’t always feel like responding to questions about his hand or even addressing it at all. Let him know that this is okay. We adults have our days when we want to hole up and not have to explain every single thing. He will too.
5. Be patient. This is the hardest one for me. The Mama Bear in me wants to bust into his school and activities and shout from the tallest mountains about what an amazing kid Cooper is. That is not real life though, especially as a full-time working mom. Although things like the first few days of school or pretty much any new situation are excruciating (to me, not him), it’s important for a little time to pass to not only let Cooper get adjusted to the new people and places in his life, but to also help them get used to him, and most importantly, to let everyone else see the amazing part of him shine through.
Parenting, in general, never gets easier, whether your children’s differences are apparent or not. Mostly, I try to remember that kids learn from their parents. If we react strongly to anything – with anger or words of hurt, meanness, or judgment – our kids will, too. I keep my fingers crossed that the world is kinder for both my kids, and try my best to raise them to be kind in turn.