A normal childhood

One of my biggest dilemmas is how to make certain you have a “normal” childhood, Miss M.  I want you to be the child who doesn’t let your physical limitations and difference of appearance slow you down.  I want you to be the child who uses your experiences to make a difference, who starts the lemonade stand at age 8 to raise money for vertebral segmentation defect research, who starts the kids support group online, who gets voted class president in high school because everyone recognizes your differences, what you have overcome, and loves you so much.

I was not that child – I was resentful, I had low self esteem, and I was always the last kid picked for the team.  I was unpopular from a young age – even at age six, I already felt different and like I didn’t fit in.  I know my parents probably could have done something to help me with these issues, but I honestly don’t know what.  Therapy?  More supportive of team sports participation?  I always liked to write, so they did encourage me to write.  But I always felt defective, wrong, and not special.  Even as an adult, I blame a lot of that on my cleft lip.

I think conventional wisdom says to treat your child, whatever their limitations, as though they can do anything they want.  Not just treat them that way – truly believe it yourself, as well.  I worry though that this belief, that you can achieve anything, the sky is the limit, ignores your reality.  You will know this isn’t true.  Your neck is very fragile.  Risk of injury from physical activities is very high – it’s unlikely you’ll ever play sports.  You’ll feel different because you can’t play on the teams with all of the other kids at school.  I can’t parent in a way that makes this fact disappear.  Inherently, you will be different.

And I don’t want this difference to be ignored.  I feel that part of the reason that I had so much of a struggle through my childhood is precisely because my parents minimized the effect my cleft had on my ability to fit in.  They ignored it completely.  I don’t recall my dad ever uttering the words “cleft lip”.  I can probably count on two hands the number of conversations my mom and I have ever had about it.  This lack of communication about it made me feel like my problems were all my fault, that the cleft lip really didn’t have anything to do with my difficulty finding friends, that inherently my personality was flawed.

Flash forward 30 years, I’m now highly educated, have a career, have normal relationships with plenty of friends, my husband, and my in laws.  Still working towards a normal relationship with my sister and parents, because of all of the baggage.  But essentially, my cleft isn’t a factor in my life now.  However, my experiences in this regard make me hyper-aware of the barrier you will face to fitting in with your peers as a kid.

So I don’t know how to strike this balance – how to parent in a way that enables you, while not ignoring your struggles and differences.  How do I convince you that you are special, worthy of love, and give you the self confidence you need to weather the storms ahead?  I can’t pretend you aren’t different.  Your differences occupy so much of our time and so much of my thoughts.  To pretend otherwise will place barriers between you and I, and I don’t want that to happen, as it did with me and my own mother.  But will acknowledging those differences mean that I have diminished your abilities unnecessarily, that I’ve imposed my own expectations on what you can and can’t do, and that this will hurt you too?  Is it wrong of me to say to people that I don’t expect you to ever crawl?  Am I already diminishing your possibilities, lowering the bar, and giving you less to strive for?  Or is it important for me to acknowledge your real limitations, but to somehow show you that I think you are extraordinarily special despite those differences?

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