Two weeks ago, Rowenna received an invitation to a classmate’s tea party birthday celebration. It was billed as an intimate gathering of young girls for tea, cakes, and delicate play time. I’m willing to admit that my first reaction was not elation. It was “uh oh.”
One of our current challenges with Rowenna is a tendency to throw cups. We’ve mostly got the throwing food thing under control (mostly) but for some strange reason, she still likes to throw cups. It’s our last great hurdle to the open mouth cup. She can drink from them just fine – she just insists on launching them through the air after each sip. So I immediately pictured delicate little girls sitting around an elegantly appointed table, with Ro launching fine china and giving me her best angry and frustrated “grrr.”
I also pictured a group of little girls daintily playing with dolls and other “delicate” pursuits. If they were older, I probably would have pictured them doing needle point or something. (Hmm. Is it possible I’ve read one too many historical fiction novels?) Rowenna loves art and music and making noise and making messes. So I also pictured this group of girls doing girly things while Rowenna did her thing – big movements, dancing, making her voice heard.
I’m willing to admit that I worried her behavior would make her stick out, and not in a great way. I’m willing to admit that it was a pretty ugly feeling and that it made me ashamed. I’m supposed to be her cheerleader, I’m supposed to be the one that removes the obstacles, not put them up. I hadn’t even given her a chance, and I was projecting my worries on her – and doing it all without any real reason. I’ve never seen her at a tea party, how did I know anything would happen?
It just so happened that the same day I got the invite in her school mailbox, one of the other moms from her class stopped me on the way to the parking lot and invited me out to tea. Our daughters have had a play date and interacted quite a bit in the classroom last year, but the friendship sort of died out over the summer.
Over the course of the morning, as we sipped tea and chatted, it occurred to me just how defensive I’ve become when it comes not just to Rowenna, but also toward other parents. I have an incredible, irreplaceable network of Down syndrome parents. But it’s so safe. I never, ever have to wonder if there’s a hint of pity, a touch of “better you than me.”
But those are feelings I put on other moms – not something I’ve ever heard from an acquaintance or friend, never an expression I’ve seen. It’s the kind of thing I get to see from the lady in line behind me at Target (and it does happen from time to time), but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen with someone who is part of my life.
It’s funny, really. We put Rowenna in Montessori school so she could have an inclusive experience. We wanted her to have typical peers because we’ve got that Down syndrome peer thing covered – some truly fantastic little people are part of our lives. But all along I’ve been denying myself my own inclusive experience. I’ve insulated with moms who “get it” but haven’t really tried to connect with parents on a more basic level – just the we both have toddlers level. I admit it: I’ve been afraid. For me, it took having Rowenna to “get” Down syndrome. I’m so afraid others won’t understand. But I haven’t even given them a chance.
So I sucked it up and RSVPed for this party. Immediately panicked about what to bring for a present because I don’t really know the birthday girl very well. Immediately worried about what Rowenna should wear. (Tea party means wear a pretty dress, right?!) Got a delightful and kind response to our RSVP and marked the date on the calendar.
Well, as she does pretty much every time I worry, Rowenna showed me just what she’s made of. I had her in a play dress, nothing too fancy but definitely something pink, put her hair in pig tails, and stepped into pretty much the most charming tea party I’ve ever seen. This mom could go head-to-head with Kelle Hampton any day. Dolls and pink and balloons everywhere. Teeny, tiny tea sets for the dolls. Goody bags with feather boas and necklaces. A cloud of little girls in their play time best, the birthday girl with a tiny fascinator. (Yes, a fascinator. I nearly keeled over from the cute.) Sunshine streaming in through huge picture windows and a delicately appointed table with girl-sized tea cups and saucers, tea cakes, fresh fruit, and even sugar cubes for the tea.
Rowenna dove right in. Played with dolls, chattered to her classmates, bopped balloons around. Brought things to me to look at before heading right back in to the group. In so many ways, she was indistinguishable from her peers. In so many ways, her play skills were on par with the others girls. They were all at turns goofy, dramatic, mischievous. They all alternated between sharing well and pulling toys away from each other. In other ways, things were different, but I don’t need to list those things here. Rowenna seemed to adjust to the environment. We had pre-emptively done a lot of outdoor play before we went, had a hearty meal, and a nap. I think that helped. She was very kind and gentle and full of smiles for her classmates.
During the tea portion of the party, moms nervously hovered (I had thought I would be the only one waiting to catch a tea cup sailing through the air) and proudly watched their daughters eat. Rowenna sampled a few things, including real tea, and generally seemed to enjoy this part of the event. No throwing!
Overall, a complete success. She was just one of the girls, I was just one of the moms. We talked about school and clothes and our families. The words “Down syndrome” never left my lips. The afternoon was warm and full and cheerful. I felt free. I felt like me. It was as easy with these moms as with any of my Down syndrome posse. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders. This is possible.
So where does that leave me? A renewed pride in my daughter, joy for the girl she has become, and a desire to cultivate friendships. It still feels scary, but now I think it is possible for me to get over myself and get out there. And I’m grateful for something so simple as an invitation to an afternoon tea party.