I Refuse To Feel Bad About My Child

I Refuse To Feel Bad About My Child
Image by Ljusetitunneln from Pixabay

It’s Saturday afternoon and I am wandering the soulless aisles of Aldi, pushing a trolley only slightly smaller than my car. By my side is Phoebe, my adorable 12-year-old daughter.

My adorable 12-year-old daughter with special needs.

Oh, now she’s nicked off. I abandon the trolley and reign her back in.

Our first challenge is Aisle One, which the clever folk at Aldi have jam-packed with various chocolate treats, lollies, and biscuits making inexplicable claims of tasting like pizza.

Phoebe stops every two feet, frenziedly grabbing anything in a shiny packet, clasping her hands together in a begging gesture (or possibly prayer), and refusing to take no for an answer. Her feet are rooted to the ground and nothing, apart from some rather questionable German chocolate (or an inappropriate hip-and-shoulder), will dislodge her.

When she finally gets her way, she squeals and stamps her feet which alarms our fellow shoppers. Over the years I have become quite oblivious to the fact that we’re probably causing a scene.

Phoebe is kind of noticeable.

Aisle One can cost you 20 minutes of your life. Then we embark upon Aisle Two. First, the doggy treats. Don’t even bother resisting. Then the cat treats. I negotiate in my calmest, most rational mummy voice for another five minutes before she’s persuaded that we do not in fact own a cat, so it’s not really a must-buy.

Cordial and soft drinks next. “Phoebe, we don’t buy those drinks. We have never bought those drinks. Remember coming to Aldi every Saturday for the past 75 years…? Those drinks have never made it into our trolley”. She capitulates, eventually. But only because now she has her eye on a two-man tent which she’s deftly dropped into the trolley of another mum wrangling a three-year-old.

The mum and the three-year-old both stop their squabbling to stare, mouths gaping, at this outrageous child who has brazenly invaded their trolley space. And she’s dribbling! Did I mention that Phoebe dribbles? Kids (and their parents) often openly stare.

I remove the tent from the trolley, smile serenely at open-mouthed mum and kid, (I used to apologize but have decided after years of apologizing that I’m actually not that sorry), and press on.

Image by Ghana Shyam Khadka from Pixabay

Next, the fruit and veg aisle. Phoebe picks up a mango.

I swallow down my alarm, knowing only too well how this is likely to end. “Please put that mango down”. A simple enough request you’d think. She defiantly takes a bite, fluorescent-yellow mango juice dribbling down her lovely new white shirt. Mum and toddler from Aisle Two are of course continuing to gawp. Mum has a disapproving look that screams “Tsk! Why doesn’t she control that child?!” My mammoth effort at maintaining my composure is actually making my teeth hurt.

I extract the mango from Phoebe’s grasp, placing it gently into my trolley where it drips over the cute new stationery I couldn’t resist.

And then the unthinkable happens.

Here it comes – The Perfect Storm.

Phoebe grabs her crotch, makes a T sign with her hands (she’s also non-verbal – the Auslan sign for the toilet is T), stamps her feet and, although she’s hasn’t spoken a word, the expression on her face speaks volumes: “Oh dear. I fear I may have left this a little late”.

Yes, she’s toilet trained, but when you have a child with special needs, these things happen.

Aisle Two mum and toddler have both made the same gasp; part revulsion, part pure judgment.

Phoebe just stands there soggy but relieved, eyeing off another innocent mango. She signs “sorry” with a smile on her face.

I want nothing more than to pitch that two-man tent and hide inside it, just for a month or so. Instead, I instinctively launch into disaster mode, sprinting back to Aisle Three, grabbing two lovely Egyptian cotton bath towels, which I rub Phoebe’s legs down with and then do my best to mop up the puddle, all the while thinking, “Bugger, should have grabbed the nice pistachio-green ones.” Hey, if I’m buying towels I don’t need, at least they should match my décor.

At that moment, simple thought forms, and I find myself brimming over with anger (and, yes, a tiny bit of self-pity if I’m honest). Why hasn’t Aisle Two mum offered to help? Why have the other fruit and veg shoppers scattered like cats from a sprinkler? Why is this all just so bloody hard?

And where, can someone please tell me, where are all of the other kids with disabilities?

Why is it that after years and years of enduring (and sometimes even enjoying) this Aldi groundhog day, I never bump into any of them in Aisle Two?

Where are the kids in wheelchairs, where are the kids with Down Syndrome, where is anyone even remotely like Phoebe? Why is it that I feel as though we are the only family in Melbourne with a child with special needs? Are they all at a fabulous, shiny, disability-friendly supermarket that my Melbourne Child has failed to inform me about?

My resentment soon gives way to resignation as I realize that for many families it’s just too damn hard. And yes, I admit I have more than once contemplated leaving Phoebe home to avoid all of this inconvenience, embarrassment, and unplanned purchasing of Egyptian cotton towels.

Be proud of them. Don’t apologize when they do kooky stuff. Get them out and about in your neighborhood and into society.

I know it’s socially awkward. I know it’s physically exhausting.

I know it’s easier not to. But maybe then, when kids like ours are less hidden away, maybe Aisle Two mum will smile, rather than recoil in horror, when she’s being encouraged to consider a perfectly nice two-man tent.

Ricarda Rutter

*Ricarda Rutter is a Ten News reporter. She’s an award-winning and Walkley nominated journalist. She has worked at the SBS, ABC, and Triple R.Rutter is a mother and a wife.