A few days ago, T and I were at a school function. There was a photo booth with all kinds of props for the kids to dress up with as they posed in front of the camera. T had done his own series of shots before I arrived, but once I got there, he wanted to do some with me, too.
As we waited in line, the woman running the booth looked at T and said, “How fun to take pictures with your mom! I bet she just loves it!” Then she smiled at me and winked, like she could hardly contain her delight at being part of this mother-son moment.
The thing is, T and I do have some similar features. Our skin tone, our hair, and our eye color all kind of match. So I totally understand why people make that assumption. But whenever stuff like this happens, it also makes me scream inside. You don’t know! I want to yell.
But I never get the chance. T is usually quick to correct people. “She’s not my mom,” he’ll say—in an innocent, no-duh kind of way. He doesn’t harbor any resentment in his voice when he says it; it’s more like he’s just shocked a grownup could be dumb enough to make that kind of mistake.
But on this night, for whatever reason, he didn’t correct the woman. He didn’t correct her later, either, when she said it several more times.
When some kids tried to cut us in line: “No way!” she insisted, “We’ve got a mom and her boy waiting to take their picture!” T just stood there and shot me a knowing side-glance.
Then a few minutes later: “Now, how about, for the next photo, you give your mom a kiss on the cheek?” He did it.
“And now, in this picture, sit back-to-back with your mom and smile big!” He complied again.
“Last one! Show your mom you really love her!” He threw his arms around me and looked toward the camera with a grin.
And it’s not that he didn’t hesitate. He did. The first few times the woman referred to me as his mom he let out a slight groan. It was a barely-detectable protest. I am Amy. His mom is his mom. He doesn’t want people to think anything different; he doesn’t like when people think I’m someone I’m not. But this was also the first time he didn’t outright contest it.
It’s like there was a part of him that knew it was easier to just go along with the charade—to let people think we were some happy family unit that was just like all the other happy family units walking around.
It reminded me of a time we were at our favorite pizza place. We often stop there on Wednesdays after one of T’s therapy appointments. On this particular night, my friend, Joe, had joined us, and when the server brought the check, it was all on one bill. I hadn’t anticipated that. When just Joe and I go out for dinner, servers almost always ask if we are together or separate. They don’t assume we’re together. Why did she this time? Was she just being absent-minded? Or was there something about throwing a kid into the mix that changed her perception? Joe is generous and often pays for me when we go out, but I didn’t intend to have him cover all our pizza (and all my wine). But as I offered to pay, he told me not to worry about.
So while he signed the tab, I scanned the restaurant. I had a lot of complex emotions about the situation. T had been misbehaving, too. So I wondered if our server also thought I was a bad parent. You don’t know! I wanted to yell. He’s a traumatized kid! I have no clue what I’m doing! Joe is just being nice! It’s not what you think! We’re not what you think!
But as I looked around, I realized I was making all kinds of assumptions, too. That couple in the corner? Dating. The man and woman with the baby? Clearly new parents. The older women by the window? Sisters. I made those judgments without conscious thought. Without consideration to the complexity that was at play in each of their lives.
I’m more aware of it now than I ever have been, but I still wish I could completely unlearn the habit of unconsciously writing people into a script. Not that I need to know the exact details of everyone’s story. But T has helped me remember to stay open to the truth that there is always so much more going on than we could ever possibly know.