By Keaghan Turner, Ph.D.
Maybe because I’m teaching a women’s studies course this semester and everything “personal [seems] political”; maybe because of the most recent recrudescence of the Mother v. feminist debate surrounding last spring’s publication of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (passages from which I will assign to my students), I’ve been thinking about waiting rooms as empowering female spaces lately. Then again, maybe it’s just because I spend time every week as a mother in a waiting room, waiting.
I think this is a safe generalization: When you have a kid with a special need, you spend a good amount of time in waiting rooms.
These waiting rooms are different from the typical pediatrician’s or dentist’s. The waiting rooms I’ve frequented over the past few years are the waiting rooms of specialists—play therapists, occupational therapists, pediatric psychiatrists. When we wait for the pediatrician or the dentist, the only sound—besides maybe some coughing, sneezing, and whining—might be mothers softly reading picture books aloud or kids playing on DSis. These are communal public spaces—we are all sitting there together—but we remain isolated, anonymous, private. As parents, we are not there to make friends or to socialize or to chitchat. We are there, waiting for our child’s name to be called. We are there to see the doctor or dentist. We are there to get results. We are there to have a professional make things better.
In the waiting room of my son’s occupational therapist, the waiting room where I spend the most time on a weekly basis, this is not the case. Here, the same group of mothers whose children have the same Wednesday morning appointment slot wait together. These women talk. A lot. To each other. About everything. What’s more, in this waiting room, none of us expects to get results any time soon and there’s no guarantee the professionals can make things better.
The diagnoses of their children vary; the struggles of their families vary. But two things do not vary in the OT waiting room: it is full of women and the children are all boys.
One of these facts should not be totally surprising if we keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control report that ADHD alone, the most frequently diagnosed (and controversial) pediatric “invisible disability,” is diagnosed approximately three times as much in boys as in girls in our country. As of a 2011 National Health Interview Survey, 5.2 million American children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD; that’s 8.2% of that population. Given the pervasiveness—some would say epidemic—of “invisible disabilities” (which is a catch-all for anything on the Autism spectrum, anything neurologically atypical, anything neurobehavioral, anything to do with mental health), it’s no wonder our behaviorist, when delivering our three-year-old son’s diagnosis (after his first couple years of successfully and dangerously baffling all attempts at discipline and smashing a couple flat-screen TVs), said it’s “only ADHD” with a comforting smile and a relieved shrug while we blinked at her, thunderstruck. (After a couple more years in several different waiting rooms, I get the “only” now).
I have attempted to bring reading and to prep for my women’s studies class in the OT waiting room, but it’s impossible to concentrate amid the lively discussions that inevitably ensue—about the desirability or otherwise of covering forehead lines with bangs, about relieving neck tension by sleeping one night on a hard floor, about the latest developments in an ongoing battle with school administrators over an IEP, about the appropriate time to become a mama grizzly. I mostly just smile and nod, but still I know an awful lot of very personal information about a small group of women whose names I’m not even sure of. I know about their family history with panic attacks, their oversized male first-grader’s problems with a petite girl bully last year, how sorry their sister with three kids is that they could only have one. Eventually, it hit me that while I was staring at the same sentence in my women’s studies anthology, I was failing to appreciate the genuinely feminist, personally political experience happening around me on Wednesday mornings.
The atmosphere in the OT waiting room, despite the circumstances—which are sometimes heartbreaking in the form of preschoolers with feeding tubes and second-graders who will never walk or talk no matter how many waiting rooms their mothers wait in—is surprisingly cheerful. In the face of what most of us would consider tragedy (even those of us whose sons “only” have mainstream neurobehavioral disorders), these mothers manage to smile, laugh, and remark on the progress they observe in each other’s sons, even if the progress is as slight as the straightening of an arm. Being in that waiting room is like being inside of a real-live blog—or an old-school support group. Here is a handful of strangers (essentially) brought together by some degree of common experience, sharing their ideas, telling their stories—talking frustrations, failures, strategies, triumphs—and receiving feedback, edification, suggestions, encouragement, sympathy. The communal waiting room remains somewhat anonymous and so is, like a blog, altogether publicly intimate. All of us in the room together are insiders, and there is palpable relief in not having to explain, justify, or define. There is relief in not being judged and in being simply, immediately understood. Because of this insider-ness, there is a level of honesty, candor, and trust in that waiting room that I have never witnessed in a group of female (or male) acquaintances before. The neighborhood you live in, what your husband does for a living, the car you drive, where your degree is from (or if you have one at all)—none of it matters like it might at the pool, at work, or on Facebook. Our larger cause is common enough among us to affect the dissolution of boundaries (socioeconomic, racial, generational) that usually divide us into a true community motivated by a sense of the common good.
Maybe we should announce our affiliation with our own magnetic car ribbons: OT Waiting Room Mothers Anonymous. Neuroatypical Boy-Moms Anonymous.
Sure, there’s a therapeutic element to these sessions in the waiting room that is valuable in itself, but in trading stories and tips from personal experience, I’ve come to recognize that this group—whether they know it or not—exercises a form of consciousness-raising and call to action that goes beyond traditional notions of therapy or support groups. This community of mothers translates their personal discussions into action that often becomes, at least locally, political as they advocate—tirelessly and perennially—for their underserved and/or vulnerable sons: to teachers, school administrators, school boards, lawyers, insurance companies, health care professionals, society at large. This advocacy on behalf of our special needs children, empowered by a community of women, including not only other mothers but also the doctors, teachers, and therapists we collaborate with, must certainly qualify as some of the most important and practical activism some of us will ever perform as women and in solidarity with other women.
My Wednesday mornings in the waiting room have done more than all of my academic reading and training to prove to me the link rather than the conflict between identifying as a mother and identifying as a feminist. Every week I see that being a feminist mother exists not only in teaching our daughters to reject hollow beauty standards but also in banding together to persevere—personally and politically—in raising typically atypical boys.
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