Reconsidering Overalls

posted Tuesday May 21st, 2013

Today is Sophie’s 10th birthday. She’s come a long way. Me? Not quite as far.

“Mommy, what’s this?” Sophie asked the other day, holding up something small and hot pink.

There’s a lot of stuff in Sophie’s room, and a lot of it is small and hot pink, and on this day a lot of it was loose — in honor of her birthday, I was in the process of a big purge — but I recognized that item immediately.

Hot pink velvet overalls, size 24 months, Circo brand. She’s been too big for them for ages. In fact, she never wore them. But I’ve held onto them for sentimental reasons, hid them at the bottom of a storage bin under her bed, a bin that had come out from under the bed during the purge. The contents of which were now all over Sophie’s room.

The sight of those overalls tossed me back eight years, to a time when I thought I could reclaim the word “retarded” the way some women like to think they can reclaim “cunt” (turns out, we’re all wrong), to a time I thought I could make myself feel better about having a kid with Down syndrome by making rules about things like what Sophie could and couldn’t wear.

Today, at 10, Sophie has grown into a kid who defies labels. She uses words like hideous and phenomenal, and still sucks her thumb. She performs onstage — in ballet recitals alongside typical kids and at Special Olympics cheerleading competitions. She’s getting pretty good at multiplication. She (pretty much) chooses her own outfits.

This is a kid who knows what she wants and has no trouble asking for it. Last night at Walgreen’s, Sophie picked out her own birthday card. “Get me this one,” she said, putting it in the cart. At her birthday party, she drowned out the crowd’s  “…dear So-phie…” with “…dear my-se-e-elf…” and spent the entire event — from the moment the first gift-bearing guest arrived — demanding to open her presents.

“Those are overalls,” I told her. “But they are too small. You need to put them back where you found them. Quit taking everything out of that box!”

Waving me away, she squeezed her almost-10 year old body into the toddler-sized garment, and would have left the house that way if I hadn’t pointed out that there was no way she’d ever get them to snap. No overalls for Sophie; not that pair, anyway.

I tucked them away when she wasn’t looking, then I dusted off an old piece about Sophie and those overalls. Last year when I turned 46, I made a list of things to do before I turn 50, and one of them is “Strongly consider getting a tattoo, but ultimately decide against it.” I think I’ll take a similar approach with overalls for Sophie.

In any case, here’s that old piece I wrote, in honor of Sophie’s 10th birthday. Girl in a Party Hat is 5 today, too.

The other day, my friend Kim gave me a pair of hot pink velvet overalls her daughters have outgrown. I stared at them, and pictured my own daughters. Too small for Annabelle, the almost four year old. Probably the perfect size for Sophie, who will be two next month. But I can’t put Sophie in overalls. It’s one of the things I promised myself I’d never do.

Sophie has Down syndrome. She’s retarded. We don’t know how retarded at this point. I personally think she’s pretty darn smart. She’s not walking or talking, but she can crawl across the room faster than I can chase her, and we can barely keep up with her sign language. Every day when she wakes up, Sophie waits patiently in her crib for her father or me, and when we arrive, she presents each of her stuffed animals for us to kiss good morning.

Still, the fact remains. Sophie’s retarded. And I have a strong belief that retarded people should not wear overalls. It’s not a good look. I know what you’re thinking: That woman is going straight to hell. Probably. But I’ll go with a strong sense of style. And so will my children. Particularly Sophie.

When Annabelle was born, we were bombarded with baby clothes: tiny caps knit with pearls and flowers, hundred dollar dress/hat/bloomers combos, pale pink leather hiking boots. When Sophie was born, we didn’t get as much — at least, not as much really nice stuff. That might simply be because she was the second-born daughter. But in the back of my head, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did people not bother with the expensive dresses because Sophie has Down syndrome? I’ll never forget that one of my closest friends took obvious extra care to buy Sophie several precious, high-priced gifts, including a gorgeous lavender flocked velour dress with a matching jacket. I still put her in it, even though it’s getting tight.

Sophie had open-heart surgery when she was three months old. She had a helmet for her flat head, and is about to be cast for braces for her too-flexible feet. She’s on her third ear infection this season, and next month, she’ll have her second operation for clogged tear ducts. You might be asking yourself: Who cares what you dress her in? Maybe I care because it’s one of the few things I can control in Sophie’s life. At 2, Annabelle already knew exactly what she wanted to wear every day. Sophie’s not there yet. I’m responsible for making important fashion choices. And I take that responsibility seriously.

I’m still not 100 percent sure why I feel the way I do about retarded people and overalls. The thought first occurred to me when Sophie was just a few days old. I was sitting on the couch with some girlfriends, eating iced sugar cookies and talking about Sophie’s future. We decided she cannot work at a grocery store, unless it’s A.J.’s. We decided she will fall in love, get married and have a lot of good sex. And then I announced that Sophie will never wear overalls. I don’t know why, I said. That’s just how it will be.

I told my husband. He looked at me funny for a while, then he finally said, “I think it’s John Malkovich in `Of Mice and Men.’ You know, he was retarded and he wore overalls.”

Yeah, that’s probably it, I agreed. Whatever the reason, it was a strong urge. No overalls for Sophie.

Until the pink ones. They were soft and pretty, so cute. This overall thing is silly, I thought to myself. Put her in them.

So I did. Then I took her out of them. Partly because the snaps kept coming undone, but mostly because they just didn’t look right. And damnit, I’m her mother, and it’s my job to protect her. That’s right, protect her. And OK, I’ll admit it, protect myself. For the past two years, Sophie has been just a baby. She’s smaller than other kids her age, which masks her developmental delays. But lately, I’ve noticed people looking at her. They can tell. We were at a carnival recently, and as I pushed Sophie’s stroller through the crowd, Sophie waved her hands furiously at everyone in sight, laughing hysterically, having a great time. No one was waving back, no one was even really looking at her. I suddenly flashed forward a decade to Sophie the 12-year-old doing the same thing in a crowd, goofily retarded. For a minute, I was not OK with that. Tears burned my eyes.

And then I realized that I have to be OK with that. I don’t have any other choice. But I can choose what Sophie wears, so I put the overalls away and dressed my daughter in a beautiful pink-striped onesie, and we went out to First Friday, where she giggled and blew kisses and waved. Lots of people smiled and waved back.

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Tags: Filed under: birthday parties, Down syndrome by Amysilverman

5 Responses to “Reconsidering Overalls”

  1. Amy, I’m right with you. When Jackson (now 15) was diagnosed with DS, I swore we’d always make sure he looked “cool.” He has to have cool glasses, cool clothes (Ok with out zippers as he can’t work them) and cool shoes. He doesn’t give a rats ass about what he wears, but I hope that when people look at us (and yes, they look at us) that they’re also noticing the hip Converse sneakers we got him last week.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. Not entirely sure why. But the tears had more to do with beauty than sadness.

  3. Looks like Sophie’s taught you a lot over the years, Amy! I love that you were so honest about your fears for Sophie so many years ago, and I love that she’s so different than you imagined she’d be.

  4. Amy, I love this piece. And this isn’t exactly a reply, but I wanted to tell you: yesterday Sophie’s school held a teacher-appreciation car-wash. There was an older girl with Down Syndrome there, tenaciously scrubbing her teachers’ cars clean. Her name was Bridget. And she had trouble following directions. “Step back from this car, we need to drive it forward to the drying area,” one mom said, and Bridget ignored her. She was busy scrubbing. Other parents asked her, too, and Bridget still didn’t step back.

    I saw the other parents carefully ignoring Bridget, not knowing what to do with this sweet, responsible, irresponsible, stubborn girl. I saw the other parents seemingly scared of this girl with DS.

    And I thought of you and all I’ve learned from reading girlinapartyhat. So I stepped in, repeated the instructions clearly, helped guide this stubborn girl with DS.

    Throughout the carwash, I kept checking in with Bridget, making sure she used the bristly scrubbing brush on the wheels only (not the paint), and the window-washer-rags on the windows only. Her mom was busy with another sibling, and it seemed like no one else wanted to deal with Bridget’s recalcitrance.

    So thank you. Thanks for letting me know that DS can include stubbornness, and that DS is not at all scary. Thanks for letting me see a DS kid as just another kid.

  5. Hi, I know I’m a bit late on this one…(but I just discovered your blog), but. I have experienced the very same thing this post talks about. My new husband (that sounds awful doesn’t it) has a son who is profoundly autistic and has an Intellectual Disability. He is 12, but functions, for the most part at about the level of a 2 1/2 year old.

    One of the things that shocked me most about his son was the way that his ex-wife dresses him. There’s really no kind way to put it – she dresses him like a retard. Most often just in clothes that are ill fitting, too big, too small, designed for an old man – whatever, she takes no care and he just looks awful and retarded. We get it, he is retarded. I know it’s a horrible term, but some times at it’s most base it really is easier to just call a spade a spade.

    But.

    He’s got enough problems, he’s obvious enough. The way he looks, the way he behaves, the strange and loud noises he makes – everything about him screams “I’m autistic”.

    But for f$@k’s sake why make it More obvious, More ridicule worthy by dressing him like a complete tard?

    I don’t get it. Give the kid a chance, stop dressing him as a parody, a caracature of what you think he is. Here’s the sickest part – Apparently, according to my husband she dresses him like this because she wants people to feel sorry for him, take pity.

    When he stays with us, I dress him in cool clothes, the kinds of clothes the other kids wear, and I swear I see him stand up a little straighter. I feel giving him what small advantage I can – even if its just clothes that are stylish, and fit well, it’s onle less hurdle, one less prejudice directed at him.

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