We sat in the fast food restaurant booth and waited for 4-year-old August to finish his food. August doesn’t eat, and doesn’t eat, and then suddenly when it’s time to go, he develops a voracious hunger for nuggets and fries. So his two brothers and I basically sat, tapped our watches (metaphorical in the case of my 6- and 2-year-old), and stared aimlessly around the restaurant.
That’s when I noticed the baby straight ahead of me wearing a helmet. His mother stood, holding him, as hid dad fussed with the diaper bag and tried to get settled in a booth.
The baby’s helmet was decorated with sports decals and pop-culture references, but nothing could disguise the white helmet encircling his head. I was staring. I knew I was staring. That’s because I tend to stare when I see something interesting, and helmets are definitely interesting. Say what you will, but you don’t see them every day.
“Hey boys,” I said, “that boy over there is wearing a helmet.”
Every head at my table swiveled around. They were probably picturing something akin to football or batting helmets. Instead, they were confronted with custom-made gear that partially covered the boy’s head. Jaws dropped.
“Why is he wearing a helmet?” 6-year-old Blaise asked.
“Well,” I said, making sure both the 4-year-old and 2-year-old were listening, “when some kids are born, their skulls aren’t the right shape. Maybe they’re flat on one side or bulging on the other. So the doctor creates a special helmet to make their head a regular shape.
“Remember, Blaise, we studied about the skeleton, and remember how many bones are in the skull? In an adult, those are fused. But not in a baby. That’s why babies have a soft spot.”
“What’s a soft spot?” asked August around a mouthful of fries.
“It’s this weirdo place where you can feel a baby’s brain because there’s no skull covering it. It creeps me out,” Blaise said. He remembered soft spots from his littlest brother and hadn’t liked them one bit.
“So the baby wears a helmet to make those soft bones go back into the right shape,” I said. “See, football and baseball players aren’t the only ones who wear helmets.”
They nodded. The helmet had been normalized. It fit into the scheme of their lives; it wasn’t different so much as something that happens. But of course, they had been looking back at the baby during the entire conversation. And yes, staring, because little boys stare when you talk about things like baby helmets.
“Oh look, you might get a chance to say hi,” I said, as I saw the mother walking down the aisle towards us, getting some ketchup or something, I figured.
Nope. She stopped at our table. My face reddened. She saw us staring, and she came over. How brave of her. For all she knew, we could be total jerks. But they recommend mothers of children with special needs or differences confront staring, whispering, and questioning. This normalizes the difference: rather than making the child an anomaly, he becomes part of the fabric of people’s normal world. This helps normalize other differences: Down syndrome, autism, depression.
“Hi,” I managed. “We saw your son and were talking about how cool it is that a helmet can fix his bones, because they’re so malleable. We’re studying bones. And how malleable bones can be. And then we were talking about how not only sports people wear helmets, but babies can too.” I felt like I said “malleable” about eight times. I worried she might think we were making her son into a specimen.
“Do you have any other questions?” she asked my sons.
“No. But he’s really cute,” said Blaise, making his goofy-grin baby-face. He’s like a middle-aged woman with infants, I swear.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“10 months,” she said.
“He’s super cute. Thanks for coming over,” I said. “I like his decals.”
“Thanks,” she said, and walked back to her table.
I admired her courage. It’s cliche, I know, to admire the courage of a special-needs child’s mother. But I did. This woman saw that we were talking about her beloved son and walked over to offer to answer questions about her son’s condition. She was making him normal.
And she did. A few days later, I asked Blaise about the baby we saw.
“He had a helmet,” he said. “Because his skull wasn’t right. And he had decorations on his helmet. That’s all I remember.” He spoke the words matter-of-factly, as if this type of thing was normal.
Normal. That’s what I bet that mother wants for her baby. It’s what I want my children to see when they’re confronted with special needs and mental health issues. They already see depression, anxiety, and ADHD as normal, since one or more of our family suffers from both. Now they see helmets as normal, too.