A note from Austin:
One of the families that received a chair from Charlotte’s Day shared this story with us. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, but the message remains the same. Please remember this Thanksgiving that everyone deserves a place at the table.
Leading up to Anna’s birth we had no idea about the rollercoaster we were about to be jumping on. However, the complications started the moment she entered this world at full term. Within days it was clear that eating was a struggle, and by the end of her first month she had a feeding tube through her nose. She started feeding therapy by the time she was 2 months old. We worked with a wonderful occupational therapist, and from the beginning, she encouraged us to include Anna in meal times. She spoke about how critical it would be for her to be included in all the social aspects of meal times, especially after she developed an oral aversion at about 4 months old.
By the time Anna was 6 months old, and could safely sit independently in a highchair, she was a regular fixture at the dinner table. During our weekly dinners with my extended family, she would hold court at the head of the table, placed between Grandma and Grandpa. Her cousins would sit at the opposite end of the table making faces at her and we would all chatter and laugh, enjoying the comradery that comes with gathering around a meal. Though Anna did not eat like the rest of us (by this point she had a feeding tube surgically placed directly into her stomach), she was as much a part of these family gatherings as anyone else was. Just as we would with any other member of our family, we made space for her at the table. What was in front of us on the table was less important than those who sat to our right and left. When Anna didn’t feel like she was getting enough attention, she would do a fake cough to make sure everyone acknowledged she was there. Occasionally she would even let food touch her lips from the tip of Grandma’s spoon. Anna thrived at these gatherings and it was clear they were a favorite part of her week.
Eventually, Thanksgiving rolled around and it was time for us to fly to visit my husband’s family. They had always been a little more challenging with accepting Anna and her various special needs (feeding was not her only issue), but we figured that was partly due to the fact they had only seen about 3 times in her 18 months. We couldn’t picture how they wouldn’t get a tremendous amount of joy out of this loving and happy child. So, we flew out to visit them, anticipating that spending time with this little ball of energy and joy would captivate them.
Things started out a little rocky. No problem. Adjusting to Anna’s strict feeding and nap schedule definitely took some getting used to. Also, Anna was a little suspicious of people she didn’t recognize, but it never took long for her to warm up. She wasn’t about to miss out on someone who might play with her. However, the truth about how my husband’s family viewed my daughter became abundantly clear when we all gathered around to eat Thanksgiving dinner.
There was no space for her.
The only highchair was reserved for our 3-year-old nephew. My in-laws knew that Anna sat at the table every night with us, and every week for my large family gatherings. However, they figured that since she didn’t eat by mouth, she didn’t need a seat at the table. They expected that she would just sit on the floor, or in her baby walker, while the rest of us chattered and laughed and bonded. She wasn’t going to be at the table and part of the meal.
So, I sat on the floor with her.
While I had always struggled to bond with my husband’s family, I had never felt as rejected as when I realized how they viewed my daughter. Their grandaughter, niece, and cousin. While my family always viewed her as part of the family, his always viewed her as apart from the family. Although not including her was done out of ignorance, and not malice, it didn’t make it hurt any less. This little light sat in her walker next to me clearly confused about why we weren’t sitting with everyone else. I tried not to cry or create a scene. By not having a space for her at the table, it felt like there wasn’t a space for her in this family. At this table she would not hold court and fake cough to get everyone’s attention. She would not giggle at her cousin’s funny faces, or taste food off of this grandmother’s spoon.
While my husband’s family has apologized for this incident, it is also clear that they don’t really understand what they did wrong. Nearly three years later they still focus on her differences and view her separately from her cousins. Instead of meeting her where she is, and celebrating how far she has come, they choose to focus on what sets her apart from her peers. And they set her apart.
Making space for someone at a table is about more than simply eating a meal. It’s a sign of welcome and a process of bonding. Sitting at a table is about looking each other in the eye and hearing what they have to say. It’s coming together and sharing part of your life with those around you. By making space for someone, you show them that they belong with the rest of you.