Not Excluded, Not Included

The musical score danced in my ears as I remained in the theater seat, soaking in every last note. Salty tears reflected my state of being over the previous two hours while I sat watching Little Women. My thoughts diverted as my mother’s friend approached me. Her smile preceded her question.

“What did you think?” she asked.

“Oh, I loved it!” I replied.

Unsure how to describe the deep ache in my heart, I looked toward my mother and her friend, and all that came out was an entangled statement: “I wish I had sisters.” They smiled, both well acquainted with having sisters.

I wish I had sisters. Those words remained, without explanation. They swirled around my head and in and out of my heart for days, but a longing for sisters didn’t describe the ache I was experiencing. Recalling scenes from the movie that evoked laughter, tears, and bona fide smiles, each one recounted stories of childhood, friendship, and playful creativity.

Childhood friendships are core to my relational being. My brother and I were beloved friends, our connection made even richer through relationships we shared with family friends. We learned about life and connection through pool days, sprinkler play, basketball games, cooking adventures, writing plays, and choreographing musicals. Friendship grew organically, a product of adult friends bringing together kids who grew into friends.

The memory of childhood friendships pulls on my heart, but this ache feels much heavier. When we began our adventure into parenthood, we were surrounded by friends who were having children close to the same time as us. Watching these little ones play together brought joy. Life felt exactly as it should be. Two years into raising our little one, I was aware of how differently he engaged compared to his peers. Intense energy and strong emotions demanded substantial parental attention when interacting with others through play. As he grew, it became more complicated to navigate friendships, and our circle became smaller and tighter.

There is a sweetness to a smaller and tighter circle, a place where one is accepted and loved despite behaviors that are off-putting and unreasonable. What happens, though, when your circle is disrupted by moving, and you find yourself wondering where your family belongs?

In a conversation with a loved one, I listened as she recounted a scenario in which she felt left out of something that she had hoped to attend. In response, I found myself telling her that it sounded as if her friend did not intend to exclude her, but she did not include her, which felt just as hurtful. What’s the difference? Isn’t an antonym for inclusion, exclusion?

My childhood friends and I fit nicely into societal norms. Of course, we had some divergent, neurodiverse thinkers, but their behavior (for the most part) was socially acceptable.  Oftentimes my boys are not easily accepted by everyone because their behavior is so different from others. They find it difficult to make and keep friends despite their fierce desire to be loved and accepted.

Active inclusion is challenging when it comes to individuals with challenging behavior.

I have found myself growing more grateful for the handful of loved ones who find creative ways to invite us into relationships. At the same time, I know my boys need more spaces where they belong. As a mom, I struggle with knowing the best ways to foster relationships with their peers. I recently considered reaching out to a couple of friends to set up an opportunity for play but felt like I might sound like a personal ad:

42-year-old woman seeks companions for two children, 7 and 11 years old. Children are creative, adventurous, sensitive, empathetic, and animated. Children are extremely inclusive of others but have limited opportunities for peer interactions.

 Willing to meet individually, as a pair, or with adult supervision. Prefer to meet in a neutral environment or your home, as children struggle to share toys and feel that they have nothing fun of their own. Flexible if needed, with advance warning. Children will not know about arrangement as changes in plans are not tolerated well.

Children need to be engaged with tenderness as they can demonstrate explosive reactions, screaming, running away, hitting, biting, and occasional cussing. Caregivers are approachable, engaging advocates who are looking to provide opportunities for their children to build relationships and create memories of belonging and connection. 

Any takers?

Bethany Cabell, a lover of simplicity, is often inspired to write by the relationships she holds as a wife, mom, and a physical therapist. Bethany, her husband and their boys returned to life in Texas after wandering off to the Midwest for a season. What she once pictured her life to look like has forever been changed by her two sons. Navigating this messy and beautiful path of parenting two children each with their own unique challenges, she finds grace and beauty in the gift of each moment.