We are going to the park today, and I’m watching her eyes carefully. I am used to this—all of it—but to her, it is new. As she scans the playground, I can see the doubt forming in the corners of her eyes. She is hiding it well, and she certainly won’t admit it out loud, but when Emily glances worriedly toward Charlie, it is clear what she is thinking.

Her worry makes me remember those first years and my own I’m watching her eyes carefullystruggle accepting that this was my life. Was, and still is. Over the years, I’ve become somewhat desensitized to the sting that accompanies many of these small moments. I have learned to train my eyes on Charlie’s brilliant smile and to forget the other children gawking at her on the playground. I have become well-practiced at hearing the joyous ring of Cameron’s laughter instead of the silence that falls as his first gurgling giggle breaks out. With time, I have come to accept that I don’t need the approval of strangers to know that my children are beautiful.

“Charlie, are you excited?!” Emily is wearing a big, warm smile as she reaches for Charlie’s hand, and I smile, too, as I turn my attention back to Charlie and Emily. It still makes me so grateful to see how genuine Emily’s smiles are. Our last volunteer, Veronica, liked playing with Charlie, too . . . on her good days. That’s not how it is with Emily. Every day she spends with our family, she exudes love for my children. She is never afraid to jump into whatever they’re doing. She sings along with Barney, hops like a frog, and dumps leaves in her hair. “Because Charlie wanted to.” That’s the only reason that matters to her.

I watch Emily and Charlie head to the playground, and then I step over the rim of the sandbox and plop Cameron in. Maybe it’s only because I saw that look in Emily’s eyes today, but I notice the woman next to me sit up a little straighter when she sees Cam. Of course, it might be because I’m not used to it yet. Up until about his second birthday, Cameron could pass for “normal,” just a kid who took a little longer to grow up. I have to admit, on days like today, I miss that time.

Now Cameron is nearly three years old, and he’s just struggling to take his first steps. The heavy way his diaper drags along the sand when he reaches for that red shovel a couple feet away is a dead giveaway that he can’t walk yet. As if to prove my point, Cameron raises his voice to a wail as his pudgy fingers come short of the shovel. Before I can catch myself, I have one of those thoughts: “Anyone else’s three-year-old would have just walked over a step farther, claimed the shovel, and triumphantly displayed it to Mom.”

I stop myself immediately when I realize what I’m doing. It’s not so much that I pity myself, because I feel, on the contrary, very blessed with all of the good in my life. And it’s not that Cameron embarrasses me so much, though he can, a little. It’s more a silent longing that I keep buried in my chest for a “normal” child, a three-year-old who can brag to me about his successful conquest of the far side of the sandbox. I’m daydreaming now. We don’t know when Cameron will start walking, let alone talking. I am not holding my breath.

As I reach over to wrap an arm around Cam’s torso and soothe him without touching his skin (which would drive him crazy), I can see the mother sitting on the other side of the sandbox stiffen. Her eyes bore into us, not leaving me or my son for an instant until I am able to gently return Cameron to a peaceful state of mind.Her eyes bore into us

It’s amazing how the strangers stare when I am with my kids. What is even more amazing to me is how many of them seem to think that if my face is turned toward Charlie or Cameron, they become invisible. Well, they don’t. I can see her eyes dart from us to the opposite corner of the sandbox, where her cherubic, blond toddler is building dilapidated sand castles, masterpieces created in his innocent ignorance of the supposed impending danger his mother has spied.

“Brendan,” she calls to him, in a voice that oozes casualness. The words slide out in a way that could happen only if she was very intentionally faking calmness. “Mommy is going to take you to the play structure now, okay?”

“Swings?” Brendan asks hopefully.

“No, lovey, let’s go to the play structure. We’ll do swings another day,” she replies, quietly stealing a look at Emily and Charlie on the swings as she does. I look too, and I see Emily happily pushing Charlie, who is awkwardly gripping the chains with her bent fingers, emitting very undignified squeals. They are the purest expression of joy, and to know that my daughter is happy is the best thing in the world.

But sitting here, in this sandbox with that perfect mother on my left whose biggest worry is probably buying the wrong brand of applesauce for her picky eater, I don’t only hear happiness. I also hear the unnatural squeak of Charlie’s laughter, a sound that, I must admit, I would have once cringed from myself. I glance down at Cameron, and I notice the other mom’s eyes flicker to him for an instant as well. I know as well as she does that she’s waiting for him to make the same awkward sound. I see her. She flinches when Charlie’s giggles announce contact between the soles of her sneakers and the low-hanging branches. This mom is scared my son is about to do the same, sitting not three feet away from her own beloved Brendan. Maybe she thinks the squeals are contagious.

“No, Mommy! I want swings!” Brendan does his best impression of folding his arms and pouts at his mom, whose plastic smile tightens on her face. Despite my better judgment, I grimace. Her acute unease is written all over the line of her mouth and the set of her jaw, but it seems her toddler has not yet learned to read this language. He doesn’t notice the razor-sharp edges of her words as they slice at my heart.

“No, Brendan, Mommy said play structure, okay?” I can see the words in my mind in some deadly, bolded font, brashly proclaiming in my face that I am not wanted, Cameron is not wanted, not wanted, not wanted, not wanted. Brendan still has not caught the drift. It’s almost comical, her dilemma. She can’t stay here because she’s terrified Cam will infect her son, but she can’t let him go on the swings either because Charlie’s over there. Never mind that there are four empty swings beside her.

Brendan is clearly on the verge of throwing a tantrum, and as the first crocodile tear slides down his tiny cheek, his mother’s entire facial expression shifts. I guess she decides that her comfort and composure are not worth the drama. “Build me another sandcastle, will you?”Frustration and embarrassment flash over her face, and then her features soften into compassion as she reaches out a gentle hand to brush her precious baby’s solitary tear away with her pinky finger. “Oh, it’s okay, lovey, Mommy loves you, right, sweetie? It’s okay, shhh, shhh, we’re going to stay in the sandbox and build sandcastles, baby, all right? Look at Mommy, angel, look at me. See? I’m not going anywhere. Build me another sandcastle, will you?”

Brendan smiles up at his mom, instantly forgetting that she was the source of his troubles in the first place, and says, “Okay.” Then he turns his back on Cameron and me to dump more sand into his pail. But the other mom knows that I know why she wanted to get away. And I know that she knows that I know. So we sit there, knowing, and neither of us wants to say anything because, quite frankly, both of us are wishing we could be anywhere else on such a beautiful, sunny day. But here we are. Oh well.

I kneel down and scoop some cool sand onto Cameron’s palm, watching him experience the sensation of sand running between his fingers. If I just play with him, I can let the other mom fade out. I hear Charlie’s giggles from the monkey bars, and this time I hear only pure joy.

Then, in the blink of an eye, Cameron loses his balance and jerks backward, his closed fists flying open, releasing the gobs of sand he was clutching. I know before I see it that the tiny grains have landed between the eyelashes of this Brendan boy, and I know before I hear it that his mother is accusing me. But then I hear her, and I am taken aback.

The long strands of her silky hair whip around to mask her face as she whirls away, but they cannot mask the word that slips from her lips, under her breath, almost as though she doesn’t mean for me to hear her. Almost. “Retard.”

She grabs hold of Brendan’s hand and drags him away, ignoring his pain-filled shrieks. It feels like she’s leaving a trail of fire in her wake, and it must be the smoke from the fire that is blurring my vision right now. A hot tear sizzles down my skinI blink once, twice, and a hot tear sizzles down my skin, burning a streak of torment into my face. I can feel the word, carved into my cheek. Retard.

Cam looks at me, his mouth drawn into a small O shape, his eyebrows slightly raised, as if he can’t quite figure out why another mommy has made his mommy cry. It almost breaks me, that face, but I cannot let it do that. Instead, I let it give me the strength to straighten myself up again. I wipe the tears away with my sleeve, and then I pull Cameron into a fierce hug.

Then Charlie’s there, too, tugging on my ponytail to get me to look at her. I glance up, and she’s got the funniest expression on her face; laughter explodes from my lips. Maybe it’s the wave of emotion, or maybe the hug, or maybe just Charlie being Charlie, but I just can’t stop laughing. And there are still tears coming, but right now they have lost the power to hurt me.

When Charlie was born, they all told me this life wouldn’t be easy or pleasant, and I’d listened because I believed them. They were right, and I remember that today, but I also remember something else that no one had ever thought to tell me. If I could choose from all the kids in the world, I would only ever pick my own. I would pick them because I love them, and because on days like today, it doesn’t matter if they’ll grow up to dance in the ballet or study law at Harvard or develop the cure for cancer. No matter what, they are my everything, and today I choose them again.