Fear and Loathing at the Eye Doctor

Last month, we took our son to the optometry clinic at a large urban university. As it happens, it was the same clinic where I was treated as a child for amblyopia, AKA “lazy eye.”88090366_8.jpg

Although twenty-five years had passed, the cavernous lobby was unchanged. Settling into one of the hard, gray chairs was like biting down on a stale institutional madeleine. My mind was flooded with traumatic memories of corrective lenses and long, boring afternoons in dark exam rooms.

Perhaps that’s why, when the student intern stepped through the door and called my son’s name, I was distracted. I didn’t think to introduce myself or my wife, Katy.

The intern, a young woman in career slacks and spiky heels, was prepared for parents with lagging social skills. As she steered us into the exam room, she assigned us names.

“Mom and Dad, you can sit right over there.”

Maybe because I’m the more gender-conforming parent–or maybe because I used to be a professional spokesperson–I felt compelled to explain the situation.

“Actually, we’re Mom and Mom,” I said in my friendliest, isn’t-this-funny kind of voice. “I’m Paige and this is Katy.” Katy smiled on cue.

“I’m so sorry,” the intern said, looking flustered.

“Happens all the time,” Katy assured her. I could tell my wife was trying to be unintimidating, despite her muscles and tattoos.

The intern recovered from her embarrassment, and things went pretty smoothly for a while. It seemed like our biggest challenge would be helping seven-year-old Waylon sit still. The clinic specialized in pediatric optometry, but the exam chair and all of the equipment were adult-sized. Waylon’s feet couldn’t reach the footrest, which made him fidgety.

As he swung his legs back and forth below the chair, I noticed that he’d grown again. I wished that Katy had dressed him in pants that weren’t quite so high-watery. (Although Katy and I both come from middle class families, we have very different ideas about how to dress for encounters with medical institutions. I was wearing a gray dress with black suede boots. Katy was wearing an old pair of cut-off sweatpants and a KISS t-shirt.)

About an hour into the tests, the supervising doctor came in to check on our progress. She was energetic and well-maintained, with clunky enamel jewelry that matched her blouse. She quickly read the intern’s notes and asked Waylon to follow a pencil with his eyes.

“Well,” she said final78023925_8.jpgly, “your vision is good. But we may need to get your mom and dad to help you with some exercises to help your eyes work together.”

Barely pausing for breath, she turned to me and began to explain the diagnosis.

“Can I say something?” Waylon interrupted. The doctor didn’t seem to hear him, so he asked again.

“Can I say something?” He was sitting up on his knees, leaning toward the doctor.

“Yes?” the doctor turned her swivel chair back toward him.

“I don’t have a dad. I have two moms.”

The doctor turned away from Waylon and began to write in his chart with great concentration. “Faux pas, faux pas,” she said, not making eye contact. “Happens all the time.”

For a second, I just stared at the doctor’s blonde, bowed head, thinking what kind of person says faux pas to a seven-year-old? Then I looked at my son. He didn’t seem disconcerted by the doctor’s behavior. In fact, having successfully represented his family, he now seemed somewhat oblivious to the doctor’s reaction.

The doctor was far more frazzled. She exited the exam room tout de suite, promising to come back at the end. The intern continued to quiz Waylon on the legibility of different charts through different lenses.

“T…E…F, no…P,” Waylon read.

Why wasn’t I more proactive with the introductions?

“O, L…F, D, G,” he deciphered.

I bet “normal” parents don’t worry about introducing themselves and explaining how they’re related every time they go to the doctor.

“L…P…C…T…” He was squinting a bit.

But imagine all the aunts and grandpas and big sisters who probably bring kids in here too. Doesn’t the staff get any kind of training about family diversity?

“Z…D…B…F…E…O…”

This place sucks!

“F…C…L…”

“D…P…B….T…”

I should have been better on the introductions.

“E…….T…..O….I…” Waylon was getting squirmy.

But I have a right to be distracted. I had a lazy eye!

“B…Z…F, no, E…….” He was really straining to read the lowest row.

“That’s okay,” the intern said. “You don’t need to read that line.”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of tests, the doctor returned. I was curious to see how she’d handle the situation, whether she’d address her earlier assumptions or continue to avoid them.

Katy was sitting closest to the exam chair, holding Waylon’s hand. The doctor shined a penlight into Waylon’s eye and asked him to focus on Katy’s face.

“Just stare straight into his eyes,” she said. Waylon, confused, stared somewhere over Katy’s shoulder.

“We’re almost done,” the doctor said. “I just need you to look right into his eyes for a few more seconds.” She pointed in Katy’s direction. “Him” was Katy.

“Look into my eyes,” Katy said. “Just this one last test, buddy.”

Katy gets called “him,” “sir,” and all manner of other masculine appellations on a regular basis. It’s usually not a big deal. She identifies in the middle of gender, and she’s pretty happy to answer to either pronoun. But I had rarely seen anyone so determined to remain oblivious to the complexities of her identity, especially when they’d been schooled by a seven-year-old.

A couple of scenarios flashed through my mind. Perhaps she had understood that Waylon had two moms, but she just didn’t think that Katy was one of them? Maybe she thought Katy was just a friend who’d come along for a fun, three-hour pediatric eye exam? Maybe Katy’s masculinity was blowing her mind and she couldn’t bring herself to use a feminine pronoun? Or perhaps she was reading Katy as MTF and she was using masculine pronouns to be aggressive?

When we finally escaped to the car, Katy admitted that these same scenarios had been running through her mind. The three of us discussed the situation on the drive back to Austin. Katy and I couldn’t stop speculating about what the doctor was thinking, but Waylon seemed bored.

I worried about his lack of interest. Was it masking some emotional wound? Had the doctor’s refusal of recognition made him feel powerless? I had read that eight is an age when kids from nontraditional families sometimes began to feel self-conscious about their difference. I wondered if the experience at the eye clinic was hurrying that process along.

All of these questions were on my mind two weeks later, when I took Waylon to meet Dr. M, the local doctor to whom the clinic had referred us.

I was worried, above all, about Waylon’s vision. I didn’t want his experience to be like my childhood, which left me permanently fearful of volleyballs and other flying objects. However, Dr. M’s office eased my mind; it was smaller and brighter. It didn’t give me the lazy eye trauma like the other clinic did. Dr. M looked me in the eye and shook my hand.

“I’m Paige,” I said. “I’m Waylon’s mama.”

Sometimes I say, “I’m one of Waylon’s moms,” but sometimes that feels obnoxious, over-eager.

Dr. M looked at Waylon’s chart. She performed a few quick tests to confirm the clinic’s diagnosis. Then she spoke directly to Waylon.

“We need to help your eyes work better together,” she said. “I’m going to give you a few exercises that you and your mom can practice.”

Good doctor, I thought. She’s not assuming that I’m married. She’s not assuming anything about our family beyond what she’s seen and heard.

Waylon, however, was not satisfied.

“Can I ask a question?” he said. The doctor nodded.

“What about my other mom? I have two moms!” he said, in a tone of comic exasperation.

I held my breath as I waited for the doctor’s response.

“You do?” she said, and her face lit up. “Waylon, you are so lucky to have two moms!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious. I felt grateful for the magnitude of her response and grateful for my son’s dogged determination to see his family reflected in the eyes of the adults around him.

Photos licensed by Getty Images.

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