I came to see an uncomfortable truth last week, and, for the first time, I chose the men’s room instead of the ladies’.

It wasn’t easy, and it was a long time coming.

For the record, I’m a straight woman. Always have been; always will be. I’ve been married for 25 years, and I have two grown kids. I’m the last person you’d expect to see in the men’s room.

My adult son has disabilities. (Yes, plural.) He needs help in a public restroom. Always has; always will.

When he was little, it was easy — after all, lots of moms take their little boys into the ladies’ room in public places. Mostly, people were cool about it. Though there was that one day at the health club when an older woman gave me a scorching look and announced loudly that this boy was too old to be in the women’s locker room. (He was 5.)

I took her aside and said that if she was worried that he might see her naked, she was in luck: He’s blind. She pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin, then declared that her real concern was the risk of his “gender misidentification.” I laughed.

“If that’s the biggest problem we ever have, that would be great.”

He’s an adult now. He has a deep voice, and a full beard. As he grew, we got more in the habit of his dad taking him to the men’s room. But sometimes Dad’s not there. Like last week.

And in that moment, on the cusp of his 21st birthday, I had an epiphany.

This is his trip to the restroom. Not mine.

My son doesn’t belong in the ladies’ room. Not for the sake of the self-righteous woman who’ll look askance when we enter. He’s never noticed her, and in 21 years I’ve grown a thick enough skin that she doesn’t faze me. No. My son doesn’t belong in the ladies’ room for his own sake, this newly minted grown man.

What I suddenly realized is this: There is more dignity for my son in the men’s room, even if I freak people out by going in there with him. Even if I freak myself out, too.

For most parents, the moment you realize your kid has grown up is marked by independence. First apartment. First real job. We won’t ever have those milestones. For my son, independence has a more subtle threshold. It comes in seeing his activities as separate from me … even if we do them arm in arm.

It was my deepest challenge yet in “person-first thinking,” the philosophy that a disability isn’t a label and that it doesn’t define the individual. Instead, we recognize the whole person, who has the same privilege that you and I have to define himself for the world and to make his own decisions with whatever support he needs.

Now my son, the person — the one I carried, bathed, fed and led, guarded and guided all these years — had to come first. I had to stop setting direction for him, and start taking directions from him. My embarrassment, my discomfort about going into the men’s room doesn’t matter. On his trip to the bathroom, I need to be invisible.

And so: We went. And believe me, that first time in the men’s room I wished I was invisible. I wished the urinals were invisible, too, and the guys standing there who were kind enough to ignore us.

No one freaked out. Turns out it was a pretty mundane event — and yet one of the profound moments of transition in our relationship, from mother and child to grown man and assistant.

I felt like I was growing up a little bit more, too.


Betsy Spethmann lives in Dundas, Minn.