12/02/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2013

The Smile That Turned My Day Around

On vacation in Vermont, Dave and I booked a dinner at a nice restaurant. Sabrina was going to a camp sleepover, so it would be just us and Max. I was looking forward to a special night with him.

Max whimpered as we walked into the restaurant. We were the only people there; it's easier to settle Max into places when it's quiet, so I always get an early reservation. But Max wasn't comfortable. He refused to sit down at the table. He gestured outside and looked at Dave, and I knew what he was asking: He wanted to take another ride on the resort's shuttle bus, one of his favorite activities.

"OK, how about you take him for a few laps on the bus, and I'll order appetizers," I told Dave. Life is constant triage, minor and major, when you're raising a kid with special needs.

So off Dave and Max went. I ordered the cheese, roasted garlic and chutney plate. When it arrived a few minutes later, I tried not to nibble. But I took a teensy bit. And then another bit. Mouse bites.

I checked email on my iPhone.

I snapped artistic photos of the cheese platter. I ordered a glass of wine.

Twenty minutes went by.

"Would you like to order the rest of your meal?" the server asked. I got mac 'n cheese for Max and an entree for Dave.

The time dragged on. I stared out the window morosely, thinking that by now I should know better than to build up expectations about outings, especially restaurant ones. I glanced at other families around us. Nearby, two parents sat with a little girl and a baby. The girl was coloring, the baby played happily with toys, the parents laughed over their wine. For a moment, I ached to be that family.

The waitress came back. "I'm sorry, I can't hold your food anymore," she said. I said she could bring it out.

I stared out the window some more. I stared at that family some more. Finally, Dave walked in with a sobbing Max. "What happened?" I asked. "He didn't want to get off the bus," Dave answered. I left it at that and focused on Max.

"Max, look, we have macaroni and cheese," I said, hugging him and trying to calm him down. He wailed. People turned to look. Max tried to run out of the restaurant.

Dave whipped out his iPhone and found Cars 2 clips on YouTube. Max tried the mac 'n cheese and liked it. He was OK. Me, not so much. I sat there, rattled and quiet and sad. Why does it always have to be so hard? I thought.

And then, that mom at the other table caught my eye. She smiled at me.

"You OK?" she mouthed.

"Yes," I mouthed back, and smiled, too.

A lot of times in situations like this, people glare at us. They don't know Max has special needs and think he's just acting up. Once, an older guy at another table said, "Get that brat out of here." I think I speak for many moms of kids with special needs when I say we don't want pity; it's isolating. But a smile or words that say hey, motherhood is tough -- any kind of motherhood is tough -- are reassuring.

This mom's empathy was the comfort food I needed.

Just like that, I felt better. Dave and I enjoyed our dinner. Max polished off the mac 'n cheese and had chocolate cake for dessert. And, wouldn't you know it, he asked to return to the restaurant another night.

This post originally appeared on Love That Max.

More to read from Ellen on Love That Max:

Why you shouldn't pity my child with cerebral palsy
Top 20 reasons moms of kids with special needs rock
So, what do you do when people stare at your child?