Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into parenthood and Down's Syndrome


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Abracadabra

 

Magic photo (2)

Abracadabra

This afternoon, my 9 year old daughter rediscovered her Magic Set, a gift for her birthday some years ago. A happy hour or so followed this discovery as she relearned and performed some old tricks. Tricks made trickier by her dyspraxic brain, we none the less cheered and applauded her with “wow” and “amazing” and “how did you do that?” Ignoring a dropped card here and there or the not so slight of hand that kept revealing its secrets, we allowed ourselves to be thoroughly entertained by her enthusiasm and joy.

Magic.

We smiled as we recalled her much younger self with the same magic wand. Sent to her room for some misdemeanour or other, she slammed the door, waving her wand as she did so, shouting those magic words “abracadabra, make everything MY WAY!” Her foot stamping in time with the last two words.

In a year when she has discovered that Santa isn’t real and the tooth fairy is not to be trusted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our house is now devoid of magic.

In the words of CS Lewis, there is a magic deeper still…..

It has nothing to do with fairies or elves, magicians or illusionists.

Before I was a mum I would imagine magical moments like this: happy parents swinging their toddler on the count of three as they walked along a path to a park. A familiar scene, but one that, in reality, never happened. Neither of our children could walk when they were toddlers. The shout it from the roof tops moment when my first born took her first steps as a 3 year old was soon eclipsed by another. The deeply personal moment she stood up at home, later that day, and whispered proudly to herself “I can walk”.

Magic. Deep Magic.

The magic happens when we least expect it. Like it did yesterday.

Yesterday, Hazel walked hand in hand with us, her parents, very slowly along a path for the first time in her life.

Nothing remarkable or magical to the untrained eye. To the non believer, there is nothing to see.

Hazel is my almost 7 year old daughter who has Down’s syndrome and cannot walk by herself. Hazel is wheelchair dependent.

Deeper magic.

And, just a few days earlier, this same magic had appeared at bath-time. Her favourite toy that blows bubbles and plays a tune had stopped working. The bubbles had run out. A regular occurrence. Usually Hazel would simply turn away and look for something else to play with. Not this time.

Magic was in the air.

She turned and looked up at me. Directly. Urgently.

Mum you need to fix this for me she said.

Except she didn’t say a word. She can’t. She does not yet have the words to tell me when something is wrong or when she wants something.

But she looked at me. For the first time in 7 years she told me what she wanted by looking at me.

Magic. Deeper magic.

I’ve been taking a break from blogging and some social media recently. Not because I don’t like it, the opposite is true. But having my head in a screen as often as I was meant I was in danger of missing the magic. I want to be fully present in these moments. They are a long time in coming and all the more magical because of that.

When a child reaches a milestone it’s always a magical moment.

When a child or person with a disability reaches a milestone, or does something they have never done before it is beyond magic.

Deeper magic.

 

“There is a magic deeper still that the witch did not know”

CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

 

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The Ripple Effect

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The Ripple Effect

A letter to my daughter.

I’m sitting by the side of a lake; our home for a few, blissful July days. A pair of herons make their graceful ascent from the water, up, over the trees and out of sight. Willows stoop to meet their reflections. An abundance of Water Boatmen paddle effortlessly across the surface, making walking on water look like the most natural thing in the world.

Carp (at least I think that’s what they are…I’m no fisherman) occasionally leap out of the water making me jump (are they meant to do that?!). Disturbing the peace yet also bringing it.

The water ripples. Concentric circles reaching far and wide. Their effect is mesmerising. Tranquility resonating across the lake to each bank. Practical too; the ripples help ensure that this particular man-made lake does not become stagnant.

It’s almost 7 years since you disturbed my peaceful life. I had it all in order.
Capability Brown had expertly landscaped my dreams. My home, my family, my life.
Everything was coming up roses and all my ducks were happily in a row.

Then you arrived, with your extra chromosome.

In a flash. Like that carp leaping out of the water.

I was not prepared. My peace was disturbed. My calm, tranquil, ordered life disappeared. Or so I thought.

I saw you there, suddenly in the centre of everything. Thrashing around, fighting for breath, fighting for your very life in those first few, terrifying weeks.

A shocking moment. One that lasted much longer than it should have, I am ashamed to say. I questioned whether you should be here at all. Was this in the design?

Didn’t you take the test?” I was asked on more than one occasion. A mixture of pity and disbelief on the faces of those who asked this most insensitive of questions.

Yet nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. There is no test for that.

The ripples.

The far reaching, calming and breathtakingly beautiful ripples of your very existence.

Nothing prepared me for the joy you would bring to our lives and the lives of countless others whom you meet. The laughter you bring. The smiles you so freely give.

Nothing prepared me for the restorative air you would help me learn to breathe. Deep, satisfying, life giving oxygen. I could go to the finest health resort in Switzerland and still not breathe air of such quality.

Nothing would prepare me for the tranquility that surrounds you.
A tranquility that has nothing whatsoever to do with noise or indeed the lack of it.
How could it? You are so noisy and your life is filled with chaos! Even as I write, the natural tranquility of just being by a beautiful lake has been brutally broken. Broken by the need to perform an emergency feeding tube change on you. Yours has broken. It keeps you alive as you cannot yet eat.

My heart is racing, my hands shaking. Life is fragile and yours particularly so.

No. The tranquility that surrounds you, that you carry, is to be found by seeing the world through your eyes.

You already knew about ripples. You were born to understand their power, their beauty.
Your intelligence is unintelligible to some people. Dawkins and his like couldn’t begin to understand. They are still merely gasping for air.

I notice there are bulrushes on this lake. I’m reminded of another baby. One that in biblical times, was hidden by its heartbroken mother in a basket and placed among some bulrushes. Someone wanted that baby, along with many others, dead.

There are those who think you should not be alive. They’ve even developed a way to help detect your extra chromosome long before you are born. A test, they say, that will tell a mother all she needs to know so that you or people like you need not be born at all.

They see the disturbance, but they do not see the ripples. They have no test for them. No test for joy. No test for all that makes up a person’s life. The test they have is deficient.

And I am forever in your debt for disturbing my world and bringing me great tranquility.

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Just one of three beautiful lakes at South View Lodges, South Devon

 

 

 


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Windmills and Bicycles

I love the Chelsea Flower Show. Glorious, decadent, sometimes ridiculous, but always sumptuous. A televisual feast that I dine out on each May. A week long explosion of colour in my living room (I’ve yet to actually go there). Designers clamouring for hard won awards from the judges. A label to be proudly displayed for all to see, opening doors to further fame and success.

Inspired by this sublime, horticultural festival I annually turn my attention to my own patch of ground or ‘garden’ as it’s rather hopefully known. I imagine how I will transform it into my own haven of tranquility; one with an edgy, urban, free flowing design, softened by wispy aromatic planting and ethereal water features. Award winning. Gold Standard or at least a Silver Gilt.

But not today.

Today the paddling pool is out. A large blue inflatable bath sits slap bang in the middle of the lawn. Well, perhaps lawn is a little optimistic. But there’s definitely grass, of varying lengths. Quite a few patches of the stuff in fact.

There is a border…of sorts. Hardly wispy though. More weighty. Overgrown even. A tree or two. A couple of swings, a small trampoline and a shed.

Oh. And a windmill.

A bright, colourful and very large plastic windmill.

You see, the garden of my dreams is not the garden of my reality.  The garden I envisaged is not a bit like the one I actually have. A different reality.  Not how I imagined.  A bit rough around the edges in places. Needs maintenance.

The garden I have is magical.

Yesterday, she made the windmill spin. My daughter has never done that before. The windmill I purchased on a whim from a cheap and cheerful retail outlet just the other day.

She’ll enjoy looking at that.

But she did more than look at it. She made it spin. She actually made the windmill turn. Over and over again. An action that most children would learn to do in a heartbeat has taken her years to accomplish. It does not matter. She did it. And she loved it.

Our garden is a safe place for a child with Down’s syndrome.  A place for her to be. To feel, to smell, to touch, to taste, to explore. Our garden is her space. A safe space. A nurturing space. A joyful space.

It’s also a place where her older sister can be herself. It’s where she can, if she chooses, practice riding a bike – away from the quizzical looks of others. She has yet to be able to ride a bike properly. Dyspraxia – a life-long developmental condition – has recently been added to the list of our own awards. Another formal label now appears at the top of the endless stream of hospital letters that we receive; I’m not complaining – labels can help open doors to a different kind of success. Dyspraxia makes the things that most children take for granted so much harder for her. Climbing, swimming, running, jumping, riding a bike or a scooter – they are all typically huge challenges for a person with Dyspraxia. It also brings with it a host of daily sensory challenges and stresses.

Our garden is her safe place too.

We are soon to have some long overdue landscaping done. Some order is most definitely needed, I have to admit.  A patio would be nice.

Chelsea is glorious. Perfection. But in many ways it’s an illusion. Temporary. Taken down once the cameras have been switched off.  For most people, their gardens are not like that. And, as much as I love Chelsea, I am sad at how it leaves me feeling when it’s over. As though my garden isn’t good enough. Defective. Less than.

Our garden is not a Chelsea garden. Yet, despite perceived flaws in its design it brings great beauty and depth to our lives. Sometimes chaotic, sometimes peaceful. It is an ever changing landscape that challenges me and captivates me at the same time. It is a tough but beautiful place to be. I want no other garden.

I think Chelsea is perhaps selling fake flowers. Artificial.

Someone told me once that I could aim for perfection with my unborn child. By not having her. By ending her life before she was born and trying again for a better one. A gold standard, award winning one.  I like gold, I really do.

But I prefer windmills.

Hazel and windmill

 

 


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Snowflake

My daughter is, as I write, shouting at snowflakes. Loudly, as they whirl around outside, on a bitterly cold and windy March day.

Hands raised, fingers tracing the snowflakes path as they tumble to the ground. Transforming her world. Well, the garden. And, for a little girl with Down’s syndrome who, as yet, has only a few words in her vocabulary, snowflakes make her shout!

She’s not the only one who shouts at snowflakes.

Disruption, hard work, cost.

Beautiful, intricate detail. Delightful. So exciting!

Can’t get to work. Social plans cancelled. Schools shut. Wish it would go away.

Mesmerising. Wide eyed and wondering “what is this magical show taking place outside every window?” Joyfully in the moment. This moment. Now. It’s snowing. And it’s beautiful….to her.  A Narnian landscape.

Snowflakes

Each one unique. Individual. Intricate designs. No two the same. Small, tiny even, yet, collectively, they transform the landscape.

Snowflake

A word now used to insult and/or define an entire group of people. A generation. We seem to be a society that is often intent on name calling, labeling, closing down the voices of those we disagree with or fear. Silencing them without ever trying to understand them. Holding fast to prejudiced views and opinions. Discriminating.

Beautiful words made ugly.

A society that says it is diverse, yet one that seeks to silence that which it fears or does not understand.

My daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, shouts at snowflakes. Not because she is angry with them but because she is captivated by them. Transfixed.  They are of great value to her.  She cannot take her eyes off them.

There was no snow when she was born, 6 or so years ago. Instead, the rich warmth of autumn leaves swirled around the ambulance door as nurses whisked her off into the Neo Natal Intensive care unit, her life in the balance.

Autumn colours are magnificent too. Vibrant. I wish now I had taken more time to notice them. Instead, I chose to look away and stared unblinkingly at grey skies.

Her life was fragile. Our life was disrupted. Plans cancelled. Couldn’t work. Costly. Painful.

For a while I was angry. I may have even shouted.  The words Down’s syndrome were, to me, and to my shame, ugly words. I hated them. Prejudice I didn’t know I had ran so very deep. I could barely even say them.

Until, that is, a nurse came in and said just four words to me. Four words that I so badly needed to hear but that no one (other than family) had said. Words that had been said about her older sister the moment she was born.

Hazel was nearly a week old before I heard them.

“Congratulations, she is beautiful”

Words are so powerful. Transformative. Life changing. Life enriching.

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. Today, all we really want is for the outdated and discriminatory language surrounding Down’s syndrome to change.  Language that breeds fear and uncertainty changed into language that brings hope and understanding.  Using different words. Let’s ditch the damaging discourse on Down’s syndrome. Babies, children, young people, adults with Down’s syndrome are worthy. They are of great worth, as are you and I.  They are people, not defects. They are not a ‘risk’ or a ‘problem’ or even ‘horrible’- as I recently heard of them being described by someone involved with pre-natal screening.

Change the narrative.  Down’s syndrome is not something to fear. To avoid, or get rid of.  A person with Down’s syndrome is so much more than a medical list of ‘problems’.

We miss out on the joy when we focus solely on the difference, the disruption to our plans, the cost. That one extra chromosome.

Cost, financial burden to the state….all words that have been tossed in the direction of people like me – parents of children with Down’s syndrome. As if these words have anything to do with a person’s worth?

I see a change in the landscape.

A group of mums, some of whom I am proud to know as friends, have caused a bit of a snow storm themselves this week. They have shown, in one short, beautiful (and now viral) video that “Down’s syndrome” are not ugly words. They are words of great and extraordinary worth. Words that speak of love and joy and a life worth living. These women and their unique and beautiful children are collectively transforming the landscape.

And it is a stunning landscape.

50 Mums |50 Kids | 1 Extra Chromosome

WDSD18 TS

www.youtube.com

 

 


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Wait for me

Wait for me…

I’ve never been very good at waiting. As a child, if you gave me a Christmas or birthday present before the big day, I’d be itching to know what was inside. Prodding and poking it until I’d eventually worked out exactly what was concealed. I couldn’t wait.

It was the same when pregnant with both my children. Boy or girl, I wanted to know. I didn’t need to know, I just wanted to. For no other reason than my curiosity got the better of me. I admire couples who choose not to know the gender of their unborn baby. They have a level of self-control that evades me totally.

But having had two children, both with additional needs, I have had to learn, really learn what it is to wait.

“Wait for me” is a phrase often heard in our family. My eldest child M, recently formally diagnosed with another condition – Dyspraxia (DCD), uses this phrase the most. With good reason.

You see, for her, a simple walk with family or friends means twice the effort.

What most of us able bodied do with relative ease is more challenging for her. It’s easy to overlook the work she has to put in to keep up the pace.

So she reminds us.

Wait for me.

Her friends and peers are supportive, but sometimes they, quite understandably and naturally forget; running on ahead in their excitement. Leaving her behind.

Wait for me.

Just the other weekend, we found ourselves staying in the beautiful Welsh/English border countryside with friends.

Outdoors obviously called for some exploration.  Not the easiest of terrain for anyone with mobility issues! So, to see her very close (and particularly agile) friend hold back and help her negotiate a steep grassy slope, hand in hand, made my heart sing.

The friend waited.

She didn’t have to of course. No one would have blamed her for running on ahead, doing exactly what children do.

The friend valued my daughter and was prepared to put her own agenda to one side.

Valuing each other is something increasingly missing in our society. Really valuing each other I mean.

Putting the other person ahead of ourselves. Seeing their worth and valuing them for who they are, however different they may appear. Going at their pace, looking for ways to help them move forward; however much that may slow us down. Not leaving them isolated or abandoned.

The friend made a choice to value. That choice made all the difference; to my daughter, and to me.

Nearly seven years ago, when doctors told me my unborn baby might have Down’s syndrome or another  condition, I chose to wait. I chose not to have invasive tests that would tell me for certain if that was the case. It wasn’t easy to wait. I won’t lie – part of the reason for not wanting to know was that I was in denial about even the possibility of having a child with Down’s syndrome. Part of me hoped that it was all a mistake and everything would be “fine” in the end.

Wait for me.

Hazel, my youngest, is now six and a half years old. She loves life and most of all she loves and values people. People like you and me.  People.

I waited for her.

She arrived and our lives were undoubtedly turned upside for a while.

She patiently waited for me to come to terms with her extra chromosome.

I am eternally glad I waited for her.

Waiting for her has taught me more than anything about the priceless value of human lives. … hers, mine, yours, theirs.

I hope that women really do get a choice when it comes to the new prenatal screening tests (NIPT) being introduced across the NHS. I hope that choice actively includes supporting women choosing NOT to screen if they really don’t want to. Supporting them instead to wait. Supporting their choice, instead of pressuring them to ‘choose’ termination. There are far too many real life examples of the latter happening to women.  I know, I was one of them. That’s not choice.  There is another. And it’s a choice well worth making, I am certain of that.

There is real value in choosing to wait.

Wait for me.

#equallyvalued

#dontscreenusout


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Playing Games

Playing games. A Christmas tradition for many. Families bonding or, more likely arguing, over a round of Trivial Pursuit.  It’s a common scene played out across many a coffee table in the UK over the festive season.

Growing up, my personal favourite was Top Trumps. A pack of cards with facts and figures about some deeply important subject such as Football Players or, in our case, Supercars. Data such as Height, Weight, Matches Won, or in the case of the cars, Engine Size or Top Speed scored and listed against a picture of the car. The idea being that you tried to “Trump” your opponent’s card with a winning fact from your card. Very quickly you learnt which card was the best. The card to trump all cards. And if you didn’t have this revered card in your hand you were definitely playing on the back foot. Failure almost certain.

Oh, the sense of superiority you felt as you held that special card aloft. Victory was sweet as you slapped it down on the table. A moment to savour.

Top Trump. I win.

Out of favour for a while, Top Trumps have made a resurgence in recent years. And there is now a broader choice of subjects that cater for all tastes.

There is also an unofficial version of the game being played out. You can’t buy it in the shops, it’s not actually for sale. But it is widely played. Maybe you’ve played it yourself. Perhaps you’ve even held up the trump card and used it.

The theme?

Babies In The Womb.

Or foetuses...depending on which version you want to play.

Oh and did I mention that these babies have or may have Down’s syndrome?

The cards themselves are full of information. However, in older versions of the game stats are largely out of date. Take the category of Health. This may be very low scoring in those games. If you are unfortunate enough to be playing with this version then you will not be aware that science and medicine have moved on. The health of a person with Down’s syndrome can and has been vastly improved. People with Down’s syndrome can now expect to live well into their sixties and even seventies.

Let’s try another category then. Quality of Life. Again very low scoring in earlier versions. You’d be forgiven for not realising that a person with Down’s syndrome can lead a GREAT life! This score is now significantly higher thanks to early intervention methods, education and the love and care and support of a good community.

More up to date versions of this game are, thankfully, now available. These versions contain accurate data and positive information about what it means to have Down’s syndrome. Sadly, not everyone is using the new version yet. If only the medical profession, the media, and other influential groups could put down their vintage decks and get with the times. Expectant parents might actually be served so much better.

It appears, however, that both packs do contain one card which, according to the rules, trumps all others.

This card has and is constantly used to end the game. To silence the opposition and to bring all interaction to an abrupt end.

The Choice Card.

My body my choice.

Her body, her choice.

It’s the trump card.

It’s that card that says nothing else is as important as this. A line that cannot be crossed.

As opposing sides of the game wave their cards in the air, shouting at each other, Top Trumps starts to look more like a game of Pit. Descending into chaos, neither side hearing the other, tempers flare, already deeply held positions become further entrenched, until down comes the trump card.

It’s the card that says Game Over.

Choice. A word that should mean freedom has become a word used to bring closure. An end to discussion and, 90% of the time, and end to a pregnancy where an extra chromosome has been detected.

If only we could really begin to work beyond that stop line of choice. How different society might be if it could give women who find out their baby may have Down’s syndrome a real choice. One that is up to date, informed, positive, filled with hope not despair. Truth not lies. One where women can access a choice of counselling services who are not backed by those who seek to profit from the business of abortion. Counselling services who help women explore every option and don’t simply assume termination as the only answer.  Stories of hope not scaremongering.  Changing the narrative about a condition that is often portrayed with so much fear and even hatred. Changing societal attitudes to all disability, making room for everyone. No longer speaking of Down’s syndrome as something to be feared. Helping women to birth their offspring and not believe (as I thought – for a while -at the time) that having a baby with Down’s syndrome was the end of the world. I was so unbelievably wrong about that!

Choice is surely about taking positive action. Looking for the best possible way forward in any situation. Choice can be the start of something, not just the ending of it.

Yes, it’s always a woman’s choice. That is not being disputed here.

But it’s all our responsibility as to what that choice really looks like.

It’s time we put the cards down and played a different game.

#choosehope

#choosetruth

#chooselife

#dontscreenusout

Positive About Down Syndrome. A website by parents for parents and parents to be.


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Laugh Out Loud

What makes you laugh? I mean really laugh. Out loud. Guffaw. Face-achingly so.

Slapstick humour? A pie to the face? Or a slip up on a banana skin? The sort that only happens in cartoons….except when it happened to my husband a few years ago, and I’m still laughing.

Or perhaps it’s wit. Great British sarcasm or irony. An evening on Twitter can provide an endless source of amusement, especially in the field of politics, if that’s your thing. And as for US President, Donald Trump…his surname alone provides great joy and laughter for the eight year old in my house.

For my younger daughter, Hazel, with her extra chromosome, I really don’t know what makes her laugh. All I know is, she does. Often.

Laugh. Giggle. Snort. Belly laugh.

She somehow missed the memo about suffering (you know – the one given out with the advice to pregnant women about their risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome.) But what is she laughing at or about? I genuinely don’t know ninety percent of the time. It’s a mystery. Lately, she’s been waking up giggling. Laughing, alone, in her cot bed. At what?

No idea. But it triggers more laughter. It’s contagious. One by one, we go down with the same condition. We just don’t know why.

Often, she’ll start laughing at other random moments of the day. Really laughing. Again, I have no idea why. There are no visual clues. Nothing funny has happened. No slapstick or custard pies to be seen. Nobody has fallen over or stubbed their toe. No one has made any rude noises or said the word poo. No one has told a joke – even if they did I doubt she would understand a word of it, and our jokes aren’t usually that funny!  And, as she has very little speech, it’s not as if she can tell me what’s so funny.

Share the joke Hazel.

There are, of course, many occasions when we can see the reason for the joy.

Her older sister can be guaranteed to extract laughter from her in that special way only siblings do. The bond is tangible and strong. Clearly, her sister missed that memo…you know, the one about how the siblings will suffer.

Then there was the time recently when a dear friend came to visit and joined in with the bathtime routine. Much hilarity and joy as our friend – who just so happens to make people laugh for a living – introduced a song and a dance to the proceedings. Laughter like we’d never heard coming from the tub.  You really know how to extract the laughter from her, say I. It’s kind of what we comics do says she.

Extracting the laughter. That need, sometimes, to go after the joy. To find it, work for it and revel in it. Life is hard, we may forget to laugh and not experience its benefits.

According to one study: Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain, and conflict. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humour lightens your burdens, inspires hopes, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you to release anger and be more forgiving.

In Hazel, the laughter has just been there. I haven’t had to try too hard at all, though I sometimes wish I knew what or who was extracting it! I often pray that she will be surrounded by Angels, seen and unseen. Only now, I wonder if God has assigned her to the safe keeping of the heavenly host’s comedy division – after all, someone’s making her giggle when no one else is around!

Hazel laughs. She also cries. She experiences a whole range of emotions. She knows pain and she does know a degree of suffering, I won’t deny that. In a day of laughter and giggling, like today, there has also been pain and discomfort as she went through yet another feeding tube change. She cried. I cried. How I long for the day when she no longer needs a tube in her stomach to keep her alive. This week alone she has three hospital appointments, none of which will be a walk in the park, for her or me.

Still she laughs. And we laugh with her. Far more than we ever did before she became part of our lives. Far more than we ever cry.

The risk of laughter…side splitting, face aching, snort inducing laughter is never far away. It seems Hazel is way ahead of most people without an extra chromosome on so many levels. She does joy rather well. Joy inspite of pain. Joy alongside pain. Joy triumphing over pain.

For any expectant parents who may be reading this and are faced with this risk, let me be clear. The stakes are very high. Joyously so.

It’s a risk definitely worth taking.

#dontscreenusout