Downright Joy

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


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If the cap fits

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“But what do you do all day?” Is a question I am sometimes asked and, well, I don’t like to be impolite but, seeing as you asked (and even if you didn’t) I will try to answer it.

Today I went into battle. On the front line. I pushed back into enemy territory. My efforts were resisted but I persevered.  I took ground that was being strongly defended. I claimed it for my severely Dyspraxic child who needed a service that was being denied. Today I was brave, but I was scared.

Today I was a Soldier.

Today I changed a broken feeding tube, in an emergency.  I bathed an open wound and I administered yet another new medication. Today, as every day, I tube fed my child who cannot yet feed. I was scared, but I was brave.

Today I was a Nurse.

Today I learnt all about Proprioception and how understanding it could really help my Dyspraxic child. But first I need to learn to say it. Today was enlightening.

Today I was a Student.

Today I took my child who struggles with reading to Hogwarts. I read two entire chapters at bedtime. We found Platform 9 and 3/4, ate chocolate frogs and fought bravely against Lord Voldemort. Today was magical.

Today I was a Storyteller.

Today I gave my child a haircut at home. A trip to a hair salon too distressing for a child with sensory issues. Today my home became a salon. One with toys and television and iPads. Today I felt like I achieved the impossible.

Today I was a Hairdresser.

Today I trawled the internet. Endless articles on Down’s syndrome, on Dyspraxia, on Sensory Processing. Today I drank a lot of coffee.

Today I was a Researcher.

Today I made some gadgets and gizmos. Stress balloons filled with cornflour, spinning bottles that rattled with shiny shimmery beads and bells, ribbon twirlers, baskets brimming with tactile treasures. Today I had fun making toys that would help my children make sense of the world around them.

Today I was an Inventor.

Today I attended another appointment to discuss the needs of my children. The sixty something appointment this year. Yes, honestly. I’ve counted. Today I was early.

Today I was an Advocate.

Today I wrote a blog highlighting the discrimination faced by those with Down’s syndrome. I challenged the view held by many that my child should not even exist simply because she has an extra chromosome.  I tweeted my MP. Today I got angry.

Today I was a Campaigner.

Today I watched my anxious child find new confidence in an activity she had previously not coped with. Today was brilliant.

Today I was a Cheerleader.

Today I lost count of the phone calls I made, the emails I sent. Today I opened yet more appointment letters on behalf of my children. I cancelled plans, I turned down invitations. I had to let people down. Today I despaired.

Today I was an Administrator.

Today my glass is half empty. Yesterday, it was half full. Tomorrow is a new day.

Today I am thankful for the glass.

Today I met with Trainee Doctors and told them about life with a child with Down’s syndrome. Today I busted some myths.

Today I was a Teacher.

Today I took my child for yet another blood test. I wrapped my whole body around hers as she wriggled, kicked and generally protested about this latest injustice. Today I tried hard not to cry.

Today I was a Wrestler.

Today I cradled my child as she drifted off to sleep under anaesthetic for yet another procedure. Gratefully surrounded by skilled, caring people who only want the best for her.  Today I could not do any work.

Today I was broken.

Today I visited my child at school to watch her assembly. I saw her walk in. Slowly, gripping the hands of her teacher as she stepped tentatively into the hall. Her legs are getting stronger, her world is opening up. She is surrounded by the support, care and expertise of some incredible professionals. Today I thought my heart would burst.

Today I was the happiest woman alive.

I am a mother to two amazing children,  both of whom have disabilities and additional needs, both of whom make me incredibly proud every single day.

Today, and every day,  I have the best job in the world!

 

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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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Light up, light up

The wise men have barely reached the infant Jesus to impart their gifts, yet up and down the UK, Christmas trees and decorations are being pulled down as fast as they went up. Only the few holding out for the tradition of 12th night, before they pack away the baubles.

We are the few this year. Prompted mainly by our youngest child’s response last year when we took the decorations down on New Years’ Day. Hazel does not yet understand the why’s and wherefore’s of Christmas; she just embraces the magic of all she sees. Christmas lights being top of her list. To see her, last January, sat forlornly staring at the empty space where our tree had been was too much. Think of a puppy looking for its owner to return from a long day away and you’ll get the idea. Only this went on for days afterwards. She sat and solemnly wondered where on earth it had gone. Why had the lights gone out?

I resolved to do better for her next time.

So this Christmas we went for it. Tree up by 1 December. Lights, lights and more lights. Despite being told by some it was too early. For Christmas lights mean more to Hazel than any present. So much so that a few days before Christmas we were treated to an absolute feast of lights by an amazing charity Give Them A Sporting Chance who so generously took us on an all expenses paid trip to see the Festival Lights at Longleat. Providing us with our very own nurse and extra pair of hands, we were able to literally overdose on a Christmas sensory wonderland of lights!

It was utterly magical. Hazel’s face, as she stared up at a 100ft Christmas tree that lit up in every colour on the spectrum, was a picture! Literally all her Christmases came at once.

 

Longleat tree

A day we will never forget.

Back at home, our humble little Christmas tree did not lose its appeal for Hazel even though she had seen much a bigger and better one on our special day out. It’s not looking its best I have to admit. Not because the needles have dropped – we have yet to brave a real tree; it’s fake all the way here. No. Many baubles and trinkets that started off carefully spaced around the branches are now on the floor – either pulled off or kicked off by Hazel in her fascination with the tree. Branches are bent and sticking out in strange directions. The angel is still sitting proudly on the top as Hazel’s reach isn’t quite that far yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

I refuse to bow to popular opinion that says I should take it down. Just as I refused to take any notice of those who said I was putting it up too early.

Popular opinion perhaps, but it’s my choice.

And so the lights remain.

Hazel sees in that tree something the rest of us don’t. She would happily stare at it 365 days of the year I’m sure.  She is mystified why it has to come down.  She’s got a point. All that excitement, all that expectation of just a few weeks ago. Preparations seem to get earlier and earlier. Some houses in our street were decorated in November! And yet, just a few short weeks later, it seems most people can’t get rid of their decorations fast enough. Put them away, forget about them. Move on. Tidy up.

Hazel sees something in Christmas that most of us don’t. She doesn’t fall for the same trappings as we do. She has no expectations of what should/shouldn’t happen. She cares little for the John Lewis Christmas TV ad and has no excitement about hanging up a stocking on Christmas eve.

She sees no reason to be sad after Boxing Day when all the presents have been opened. She feels no sense of disappointment, as many of us do – that Christmas promised so much but delivered so little.

She sees only lights. The colours. The sparkle. The joy.

I wish others could see things the way Hazel sees things.

I wish parents who are given the news that their unborn baby has Down’s syndrome could see things differently too. Some do, but most* don’t. The excitement of expecting a baby is quickly replaced with fear. I know. I was one of them.

I wish they could see things as we now see them. The few. Instead, they, perhaps understandably, give way to the popular opinion that bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome is a huge problem; to be avoided at all costs. They think it’s their only viable choice.

It isn’t. It really isn’t.

For them, the lights go out and the tree is taken down. Tidied away. As if it were never there.

I wish they could see what Hazel sees.

Light up, light up
As if you have a choice
Even if you cannot hear my voice
I’ll be right beside you dear

Snow Patrol

  • In the UK, 90% of babies found prenatally to have Down’s syndrome are aborted.