Downright Joy

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


When every day is your birthday…

Virtually every day for the last month I have listened to the same song.

That’s not surprising you say…over Christmas the shops are filled with Slade or Paul McCartney endlessly singing the same festive tunes.

Not in our house.

Every day, almost without fail, Hazel, who is largely non-verbal and has very little language as yet, has been singing.

The same song. Over and over.

Happy Birthday

Actually, it’s goes something like this:

“Appy budday dooo yoooooo

Appy budday dooo yooooooooooo

Appy budday dooo Ayzool.

Appy budday dooo yooooooo.”

Every time the lights on the Christmas tree were switched on, we heard it.

Every time a candle was lit to freshen up the house after a meal, we heard it.

Every time a visitor called by to offer festive greetings, we heard it.

Even in the Doctor’s tinsel clad waiting room, poorly and struggling with yet another infection, we heard it.

Hazel has no idea what Christmas is all about. Not really. That will come in time. She did not write a list for Santa, or even hang up her own stocking. She had little interest in opening presents – finding it all too overwhelming, instead shuffling off to find a quieter space. Not even a morsel of Christmas fare passed her lips, as she happily ignored all food yet again, content to let a tube keep her alive.

But she knew it was special and that was enough for me.

Like her birthday, last September. Special. Not that she understands birthdays either. But she remembers being celebrated with a special song. Hazel understands being special.  Not in the way some people use the term ‘special’ either – for all children are special. With or without an extra chromosome. 


She is special because she is Hazel. She is planned and purposed. She is loved and wanted – but even if she weren’t (God forbid) she would still be special. She is special because she is a human being, made in God’s image.  She is special because.

Last year I, along with many others spent time and energy campaigning for the unborn – in particular those who are found pre-natally to have Down’s syndrome. We argued that their lives are worth living. That their lives are as worthy as yours or mine.

I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that, at times I felt crushed by the campaign. I’m sure others did too. In reality, it was the attitudes I came up against that brought me low on more than one occasion. Imagine having to justify your child’s existence – I did when a journalist asked me to explain why it was better that Hazel was alive and not an abortion statistic.

I have found it difficult to even write about these things since the campaign reached its height – around the time of Sally Phillip’s excellent documentary A World Without Down’s last October.

I’ve wanted to hide away from the reality of living in a world that is so hostile to people with Down’s syndrome. I have felt it personally. I have felt the hostility and the hatred. I have felt it for my little girl.  I have cried many tears for Hazel and the discrimination she faces from those who think our society would be better off without people like her.

We’ve kept our decorations up a little longer than usual – for Hazel. She loves them so much. And, as she sang Happy Birthday to herself this afternoon, she reached me.


So at the start of a New Year I want to celebrate my little girl with an extra chromosome.

She celebrates herself every day after all! So why shouldn’t I?

Why shouldn’t the world celebrate with her and all those like her? I will not hide away and stick to damage limitation. I will stand up and fight for her and for all those who have no voice.  When she sings the one song she knows so well, I will not correct her and tell her it’s not her birthday (even though it isn’t!) Instead, I will sing it with her, as often as she wants to.

Happy birthday Hazel – I will celebrate your very existence and that of your equally special sister each and every day!




Egg and Spoon

After one of the wettest summer months on record, the last thing you’d think I’d be doing is praying for rain. And yet, at 7am on Tuesday morning, as I looked out of the window and up at a dark, heavy cloud, that’s what I did. I prayed for rain.

Thirty minutes later and no rain.

Instead,  I got a text message from my eldest child’s infant school, happily declaring “Sports Day Is On!” And with that, the day ahead loomed larger and heavier in my mind than all the clouds put together.

It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of sports day. Putting aside my own childhood loathing of this school tradition, I now have another reason to dislike it. Fear it even.

My eldest daughter has Hypermobility. A condition that affects her in numerous ways – most of which are not immediately obvious. Poor muscle tone and weak joints combine to make every day, ordinary activities, that much harder for her. From climbing stairs to doing up a zip or a button, there are myriad ways in which she struggles.

And, top of the list of everyday and ordinary is PE. Sports. Physical activity.

Her first Sports Day she missed due to Chicken pox. Then, last year, she spent weeks worrying about it. Though, to be fair, her teachers were fantastic. Lots of support, practice and encouragement in advance of the day. And, somehow, despite coming last in every race she managed to end up on the winning team.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part,” was the school mantra.

This year was different. And although she didn’t spend weeks worrying about it, I did. A week to go and I was checking the forecast daily, ever hopeful that the day would be thwarted by the British weather. Cancelled. I could then relax knowing that neither she nor I would have to go through the trauma.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part”.

No. I don’t believe that either.

Too painful. Too difficult. Too risky. It’s not for me. It’s not for her.

Delete. Get rid. Don’t bother.

Had my prayer been answered, I would have unwittingly missed out on one of the best days of her school life!

First came the hurdles; small plastic tubes barely raised above the ground.

She got to the other end. She didn’t fall. She was smiling. Phew.

Then the sprint.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part.”


And so it went on.

Last, last, oh, ok last.

Everyone cheered and clapped.

It doesn’t matter. It’s about taking part.


Not that I needed her to win a race. I just didn’t want her to be last each time. I could tell her again and again that it doesn’t matter, but as she is the one who consistently sees everyone else from behind then it matters. Whether they are running a race, climbing a climbing frame or riding a bike or scooter. It is soul destroying to be the one that can’t.

Egg and spoon race.

“I’m good at the egg and spoon race,” she told me at breakfast.

“That’s good,” I said. I didn’t believe her.

She only went and won it…joint first with another child.

Hoo blinkin’ ray!

I felt a spot of rain. Great! Let’s stop now. Finish on a high. Quit while we are ahead.

“And now the sack race!” The Head Teacher announced.

M’s nemesis.

She clambered inside the sack. An achievement in itself; she couldn’t do that by herself a year ago.

Ready, steady, go.

M lurched forward and so did my stomach. Children pinging up and down; none of them particularly co-ordinated, but all of them way ahead. She got further than I dared hope but then I saw the look on her face.

A look of worry, panic. Close to tears.

 Parents and children alike willed her on. I am grateful for them.

A teacher stepped in and came alongside her. Then another.

And, in a moment, her biggest fear became her greatest joy.

 They scooped her up, still in sack, and bounced her over the finish line. The widest smile on her face I think I’ve ever seen.

It’s not about winning it’s about taking part.

Oh I see. Yes.

When others come alongside us in our struggles life is so much easier to bear. Joyful even.

There was more. A toddler race followed and younger sister Hazel took part from the comfort of her wheelchair. She took part. She enjoyed it. She was part of a community. She was included.

And to think I could have missed it all if I’d had my way. If my fears had been allowed to cancel Sports Day.

What. An. Idiot.

And, strangely, I am taken back to that April afternoon, 5 years ago, when a Doctor told me my unborn baby might have Down’s syndrome or may even die.

I remember the fear. Fear of the unknown. All I saw was difficulty and trouble. Risk. Pain.

To be avoided. Cancel this baby. Let’s not go there.

Only fear.

No one told me how much this child would enrich my life. How much beauty she would bring. How much laughter, smiles and joy.

I knew nothing of the joy.

Risk. They called her a risk.

I call her a joy.

I didn’t cancel the baby. I wasn’t strong or courageous. I was frightened. Afraid.

But it was the best decision I have ever made.

So to the expectant woman perhaps reading this who has had ‘the test’ and has been told her baby may have Down’s; I get it. I understand how you feel. I understand the fears you may have. I felt that way myself. But if there’s one thing I could change about the way you’ve been told the news it would be to remove that word ‘risk‘ and replace it with ‘joy’.

 There is, it seems, no test for joy. Only risk.

Some fears are definitely worth facing, some risks worth taking.


Miriam sack race downright joy




Handbags and gladrags

Once upon a time a woman decided she wanted a handbag. Her friends all had handbags and she decided the time was right for her to get one too.

So she went to the handbag shop and asked for a new handbag.

The shopkeeper told the woman there were two types of handbag to choose from. Blue or pink. The woman said she really didn’t mind what colour handbag she had, so long as it was a sturdy one, without any flaws in the leather.

The shopkeeper smiled, handed her a blue handbag and congratulated her on her new acquisition. The woman took her lovely new blue bag outside into the big wide world to meet her friends and compare it with their handbags. The woman was very happy with her choice.

A while later another woman entered the handbag shop and excitedly asked for a new handbag too. This time the shopkeeper handed the woman a pink one. She was very pleased as she had secretly hoped that it would be pink but hadn’t dared to ask, although, of course, she would have been just as happy with a blue one.

The shopkeeper continued to do a roaring trade in handbags and most people were very happy with their purchases.

One day, a young woman came into the store looking for her first handbag. Nervously she looked around at the choice. Blue or pink (neutral was also being introduced as there was now a growing demand for this to be an option.)

The shopkeeper handed her a bag. It was a beautiful bag. Vibrant pink. It stood out from all the others. However, the woman looked at it and shook her head.

 “I don’t want that one,” she said, fearfully.

Why not?” Asked the shopkeeper.

“It’s different. It won’t work properly.”

The shopkeeper nodded in agreement.

“Well, it’s entirely your choice.” He said, failing to tell her of the beautiful bag’s potential. Of all it could be to her. Failing to help her see its enormous possibilities whilst not denying its limitations.

Failing her.

“No. It’s flawed. It’s not fit for purpose”. Her mind was made up. “I don’t want one that stands out. I want one that looks the same as everyone else’s. Take it away. I’ll come back when you have a better one in stock.

“Of course,” said the shopkeeper, “no problem.”

The woman left, sad, hurting, empty handed. She had made her choice. It wasn’t easy but she felt it had to be done.

Sometime later, another woman entered the handbag shop, accompanied by her husband. He did all the talking.

“We want a handbag.” He said abruptly. “It must be a blue one.”

 The shopkeeper looked behind the counter.

“Sir, we only have pink ones today. I cannot guarantee you a blue one. Here, this is your handbag.”

The shopkeeper showed the man a beautiful pink shiny handbag and then handed it to the woman. The woman’s eyes lit up for a second. Then she lowered them. She knew it would not do.

“It is not blue,” said the man. “It will not do.”

He took the bag from his wife and handed it back to the shopkeeper.

 “Take it away immediately. We will return when you have a blue one in stock.”

And with that, the man marched out of the shop followed by his wife. She had not uttered a word.

The woman had no choice.

Finally, another woman entered the handbag shop. It was getting late and she was in a hurry. She didn’t have time to really look at the handbag she had been given until she got out of the shop. She immediately noticed it was different to all the other handbags she had seen. Very different – some would even call it flawed. And, although at first shocked by the handbag, quickly the woman began to love it and wanted to keep it. It was her handbag.

However, when she showed the handbag to her partner he did not share her love. So much so, he could not live with this particular handbag and demanded that the woman give it away.

For whatever reasons, the woman felt she had no choice but to give in to his demands. Thankfully, a couple who had been unable to even get into the handbag shop were immediately found to give the handbag a new home. They were delighted. They would look after the handbag from now on.*

But this was not the woman’s choice.

The End

Someone said recently that having a baby is becoming more and more like choosing a handbag. Only the healthiest, fittest and definitely NOT disabled will do. Even gender is now a deciding factor and not just in other cultures or countries but here in the UK.

The right to choose is upheld as the greatest victory for women’s rights. And yet so many women do not even have that choice open to them. We are kidding ourselves if we think they do.

*The last example in the story above I have drawn on from meeting a beautiful baby very recently who had been put up for adoption. The baby had a non-life threatening condition. The mother wanted to keep the baby, the father didn’t. The father won. Whose choice was that?

Choice MUST be informed…..that is something those of us in the Down’s syndrome community are fighting for with the introduction of the new prenatal test that is set to be rolled out across the UK. Yet what is it that we are actually choosing? A handbag? Or a baby. Disposable goods or a human life?

Choice (informed or otherwise) is not all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask the women who don’t have it – though they probably would be too afraid to admit it. Choice has its limitations but possibilities are endless.

Women deserve better than a trip to a retail park. And so do their young.

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Turn Back The Clock


May is nearly upon us and, for me, this means one of my favourite things. Chelsea. Not the football club but the Flower show. Not that I’ve ever been. I’d love to, of course, but the demands of caring for a young family with additional needs prevents trips like that at the moment. One day I will go. One day.

For now, I’ll settle for a week or so of high definition images via the BBC and Mr Titchmarsh & Co.  Pure indulgence. A week of dreaming that my humble little back garden will somehow also be transformed into a panoply of perennials, a cornucopia of chrysanthemums and cordylines.

It never is.

I have dandelions growing in my conservatory roof.

I’ve yet to hear or see the humble dandelion get a mention at Chelsea. I’m not sure they’ve ever even heard of one.  After all, it’s a weed. Not wanted. No place for it. It would spoil the garden. Ruin it, even.

The dandelion is hated. People wage war against it, so much so we spend millions of pounds on products aimed at destroying it.

The dandelion will grow anywhere. Except where it has been eradicated.

Yet the dandelion is also loved. Childhood games spent telling the time with a dandelion clock. So perfectly formed, so intricate, so gentle and so beautiful to look at. Then, as the seeds are blown, delightfully, by a childish puffing of cheeks, they are carried effortlessly away on the breeze. Landing somehow, somewhere and there, they begin to make their own mark in the world. A world that doesn’t really want them. Wishes they weren’t there. Will do all in its power to eradicate them.

When do these same children learn to hate something they once cherished? When does fear replace this childlike acceptance?

I don’t know the answer but somewhere along the road it happens.


And so it is with having a child who has an extra chromosome.


At least it was for me, and, given the statistics on how many terminations take place in the UK following a diagnosis of Down’s,  I think it is fairly reasonable to make the assumption that fear has a huge part to play for many who find themselves in the same position as I did.

I was afraid of the dandelion.

I was afraid of how it would spoil my garden. Take over. Damage. Ruin its perfect appearance. Make gardening harder.

Of course, my garden was never perfect, but I strived to make it so. I could not let the dandelion spoil this dream.

I was affronted by this ‘intruder’. I believed the lie. That the dandelion was harmful. That the dandelion was ugly. That the dandelion had no place in my garden.

But I could not eradicate it even though I was told it was possible. Easily arranged. For the best.

And, I am forever thankful, that my fears although real, were never strong enough to take hold of the situation. They were never allowed to go to the garden centre and buy the weed killer. Though, for a while, I am ashamed to admit, I envied those who could.

I began to love the dandelion. I began to cherish its beauty.

And, over time, the shame I had wrongly felt at having a garden with dandelions was replaced by a sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful plant. I discovered its beauty, its benefits and its immense joy. I love how it pops up anywhere, it’s deep vibrant yellow flower forcing its way through the most hardened of soils and singing in the sunlight. Enjoying life. Enjoying being there. Dandelion experts even tell of the health benefits it can bring. Who knew?!

The dandelion is not supposed to be here. Or so you would think.

I wish I could turn back the clock and re frame the dandelion.

It deserves it.

The dandelion makes me smile.




Four and a half years ago my doctor came to visit me after Hazel was born. We had not long come home from hospital, after nearly two months in NICU.

I was struggling to cope outside the safe, comforting environment that such places offer – particularly if you are there for any length of time as we were.

I loved her beyond words and yet I struggled to accept her condition. I had taken to my bed, exhausted; emotionally and physically. I was unable to cope with all that had happened. Unable to accept my baby girl had Down’s syndrome.

I did not want to join the club.

The Down’s family. That family with a kid with Down’s. The Down’s girl. Disabled. Special Needs. I imagined the conversations people would have about us.

Labelled. Given a badge. Lifetime membership. I didn’t ask to join. I certainly didn’t want to join.

“But,” he said.

“You will meet some amazing people and it will be an incredible journey”, he said.

How did he know? How could he possibly know that?

He knew.

And now I know it tooI am ashamed to think that I thought my life would be better off outside of this club.

This club is simply full of amazing people. People whose lives have also been turned upside down because of an extra chromosome or some other disability or condition. Like us, these people have had to face heartbreak and pain as they watch their child go through yet another operation or procedure. Many have had to do battle with an education system that puts no end of obstacles in their child’s way. They have fought tooth and nail to ensure their child be allowed to ‘thrive’ at school and not simply just ‘cope’.

These amazing people also include NICU Nurses, Respite Nurses, Community Nurses, Portage workers, Music therapists, Speech therapists, Physiotherapists, Occupational therapists, SENDCOs, Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Head Teachers, Surgeons, Doctors, Paediatricians and Practice Nurses…the list goes on. These are people who fight our corner and will go the extra mile every time for our children. They get it. They understand. They don’t say ‘computer says no.’ They have helped both my children, myself and my husband in immeasurable ways and I am eternally grateful to them. Then there are the amazing people in our circle of friends, neighbours, church, family. Truly amazing.

But most humbling of all, included in these amazing people (most of whom I would probably never have met if it weren’t for Trisomy 21) are mums and dads who have paid the highest price for their love and sadly, tragically, lost their little ones. Yet still they reach out to me and offer me their support. They have also shown me how to live, love and laugh through the toughest of challenges.

More recently, this club has included a family who have already shown, in just a few months, more determination, more resilience, more strength than I have had in five years. Week after week, month after month, they face uncertainty, separation and great anxiety as their baby girl battles on in NICU and now PICU. Countless operations already under her belt and her fight goes on.

They could have opted out so easily. And, at some point in the pregnancy, fairly early on, it was assumed they would. At least by some in the medical profession. After all, according to statistics, it’s a club no one wants to join – isn’t it?

Instead, they chose life.

They also chose difficulty, pain, heartbreak, anguish.

Ultimately they chose love.

And that’s what will get them through. They have gone beyond the pain and the difficulty and grasped hold of a love that is stronger than all the rubbish. A love that says their child has as much right to life as anyone else. A love that says they will never stop fighting for her, believing in her, delighting in her.

They are without question amongst the amazing people my GP told me I would meet.

I didn’t believe him, but he was so right.

And I am glad I joined this club and got to meet them all.

So thank you – to each and every one of you for being part of this incredible journey. You are all amazing. The world is by far a better place for all who are born with an extra chromosome and for people like you.

I love this quote from Archbishop Chaput:

“These children…..are not a burden; they’re a priceless gift to all of us. They’re a doorway to the real meaning of our humanity. Whatever suffering we endure to welcome, protect and ennoble these special children is worth it because they’re a pathway to real hope and real joy”

For Darla, 

keep fighting

keep wriggling

keep joy giving

Priceless x


Catching My Breath

I have just said goodbye to a cot.
The charity collector took it away. As I closed the front door, I had one of those ‘catch your breath‘ moments. The kind that appear from nowhere, sending you reeling, momentarily.

This was not any cot. If, indeed, there is such a thing. For six years it’s been part of our lives.

Our cot.

It’s not that I want my children to remain as infants. Not at all. I celebrate every part of their growing up. I embrace each stage and marvel at how amazing this gift of life can be.

No. That’s not why I catch my breath and am standing still for a moment.

It’s because it was ever even here at all.

Ten years of waiting for a cot.

Ten years of longing for the need to buy one.

Ten years of a spare room. Guest room. Store room. A whatever we want to dump inside it room.

Ten years of an empty room.

So many empty rooms in so many homes.
Ours was not unique.

Rooms that lie empty, hearts that are waiting.

Or breaking.

Empty for so many reasons.
Heart-rending reasons far greater than our own sadness.
Rooms that had welcomed a cot. For a time. Then, without warning, the cot had gone.
Unexplained, perhaps. Or ‘simply’ the fragility of human life was to blame. Devastating either way.

Rooms that were ready and waiting with a cot; but ultimately it was not needed. Even though the script had said it was.

The heartbeat could no longer be found.

Often small and insignificant, these rooms contain so much more than any other room in a house. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. These rooms are containers of dreams. Dreams that are alive as well as dreams that have ended. Crushed. Hopes for the future, memories of the past; both cherished and painful.

But then it came.

Assembled, ready and waiting.

The room was no longer empty.

And so the first occupant moved in. A delayed start. She almost didn’t make it. The cot was very nearly not needed. For a few days we wondered if the room would remain empty. Perhaps it was not meant to be.

She had other ideas. The room was hers. So was the cot. As she lay in the cot for the first time, some eight months after she was born, I could not have wished for a more perfect moment. The cot. The delicate mobile turning gently overhead. Mesmerising us both with its sleepy lullaby. The room. Her room. Her cot.

And, if rooms had dreams, then this was surely one of the best.

The first occupant moved out. The cot redundant.
For a time.
Then the second occupant took her place in the cot.
A coveted place. A fought for place.
A place that others suggested I should deny her.
A place that I would be better off not giving to her. According to some.
A place for the elite.The healthy.Those who can contribute more to society. Apparently.
A place that for whom 92% of those found with a chromosomal addition will never be granted.

There were no instructions on the cot as to what kind of occupant it should have.

Healthy or otherwise. It made no distinction.

All welcome.

Her cot.

And now it’s gone. Too small for a good night’s sleep.
The cot has a new empty room to fill. Somewhere.

COT (noun) Carrier of all things precious.


Toy Story 3 (and a 1/2)

I love how uncomplicated children can be.

A question that I have heard many people in the Down’s Syndrome community ask is this:

How do you tell an older or younger sibling about their sister or brothers’ condition? 

When is the right time and what exactly do you say? How much will they understand?

I have an urge to prepare M for the day she is asked questions about her sister. I worry for her being given a hard time or even bullied because of her sister’s condition. How do I prepare her for other people’s sometimes negative or hurtful reactions?
What struck me very early on was that M saw nothing different about Hazel. I found this hard to get my head round. Some days, all I could see was the condition. Not every day, just some. So it was wonderfully comforting to see no recognition or awareness in my daughter’s eyes of this label. Hazel was and is Hazel. Or “baby ‘Azul”, as she would call her.

One day, I plucked up the courage to ask her the question I had been wrestling with. She was playing on the carpet with her toy figures.

“Do you know that Hazel has something called Down’s Syndrome?”

Ok, maybe not the most inspired of conversation starters. I was still learning. I held my breath, waiting for her reaction. In my head I was anticipating her urgent questions. How would I now define the condition for a 3 ½ year old?

I needn’t have bothered.

What is it?” She looked up, quizzically. “Is it a toy?”

I shook my head and laughed, mostly at myself.

 “No it isn’t a toy.”

And, before I could launch into my preschool definition of Trisomy 21, she had resumed play. Cinderella was heading off in the carriage to the ball. Prince Charming was waiting patiently behind a cushion and the Ugly Sisters were face down on the carpet. Their presence no longer required.

Her disinterest in my dilemma was overwhelming. Having established what was of most importance – that her sister’s (and I quote) “Down Dome” wasn’t something she should rightfully be playing with, M moved on.

Toys are everything when you are 3 1/2.

That day I learnt a valuable lesson about worry and anxiety. I wish I had not spent so long fretting over an issue that wasn’t. M will have her questions, no doubt. She will probably have to face those who are less than favourable about her sister. Yet she is growing up with an inbuilt acceptance of Hazel for who she is. It’s an acceptance that has always been there. No questions asked. No reason to be treated differently. Let’s just carry on playing and enjoying life, can we mum?

OK then.

Uncomplicated, humbling, love.

Sister not Syndrome.