Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into Down's syndrome, Dyspraxia & Autism


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Mum’s the Word

Recently, my almost 12 year old asked me a question. Actually she asks me loads of questions. Most of her conversation starters begin with “ I’ve got a question”. This has been the case for a very long time. I’ve been told this can be a feature of her Autism; a kind of verbal tic even, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. I see no reason to medicalise or even analyse her every characteristic. And, whatever it is, I quite like it. It gives me a moment to prepare for whatever might come next. It’s rather charming too.

Her question was this:

Was it ok for her to still call me ‘Mummy”?

She is my firstborn. She has always called me Mummy. This is my name as far as she is concerned.

And she was concerned. She had presumably heard others at school refer to theirs as ‘Mum’. She was worried that she might be expected to make a change, to fit in with others, to appease them. To not stand out or appear babyish. And here is where her autism really does kick in. Changing my name…changing that familiar, constant, never previously questioned name was a step too far for her. Venturing into the Land of Unprecedented. A change that society seemed to want to force on her. I am her Mummy. She said.

And who am I to argue?

I am her Mummy. For many years, I thought I might never be anyone’s Mummy.

We live in an age where, increasingly, we are encouraged to identify as whoever we want to. This isn’t a blog post questioning or criticising that….far from it. If I could have identified as a Mummy when I was in my 30’s and held a baby in my arms, I would have done so – in a heartbeat.  It was not in my control to do so. There was no child for a very long time to bestow that identity on me.

Eventually, after many years, M brought me that identity. I call it a privilege because it feels like one. Even now. Still. I will never get tired of hearing her call me Mummy. Or Mum, if she chooses to.

Recently, I’ve noticed a frustration creeping into the SEN/disability parenting world from parents who wish they weren’t continually referred to as ‘Mum’ by professionals in appointments or meetings. They want to be afforded the respect of being addressed by their actual name. I fully understand their reasons why, but I just don’t feel the same way for reasons I’ll try to explain. The word Mum or Mummy can often feel like a label. Slapped on carelessly at times. It can feel belittling to be in a room of professionals with all kinds of titles as well as letters after their names and be referred to as ‘Mum.‘ It’s sometimes as though before you’ve even entered the room or said a word, your opinion will not carry as much weight as theirs. You are just ‘Mum’ after all. I get it. I really do. I’ve felt that sense of inadequacy being bestowed upon me by those who believe they must know better. Thankfully only on rare occasions, but I have. But I’ve also had to recognise that, they do often know better than me on all kinds of levels. And, quite simply, being a ‘Mum’ to me is not belittling. It’s a title I love and cherish. A title that brings to the table as much as those with professional titles do. Often more so. The problem, I think, is not with the name or title – it’s with the understanding of who that name or title is.

Ultimately, this is just not a battle I am choosing to fight. I have no issue with others doing so, however. And so, although it has occasionally happened to me, and I’ve been labelled ‘Mum’ in a way that may not recognise what I bring, I’ve learnt to peel it off and reapply it as a badge of honour. A privilege. Undeserved. Something that I did not earn or study for; it was a gift out of the blue. But still mine to wear nonetheless, and a weighty one too.

I don’t think I will ever mind being called Mum. Or M’s Mummy, or Hazel’s Mummy. After years of heartache at not being one, why would I? I have many friends and acquaintances who would also give anything to have that name. Their own heartaches of baby-loss, losing a child or of infertility means that the name ‘Mum’ carries real pain and/or remains unattainable.

And, of my own two children, even after nine years, one of them has never called me Mummy. Not clearly, not properly. She is also Autistic but Non-Verbal. She sometimes forms a sound ‘Mmmmm’ when she sees me, or when she is poorly and needs me. That’s the closest she comes to using my name and it makes my heart sing when she does. So when others, even professionals, refer to me as Hazel’s Mummy, I have to admit to feeling nothing but pride. I can’t help it. It’s something I cannot ever take for granted. And I want her to hear my name used as often as possible. Who knows, perhaps one day she will say it back to me if she hears it spoken often enough.

If the role of being someone’s Mum came with the honour, respect and dignity it truly deserves in society (and not just on Mother’s Day) then perhaps other ‘Mums’ wouldn’t feel so belittled or put down.  Perhaps others who find out they are going to be a Mum will feel supported and respected enough to continue their pregnancies instead of feeling that they have no other choice but to end them. Perhaps those ‘Mums’ who are told their unborn baby has Down syndrome will be honoured and respected by being offered all the help in the world to birth and care for their child. Instead they are often routinely steered in the opposite direction and told it’s for the best. Their role as a capable Mum called into question in those first few weeks and months of pregnancy and never even given a chance. Perhaps those who have suffered the pain of loss through miscarriage or losing a child in later years would be afforded the dignity and honour of being recognised as their Loved One’s Mum – always. And perhaps those who long to be a Mum but, for whatever reason have not been handed that title, would have their pain recognised and given all they need or want to help carry it.

Titled not labelled. Dignified not denigrated.

Mum. Mummy. Mom. Mama. Mam. Me.

Mum’s the word to be shouted from the rooftops, never silenced, never shamed.


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Herons and Cranes

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I’ve been spending a few days in a relaxing and isolated place, booked pre-pandemic, overlooking some fishing lakes. As I write I can see three, sometimes four, herons gliding gracefully over head. Such extraordinary looking creatures in flight. And, once on the bank they adopt sentry status, scanning the lake for fish whilst giving a masterclass in superiority. Until they call out that is. A sound akin to finger nails on a blackboard. Beautifully harsh. Something about it grates and leaves the listener uncomfortable. It jars. Profound beauty and harshness held in tension. The herons take flight and with them my breath.

My daughter’s life, her whole existence, is profoundly beautiful yet also harsh. We live, she lives, with the tension of these truths. And, as a consequence, she takes my breath away daily.

Many, even sometimes those in our own community, see the disabled life as something to be avoided. I know I did when Hazel was born. I’ve written about it before..how I hoped she would have some kind of Down syndrome light version of the condition. Not too bad, manageable, successful even. There are no limits on people with Down syndrome is how the new mantra goes. They can learn to read and write, go to school, get a job, play sports, live independently, be models, actors, politicians, get married and so on.. All true and all good, I don’t deny it for a moment. They often do.

So don’t worry, we tell new and expectant parents; It’s only an extra chromosome. Keep calm.

I disagree.
It is not only an extra chromosome.
It is a profoundly beautiful life.

Not because of any achievement or indeed any similarity to a life without an extra chromosome. It’s beauty is in its existence. It should not need to be championed or given a reason to be accepted. It is already beautiful, profoundly so.

My attempts, early on in Hazel’s life, to disguise her ‘disabledness’ (which probably isn’t even a word) thankfully and spectacularly failed. Hazel comes with an array of visual reminders of it; a feeding tube for starters, then there’s the equipment, hoists, stairlift, adaptive chair, a hospital style bed, not forgetting bifocals for very poor sight and also soon to have hearing aids. Hazel is non verbal and makes all kinds of noises that loudly announce her presence to the world wherever we are. There is no disguising Hazel! Oh, and she laughs. A lot.

Hazel has also been learning to walk. At almost 9 years old she can now walk around the house or familiar places with gusto. Stomping and lurching as she explores familiar spaces now revealing previously hidden vistas and treasures. Her achievements are tremendous and we celebrate them daily.

And yet. Remove her plastic clunky orthotic devices and her world shrinks once more, her weakened frail ankles collapse and she falls to her knees in a single step. Those unattractive plastic devices are, to me, of profound beauty and huge importance. They are enabling her to discover new and exciting things for herself, though her wheelchair is never far away.

Wheelchairs. Feared and avoided by many parents of children with Down’s syndrome, particularly in the early years. I know this..I was one of them. So much so I opted for a buggy that looked somehow more er, um… acceptable. I thought that having a wheelchair made her look more disabled. Well. Yes I suppose it does. But that is only a negative if you also hold the view that being disabled is something to be shunned. It depends on your assumptions about disability. My assumptions were so very wrong. I mean, it’s fine if you don’t need one, but it’s also fine if you do.

Is Hazel worse off because she uses a wheelchair? Is she worse off because she wears orthotics? Or is she discovering joy every single day in new places because she has them? Is she to be pitied because she is shortly to be wearing hearing aids or will people share her joy as the sounds we take for granted enter her world for the first time? And if they don’t work, if she doesn’t take to them for whatever reason, will that be seen as failure or will she be allowed to live her life in the way she feels most comfortable?

To me, her disabilities just make me more determined to travel further into her world and see it though her eyes and ears. I desire to make her pathways less fraught with obstacles and trip hazards. Where those obstacles cannot be removed I want to help her find another way over the terrain. This is what Hazel needs from our community, from those who care for her, from medical professionals, teachers, and especially Governments. Policies, medical research, social and educational opportunities that will enable her to really live her best life; whatever support systems she needs or we may need as parents to help her. What she does not need are assumptions that her life is not worth living. That she is failing or in need of pity because she looks more disabled than another. That her life is less. Neither do we need assumptions that, as her parents, we can do it all, that we don’t need a helping hand from time to time. Caring is a very precious and undervalued thing indeed. Assumptions can be devastating, checking them and challenging them can bring change to entire communities.

A friend of mine often says to diminish one of us is to diminish us all.

Just this week I was reminded of the heart-rending story of a disabled community in Japan- the Sagimahara Institute – where, on 26 July 2016, a man attacked and killed nineteen residents and injured twenty six; thirteen of them severely. His intention was to ‘obliterate’ hundreds of people who he deemed unworthy of life. A drain on their carers.  He believed he was doing society a service.  The tragedy became Japan’s worst mass killing since the Second World War.
An extraordinary video called Sachiko’s Story Nineteen Paper Cranes tells the story so movingly and asks the question,
“Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”
I will not spoil the story – do watch, you’ll be glad you did – but what followed in response to the killings was truly beautiful.

Landscapes can be harsh environments to live in and journey through but at the same time profoundly beautiful. We need to adapt to their contours, their peaks and their valleys. Not circumvent them or leave them off the map. Or, worse still, destroy them altogether.

This is my daughter’s disabled life and it will always be profoundly beautiful.

#dontscreenusout


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Green, green, grass.

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Hazel, my daughter, loves farm animals. Cows, sheep, ducks, horses, donkeys; Old Macdonald’s entire collection amuses her. Farmyard Tales of Chloe the Cow is a favourite picture book of hers. Giggles every time we read it.

There was a time when she wouldn’t look at animals. An entire trip to a farm park or zoo and she would turn her head at every exhibit, steadfastly and determinedly look the other way.

Try as we might she wouldn’t look at the animals we’d brought her to see. Not sure why. Perhaps they scared her. Maybe they were too enormous for her to deal with. Whatever it was she blanked them.

They were not acceptable to her.

Now she is a little older she no longer shies away from those same animals. Instead she watches them, she laughs at them, though she has been known to aim a rather firm boot in their direction if they get too close.

Hazel likes a cow. Especially when it moos; it makes her giggle. She has a cuddly one at home called Daisy. Daisy the Cow.

Strange creatures if you ask me, cows. Constantly grazing. Tearing up grass and then moving on to new and better pastures. Never really satisfied, always eating.

There are over a 1000 species of cow in the world apparently. Plenty of giggles to be had then Hazel!

But there is one species of cow that I hope she never finds out about.

It’s big. It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. Most people don’t want to look at it. They’d rather pretend it wasn’t there. Look away. The proprietors of the farm parks it is usually found in are acutely aware of this fact and so have thought long and hard about to make this cow less scary, attractive even.

Its image problem is so great and potentially very damaging to its owners that they have disguised the cow. So good is the disguise that most visitors have no idea that there is a cow there at all. They do not see it. The owners have dressed it up and given it fine clothes to wear. Now it is respectable and acceptable; praiseworthy even and by rights it must be honoured. Its existence must never be questioned or its true identity revealed.

Here in the U.K this cow goes by the name of Choice, not Chloe or Daisy.

This cow is no friend to Hazel, or anyone else with an extra chromosome. This cow is not cuddly. It will not make her laugh. This cow is bred and sold by a Global Genomics Organisation. This cow is making them vast sums of money in detecting more and more babies with Down’s syndrome, in utero, all over the world.

This breed of cow is a Cash cow.

This cow is hungry but does not eat grass. It’s appetite is for children. And if you don’t believe me then watch this video to hear it from the breeders mouth. They are very pleased with their cow. It’s prizewinning. Best in show.

I’ve seen this cow; I wonder if you have too?

And now that I’ve seen it I refuse to look away and cannot remain neutral, for this is a cow that will affect my daughter and anyone else with an extra chromosome for years to come. It doesn’t just affect the unborn, though they are the ones the cow desires the most. This cow affects people I love. People I value. People who have as much right to breathe the same air as the rest of us. People.

I cannot look another person with Down’s syndrome in the eye and celebrate their lives whilst ignoring this cow or trying to remain neutral. You see this cow thinks children, and by association, people with Down’s syndrome should be screened out, devoured before they are even born. This cow deems them worthless and disposable, yet at the same time sees pound signs over their heads and goes all out in search of them.

Priceless rubbish.

This cow tried to devour my child but failed. It wants the likes of her screened out prenatally. This cow will do all it can to devalue her life and the lives of others with Down’s syndrome. It is in no danger of starving; the grass is very green and business is booming.  This cow is not remotely interested in offering women choice in their pregnancy, only in limiting it. I hope my daughter never finds out about this cow. Sadly, many people with Down’s syndrome will have found out about this cow and may wonder what they have done wrong to deserve such treatment. How unimaginably distressing to find out you are so despised.

Neutrality is not an option for me. I know I am not able to stop this cow; I am no match for it, that’s for certain. But I will face it and call it by its name as long as it feeds anywhere near me and the people I love.

This cow isn’t called Daisy and it certainly isn’t called Choice.

Its real name is Discrimination, its breed is Deceptive and its origins are in Eugenics.

We must stare it out.

 

H on farm

For more information go to:

Don’t Screen Us Out


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Rainbows & unicorns

rainbow in trees

Missing Person:

Goes by the name of Hope.

Last seen somewhere around New Year’s eve.

Reward for anyone who has information on her whereabouts.

I wanted to give my first child the name Hope – or at least her middle name. I didn’t in the end. Husband said at the time that the name reminded him of a hospital; a kind of Mercy Mission of Hope reminiscent of his former Catholic upbringing. So we opted for something else.

(Apologies to anyone reading who is called Hope by the way – I still think it’s a lovely name.)

Hope is the reason I write this blog. I may not possess many academic qualifications in life but I do possess hope. And I think I am qualified to speak about it.

Hope is what I have been given over and over throughout my life, in so many situations. Even when there seemingly was no hope. I was given it. I didn’t create it. I didn’t fabricate it. I didn’t conjure it up. It was given to me and I took it. But I did look for it. More than I looked for anything else.

I was given it when I thought I’d never be able to have children.

I was given it when I was hours from death in Intensive Care as all my major organs were shutting down. Intensive Care is a place that, understandably, generates fear for many right now. For me, it generates hope more so.

I was given it when my daughter Hazel was born with Down’s syndrome. My GP gave it to me. He told me what I needed to hear over and above the voices of doom that had told me what a terrible thing it is to have a baby with Down’s syndrome.  He gave me hope that life, although never the same, would still be worth living…and not just at some point in the future when everything was back to normal. It would never be back to normal. But it could be, would be worth living.

Hope was given to me when Hazel was so very seriously ill and we did not know if she would survive.

And here’s the thing. The hope I had was not reassurance that she would be ok, that I would be ok,  or that we would be ok. We weren’t ok. Neither was she. She was very, very ill. Dangerously so, and I had been too.

The hope I was given, was that through it all, somehow, fear would not have the final word. Fear of what was happening would not define how we lived, how we responded to each other or to the situation we found ourselves in. Hope meant that the fear we were so readily inclined to feel would not have the final say in our thoughts and uncertainties we carried about the future. We knew things could get worse, we did not live in some kind of false hope that all would be well. It might not be.  But life would have hope. Hope is about the here and now as much as it is about the future. If anything it matters more, here and now, than in 2, 3 or 10 or 20 years down the line. Fear is to be expected but hope is vital. Now.

And Hope is missing.

Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, hope is being looked for but it is largely being concealed by fear. Fear seems to choke the life out of hope. Fear grips like nothing else can. Fear is spread whether through word of mouth, news images, misinformation, or simply because there is danger and we are afraid. Fear is the natural response. There is real danger. People are dying and families are hurting; I do not seek to minimise anyone’s pain or suffering for a moment.

But fear does not have to be the only response.

The hope I have is that my life and the lives of those I know and love, however long or short, will not be dominated by fear. It’s the life I see my daughter who has Down’s syndrome living too. She lives a life of daily acceptance. It is a life that is permeated by hope, not fear. Yet she has had more than her fair share of difficult experiences. Still she does not fear the way most people do.

Hope has been given to me out of love. When I was so ill it was from people who lovingly did their job and saved my life. People who cared and people who knew that my fears, however well founded, were not the only thing at play. My faith too plays a part. A God given hope that can confront fear even when facing the threat of death itself – which I have – of my own and that of my children both inside the womb and out.

And perfect love drives out fear – a simple, yet profound bible verse I choose to take hold of and speak out over my own life, my own fears.

It is vital that people are given hope. Not false hope, but real hope.

Hope doesn’t necessarily mean a way out of something, such as a vaccine,(important though that is) or even a way through something. Hope is not about believing in Unicorns. Hope means being able to live in the moment without being paralysed by fear of what may or may not happen. Hope means being able to carry on when all around you are telling you to do or live otherwise. I’m not talking of being reckless here or promoting selfish behaviours. I’m just saying that there is another story to be told, another truth to take hold of. Fears may come to pass, they may not.

Hope speaks of living free from those fears.

Parents who find out the baby they are expecting may have Down’s syndrome are rarely offered hope. They are offered lots of other things – many of them good and well intentioned. Information they receive is improving. It should no longer be outdated (though often is), due to the efforts of many in our own Down’s syndrome community.  Yet even we’ve convinced ourselves that is all they need. The right information in order to make the right decision for them. Yet how many women go to their prenatal scans simply looking for information? Most are also looking for hope too. If, as most parents of children with Down’s syndrome will tell you, life is still worth living and full of hope, then why is that not the first thing women are told when they find out their baby might have Down’s syndrome? Is it because fear has a stranglehold on hope? Fear has the final word. Hope is not even allowed to enter the waiting room, let alone the discussion in the scan room.

In times of crisis, personal or global, hope is needed more than ever. Rainbows have appeared in windows and balconies around the world. People are looking for hope in a world gripped by fear. Rainbows are real even if unicorns aren’t.

Perfect love drives out fear. People with Down’s syndrome are, in my experience, people who love unconditionally – often more than most. And, as a consequence, fear is driven out. It has no place in their lives in the same way that it so often has in others.

My daughter Hazel has Down’s syndrome. She brings hope as well as joy to this world. And hope is needed more than ever.

People with Down’s syndrome are needed more than ever.

#dontscreenusout

 


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Close Up

raindrops

Sunday evenings, at least here in the U.K., may be sometimes spent watching the most extraordinary wildlife documentaries on television. Against backdrops of breathtaking scenery, coupled with state of the art photography and filming, you can be taken on amazing journeys, encountering incredible creatures and habitats. Microscopic technology takes the viewer from the comfort of their armchair on a voyage of infinite discovery. Ordinary grains of sand, for instance, taken from the beach and magnified to reveal a dazzling Aladdin’s cave effect. Stunning jewel like precision and design. Each one different, unique, whether you believe them to be created or evolved. Redefining the meaning of a close up. Jaw dropping photography.

The hardest of hearts can be moved to tears at the sight of once magnificent sea creatures now suffering a terrible injustice. Suffering because of the shameful amount of plastic we humans have disposed of in their environment.  Whole movements that seek to reverse this horror have been born out of witnessing such atrocities. We care, they say. Though we didn’t used to, we do now.

Such is the power of technology; it advances our understanding of the world around us and helps us set to rights the wrongs we have committed. Technological advances being used for the good of the environment and, ultimately, all its inhabitants.

Yet it troubles me greatly that this same technology that allows us to travel further than we’ve ever travelled before and see in micro detail that which was previously unknown is so very, very limited. A technology that sees everything yet at the same time sees nothing.

Screening tests that are more advanced than ever before can now detect the possibility of Down’s syndrome in the unborn earlier than ever. (And, worryingly, it’s not always pointed out that the results can be wrong). Technology is so advanced that it won’t be long before all kinds of other genetic conditions are identified in utero. Many believe this to be a good thing. Technological advances supposedly being used for the good of society. Yet the ‘good’ these particular screening tests do is questionable, more often than not at the expense of another and largely unchallenged from an ethical standpoint.

As I write this blog, my daughter, who has Down’s syndrome is clutching a leaf.

It has held her attention for some time now. She marvels at it. Holds it between her fingers and spins it. She does not speak words, yet her voice echoes the joy she experiences from examining the leaf in her tiny grasp.

I hear her.

I hear too her newly acquired footsteps around the house. A sound that still makes my heart sing. Each footstep fought for over the last eight years.  Footsteps that we wondered if we’d ever hear. Though it wouldn’t have mattered if we didn’t …not greatly anyway. We do not measure her life by whether she can walk or talk. We do not measure her life at all really. How could we? It’s impossible to measure the joy she brings us each day, even if we tried. She has redefined the meaning of close up as she enables us to see so much more of life than we ever realised was there.

Just like it’s impossible to detect much more than one extra chromosome at a screening test. A truly advanced technological breakthrough that apparently tells you so much yet actually takes you further away from the reality of what or who is really there, beneath the surface. Waiting to be discovered, waiting to be loved, waiting to be nurtured, waiting to be cared for. And yes, I still count it an absolute privilege to care for, marvel at and learn from another human being, however many challenges there may be, extra chromosome or not. Indeed, parents, advocates and of course people with Down’s syndrome themselves are increasingly fed up of being told to bow at the altar of personal choice when it comes to prenatal screening. As if a person with Down’s syndrome were just another option at the Fresher’s Fayre of parenting options. Discrimination has never been so cleverly disguised.

I wish that in every heart that is rightly moved by the plight of the cormorant trapped in plastic or the dolphins tangled in discarded nets, there would be found the same outrage towards the plight of people with Down’s syndrome. An Extinction rebellion – though of course Down’s syndrome itself can never be made extinct even though worldwide efforts to prevent live births are abhorrently successful.

A people group so targeted by technology before they are even born. Deemed unworthy of protection yet feared enough for detection.

A lens that can detect them yet does nothing to protect them.

A lens that sees everything and nothing.

It appears to me that the lens is facing the wrong way.

H & leaf

For more information about what it’s really like to bring up a child with Down’s syndrome go to Positive About Down’s Syndrome


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Funny that.

Laughing boy

Did you wake up laughing today?

My daughter did, just like she did yesterday and the day before that, and the day before that too.

Did someone tell her a joke? There’s no one else in her room. Did she remember something funny she saw the day before? Perhaps. Not sure.

Maybe she was thinking about the bus journey to school and how bumpy it feels as she rides, strapped into her wheelchair. Or maybe she was thinking about the funny songs the Music Man sang to her when he came to her class; especially that one about the pirates- that’s funny. Or maybe it was the sheep on the farm she visits, or the goat that jumped on the trampoline with her one day. Whoever heard of such a thing?! Maybe it’s the strange plaster casts on both her legs that she currently has to wear. They do look kind of funny I suppose.

It’s no good asking her, she cannot give an answer. Though she is nearly eight years old, she has no words you see. And right now, only laughter.

Sometimes she is sad. Sometimes she is grumpy. Sometimes she is in pain. Sometimes she is tired.

Just like you, just like me.

A range of emotions.

But because she is non verbal she has to express them differently.

Unlike you, unlike me.

But laughter, chuckling, giggling, rib tickling, snort inducing, full on raucous belly laughter is very often her first emotion of the day.  I’d love to know what makes her laugh.

Did you wake up laughing today? Or did your thoughts turn immediately to worries?

Fears of the future perhaps, or just concerns about the day ahead. So much to do, so much to accomplish. What ifs and what abouts firing off in all directions in your head before your feet have even hit the floor.

My daughter woke up laughing.

My daughter has Down’s syndrome. Many people think her life is not worth living. They think she would be better off not being born. They called her life a ‘risk’. They said she is abnormal. They spoke as if giving birth to her was some great tragedy.

Funny that.

 

 


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Camino

Camino pic

I’ve long been fascinated by the Camino de Santiago; a network of pilgrimage routes leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in North Western Spain. Known also as The Way, it’s a place where, according to tradition, the remains of Saint James the Great are buried. It’s a route that has become popular not only with pilgrims, but also hikers, cyclists and others looking to challenge themselves as well as looking for something else, something deeper. A pathway walkers often say they tread to find peace and a new sense of purpose to their lives. A restorative ramble in a remarkable landscape.

A highway to hope.

I would love, one day, to go on the Camino and experience if for myself, though given my less than enthusiastic approach to camping, hostelling or living without my home comforts, I’m not sure if I am really up for the challenge. Yet I am still drawn, not just to the beauty of the pathway itself, but to those who tread upon it. Countless lives that have walked that pathway for all kinds of personal reasons. Some religious, others not. Each story important and relevant, in some way, to all those who walk it. Why did they take that pathway when they could perhaps have found an easier way to relax and find inner peace?

I think the answer lies in the hope that they find along The Way. Hope that wells up as they experience its beauty, its ruggedness, its challenges. Hope freely given to them as they meet different people, from all walks of life, from many different countries. They may go there for all kinds of reasons of course; exercise, well being, a chance to experience a different culture. But hope. Hope is often what spurs them on.

Hope is often the overriding factor in most of life’s major decisions. It can be found at all life’s twists and turns. At crossroads in our lives we look for its signpost. As we enter new relationships, contemplate a marriage perhaps, start a family, or look for a new job, new home and so on we look for it, find it, and take it with us. We may pore over all the facts in our possession and weigh up the risks involved in making big decisions. But we almost always make our choices with a measure of hope that is just as important to us as what we already know.  Hope is vital. It is a pathway we must tread, though it may make us vulnerable.

Hope is the reason I write.

The pathway I now follow is not the one I was signposted to. Eight years ago, on discovering at my 12 week scan that the baby I was carrying might have Down’s syndrome or some other genetic condition, doctors pointed me in the direction of another pathway. Society also pointed to it and still does. They said I should follow the road that will get me out of here. One, they told me, would be the best for me, and for my unborn child. A pathway that would lead me to a place where I could simply try again. They saw no hope for this child, only suffering and misery, leading to death sooner rather than later. They looked only in one direction. No one told me about the other pathway, the one I am now on and which I had to find for myself. They didn’t give me a choice, though they claimed they were. This pathway isn’t easy, I’ll admit. Yet it is a pathway signposting hope. A pathway filled with many people from different walks of life. Some of those people saw it and chose it, others found themselves on it unexpectedly.

At times, the terrain is rugged, challenging and exhausting. It’s at these times you can quickly come across others on the path who know how to find a way through. People who can steady you as you climb over the stiles or tell you the best places to find help or rest. And though the ground beneath your feet may at times feel rocky and unstable, the view is breathtaking. The beauty to be found along The Way is what keeps you going. Always changing, always something new to marvel at, be thankful for and draw strength from.  For all the challenges it is still a pathway you are glad beyond words that you discovered.

For any woman and her partner who is being signposted in only one direction by doctors, or society or even their own personal prejudices (and I had lots of those, believe me) please know that there is another way. A crossroads has more than one sign. Step aside, look behind whoever or whatever is in front of the signpost and realise it also points in another direction.

It points to another Camino.

A highway of hope.

For lived experience of what it is like to bring up a child with Down’s syndrome check out these websites and meet others who have discovered hope in similar situations:

Positive About Down Syndrome

Wouldn’t Change A Thing

 


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Framed

Today is my birthday. It’s a big birthday.

Its ten years since my last big birthday. The biggest birthday I’ve ever had, though there was and is no zero on the end of it.

Ten years since I woke up in hospital, 29 weeks pregnant, surrounded by monitors and hooked up to machines. A nurse stationed at the foot of my bed. I’d spent a week in Intensive Care as doctors fought to save not just my life but that of my unborn baby. One by one, my major organs gradually shutting down. My husband told to expect the worst; doctors didn’t know if either of us could be saved. I was hours from death.

Ketoacidosis- a condition I’d never heard of, had crept up from nowhere. We had been enjoying our last holiday before the baby was due. Brixham; a pretty little fishing village on the Devon coast and a place I’ve not been able to revisit since, such are the painful memories it evokes. The holiday had to be cut short. It’s a condition that is fatal if not immediately treated, brought on by poorly managed or untreated diabetes. As I’d had no previous indications of diabetes in my pregnancy it was a mystery why I became so ill. So unusual, that doctors later asked my permission to write a medical paper on me for their journals.

I woke up and the doctor wished me happy birthday.

For ten years I’ve always considered it a terrible birthday. On my discharge from ICU, I was offered counselling- such was the potentially traumatising effect of a week in ICU.  I declined. I felt no need – I had survived and so had my unborn baby. I had something wonderful to look forward to and that was enough.  Over the years I’ve pondered on the experience more so. Only recently discovering, for example, that the weird hallucinations I had whilst there were as a result of the cocktail of drugs being pumped into me. Perhaps if I’d taken up their offer I would’ve known this.

It’s taken ten years for me to celebrate that birthday. May 7 2009 is the day I got given my life back. It’s the day I knew I was still going to be a mum.

It was the start of the next ten years.

Ten years that have brought much joy into my life as well as difficulty. Ten years that have brought formal diagnoses including Down’s syndrome, Dyspraxia, and recently Autism into my life through my children. Diagnoses that, at one time, would have filled me with fear but that have instead brought me into the most amazing community, and given me two unique children who, along with the challenges, bring me indescribable joy.

There is much talk in the Down’s syndrome community about changing the narrative around a diagnosis. A well-worn phrase that I wonder may be past its sell by date. Too clichéd perhaps; I’m not sure. Yet the desire behind it to see a story told differently is one I applaud. For so long, pregnant women have been told of the ‘risks’ of having a child with Down’s syndrome. These are well known and documented. A quick google search will (sadly) bring up all kinds of fear inducing scenarios for a new mum; many of them based on outdated and frankly incorrect information, using terminology long since thrown into Room 101 by those who know better.

A snapshot of my own experience in the last ten years shows there’s much to be done. Ten years ago doctors fought to save the life of my unborn baby at 29 weeks. A little over two years later and doctors and midwives in the same hospital were telling me I should consider aborting my second unborn child even up to birth if I wanted.

Why? All because of a possible extra chromosome and the fears surrounding it. One life worth preserving, the other disposable according to their rule book. Though I am thankful to the doctor who, after initially offering me this ‘way out’, apologised saying he wished he didn’t have to but that he had to ‘follow strict guidelines’. The stats bear him out. Over 90% of babies found prenatally to have Down’s syndrome in the UK are routinely aborted.

The story of Down’s syndrome played out in many hospitals and clinics is a story that needs to change because it’s not the whole story. Parents are given only a snapshot of what life is really like with an extra Chromosome. And that snapshot is often out of focus. Framed in such a way that obscures the joyful reality of loving a person with Down’s syndrome.

It’s not lost on me either, that my first child – the one doctors fought to save has since had more than her fair share of challenges; diagnoses of conditions we didn’t know she had in utero. Yet no one ever suggested terminating her life. This will change if the proponents of pre-natal testing get their way and more conditions are targeted in the womb. So much they will be able to tell you and yet so little.

Ten years ago I almost died. A horrible, dreadful experience.

Ten years ago I was given a chance to live.

Ten years ago the doctor stood beside my bed, a week after he said I might not live, and wished me happy birthday.

Ten years since he and other skilled professionals saved my life and that of my baby. Ten years since many people prayed for me. A few came to ICU and prayed over me.  Some are no longer here themselves. I’ll always remember my dear friend Vicky (whose birthday I shared) getting past the tight security that would only let family or clergy in. Vicky was not one to ever let protocol get in her way and she came to hold my hand, praying as I drifted in and out of delirium.  I don’t understand why she is no longer here and it hurts my heart, but I smile at that memory.

So I will reframe my birthday of ten years ago. I won’t change the story by wiping out the painful, difficult, anxious, terrifying parts. But I will celebrate all that was good and all that began that day. I will stop remembering it in mournful, self-pitying tones but rejoice in the new life it began.

I will look at the whole picture and put it in a new frame. Some stories are worth telling from a different perspective.

Happy Birthday to me.

Dedicated to Vicky Taylor.  

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Miss you Vic, happy birthday x

 


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Truth be told…

Words people said when my first baby was born:

Congratulations!

She’s beautiful

She’s got your eyes

So cute

Adorable

Aaaahhhh

So happy for you

So many wonderful adventures ahead of you

Welcome to the world little one

So many words, so many cliches. So many ways to express joy. 

Sshhh! Not too loud, you’ll wake the baby!

Precisely what I needed to hear, truth be told.

Just what the doctor ordered.

 

Words people said when my second baby was born:

I’m so sorry

 

So few words. Eyes averted. Hushed conversations. So many ways to express sorrow. Shhh! Careful what you say, you might upset the mother. 

Just what the doctor ordered.

But his prescription is long since out of date.

No one said congratulations when I had a baby with Down’s syndrome. 

I blame no one; I carried my own prejudices, I reflected the mood around me, to an extent I permitted it.

Yet ‘Congratulations, she is beautiful’ was precisely what I needed to hear.

 

So to any mother who today cradles a new born baby in their arms, or sits anxiously next to their incubator in a NICU; a baby that has been born with an extra chromosome…..I pray someone will hold your hand, stare with wonder into the eyes of your precious child and tell you the truth of it:

Congratulations! Your baby is beautiful! Welcome to the world little one.

Today, on World Down Syndrome Day,  I will celebrate every single glorious life, born and unborn, with an extra chromosome.

Each one profoundly beautiful.

Truth be told.


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Poetry in Motion

Butterfly poem

I’ve discovered a love for poetry in recent years. A passion awakened by hearing the late, extraordinary Mary Oliver read her poem Wild Geese’. An experience that had a profound effect on me at the time. Now, her words, hand painted, hang from my living room wall. Words that made me gasp and caused my heart to sing. Words that still do. The power of the spoken word, especially spoken by the one who crafted it,  is immense.

I’ve always imagined sharing these treasures with my children. And I’ve started to, with my eldest. I shared another poem, by the same author I worried’, with her recently. Her anxious face lit up as I read. Someone else knew how she felt. It gave her confidence. It affirmed her. She was not alone. She loves words too and is beginning to discover the sheer joy of poetry. Of words used well.

My youngest child, who has Down’s syndrome, is largely non verbal. She has very few, if any words. She may not yet have the words to say to us but our words matter hugely to her. And poetry is, it seems, a powerful form of expression for her too. The spoken word. Only the other day, I found her looking at the Ipad over her sister’s shoulder, as they watched Michael Rosen perform a poem he had written. She could not repeat a single word but was utterly captivated by his expression, his story telling and his passion for the subject – Chocolate Cake. He brought words to life and enabled her to share in his delight. Unlocking a subject she knew little about in a glorious way. There’s nothing quite like the joy of hearing a non verbal child laughing like a drain!

Words, or more importantly, how we use them have the power to unlock or close down.  As we approach another World Down Syndrome Day I see many people online spreading a message through their words and pictures of what life is really like to live with Down’s syndrome. Telling a story of hope, fulfillment and community. They do so for good reason.

All too often, the words offered to pregnant women and their partners when the subject of screening for Down’s syndrome comes up, are words that close down. Words that shut out possibilities. Words that paint a bleak picture. Words that may offer sympathy but that do not offer hope. There is no power in pity.

It’s time this changed. We know the reality. You see we have a passion for the subject. And we can tell these parents a different story. We can use words that can unlock their dreams and their hopes and their plans again. We have the words that can dispel the myths, whilst being able to acknowledge their fears; we were in their shoes once too. We have the words to give them confidence. The words to affirm them as parents who will be able to love and cherish their child regardless of an extra chromosome. We have the words to show them that their child is not going to be defined by a list of medical issues or learning disabilities. We can bring words to life. Real life. Their lives.

We want these parents to be given the opportunity to talk with or learn from families who are living lives that include Down’s syndrome. Living lives not of medical reference but of poetry that reflect the highs and the lows of bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome. We want to be able to unlock a subject they may know little about and invite them to discover for themselves the joy that is to be found in the life of a person with Down’s syndrome.

Poetry in motion. Lives well lived. 

Sadly, here in the U.K. there are no second chances for the 90 percent of babies who are detected as having Down’s syndrome in the womb. Their prospect of life is brought to an end. Discriminated against before they even draw breath.

We need to get this right. Words need to change and the voices of those who know must be heard – especially at that most critical time of screening and diagnosis in pregnancy.

Mary Oliver is famous for many words, but perhaps, most poignantly, she asked the question,

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It’s not the only question that deserves a careful answer.

 

For more information on Down’s syndrome from people who really know please check out these great resources:

Positive About Down Syndrome

Down’s Syndrome Research Foundation

Wouldn’t Change a Thing

Down’s Syndrome Association

Lose the Label