Down syndrome · special needs parenting

You Just Had a Baby With Down Syndrome, What Now?

We opted not to have prenatal testing, so our son’s diagnosis of Down syndrome was first suggested by a neonatologist while my abdomen was still wide open on an operating table. I write this according to my own experience, and because it sure would’ve been nice to have it when I was recovering in the hospital and trying to understand what having a child with Down syndrome meant, both in the immediate future, and longer term.

Our son, Alex, was whisked away after only a brief introduction. He was born in distress and needed the support of the neonatal team in order to stabilize. By the time we got to see him again later that night he was on oxygen. This is common in newborns with Down syndrome, but it unnerved me. Learning to breathe takes a lot of energy for any newborn, and since people with Down syndrome are born with low muscle tone (hypotonia) breathing takes even more effort than average. The oxygen gave him a little boost until he became strong enough to get the hang of breathing on his own.

I spent my time in the recovery room wondering if my husband would still want to name our son after his grandfather and himself if he did actually have Down syndrome. I can smile about it now, knowing that there was no question about it, that we did make him a namesake and have never regretted it. But this is what went through my mind, and though it seems silly in hindsight, it was a legitimate fear at the time.

By the next morning a feeding tube had been placed in his nose, and a cardiologist had been called in to check his heart. This is all status quo as well. Over 50% of babies with Down syndrome are born with heart defects, and many go on to have open heart surgery. Alex had a small hole in the septum between the ventricles in his heart, but his did not require surgery. It closed on its own and after a year of appointments and echocardiograms he was given the all clear.

I was disappointed right off because I had breast fed my first child immediately after her birth and enjoyed nursing her for a full year. My son needed the benefits of breast milk even more, but because of his need for neonatal care, I wasn’t able to nurse him right away. I did start pumping immediately, and tried to get him to nurse. He was tired and floppy though, and just couldn’t latch. The lactation consultants at the hospital coached me along and helped ease my disappointment. Even though Alex couldn’t latch, the attempts to nurse gave us skin on skin bonding time, which is precious as well. Thankfully I had no problem producing milk, and before I knew it I had a stockpile of breast milk ready for him.

It took Alex about a week to get breathing and eating down pat so that we could bring him home. He had no medical complications other than the tiny hole in his heart, which gave him a big advantage. He was still in the hospital when we got the results of the genetic testing (called a karyotype) that gave him the official diagnosis of Down syndrome, but we knew before it even came that he did indeed have it.

Upon his discharge from the hospital, he got referred to Early Intervention services, and within a week an Occupational Therapist called to set up a meeting, which occurred right at home. Our OT was kind and professional, and a huge help in learning about things like hypotonia and gave us tips on helping Alex become strong and capable. She continued to see him until he turned three and started school and she became a family friend.

The Early Intervention team eventually included a teacher and speech therapist (SLP). Some kids also see a physical therapist, but that was not the case for Alex.

I eventually gave up on nursing him, and focused on stockpiling enough breast milk to feed Alex until he was about 6 months old. I was pretty cranky about pumping, which took a half hour, and feeding Alex took about the same amount of time, and we fed and pumped every 2.5 hours around the clock, doctor’s orders. I felt like I had no time for anything, and had just had it, when my husband suggested trying to nurse Alex just one more time. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d tried, and I did it out of pure spite. How dare he, the one with useless nipples, tell me I should try to get our son to latch. I might have even told him it would be about as useful as him getting Alex to latch. But I did try, and Alex did latch. He was 6 weeks old, and from that day forward he nursed exclusively. This experience is more of an exception than the rule, but I think it warrants inclusion in the story, because it taught me to never underestimate the power of trying just one more time.

Alex had the very typical experience of having sinus and ear infections, and went through about a dozen sets of ear tubes as well as tonsils and adenoid removal, but has been otherwise healthy.

I fell into a mindset when he was tiny that my child with Down syndrome would be high functioning, which would make everything okay. For a couple of years I clung to this notion, before realizing that my son was okay no matter what. He was and is precious and worthy, no matter what his IQ, which is just about average for a person with Down syndrome.

We’ve learned a lot in the almost 16 years since, but most importantly that Alex is a good human being. His bonus chromosome doesn’t make him an angel, more precious or wonderful, and it doesn’t make him less than anyone else. He is who he is, and that is a witty, goofy teenage boy with more than a little attitude and a whole lot of fun.

cancer · family · grief · parenting · special needs parenting

The Price of Deeper Thoughts

It was on the wall in my mother’s bedroom, a poem written by her grandmother. I loved it as a child, even though I possessed only a superficial understanding of it at the time.

My great-grandmother was a gardener and a writer; I’d like to think we’d get along famously, as kindred spirits. I wonder if she had any idea what the words she put down on paper those years ago would mean to me.

The hot house flowers are beauties,

They have grown without a pain.

Somehow I’d like to set them out

And let them feel the rain.

With just a dash of wind in it,

Though t’would break a leaf or two.

I know they’d smell much sweeter

If they felt a Summer’s dew.

My daughter is a darling,

And of culture has her share,

But I hope some day to see her

Grieved enough to she’d a tear

For something she can never help

No matter how she tries.

T’would steal some joy, but deeper thoughts

Would peep from out her eyes.

I never got a chance to raise a hot house flower. I couldn’t have sheltered my children, because the storm came right into their home.

And when the winds raged and the storms came again and again, my hope against hope was in my great-grandmother’s words. That my one and only truly typical child would some day have those deeper thoughts peep from out her eyes. That building her strength in the storm would bring resilience and splendor that cannot be gained in any other fashion.

And I pushed back the fear that the torrent would destroy her.

She has had more than her share of joy stolen, but she is reaping the deeper thoughts. They aren’t always pleasant, and sometimes downright frightening, but they’re hard earned and stunning to behold.

parenting · special needs parenting

What a Load of Should

“What are you doing for you?” It was Ben’s caseworker checking in.

I cried.

I was ashamed.

I didn’t have an answer. I know I should be taking care of myself, but…it just seems like one more item on an overwhelming to-do list.

Sometimes, lately at least, taking care of myself feels like a burden.

It means something else doesn’t get done.

It means that the piece of me that I had earmarked for someone or something else has to be set aside.

It means one more thing to squeeze into my day.

It means guilt because I have put myself aside.

Can I win?

If I do this instead of that, am I really better off?

….

I have long advocated for self-care, but truth be told, self-care is the first thing to fly out the window when stuff gets chaotic…and chaotic happens a lot around here.

Instead of doing something for myself I stuff a couple of cookies in my face.

Instead of doing something for myself I sit on the toilet for an extra 57 seconds to scan my phone.

Instead of bothering to try, and just get interrupted, I skip doing something just for me for days at a time. Sometimes weeks.

….

Funny, it didn’t bother me until she mentioned it.

So

I spread this load of should all over the place, and that makes everything, and I do mean everything worse.

….

But maybe I can back that train up.

If I can’t squeeze in something to do for myself, can I manage some self compassion?

Kristen Neff (I haven’t read her book, but she defined self-compassion, which absolutely deserves a shout-out!) identified 3 parts of self-compassion; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

In other words, do unto yourself as you would do to others…

Whoa…

If I look at my situation through a lens of self-compassion, my shoulds magically clean themselves up.

The guilt I felt over my failure to make time for myself abates a bit. The burden of trying to be all things to all people lightens when viewed in light of my humanity, with some self-kindness and a dash of mindfulness.

If a friend of mine spilled her guts and they looked about like mine do right now, wouldn’t I tell her she’s enough? That it’s okay to put herself aside, as long as it isn’t for too long? I’d probably suggest that she seize any opportunity that arose to relax and enjoy some quiet, but until then… I would assure her that she’s going to be okay.

Because she will.

advocacy · parenting · special needs parenting

7 Big Truths About Special Needs Parents

Every week or so my messenger app dings with a message from someone reaching out. Often it’s a question; someone looking for input or encouragement, asking advice or giving any of the above. Sometimes it’s a local friend, often strangers find me via Google or an article and seek me out.

No matter who it is or what the reasoning, I welcome it.

I’ve noticed a few things as well. Though I’m reluctant to generalize, there are some threads common to many of these families.

  1. We’re dedicated. Whether it’s helping a child with ADHD or dyslexia succeed in a general classroom, finding a niche for a child with Asperger’s (yes, I know it’s technically not called that anymore) who is gifted, making plans for a child with a complex medical diagnosis or finding the right fit for someone with a developmental disability; families are bound and determined to do right by their kids.
  2. The resources aren’t readily available. This many years after IDEA and ABLE, it’s still hard to find and create resources for people who need any services or aids outside the norm.
  3. We’re tired. We struggle to find child care or respite, we spend untold hours driving to and attending appointments and meetings, we often are years or even decades behind on sleep, and we’re often trying to brainstorm, troubleshoot and solve behaviors.
  4. We’re broke. Between copays, deductibles, and gas, our money flies out of the bank account with extraordinary speed, and it’s not from being irresponsible. In fact we often feel guilty for small indulgences that many people take for granted because we know that the $2 we dropped on coffee is $2 less we can pay on bills.
  5. Despite all that we’re usually grateful. We realize that the services we can access for our kids are unprecidented, and though we struggle to make it all work, we do so gladly!
  6. We’re an unparalleled network. We find each other, we support each other, we advocate together and encourage each other. It’s a worldwide commune where people gladly share anything they have, eager to help one another out.
  7. We have a vision. It starts with our desire to make the world a better place for our children, and a recognition that our children make the world a better place. And we’ll go to the end of the world to bring it to fruition.

What would you add?

parenting · special needs parenting

The Loneliness, Do you See it?

A couple of my friends shared this post this morning. Take a minute and read the texts that special needs parents would like to get.

There’s a theme there, do you see it? They’ve been left behind. They feel invisible. They’re lonely and overwhelmed.

It’s pretty much accepted in special needs circles, our families get left behind by most of our friends. We’re the ones watching the world go by and wondering if everyone has forgotten we’re here. The people we hung out with before special needs entered our world went on about their normal lives and we couldn’t keep up.

I suspect we ghosted them or RSVP’d “no” a few too many times. Do they know it was unavoidable? That we wanted to go but couldn’t find child care? That it’s hard to get out these days? It sounds selfish, but we need our friends to bear with us a little bit. Consider what it’s like if your child has gotten mono and you have had to slow down and tuck in for a season to care for them, maybe that’s a good comparison, except it isn’t just a season for us, it’s ongoing. It’s hard to see everyone get together without us. I wish I had the energy to try harder, and I wish you cared enough to slow down and include us. Or just show up once in awhile.

It’s tempting to just write it off, suggesting that it’s your loss, or that we must have never really been friends anyway. But I did think we were friends, I really did. I think that if your child had special needs and mine didn’t that I would have stood by you. I thought you cared about our family, and when we went through our hardest times, the test was too much for the friendship to bear. It’s a loss for me, a big one, though you don’t seem to feel the same. It hurts.

I usually focus on the ones who stayed. The friends who showed up instead of stepped out. The ones whose steadfastness has exceeded what we ever could have asked for. Those friends who do show up with coffee and a smile, the ones who have carved out time for us when we couldn’t keep up, who make room in your lives no matter what. We know it’s hard to fit us in, and we know it takes effort to include us, but you always do. You always do.

parenting · special needs parenting

Why Is a Homecoming Date a Headline?

This is Alex.

He’s a pretty cool kid if I do say so myself. He is clever, empathetic, funny and just plain sweet.

Alex is 15 years old and a freshman in high school. He has loads of friends, even though we just moved to a new district. People like him, which makes sense, he is a likeable person.

Some time in the next 4 years, I think he would totally dig going to a formal high school dance. He enjoys socializing and dancing, I think he would have a blast. Whether he goes stag or has a date, he would be in for a great night.

But when I think of Homecoming (or Prom), there’s a bit of trepidation. Alex has tons of friends, both in in his special education classes and in the school in general. What if a young lady asks him to the dance? And what if it happens to be a young lady without a disability? And what if the local news caught wind of it and decided that they need a feel good piece to round out their broadcast?

I don’t want my son to be a feel good news piece.

And I don’t want him to be asked to a dance by someone with secret hopes being a the local hero for the day.

I get it, it’s moving. Perhaps it seems like a Cinderella story. But there’s a term for stories that use people with disabilities to play the heartstrings of others; it’s called inspiration porn.

Just like the standard type of porn, you know it when you see it.

And just like the standard type of porn, the subject is objectified in order for other people to get off.

If Alex does end up going to Homecoming, why can’t it be just like every other student in the high school?

Is it because we assume that anyone who would ask him must be some sort of saint? Really? Only a saint would want to get dressed up and spend an evening out with him?

Ouch.

But what other reason would there be for news coverage of two high school students attending a formal dance together?

So please, think about it. Put your child or yourself in those shoes. How would you feel if your high school student got on the news for getting a date for Homecoming? Isn’t that something most students take for granted? Isn’t that a normal rite of passage?

I plead with you, use your critical thinking skills. The next time you see that feel good headline, picture your child as the person whose date to the dance is such a novelty that it’s considered newsworthy. Then pause and reflect on whether that’s something we should embrace as a society.

I don’t think it is.

advocacy · parenting · special needs parenting

Why Do I Post So Many Pictures of My Kids?

Many bloggers take great care to avoid showing their children's faces, to keep a modicum of privacy for their families. They make up blog names for their kids and keep the family's identity anonymous. I get that, the Internet is far from safe, people steal photos of children and use them for rotten purposes. It seems that it's foolish to churn out photo after photo of my precious brood.

But I do.

It's because I want you to see them, to really see my kids.

I want you to get used to their features; those almond shaped eyes and small mid face that are the hallmarks of Down syndrome.

I want you to see their humanity, their preciousness, and to recognize them as the multifaceted, complex people that they are.

Alex was stared at yesterday. Blatantly, unavoidably stared at for several minutes yesterday. I'm sure it's because he wears his diagnosis on his sweet face. Anyone who might not be familiar or comfortable with Down syndrome will see his differences and not be able to stop examining him in order to perhaps put a finger on just what is different about him.

I want a world where every single person can look at someone with a disability and see the human being, not the difference.

By my sharing of photographs and our daily ups and downs, I hope to give insight that will facilitate that. I want people to understand that my children are as adorable and adored as any other child, and also to realize that there are differences and challenges; both for them and for us as parents and caregivers.

This is all my bodacious effort to make the world a place where they are accepted.

How can I do that if you never see their faces?

I know that some will disagree, and I'm okay with that. In fact I'll gladly listen to any dissenting voice. I've never claimed to have all the answers. I'm just doing everything in my power to make the world a safe, accepting, and welcoming place for my children.

Something many parents get to take for granted.