Tomorrow is World Down Syndrome Day, a day globally recognized (and officially observed by the United Nations) to raise awareness and celebrate individuals with Down syndrome and chosen on the 21st of the third month to represent three copies of the 21st chromosome. We cannot imagine life without Nella, and although we weren’t expecting that extra chromosome with her arrival eight years ago, we’ve learned so much about ourselves, the world around us and what really matters in life because of its presence in our family. In celebrating the lives of these incredible individuals on World Down Syndrome Day this year, here are 8 Things I’ve Learned from Having a Child With Down Syndrome.
#1: Life is hard. Just accept that.
So much of my devastation receiving Nella’s diagnosis was due to the fact that I got swept up in how comfortable and according-to-plan life was going that I expected it to stay on that path. We are not entitled to a life free of challenges, and clinging to a dream of ideal/easy/comfortable sets us up for incredible disappointment when the inevitable unexpected happens. In those first weeks after Nella was born, I read the words of Scott Peck and actually felt relieved—like I was given permission to stop fighting/grieving/analyzing what had happened and just accept that it was part of life. “Life is difficult,” he wrote. “Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” When I dream of the future now, I try to focus less on specifics I can’t control and more on the greater picture: I expect a life of love and fullness, and when I encounter the hard unexpected things in life, I will overcome them and use what I’ve learned to be better.
#2: Down syndrome isn’t what makes life hard.
Now that #1 is out of the way, here’s a surprise: That big life-changing diagnosis we thought would make life hard? Turns out the harder things in life have had little or nothing to do with Down syndrome. As for the future, we cannot be sad or stressed about a chapter that hasn’t even been written yet. And when it comes time to write that chapter, we will be ready. The tenth chapter of a math book looks entirely overwhelming on the first day of school, but when you arrive at it when you’re supposed to—after you’ve completed chapters 1 through 9—it’s just another math lesson.
#3: Love the child you were given.
Having Nella has helped me understand this more deeply for all of my kids. Our children will surprise us numerous times in their lives, both in ways that make us feel happy and proud and in ways that hurt and are hard to grasp (don’t worry—we did the same to our parents). But the child you get is the child you get. They might not like the sports you like or the clothes you pick out. They might not learn to read as fast as you did or take an interest in ballet like you had hoped. They might vote differently than you someday or join causes you don’t support. But we are going to have to let go of all of that, because we only have one job…to love them. More than anything, our children need overwhelming, no-strings-attached love as the unshakable foundation on which they will build and rebuild their experiences.
#4: There’s more to communication than words.
“What if I can’t understand my child?” is an overwhelming fear when, as a parent, you want nothing more than to deeply know your child and meet her needs. While Nella can speak very well now, her vocabulary developed at a slower rate, and her communication is different than her peers. Through these past eight years, we’ve understood more how words are only a small part of communication. I have only felt the most intimate connection with Nella through her touch, her expressions, her behaviors, her humor, her tone and her heart. Her messages are intentional and meaningful, and we listen well when she communicates. And the best part? I’ve sharpened these communication skills and recognize and use them with people wherever I go now.
#5: Enough of the metrics!
At seven months, your baby should be combining syllables. Near 12 months, your baby will likely be practicing taking a few steps. Your toddler should be gripping a crayon now. Your kindergartener should know these sight words. Your third grader should pass this test. Your fifth grader should ace that test. Your high schooler should have this GPA. ENOUGH OF THE MARKERS AND METRICS FOR MEASURING A CHILD’S SUCCESS! Having Nella and celebrating the different ways and pace at which she learns has inspired us to let go of numbers, tests and comparisons for all of our kids and instead applaud interest, effort and expression. We put less weight on report cards and test data and focus more on communication with our teachers and evidence that shows our children are exploring the world, making art, pursuing interests, utilizing resources, fostering connections and contributing their unique gifts. Numbers can sometimes be a helpful tool to point out what our kids need, but will never be used to represent my children’s potential and value.
#6: Be a microphone for those whose voice needs more volume.
Having a daughter who is part of a group of people that have been marginalized in society for years has made me more aware of how I can use my voice and my vote for groups of people who don’t have the same opportunities as I do. Our family is more attentive to the needs of others. more sensitive in recognizing inequality and more motivated to support those who have to fight harder for things. Advocacy brings purpose to our lives and a greater connection in our community. Find causes to represent, find people to support, find friends who are marching for something and show up with a poster to march with them. You will be better for it. In the great words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
#7: YES YOU CAN.
My child works harder than anyone to accomplish things when the decks are stacked against her, and she proves again and again that she can do things that were once considered impossible accomplishments for kids with Down syndrome. This community is hearty and headstrong, and our advocate ancestors paved the road by refuting a whole lot of “Can’t”s with “Watch me”s. I’ve had lunch with a woman with Down syndrome who had just received her driver’s license, helped organize a dorm space for another who settled into college, and sipped wine with a mom who complained her son with Down syndrome never calls her anymore because he’s too busy socializing with his friends–all things that were unthinkable for people with Down syndrome 30 years ago. My daughter’s quality of life has drastically been made better because of three simple words: “Yes. She. Can.” Bonus: It works for moms too. Ever see a mom in a tough parenting situation and said to yourself, “I could never do that”? She probably thought that once too, and yet she’s doing it. Yes you can.
#8: Enjoy the Moment.
More than anything, raising a child with Down syndrome has taught me to sit back and enjoy the moments. So much of parenting is spent anticipating the next phase: When will he start walking? When will she write her name? When can I sign him up to play soccer? Each phase is quickly followed by another so that cherished moments flash by in a blur, and we often recognize how wonderful they were only once they are gone. We discovered early on that many of Nella’s phases last longer than usual. She didn’t walk until she was two, so we didn’t stress about the milestone and rather used her delay as an opportunity to sit back and soak up the smooshy baby phase–so many days of her snuggled in our arms or her head pressed against our chest all nestled in the baby carrier. And learning to read now? It’s so beautiful to watch it slowly unfold, and our entire family gets to be part of it, pulling out sight words games at dinner, pointing out letter sounds on signs, celebrating new word recognition with family cheers and clapping. Time has slowed down for the very best things in life, giving us the chance to recognize that these moments–this learning about the world–is what life’s all about, and it’s something to be savored and celebrated.
We are thrilled to celebrate unique abilities this week and are so grateful for our girl and the vibrant contribution she is making to our family, our community and this world that needs more colorful variety and compassion. If you love someone with Down syndrome and want to share what you’ve learned from them, leave a note in the comments.