Attention!

I’ve made no secret of the fact that when Audrey was born, that little face that showed she was “different” flooded my brain with negative thoughts.

Would people want to spend time with us? I assumed not. Would they whisper about us? Stare? Strangely I imagined her finding it hard to make friends. In fact, I thought everything would be hard for Audrey and for me.

In reality, she was a baby. A baby with a tube on her face, yes. A baby with an obvious “condition”, but she could still enjoy a coffee shop visit and baby group like any other baby. I had definitely underestimated humans in general, but I had an awesome NCT crew who were always there for me and were not phased in the slightest by Audrey having Down’s syndrome.

Inside I was still constantly surprised by how welcomed we were at baby groups, how it was never a big deal. I emailed ahead to book for baby massage, with a hard lump in my throat I would type “my daughter has Down’s syndrome and is on oxygen” and the reply was warm and… normal. My place confirmed, in fact I can remember the teacher’s words along the lines of “this class will be perfect for her…” and once there, she was fawned over like any cute baby.

Of course, we’ve had the odd strange incident, but it was less-so staring/nudging/whispering, more straight forward “My friend had one of those, couldn’t talk” or “What’s with the tube on her face?” – the bluntness was laughable. And of course she was (still is) small for her age, so you get a sympathetic head tilt or the question “Was she prem (premature)?” when discussing her age. She wasn’t premature (she was a few days late), but I found the confused look that followed that answer so uncomfortable, I would sometimes just say yes! Ha.

Once she was off O2, sitting up and joining in, quite simply the staring, the whispering, the attention: it was all there but not in the way I had dreaded. Audrey was (is!) a superstar. People are drawn to her because she is cute, friendly and funny. She was often a very enthusiastic participant in music groups, clapping, singing, head shaking. She says hello to anyone, asks people’s names, approaches children/babies when they are crying to see if they are ok. I’m more surprised now if people don’t stare, if they’re not interested in her, because she is interesting!

Since starting school, we’ve found a whole new audience. When we arrive at school, if we are early and waiting for the gate to open, I often see the nudges… older girls look at her like a living doll, they are like walking heart eye emojis gazing at Audrey. People shout “Hello Audrey!” when we are out and about and she gets presents/pictures/notes in her school bag from her friends at school. She marches into school with enthusiasm each day (often saying “Good morning” to the teachers at the gate) and she bounces out each afternoon and throws her arms around me. She is exceeding those low expectations I had of her in those early days (based on an outdated view), everyday.

I’ve actually written this because of a little Instagram post that sparked a few questions and comments from mothers of children with DS/other special needs who wanted to know more.

I know that our experience doesn’t cover everyone else’s – we are lucky in that her needs are not as complex as some, but we’ve had our moments. We’ve had to leave noisy parties and take time outs from events – sometimes I’ve felt uncomfortable in those situations, I’ve felt stared at. Those occasions are rare and the upside of the whole experience of having a child who is different is the immense joy we take in the little things she excels at and achieves,

I never knew that Audrey would have this way about her that would make me want to show her off to as many people as possible. I never expected to feel like I was accompanying a celebrity to the park! So, I say… bring on the stares!

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World Down’s Syndrome Day 2019

It’s been a year since my list published on Mother of All Lists and reached a new audience with “our story” for World Down’s Syndrome Day. We’ve also been featured in magazines Best and Take A Break, on blogs like Mental Mutha and Gas & Air. Basically that’s an aim for me – not only to reach someone who needs us (a new mother to a child with Down’s syndrome or someone with a prenatal diagnosis), but also to find those who have no knowledge or connection to Down’s syndrome. To open their eyes and make them think. For them to see that Audrey is a human being with a right to live her life to the fullest.

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You see, on World Down’s Syndrome Day I often feel overwhelmed by the content. Videos, articles, stories, clips, blogs – all devoted to raising awareness of Down’s syndrome. The community is trying to make people aware that this is not a condition we need to eradicate, but it is something we need to learn more about and one we can celebrate not mourn.

I know that we are incredibly lucky with Audrey and her abilities. I also know that had we sat her down in a corner and ignored her (true description from a mother of how her baby with Down’s syndrome was treated at a nursery in the 1960s), she would not be doing so well. She thrives with love, care and attention and with a place in the world among her typical peers and her family.

It pains me to think that someone might receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome, be at a crossroads as to what to do and decide to terminate based on dated information, lack of support or because they aren’t given any other option. Medical professionals and organisations that are there to assist with a prenatal diagnosis can be surprisingly callous or biased when offering up ‘options’, imagine receiving the news that your unborn child has Down’s syndrome and immediately being asked “When would you like to book in your termination?”. I’ve heard stories of women being continually asked “Are you sure you want to continue with this pregnancy?” after they have made their position very clear.

Just to explain for anyone who doesn’t know – babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome can be terminated up to TERM. Because the UK Abortion Act 1967, states that there “is no time limit on the term of the pregnancies” when there “is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” “Seriously handicapped” is then not further defined, so this loose term can allow mothers to terminate based on a cleft palate or a missing arm – if you can argue a child will “suffer” due to a disability, you can abort on your due date if you choose to.

I write this from a perspective of someone who believes in a woman’s right to choose – I believe in a woman’s right to have control over her own body and her pregnancy. But also as someone who thinks that it is madness to control the lives that enter this world based on how “perfect” or “imperfect” they might be. Especially when we don’t know how to measure that. What on earth is perfection anyway?

Well I had no idea what true perfection meant until Audrey entered my life.

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Happy World Down’s Syndrome Day 2019!

Chicken pox perks

A couple of small spots appeared on Audrey’s back last night, roughly 2 weeks since Rex had chicken pox. This morning they were much more like blisters and so we knew this was another (still seemingly mild) case of chicken pox.

Rex went merrily off to nursery with Daddy (by this I mean he was wrestled kicking and screaming into the buggy) and Audrey and I got ready at our leisure before heading to the beach.

It’s been a glorious sunny day, so I packed up the chocolate brownies (I had saved to take into work for my colleagues), got a takeaway coffee and Audrey and I sat on a blanket enjoying a morning picnic in the sun in February!

She sang and chatted all the way in the buggy. We made our way across the pebbles, she was asking to be carried, but I said “No, I’ve got your hand and you can do it” and she did. She was in fact very proud to walk across the pebbles to the sandy part of the beach. On the way back up, she climbed the mountain of big pebbles herself and celebrated with one of her classics; “I did it!”.

We met a friend (with a child she would like to get chicken pox) and sat on the beach again for a bit, playing with the sand. It was calm, because Audrey can be quite happy to sit (I mean, sorry Rex, but you tire me out!).

When we walked home, we were passing the shop where I got Rex a little Paw Patrol balloon the day before for his birthday. I stopped outside, bent down to Audrey and whispered “Would you like a balloon like Rexy’s? They have PJ Masks, Peppa Pig… you can choose?”. Audrey got a little grump on and said no. I wheeled her in to look at them anyway and she picked out the Princess Poppy from Trolls. She must have said thank you to the ladies behind the counter about 5 times during the transaction, they were melted of course, like all who meet her.

I pushed her home as she held Princess Poppy high in the sky, singing and chatting all the way. I love to feel smug about how something so simple can bring a child so much joy. As we were nearing home, I tuned into what Audrey was singing and I joined in. And so we were belting out “Doe a deer, a female deeeer!” together in the sunshine before we arrived home for lunch. She ran in and introduced Princess Poppy to her dolls.

Last night when the spots appeared I was a bit stressed out by it, I had work to do, a meeting for Audrey’s EHCP (education, health and care plan) and plans ahead and chicken pox was not part of that plan…. but I took a couple of work calls and sent emails whilst Audrey enjoyed a sandwich and some Cbeebies. As is always the case, a day with one child feels like a breeze once you’ve had more than one!

Without the pox I never would have had such a lovely morning in the sun with her.

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Party on

I mentioned on Instagram the other week about a clunky moment when a pediatrician asked if Audrey was being invited to birthday parties. I found it quite odd. Audrey has been going to birthday parties since birth. A friend made me realise this was the doctor’s way of measuring that Audrey is being included and has formed friendships at school.

Funnily enough, just recently we have had loads of birthday parties. Audrey loves a good party, however sometimes the bouncy castle is too busy for her. Sometimes the general ambiance is too loud for her. Sometimes she’s just not in the mood. But mostly she enjoys all that comes with sort of event; party music, dancing, party food, pass the parcel… and of course, the wonderful cake moment singing ‘Happy birthday’ – she does this with huge enthusiasm and joy. On your birthday, if Audrey is there, it’s like having your own personal cheerleader.

Last Saturday we went to one of those parties that just wasn’t her thing. We arrived and the hall was loud and chaotic with her school friends running around, making a lot of noise, but she was ok. It was such a pleasure to see her hugging her friends, holding hands, running around together, it was a great feeling watching her being part of the gang.

Then the entertainer arrived. Uh-oh. It started well, Audrey sat laughing along with her friends and I was sat back on a chair, thinking how well she was doing and how far we had come… when she started to look for me with her bottom lip protruding. She came to sit on my lap “Can we go home Mummy? I don’t like it, he’s scary, it’s too loud”. She asked to go to the toilet (a cunning way to leave the loud room) and she did do a wee (hurrah!), but we ended up waiting in the hallway and then the kitchen, because she was too upset by the noise in the main hall. Once the entertainer finished, there was a party tea (which she didn’t eat) and a brief moment with music where she ran around with her friends (and my goodness 5 year olds are raucous), but I was relieved and thought we’d see this party through… when the entertainer came back to do his closing set. So we left early.

Where we (society) have come so far is that Audrey was even invited. She is part of a mainstream school class and she is treated the same as her typical peers. Also, everyone is understanding. No one is asking “What’s wrong with her?” (because she doesn’t like the entertainer, but every other child does), people are not making us feel weird. It’s fine that she’s not feeling it and off we go.

One thing I know, Audrey will always be invited to birthday parties. Yes, the kids will start to cherry pick their favourite friends and everyone should have that right, but I am confident that my kind, gentle, fun little girl will be considered an asset to a party by lots of children.

We have another school friend’s party in February. I know it involves a big bouncy castle and maybe some soft play, I suspect it won’t be her thing, but we will go. Because we have to try. Audrey has been to the cinema, bowling, she has seen live bands, watched parades, been on a Ferris wheel – there are many things I’ve been concerned she might not like… but we tried anyway. Because sometimes she loves things that we might have been told she would hate. Knowing she has special needs means we are aware of some of the challenges she may have, but nothing can predict your child’s personality and their preferences, you just have to live your life and discover together, one party at a time!

Why I Still Love Christmas (having lost both parents)…

Christmas was once the most excruciatingly exciting time of year. From age 3 to 13ish it was the highlight of  life, from the build up (decorations going up, rifling through the wardrobe for presents, the BIG shop that included fizzy pop and chocolate) to that fateful night where the anticipation is just too much and you cannot sleep to that morning (eek I am sure we were up at 4am sometimes!) where the presents were ripped open and the day was pure joy and chaos.

We had big family Christmases, I think at their peak there was around 12 for dinner. My dad’s parents were not around (aside from his stepmother but she wasn’t with us Christmas Day), but my mother’s parents were close (Granddad was hilarious and a must-have for family games), I had three siblings, two old enough to have partners/kids, sometimes my uncle would join us with his wife, I think we had a great nan around too. We had one of those extendable tables and garden chairs with cushions were added into the mix.

I always had a mince pie for breakfast. We always played charades and various games in the evening. We always ate too much. I would have a Christmas Day outfit planned (a velvet dress generally, ooh I remember a year with ski pants and a roll neck!). My mother would embarrass me with her interest in flashing Christmas themed earrings and knitwear. My dad made me ‘snowball’ cocktails (don’t worry, mostly lemonade).

Sometime in the early nineties I accompanied mum to the local garden centre to finally update our hideous Christmas decorations. For years we had dragged those sparkly pink, purple, blue, silver… (you name it) foil garlands and lanterns (that hung from the centre of the room to each corner) down from the loft. We had a toilet-roll-holder-type-angel for the top of the tree. We revamped things that year and switched to green and red traditional stuff and ditched the tinsel. It was a big change back then.

It was in my late teens/early twenties that it really hit me that Christmas would never be the same again. I was no longer filled with that crazy level of excitement, our numbers had diminished a little, but most of all we were all grown up. Only a single nephew remained “young enough” for true Christmas excitement… for me, mum’s novelty stocking fillers became eye-rollerable rather than excellent (and she was an absolute stocking-filler-pro! Pre-internet we had lots of personalised items with our name or initials on, as well as very bizarre stuff like chocolate shaped like sardines in a tin, I LOVED my stocking in its heyday).

By the time I had met Ted and we tried that Christmas juggling you do when you are first a couple and want to spend Christmas together, but also do not want to leave your traditional family Christmas behind… I was ready to accept that Christmas had changed for good.

I think that made it easier for me to live with the fact that now, Christmas is very far away from that of my childhood. I have no parents, I have lost one sibling (and the connection to her two grown up children is weaker), My eldest brother is… well that’s difficult to describe, let’s just say he’s ‘a problem’ and my other brother battled cancer this time last year. I have one grandparent left, but she doesn’t know who I am and she is in a nursing home.

Yet none of this has ruined my enjoyment of this time of year. It has definitely affected it, you can’t escape the sadness loss brings, but that’s life. Naturally every emotional Christmas advert sets me off. Every Christmas song. I am either smiling or crying or both. But I’m a grown up now, it comes with the territory.

My mother was also a fan of Christmas. She liked to complain (in more recent years) about the stress and the effort, but she still had two Christmas tress and a crazy amount of decorations. She would still stuff the cupboard with nuts, chocolates and crisps even if only a few people were visiting, hey even if no one was visiting! Now I am in charge of creating the magic (hiding the presents not rifling through the wardrobe to find them!). Now I want to wear stupid Christmas jumpers and hats, now I see the fun in the tat.

And of course Audrey and Rex bring a whole new level to Christmas. We have their innocence and joy to surround us and their happy faces at what will be (in the scheme of things) quite simple presents. I took Audrey to an eye test last week and in the car she was singing along to Wham’s “Last Christmas” (she catches on to familiar tunes quite quickly and she’s definitely enthusiastic, if not in key), it was lovely.

The thing is, I like to think that everyone is in a better mood in December. So what’s not to like about that? A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted on Instagram about Kindly and the project they were running for people to write a letter for someone who is isolated at Christmas time. So I signed up immediately and within hours I had an email confirming I would be writing to a woman called Sheila (which was my mother’s name). I mean, obviously I was in tears but I was also so wonderfully uplifted by this tiny coincidence. That same day, I had stopped to donate to an old man collecting for the Youth Cancer Trust in our local Tesco and we had a very long chat. He was perplexed by the amount of people who completely ignored him saying “Good morning” and I told him about Audrey and how she loves to say hello to people but often they are just in their own world (or on their phone/listening to something on headphones). It’s part of life now to be zoned out and not in the moment with the other humans around you.

Which is why it is important to remember that Christmas is a time to connect with people. I had little wobble the other day when our ridiculous bumper pack of Audrey’s school pictures arrived and I thought; wow, we really don’t have that many people to give these to. But then I remembered that we do. We still have lots of family left and we have many friends who are “aunties” and “uncles” to our children. We have a wonderfully wide network and I am so grateful for that.

Every Christmas will be different, it may have felt like pure light as a kid and now it has darkness too, but I can handle that, because now my children are building their Christmas memories and they only see the light.

Merry Christmas one and all x

The Good Stuff not in the Guidebook

Last week I had a rare full day alone with Audrey (as we are in the school holidays and Rex was at nursery). We went in the car to a lovely play park and cafe by the beach. We picked out our best pebbles and I told her how I used to go to the beach with my mummy and collect the best shells. Audrey has a wonderful way of interacting, she’s supportive and interested; “Oh wow, with your mummy? That’s great!”.

We had a play in the park, we shared scrambled eggs and toast in the cafe. Audrey bossed me around a bit, she bossed around others too (telling a mum to “Calm down” when she was telling off her toddler!), we got back in the car and headed to the supermarket.

She flatly refused to get out of the car when we go there – told me she wanted to stay put. I tried to be as gently as possible in convincing her, but I was getting no where fast. I eventually had to man-handle her out and then distract her with news that the trolley had a ride-along buggy board! Fun! It worked.

At home we were both tired and sat watching a film until I thought it best to head out again (or we’d easily watch TV all afternoon) and we walked to our local park.

None of this is a big deal… but it was a big deal. For Audrey to walk to the park and back and not ask to be carried, for her to interact and play with other children once we got there, for her to stop sensibly to cross the road and hold my hand – things one might take for granted in a typical 5 year old – I do not take for granted. I revel. I praise. Oh wow… she is going to have such an inflated ego!

Because none of this simple stuff was expected, because her default position is a condition that “limits”; I am constantly lifted and amazed by her. As we walked to the park, having a conversation, I thought back to the leaflet we were given when she was born. It’s intention is not negativity, it aims to give you a fair account of what to expect of a child with Down’s syndrome; but they have to cover everything. So the list goes on; language delay, possible hearing problems, possible sight problems, speech may be difficult to understand (if they master speech at all), a long list of health issues, challenging behaviour, the autism spectrum, food problems, thyroid issues…. it goes on and on.

To be honest we hid the leaflet away and didn’t return to it. Sometimes something will get mentioned by a professional “Of course you are aware that children with Down’s syndrome can be prone to…” and I think “No, I wasn’t aware of that” and it doesn’t matter.

I know that knowledge is power. I know it is good to be prepared. I also like that my child leads the way a bit. There was no leaflet with Rex; we just muddled our way through.

I know that for some, that negative list in the leaflet is a reality and they aren’t walking to the park with their 5 year old with DS chatting about flowers and “Oh look that’s where I had my birthday party…”, I know we are so lucky. I feel lucky every time she calls me “Mummy”, every time she holds my hand, holds it to her face and then kisses it.

Our life is not without stress – several bouts of diarrhea for the kids last week, the two of them fighting, stropping, running off, challenging me… but I want to remember all the good stuff. Actually, I want to focus on it! Because how else do I get through all the crazy days with these kids?! My magical, crazy and surprising kids, that have no guidebook.

The Down Syndrome Diary

Back in 2014(!) I remember vividly that I was walking Audrey around in her buggy when I received a message from Jamie to see if I’d be interested in writing in a “physical diary” about Down’s syndrome – to put pen to paper and tell our story. I was very flattered and of course said yes straight away.

Audrey cuddling the Down Syndrome Diary

I had found so much comfort from Instagram accounts and blogs that I found (relating to DS) in those early days. I was inspired to share our family life and so adding to a travelling diary seemed like a great idea.

Jamie started the diary and began to send it around the world to gather family’s heartfelt stories, but I don’t think anyone could have know how long this might take or that so many people would want to be involved; she’d have to send off lots of other diaries to meet demand!

Once the diary finally arrived my house (I was definitely feeling scared to have it) I thought I’d add my entry and pass it on to the final contributors. Simple. Maybe a week to turn it around?

But, just like everyone else, it took me a while to get going with the writing. I needed to read the other entries. Then I needed some pictures of it with Audrey… but she wasn’t playing ball and oh how precious a real book of heartfelt stories is, I couldn’t let the kids have free-reign with it!

Finally I put pen to paper and wrote my entry (slightly disappointed by my handwriting!), but I must admit the words didn’t come as easily as I’d have liked. I felt a lot of pressure not to repeat what other families had written and also not to repeat things I have written in my blog over the years.

I’m very proud to have taken part, added our entry and pictures of Audrey, but of course I feel like I could have done more. Poured my heart out more, stuck in the best photographs, said something deep. And I forgot to take pictures of my entry and/or type up my words, so I can’t even tell you exactly what I wrote! Oops. Oh well, it’s with the penultimate contributor now, before hopefully winging its way to a (famous) advocate to write the forward to what will hopefully be a published piece of work!

One thing I do know, is that writing makes me happy. Advocating for Audrey and people like her makes me happy. As she begins her new journey from toddler life to schoolgirl (!), I too shall be start my new journey to pursue my writing. To devote time and energy to it, but also have the flexibility needed to work around Audrey’s school life. So far (fingers crossed), Audrey loves school and is throwing herself into it all will full enthusiasm and making me proud like she always does.