Down’s syndrome Awareness Month 2019

Whenever the Down’s syndrome awareness days/months/campaigns come around I generally feel like I’m banging on about the same old stuff, it’s all been said before and people are wondering why I’m still doing this.

I will never tire of writing about how great Audrey is and that’s a fact. Beyond that, when I try to think what the Down’s syndrome community wants to achieve with awareness campaigns, I remember why it’s important to keep banging the drum. Because surprisingly not everyone knows that people with Down’s syndrome can live a full and happy life. That they can achieve and learn and contribute to society. We may be very early in our journey (Audrey is only 6), but she is continually learning, progressing and she is full to the brim with love and kindness. She is an asset to our family, not a burden.

9 out of 10 women in the UK who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome choose to abort. Would the stats skew so high if perceptions of Down’s syndrome and disability were changed?

We are (supposedly) living in a liberal and inclusive world, yet I continue to encounter those who fear disability or don’t fully understand it. Hey, I’m not perfect and I’m learning on the job, but I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations with people, even though they are aware I am the mother of a child with “special needs”:

A mother I know once chatted to me about her 10 year old daughter’s friend who is autistic; “She wants her to come for a play date and I’ve said no and I don’t know how to explain to her that we don’t know how she might react to certain things…”. I would absolutely hate to think a parent might not have Audrey for a play date through fear of her condition, I would much rather they suggested a play with me there (to see how things go) or asked me directly if she might be able to come for a play and if so, if there is anything they might need to know. In any case, a mother of a child with extra needs wouldn’t just pack them off for a play date without knowing that they will be ok. If anything, I tend to be overly protective about Audrey and her abilities, she often surprises me with what she can do independently. I wish I had said all this at the time, but I was so stunned that she was telling me this, I didn’t say anything!

Another example from a couple of years ago, I had a chat with a dad about about how fab CBeebies is at inclusion and he really didn’t get my stance, his response was along the lines of (eye rolling): “Yeah they’ll always get an ethnic kid in a wheelchair in there”, it felt very much like “the world’s gone PC mad!”. Again I wish I hadn’t stayed silent. Because every time you eye roll at a disabled child/same sex parents/family of colour shown on TV, remember that those of us represented by that “shoe-horned difference” are not eye rolling, we’ve got a fuzzy feeling inside. We get to feel like we matter enough to be included with all the “typical” families. People will start to realise that disabled people live in the real world too, with families, jobs and hobbies just like everyone else.

I am absolutely thrilled to say that Audrey is going to be in a TV advertisement over Christmas on Channel 4. I’m not even sure that the team behind it know how much it means to us and the Down’s syndrome community that she was chosen. In it, she’s a little girl opening a Christmas present. She just happens to have Down’s syndrome. And when I’m hanging around with her in a big house in London watching her being filmed it’s just another crazy thing Audrey has gotten me into! Audrey having Down’s syndrome has opened doors, not closed them!

I’ll be posting on Instagram (as usual) for Down’s syndrome awareness month. I am no expert on Down’s syndrome (medical stuff, facts about how the condition affects each person – I’ve read minimal amounts to be honest), but I’m an expert on my kid. If you’re looking for a poster girl to explain how Down’s syndrome can make you adorable, kind, thoughtful, stroppy, stubborn, loud, quiet, easy-going, challenging, clever… well Audrey is the one! If there’s one thing I’d want people to remember about Audrey or anyone with a disability; it’s quite simply that they are human. She deserves love and a chance to thrive just as much as anyone else.

 

Poster girl

Part of sharing positive moments of our life is to ensure there is a balance to what people see when it comes to life with a child with Down’s syndrome. When society tells you to “screen” for Down’s syndrome and you love someone born with DS, you want to share your experience of that love to show it’s not a negative thing that needs eradicating.

It’s because of this that sometimes when life isn’t rosy and Audrey is being a pain in public, I feel huge pressure for her to be good. I want to prove people wrong, I want to show them our life is full of fun and happiness. That said, I’m also honest, so I aim to talk about and share the tough stuff too. Unfortunately life with kids is not entirely straight-forward.

Yesterday, I wanted to go for a run, so Ted did the bedtime stories. Rex was feeling particularly clingy and as I got ready to leave the house he was crying and screaming my name, Audrey however was perfectly calm and happy, “Goodbye Mummy!” she said cheerily as she settled into her bed. Meanwhile Rex was at the kiddy gate rattling it and turning red in the face. Yet he is my “typical” child and she has “special needs”!

The day before, at the park, we arrived at our car to return home. Stood just a couple of metres away from the car door Audrey refused to walk across the long grass. Rex was calmly standing by the car, waiting to get in. Audrey was refusing to move. I was negotiating (begging), but to no avail. As I made the decision to pick her up and force her into the car, a pregnant woman walked by. I kept my head down, got the kids in the car and got ready to leave, but really I wanted to turn to her and say “She’s normally lovely!”.

The fact is, I am always nervous around pregnant women when Audrey is with me. Suddenly she is the poster girl for Down’s syndrome. She is the sole representative – a make or break impression for someone making a decision about screening and termination.

It’s not just the “bad” behaviour that concerns me, sometimes when she is quiet or seemingly not engaged, I worry about people thinking she has nothing going on in her brain. I worry they will be judging her on conversational responses (or lack of) and think she is stupid. Yet if Rex was suddenly mute at a stranger’s question, I would dismiss him as shy and move on, I wouldn’t expect him to be judged solely on that interaction.

It would be nice to say we have nothing to “prove”. She is a multifaceted human being who can be happy and sad, easy-going and stubborn, good and naughty – but sometimes the perceptions of people with Down’s syndrome put them in a box of one or the other. They are either considered to be loving, cuddly and amenable… or unpredictable, hard to control and challenging – it’s rare to think of them as having the ability to be all those things and more. Or none of those things!

What we forget when we group people together (as if they were a different species to us) – is that within the similarities there are also many differences. And stereotypes sometimes fit, but sometimes don’t. Just as not every red head is feisty and not every American is loud – people with Down’s syndrome have stuff in common, but they are individual humans.

Audrey is more polite than your average kid. She’s better at sharing than any other kid I’ve met. She’s chatty and confident, she likes to laugh but she doesn’t like to see people get covered in gunge! She works really hard at physical challenges, but can sometimes lack confidence in that area. She’s a great eater, sits at the table like a dream but can be stubborn and wants to be fed by us sometimes! She doesn’t like lots of bubbles in her bath. She settles down at bedtime to sleep very happily.

And I can tell you about her “typical” brother Rex, he isn’t great at sharing, but is excellent at climbing and running. He can be shy, but once he warms up he’s great at making friends. He’s an extremely fussy eater and likes to eat with his fingers, whilst on the move. He doesn’t mind bubbles in the bath, but will help get rid of them for Audrey. He rarely wants to go to sleep at bedtime, he wants to keep playing… they both have my long eyelashes (which I got from my mother) and they both seem to have inherited my mother’s ability to chat!

The two of them have given me a very varied experience of motherhood just by being different kids with different personalities and the fact is, at this stage, Audrey’s Down’s syndrome plays a pretty small part in what makes her different to her brother.

Those of us with children who have Down’s syndrome may feel the pressure to be the model example of how it can all be ok, but we should also be allowed to show it’s not always ok – because that’s life with any child.

 

 

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!

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.

If I Could Go Back…

It’s Down Syndrome Awareness Month (predominantly in the US, but happy to embrace it as I always do), so what better time to direct you to a short film I had the pleasure of contributing to.

I have mentioned The Specials before (an online series that also aired on OWN in the US), they have been a fabulous, fun part of our journey with Down’s Syndrome.

I used to work for a company that sold documentaries internationally and we represented The Specials before I was pregnant with Audrey.

It was quite a moment for me, when, back at work visiting colleagues with my small baby, I bumped into Katy (producer of The Specials) and for the first time, I felt excited to tell someone that my baby had Down’s Syndrome! I knew that she would get it.

Anyway, the company I worked for went into liquidation, time passed, but I thankfully remained in touch with Katy because she’s just one of those lovely-type-people you stay in touch with.

She asked if we (my family and I) might be interested in being filmed for some content for The Specials website. They were interested in representing a different part of the Down’s Syndrome journey – the early part with a little one like Audrey.

Of course I said yes, I am always thrilled at the prospect of showing off Audrey and reaching people with our story – showing what life is like.

Katy started filming us the summer Audrey turned 2 and continued into the winter when I was heavily pregnant with Rex.

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a short film that came from some of that filming: a project called “If I Could Go Back…” that has given a voice to a variety of parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, explaining what those early days are like and what we’d like to say to ourselves if we could go back…

Click here to view on YouTube

It’s a perfect film to share during Down’s Syndrome Awareness Month and one that I hope will be useful to new mothers, fathers, grandparents… basically anyone who fears what it might be like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome in their life. What we thought “then” and what we know “now” = just wow. I could literally talk all day about what I thought it would be like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome and what it is actually like.

Audrey makes me so happy, so proud and she continues to surprise me every day with what she is learning and has achieved. So different to the fear in my heart that moment I first looked at her face.

More links to come no doubt, but for now, I hope you enjoy this one, it’s certainly emotive!

Talking to midwives; Tell it Right


In the last few months I have had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to midwives about the language used when a baby is born with Down’s Syndrome. The Down’s Syndrome Association arrange “Tell it Right” training days where parents of children with DS can share their experiences (good and bad).
The first time was in April at the Eastbourne campus of the University of Sussex, speaking to student midwives and then more recently, (this month) at the Royal County Sussex Hospital, speaking to qualified midwives and those involved with the screening process.

At both talks I gave a raw and honest account of my feelings when Audrey was born, how those feelings changed and what life is like for us as a family today. As I came away both times feeling like I’d missed certain details, I’m writing this post to cover everything I said and also everything I wanted to say. I hope this proves useful for anyone (NHS professionals, friends and family, new parents…) involved in the birth of a baby with Trisomy 21 (ooh I don’t use that term much, it’s the medical name for Down’s Syndrome).

My pregnancy with Audrey was lovely. I had no morning sickness, felt relaxed and happy and just had a bit of heartburn to contend with. We had the nuchal fold screening at 12 weeks – our chance of a baby with Down’s Syndrome was “low risk” – 1 in 1,000. We received that news in a letter and thought nothing of it.

The day Audrey was born was a scorcher in July 2013, I had concerns over lack of foetal movement, so I ended up at the Royal Sussex County Hospital just after 6pm with my friend. I was hooked up so the baby could be monitored, they soon decided she was in distress and needed to come out, I was not in labour so the only option was an emergency caesarean. It was a very quick turnaround, this news was delivered to us at around 6.45pm when my husband walked through the door. Audrey was born at 7.51pm. 

My first sight of her was wrapped in a towel in Ted’s arms. I saw her eyes and I saw it then; Down’s Syndrome? She was laid on my chest for skin to skin and as soon as I had full view of her I knew; I said “This baby has Down’s Syndrome”. I felt sick inside. Ted went to speak to someone (even though he felt silly asking, because clearly our baby wouldn’t have Down’s Syndrome), but they said that indeed, there were “markers” – a hand crease, a toe gap, the eyes… but then she was whisked away to the baby unit for care and I was left to recover. We were shell-shocked. It was a bad dream… wasn’t it?

No one said anything stupid at that time. I say that because people do. I’ve heard lots of examples, from “he’ll never give you grandchildren” to “some of them even read nowadays”. These are not helpful statements. Ever. But certainly not in the minutes/hours/days since your baby has been born. How about we just treat this situation like we should; a human baby has arrived. One that has a condition that tells us a bit (but not all) of what they might be like, of what challenges they might face. No one is born with a life CV. Can you imagine getting a note with your baby that says “Will have a series of dead-end jobs, have two failed marriages, get fat, get diabetes and struggle with an alcohol problem”? Doesn’t sound like a baby you’d want to raise. But there are no gold star life guarantees with a baby. 

Whenever I revisit Audrey’s birth I cry. I want to go back and take away the fear, take away the dread and the denial. We had chosen her name before we knew she was in there, we had a name for our potential girl and a name for our potential boy. I put a “pause” on that when she popped out. I asked Ted if we could use our back up name. I felt this wasn’t my Audrey. She wouldn’t be pretty or delicate as I imagined, she was now something else. Something ugly. I’d have to have another daughter without Down’s Syndrome to name her Audrey… Thankfully Ted stood firm and made me realise; she wasn’t a second choice baby, she didn’t deserve a second choice name. She was our Audrey, we just hadn’t realised. And wow, is she more Audrey than I could ever have imagined! A child so beautiful and delicate – my heart swells with pride and joy everyday because of her and how she is. I never could have imagined in those troubled 24 hours just how lovely she would be, but more than that, how she would exceed our expectations and make us proud to be her parents.

Audrey needed oxygen (it’s thought due to a floppy larynx), for 6 months, but had no other health concerns and she breastfed (I’ve also heard stories about people being told babies with DS can’t breastfeed, but that isn’t true). Having her attached to machines, looking so helpless, well it kind of helped us gain some perspective. It was certainly better to have this baby with a condition than no baby at all – you can quickly push a syndrome aside when you are worried a baby might not live.


I’d like to add that having Rex gave me a new perspective on Audrey’s birth- because I felt a similar numbness, shock and confusion at the sight of him and he clearly didn’t have Down’s Syndrome. A woman who has just given birth is in a crazy place mentally – it wasn’t a rush of love and perfection for me at either birth. The Hollywood movies lie. Both times I was surprised by the baby I saw, I had somehow projected so far that I had pictured my baby and the moment they arrived and nothing could ever measure up to that expectation. What a bummer.

But I’m not trying to disguise the fact that having a child with special needs can be challenging. It was tough to have a baby in hospital for the first 3 weeks of her life. Of course we didn’t enjoy her being on oxygen for 6 months and I found it frustrating when she still wasn’t walking at 3, but that time and those struggles seem like a small blip now. 


We have a walking, talking almost 4 year old who likes books, dolls and music. She attends  mainstream nursery, which she loves. She squabbles with her younger like any other little girl would, loves chocolate cake and Mr Tumble. 

She comes out with some of the best phrases;

“Mummy’s making me happy”

“Take your shoes off!”

“Oh Mummy I love your jumper”

Just yesterday she told her daddy he was “Looking fresh!” and this afternoon she said (to a 17 month old who had visited us) “Goodbye! Thanks chunky legs!”.

She cracks us up!

So what do you say if a baby unexpectedly pops out with Down’s Syndrome? First, congratulations. Yes of course deal with/discuss any immediate health challenges, but if the baby is healthy, you could mention that they have a “naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement” (thank you Rose Mordi, President of the National Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria).

Then you could go on to say that you’ve met families with children with the condition and they had a lot of positive things to say, but above all, they loved and enjoyed their child. Their only regrets; that they could have known from the beginning that this wasn’t bad news, it was just different news. 


We adjusted to our new path quite quickly really, Audrey went from the worst thing happening to us at that moment, to being a baby, to being a baby we loved, to being this awesome child that we get to raise! Now we show her off at every opportunity and we marvel in all the things she is teaching her younger brother. We are so lucky to have two beautiful, wonderful children, both of whom are a challenge(!), but that make us  happy.

Sometimes the lows make the highs much sweeter – I truly love that I have gone from fretting about her lack of future (in those early days) to being excited by all that she can and will achieve.