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!

Advertisements

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.

A World Without Down’s Syndrome

Daddy holding his tiny baby daughter

When Audrey was born, my brother Googled to find out if any celebrities had a child with Down’s Syndrome… and he found Sally Phillips. It was very thoughtful of him to try and make it “acceptable” for me – appealing to my (shameful) interest in celebrities. At the time I read an interview with her talking about her son Olly and it was very positive. But I couldn’t find more than that one interview and I guess I wondered why she didn’t do more. But now I see that it’s a really big deal to “put yourself out there”. 
I have wanted to write about Sally’s documentary (“A World Without Down’s Syndrome”) for weeks, but I’ve found it incredibly hard. The lead up was a draining and consuming time. I felt anxious and stressed about being involved, about making a difference. So much positive and negative feedback, so much going on… And yet I know that this was just for those of us with an eye on the subject. For many, the film may have passed by unnoticed. 

But not me. I was watching it approach slowly, following a behind-the-scenes Facebook group that was prepping for press and publicity around it. I had planned to catch it at my convenience on iplayer, but after watching the beginning, I had to stay up and watch it. I was crying within seconds of it starting!

I was so desperate to write about it, yet my thoughts sort of ran dry. So many reviews. So many reactions. It’s been tiring processing it all. It matters to me – that people would watch it and love it, watch it and learn. But I appreciate why many thought Sally wasn’t the right person to make it – she comes from a biased perspective. However it needed to be made and it needed that positive skew. That was the point – communicating the positive side to having a child with Down’s Syndrome – balance against the negative information and medical condition list you are given at diagnosis. And also questioning a society where we actively look to rid the world of people who are different. Someone has decided that this is a wholly negative condition and therefore it’s worth screening for accurately.

If you watched the film and took it the wrong way (maybe thinking it was anti- pro chioice, judgy or preachy? Maybe thinking it sugar-coated life with a child with special needs?) please be assured that wasn’t the aim. It was a truth, it was Sally’s truth.

And just as Sally shared her truth, I share mine. Audrey hasn’t needed lots of medication or operations. She was on oxygen for the first 6 months of her life because she needed a little help breathing in deep sleep. She needs glasses because she is long sighted and (like me at her age), she has a lazy eye (aka squint). She has low muscle tone which is indeed a bugger and is making it harder for her to walk, but it also means she can practice yoga like a pro (like her Great-Grandmother, Emily, aka the Filleted Lady!). She lacks strength in some areas, but is amazing in others. She is basically a human being, perfect and flawed…yep, she is one of us.

Trying to create a world of perfect humans scares me. It also scares me that the very same brother who found Sally Phillips Googling famous people linked to DS, thinks that it’s a good thing to rid the world of the condition. Yes he said that. How can he of all people not get it? I guess it’s a common view that the world would be a better place without disability. Again, I feel I have too much to say on that subject so I’m struggling to blog about it. But clearly, a world of varied strengths and weaknesses, of light and dark; that’s a better world than one of “perfection”. I can’t even say for sure what perfection is. I had a lazy eye as a child, my sister was diagnosed with MS at the age of 40 – are we so flawed we shouldn’t have been granted life? Eek, what a debate this could be…

My hope is that people simply think about people with Down’s Syndrome as that – people. Understand that they contribute to the world we live in and bring happiness to their families. I’m not a religious pro-lifer, but I feel very blessed to have Audrey. Our lives are richer and happier for having her in it and she’s about as close to perfection as I could ever imagine.

#worldWITHdowns

 

My daughter 

I have a 3 year old daughter. She likes to play with my hair whilst she sucks her thumb.

She loves music and dancing.

She adores books.

She gives epic cuddles.

She likes watching Mr Tumble and Justin Bieber videos.

She reenacts ‘circle time’ from nursery at home with her toys.

She loves fruit.

Over-used phrases since she arrived include “I love you”, “You are so pretty”, “You are so clever”, “You make Mummy happy” and “Cuddles!”.

She is everything I ever dreamt my little girl would be and much more. As each day passes I see us together in the future; singing, shopping, scoffing popcorn at the cinema… All these simple things fill me with joy and excitement. My heart swells when I hear her call me “Mummy”.

…And I will just add that I still have to suffer the obligatory tantrums over presenting her with rice cakes instead of breadsticks or asking her to put her jacket on – it’s not all plain sailing.

But oh she is fabulous… Entertaining, amusing, cute as can be and incredibly emotionally intelligent (if she so much as sniffs a crack of upset in my voice she comes over “Y’ok Mummy?” – head tilted to one side in concern, offering a cuddle).

When we go out, I feel like I am proudly presenting her to the world; “Behold! My beautiful offspring!”.

The other night I put her to bed and laid down with my face next to her’s and said “I love you” and she stroked my face and said “I love you” right back. It was pure magic.

I fall more and more in love with her everyday.

Nothing out of the ordinary here, I assume many mums will read this and think, “Yes, sounds like a standard mother-daughter love.” And it is.

It’s just my daughter has Down’s Syndrome. So when she was born, someone gave me some news and some literature and it was like putting a sticker on her that said “This one is going to be a little bit rubbish and not meet your expectations”.

 

Thankfully that was bollocks.

This post is also on Selfish Mother; http://www.selfishmother.com/mother-daughter-love

Audrey’s Magical Powers

The other night I had half a glass of wine and cried because I love my daughter so much.

It was Friday night; Ted arrived home with fish and chips. We arrange a little portion for Audrey, stick Rex in the bumbo, get the music turned up and enjoy ourselves. After stuffing our faces we all retreat to the sofa and dance. And sing. And laugh.

In amongst this pretty fabulous (but not out of the ordinary) scene, I look at Audrey and start crying (with joy). She senses the tears immediately; “Y’ok Mummy?” she says, arms outstretched for a cuddle. “Better?” she asks, patting me on the back.

You see, I just get struck now and then by these scenes of happiness. Of our “normal” family life and the light that Audrey brings to it.

As we continue with our second parenting experience, it can feel strange to be out and about with my “typical” baby. I feel like I don’t have my “special needs mummy” badge on display, that no one knows that I have an extra special family with a different experience of how things go. How nothing should be taken for granted. Rex is 4 months old and seems so sturdy, almost ready to sit up, stand… Talk. Now I see clearly how hard Audrey has had to work at things that just happen for typical kids.
But somehow because of this extra chromosome Audrey has a magical way that just makes things special.

She does some classic sympathetic crying when other kids are upset (oh her famous bottom lip!).

She says “Thank you” when children steal toys from her.

She can get a smile out of some of the grumpiest looking people. And on that note…

She doesn’t judge. She waves and says hello to tramps, teenagers, people covered in tattoos, people who look unclean, the old, the young, the fat, the thin, men or women, black or white – Audrey just likes people and that makes me proud.

It’s also fabulous to witness how she can light up a doctor’s waiting room or bring out smiles to grumpy people on the bus or in a queue. 

Her dance moves are a sight to behold.

Her cuddles melt into your body.

She just pretended to hurt both her feet so I would kiss them better.

She has started using “one more” as a way of getting me to continue playing/feed her biscuits/extend bedtime reading.

She regularly shuffles over to help Rex reach his toys.

There’s so much to say about Audrey’s wonderful nature (and her cheeky attitude), but I’ll leave it there for now. And please know that she is still trying lots of toddler stroppy tricks on me and is getting to be quite a handful these days. Still, I predict Rex’s toddler tantrums will be a bit harder to handle…