I wish I could say that the day you were born was one of the happiest days of my life, but sadly, it was quite the opposite. That has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me. You see, your mommy was clueless.
When they told us you had Down syndrome, it was a big shock. As they placed you back in my arms, I knew I felt the love that every mother feels for her baby. You were beautiful. The fierceness of the love I felt for you was overwhelming. Our bond was instantaneous, but I was also terrified. What I didn’t know about you or your diagnosis was that we had been given a gift. You were going to teach us about unconditional love, joy in unexpected places, and the tenacity to move forward.
I am so embarrassed about what I thought it meant for us on the day you were born. I pictured a life spent taking care of an invalid. I pictured our vacations and dinners out, ripped away from us. I pictured a life of difficulty. I pictured your sister, who at that point was the center of my world, forever changed and taken away from the spotlight she lived in and adored. Everything I pictured was wrong. I am putting all of this out there in case there is some other mom, laying in a hospital bed right now, wondering if her life is ending. It’s not.
Our life has been changed by you and your diagnosis, but they are welcome changes. We do everything we did, before you came into our lives. We even do some new things, thanks to you. You make vacations better with your smiles, and sass. Oh the sass! Dinners spent out are loud and full of humor, as your dad and I watch your sister and you misbehave. You yell, you laugh, and you throw things (sometimes at her). Your sister and you have a love story that melts my heart each day. You also fight with each other, like all sisters do. Haley has made the spotlight bigger, and you both revel in it. Haley protects you, and it’s a role that she has chosen on her own. Truthfully, I think you might be protecting her soon. You are a feisty little girl.
Today is your birthday, and two years later, I am grateful. I would not change one thing about you. You are tenacious. Every day, I watch you struggle to stand, to walk, and move around. Your muscle tone holds you back from physically moving, but it doesn’t slow down your spirit. I know you will be walking soon enough, but for now, you get where you want to go, through will power. You are a sassy little girl. I thought I knew what sass was with Haley, but Sienna my love, you take it to a whole new level. It’s hard not to laugh when you throw things, when you scream no, and when you slap your sister or me. You also have an incredible heart already. Whenever your sister is upset, you start to cry right alongside her. You are a daredevil. When Dada throws you in the air, your laughter is infectious. You love to go on rides, and it would appear that we have another thrill seeker on our hands. You do not openly give affection away. You make people earn it, and sometimes you make them work really hard (sorry Aunt Kristy). You are a lover of music. You dance and sing all day long. Our house is full of laughter each and every day.
My Sienna Mae, I could and do write a blog on everything I didn’t know, before you were born. I didn’t know that your adult counterparts with Down syndrome were doing such amazing things, like lobbying for their rights, teaching Zumba classes, starring in reality shows, writing books, owning businesses, living independently, and getting married. They are enriching the lives of their friends, family, and the community. Before you came along, I didn’t know what the word advocate meant. I didn’t know about the friendships I would make in this wonderful community. We are grateful that you have introduced us to such amazing people.
We celebrate more, since having you in our lives. We appreciate the little things. When you pulled yourself up to stand, we jumped for joy. When you used your walker for the first time, I cried. I don’t know what the future holds for all of us, but I know that having you in our lives has made us better people. We have more empathy for others. We choose kindness. We have become more political and we have learned how much we will rely on Medicaid during your life. We will always advocate and fight for your rights and others like you. This has made us better citizens. We love bigger. We have learned that love comes in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. We have learned that emotional intelligence is just as important as being smart. We ask for help more, which has introduced us to some wonderful people. We have better friendships, because of you.
On this day, I want to say thank you. Thank you my beautiful, smart, sassy, baby girl, for the gift of you. I am sorry that I didn’t know what a gift you were when you were born, but I will spend the rest of my life telling everyone else what I didn’t know. I love you and everything that makes you, you.
Hello again! Remember, when I said that I was going to be blogging a lot more in 2018? Well, 2018 decided to throw me a few curve balls. That’s okay though, I am rolling with it. I am still trying to create space where there was none. I have so many topics that I am itching to write about right now….how Sienna chose to stop breastfeeding suddenly, the week Haley broke her arm and Sienna got a double ear infection, the fact that Haley starts kindergarten this fall, how I have no idea where we will be living, Sienna’s progress in therapy, etc. The list goes on and on and I promise that I will get to all of them even if it takes me through the end of 2018.
Ultimately, I decided that I cannot let 3/21/18 go by without acknowledging how amazing it was for our family, this year. March 21 is World Down Syndrome Awareness Day, because every person born with Down syndrome has 3 copies of the 21st chromosome. Get it? 3/21? Anyway, in 2017, we were on vacation for our first WDSD. We embraced the silly sock tradition. We rocked them at the pool and at our resort. We hadn’t told Haley about Down syndrome yet. She asked why we were wearing silly socks and I told her that it was silly sock day. We were teetering in this grey area. I was fully in love with my baby, but I was still discovering the implications of her diagnosis. I still had doubts in the back of my head about how our future would look. We weren’t quite ready to completely celebrate and embrace the day, and that’s okay.
If there is another mom out there reading this right now, and you aren’t quite ready to celebrate, I say to you, it’s okay. You will get there when you get there, and you should never pressure or force yourself, if you aren’t ready. I remember beating myself up a little bit about it last year, but my feelings were completely valid.
This year, I was ready and it came naturally. Nothing was forced. I didn’t have to push myself. Sharing Sienna and how amazing her and her fellow buddies with Ds are makes me feel good. Haley knows all about Down syndrome now, and she understands, to the extent that she can understand. She still has questions, but to her, Sienna is just her sister. She’s the same baby she’s been laughing and playing with since she was born. Haley doesn’t care that Sienna isn’t walking or crawling. She doesn’t care that she has to go to therapy 4 times a week. She loves her because she’s her sister.
I asked Haley how she would feel if we read her classmates our favorite book about Down syndrome, and taught them all about Sienna, and how we think she is very special. Her first question was, “Can I stand in front of the class and answer the questions with you?”, because Haley is a diva. I told her she could only answer questions if she knew the answers.
Haley’s preschool embraced us with open hearts. The teachers even had the brilliant idea to have the children decorate their own socks, before we came in. When we came in to read, “47 Strings; Tessa’s Special Code” they all had their silly socks on. It was such a great suggestion by the teachers and a fun way to get the kids involved. I am so grateful to Haley’s preschool. It is the absolute sweetest place in the world.
As soon as we were introduced by the teachers, we had the children’s full attention. They were all taken with Sienna immediately. The teachers asked the kids to welcome Sienna with a cheer. Immediately after their loud welcome, Sienna giggled and yelled her classic hiiiii. We explained why we were there and why they were all wearing their socks that day. We told them about Sienna having Down syndrome and what that might mean. We read the story (which is a fabulous story for little kids to understand Down syndrome) and then answered questions. The book discusses how everyone has a special code that determines what color eyes you have, your hair color, your interests, etc. Everyone has 46 strings in their special code, except people with Down syndrome. They have 47 strings and that just means that they might do things a little differently. I talked a little bit about her muscles, and how they make it hard for her to walk and crawl.
I knew walking into this that there was a possibility that the kids might say something that would hurt my feelings. I thought they might treat Sienna differently. I knew I had to give them grace. Kids have no filter and that is okay, especially when we are talking about this. I want them to ask every question they have, when their little hearts are being shaped. Teaching them about acceptance now will help Sienna in the future. Empathy can be taught. We can’t be afraid to talk to our kids about people being different. You’d be amazed at how much more open minded they can be when they learn these lessons at an early age. Haley comes with me to the Children’s Institute and we have seen some severely disabled children. Haley does not skip a beat. Just this past Monday, she walked right up to a little girl in a wheel chair and asked her if she’d sign her cast. It makes me so proud. She is being exposed to this at a young age and I am grateful for that.
As a mother to a child with a disability, I want other parents to know that you never have to be embarrassed if your kid asks a question about Sienna in front of us. Your kid might say something negative about her appearance in front of me, and that’s okay. Your reaction is the important thing. Create an open dialogue. Don’t hush your child and run away. You are teaching them that Sienna’s disability makes you uncomfortable and we don’t want that. Introduce your kid to Sienna. You and I can explain together. I will give your child and you grace. It takes a village. We all have to do our part.
Back to story time…when I was done reading, the questions came…..”My mom says Sienna will have a hard time learning new things.” This one was a little tough, because truthfully she might, but we don’t know that for sure so my way of responding to this one is….we don’t know what her strengths and weaknesses will be until she starts going to school, but she’ll go to school and do all the same things you will. “Why do some people have Down syndrome?” Great question for a 5 year old!!! I said my standard answer to this one. God makes people in all different shapes and sizes and he loves us all the same. He made Sienna with an extra string. It just means she does things a little differently, but different is okay. “When will she walk?” We don’t know when she will walk but she goes to therapy to help her learn how to use her muscles because they are different than ours. We talked about how one of the kids in school has a sister the same age as Sienna but this sister is walking. Sienna isn’t walking yet, but she is doing a ton of talking. There were lots more questions. Haley even took off Sienna’s orthotics (her idea) and passed them around the room for everyone to see. She stood proudly next to me, calling on her classmates.
After story time was over, it was time to play. Sienna and I stuck around for a while. The children all took turns waiting on Sienna and serving her different play food from their kitchen. They sat next to her, talked to her, hugged her, and giggled with her. It made my heart so incredibly full to see how much love these children had for my sweet baby. They knew she was different, but they didn’t care! If I could freeze them now, I would. I hope this is what the future holds for my sweet Sienna. I hope she grows up in a world full of people that embrace her, and don’t focus on what is different about her. These sweet kids did not care. They saw a happy little baby and they loved her.
It was a wonderful day for all of us. It was great for Haley, because she got to teach her friends about her sister, which made her feel special. It was great for Sienna, because she loves kids and socialization. It was great for me, because it reaffirmed that being her advocate is a gift. It is something I need to continue to embrace.
How else did we celebrate WDSD? I continued my fundraising efforts for the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network. I am so close to my goal of $3,000. This money will help so many families facing a Down syndrome diagnosis. They have been my lifeline during some of my family’s darkest days. The fellow DSDN moms are my other family. I have learned so many things from them. They are my friends and my cheerleaders. No one gets my journey more than them. I wouldn’t be so passionate about raising money for them if I didn’t truly believe it made a difference. I cannot thank all of you enough for your support with this cause.
AT&T Sports Net was kind enough to donate AMAZING Pirates tickets to raffle off to anyone in Pittsburgh who donated $21 or more. Winners will be announced soon! Huge shout out to Katie Walos for your help with this.
Flynn Construction donated $500, and in addition to that held a fundraiser on 3/21 that raised $375. A huge thank you to all of the Flynn employees that donated to our cause. Rachel Smith, their Human Resources Generalist, was kind enough to take time out of her personal life to help coordinate these ideas and make ribbons to sell. Thank you so much, Rachel! We also couldn’t have made the ribbons if I didn’t have my extremely talented friend, Rebecca Franceschi, to coordinate the craftiness.
We also have another local fundraiser coming up on March 31 (Easter Eve). We will be filling local yards with candy filled eggs, and a note from the Easter Bunny. $25 for 20 eggs and $50 for 40 eggs. We already have 9 houses signed up!!
I have another huge thank you to give to my very dear friend, Diana Rodgers. Not only has her family donated, but she also organized a Matilda Jane party and 20% of the proceeds went to DSDN. Her party got us over $350. She also organized a meal train during one of the toughest times of my mom life. My SPCNS moms are my other mom tribe, and I am so grateful for them.
I have lived in Pittsburgh for 10 years and I have a great network out here. In Philadelphia, I went to an all girls Catholic high school, Nazareth Academy. I have not seen some of these girls in 20 years, but I had dozens of donations to DSDN from my fellow alumnae. Oh dear, my dear NA! I love you ladies!
Like many women I know, I have a metoo story. It set a precedent for me. Take a walk with me back to 1993. Meet 12-year-old me. I’m beyond awkward. I have braces with different color rubber bands. Puberty hasn’t hit me yet, and I have a god awful 90s haircut. I haven’t quite figured out where I fit in. I’m in 7th grade.
I went to a small catholic grade school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I wasn’t interested in boys and they weren’t interested in me. I spent more time arguing with boys about football than flirting with them. There were less than 10 boys in my entire grade.
Back then, computer class involved breaking up into groups in a computer lab and playing games like, “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”. One random day, our teacher broke us up to play a game. She walked out of the room and said she would be right back. She wouldn’t return until right before the class ended. I don’t know what was going on in her personal life that day, but it was more important than teaching. She had partnered me with 2 boys that I did not like. Let’s call them Alex and Josh. Alex’s mom was the 8th grade teacher at my school. Alex pretty much did whatever he wanted. He never got in trouble. Josh was his sidekick and laughed at everything he said and did. They honestly reminded me of Beavis & Butthead.
I logged us onto the computer we were sharing and started to read the instructions. Alex interrupted and said, “I have a better game to play. It’s called Nervous. I’m gonna touch you and if you want me to stop, just say nervous and I’ll stop.” I had heard of this game from girlfriends in school. I had no desire to play this game. I said I didn’t want to, but he persisted. I remember his hand rubbing my thigh. I remember pushing it away and saying no. Josh laughed the entire time. I kept getting up and pretending to need something from my desk. More boys around the room got wind of what Alex was doing and they all peeked over, laughing while it was going on. At one point, Alex grabbed my hand and put it on himself over his pants. I yanked it away and asked him to stop. His next move was to quickly stick his hands on my breasts. Again, I pushed them away and asked him to stop. He just laughed and continued. It was agony. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it, but I was just a kid, and there was no teacher in sight. I remember crying on the bus ride home. I remember girls on the bus calling me a slut.
I came home from school and I told my mom everything that had happened. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day. My mom wanted to march down to school and kill Alex. I insisted that she let me handle it. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. She said that I was old enough to know what was right and what was wrong. Standing up to a bully takes courage and she knew I would do the right thing. I wasn’t so sure. I barely slept the night before school.
I went to school with every intention of moving on and acting like nothing had ever happened. I got to school early that day. There were a few kids in class and one of the boys started singing, “Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.” Then, he called me a slut and a liar. That was all it took. I snapped. Our home room teacher walked in the room. He was the only male teacher in the school and he was my favorite teacher. I asked if I could speak with him in the hall. He asked me if everything was okay. “No” I said while shaking. “Mr. Bellino, when I was in computer class yesterday, Alex was touching me and when I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t.” His face looked enraged. He told me I was brave. He said, “Thank you for trusting me. In order for me to help you, we have to tell the principal. I will be by your side the whole time. Do you think you can do that?” We marched to the principal’s office (a nun) and he said, “Tell Sister what you just told me.” I repeated myself.
The rest of the day involved various kids being called out into the hall and questioned all day long. The computer teacher acted shocked. She asked me how it happened under her watch. Meanwhile, she wasn’t in the classroom during the entire period. I simply said, “You weren’t there.”
The boys around the room started yelling at me, asking why I had brought them into it. I hadn’t. I’d only mentioned Alex. He threw them all under the bus, insisting they had told him about this game and they’d played it with other girls. My mom was called down to school. A little before lunch, I was called out of the room and asked to go into the church. As I walked down the aisle, I saw Alex and his mother (the 8th grade teacher), let’s call her Mrs. Alvorado. My Mom was sitting there too. I slowly walked down the aisle. My Mom looked so proud of me, but I’d never been more scared in my life. Mrs. Alvorado ran that school. She’d been teaching 8th grade there forever. She had a reputation of being tough on girls. The next part, I barely remember. I just know we walked out of the church vestibule agreeing that Alex being suspended for 3 days was sufficient. He mumbled, “Sorry.” under his breath and refused to make eye contact with me.
After his suspension ended, teachers kept our desks separated. We still attended every class together. As time went by, Alex got more and more comfortable and went back to his troublemaking ways. He called me names under his breath, when no one was paying attention. Everything that came out of my mouth invoked an eye roll or some joke on my behalf. Worst of all, was the judgment that came from female teachers and kids in my grade.
My grade school went up to 8th grade, then it was off to high school. I just had to get through one more year. I had a best friend who remained loyal to me through it all. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have made it. Over the summer, my mom was told that we had two options for 8th grade. I could either switch classes and have Mrs. Alvorado as my teacher or stay in the same home room class with Alex. If I switched classes, I wouldn’t be with any of my friends. These were all the same kids I’d been with for years. I was terrified of Mrs. Alvorado. I had been handling Alex’s harassment for months. If I had to, I could endure it, but I didn’t feel comfortable trusting Mrs. Alvorado to grade me with an unbiased viewpoint. My grades were extremely important to me. I told my mom that I’d rather stick with the same home room.
Eighth grade was one of the toughest years of my childhood. I could go on and on about it. I cried so many days. I never wanted to go to school. The female teachers treated me differently after that. They were friends with Mrs. Alvorado. I felt like they didn’t believe me, or they were judging me for tattling. I learned at an early age that telling the truth and exposing inappropriate behavior resulted in more hardship for the victim than the perpetrator. It shaped me. It was the culture of not tattling.
Not everyone in this story was a villain. Mr. Bellino checked in on me often. He wasn’t my home room teacher in 8th grade, but he wanted to make sure I was okay. He was more supportive than any other faculty member in the school. I’ll never forget him and all he did for me. Teachers have the ability to make a huge impact on our children.
I ended up at an all girls high school in the city after that. Not one girl from my grade school went to my high school and that’s the way I wanted it. We ended up moving into the city and I put it all behind me.
As I grew up and attended college, I had a summer internship. We had a team building day and alcohol was involved. I was under age, so I didn’t drink. At the end of the night, I ended up in a car with one of the male managers. He shouldn’t have been driving. He pulled into a gas station and tried to stick his hand up my skirt. I pushed him off and asked if we could please leave. Thankfully, he stopped and we drove home. I quit my job the very next day. I ran away from it, because I knew coming forward wasn’t an option. I couldn’t bare the idea of seeing him every day. I knew it wouldn’t solve anything and people might not believe me.
This is the culture I grew up in. I learned at an early age that telling the truth can make things harder for you. I think about all of the victims coming forward now. I pray that they’re being protected, that they are not being met with judgment. We have to do better. I want my girls to grow up in a culture that supports truth tellers.
I worry about them. Haley is affectionate. She will talk to anyone. She is caring and giving. I love all those things about her. I see so many great things headed her way in the future, but I worry. I worry that someone will take advantage of her. Then, there’s Sienna. I try not to think too far ahead, but I am terrified to send her to school. Did you know kids with intellectual disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to be victims of abuse? How will I protect her? What if she isn’t able to communicate yet? I know I can’t mentally go there, but it’s looming. It’s the future and I have to be ready for it.
This post was one of the hardest things I have ever had to write. I have gone back and forth about sharing it dozens of times. Miscarriages and infertility…..no problem. Sienna and how amazing she is…..get me a computer so I can write. This, well….this stuff is hard. Even 25 years later, it’s hard. Stuff like this leaves scars. It doesn’t go away. For me, the aftermath of what happened was harder than what actually happened. Let’s support all women coming forward, baring their souls. It takes courage to put yourself out there. I applaud all women coming forward in this movement. You are leading the way for my daughters. Thank you. I’d be a fraud if I didn’t share my story too. #metoo