The Realization of a Greater Life

The night of Sienna’s birth, I remember watching Jason sleep and staring into space, a million thoughts rushing through my head. No one knew yet. It was our family’s information to process and digest. I am ashamed of the worries that raced through my mind. I look back on those anxious thoughts and realize just how far we have come.

What thoughts raced through my mind?

Can I do this? Will we still be able to go out for weekly Friday dinners? Will we be able to travel? Can I do this? Will we have to leave the city for a different school district? Can we afford to raise a child with Down syndrome? Can we do this? Will Haley’s life be affected negatively? Will she be pushed out of the spotlight? How will this affect our marriage? Can I do this? Is this my fault? I don’t think I can do this.

Five years later, I not only know I can do this, I am grateful for the ride and our tour guide. Sienna has taken me on a journey of self discovery. Sharing my truth and our story has given me a greater purpose. Sometimes, I question if I share too much. Then I remember reading blogs that same night those questions raced through my mind. I remember the reassurance that came from reading other mother’s stories.

I laugh at those questions now. We do everything we did before Sienna came into our lives. That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed. The changes have made our family better. They have brought us closer. We have slowed down. We place more value on our precious time together. Life isn’t a race and there is no competition. Our society places too much value on being perfect and doing things a certain way. Sienna does things her own way. We have found that we like her way. We love seeing the world from her viewpoint, and as she steers our course, we continue to see things in a beautiful light.

During this journey of self discovery, I have become an advocate. I have learned that life’s greatest joy comes from helping others. I have learned there are people willing to help us, and it’s okay to accept that help. Unfortunately, until something directly affects you, you don’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know I needed to become more brave. Sienna has made me push myself out of my comfort zone. I am so grateful for that push, because I don’t think I would have gotten there on my own. If she weren’t in our lives, I would have missed out on so much life has to offer. I would still be seeing things through my self centered lens. Sharing my truth has connected me to some of the greatest human truths – patience, hope, connection, wonder, and finally self discovery.

I have grown. I spend time helping others in the community. I advocate for her rights. I don’t take health care for granted. I take things as they come. I celebrate everything. I laugh more. She makes us all laugh more. I have learned the value of what’s really important. This October, I wanted to express my gratitude for our path. I am grateful to Sienna for giving me a new lens. She has enriched our lives in countless ways. Her presence in my life has liberated me in a way only love can.

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Chaos Continued

For the past 11 or so months, I’ve missed the busyness of our lives. I am not going to lie. The first few months of the pandemic were the reprieve I have long desired. I enjoyed the stillness of time spent in the backyard, scavenger hunts on walks, and the hum of virtual school background as our days stretched into months. Then those days became more stressful. I watched Sienna’s development fall behind and Haley’s anxiety escalate. We were all ready to resume our lives.

After Jason and I were fully vaccinated, we decided it was time to do just that. Sienna’s preschool opened. We chose to send Haley back to in person learning. We resumed in person activities and therapies. I immediately saw a difference in both girls. Sienna is talking more. She is playing appropriately with toys rather than stimming. Haley, for the most part, has a lightness in her step I haven’t seen in over a year. Jason began traveling again and is gone during the week. And here I am, holding down the fort. While in quarantine, I started some volunteer work which has almost become a part time job now. I am enjoying it, but it’s advocacy and it’s time consuming. I forgot about the chaos of our days, and how sometimes those days have the power to break me. The story I am about to share is about a day I recently did break.

I was in the midst of picking up Sienna from school. I had to rush to get her lunch, so that we could make the mad dash to the pediatrician for an eye infection, then it was off to get Haley from school, and get to PT as quickly as possible. I also had a zoom meeting scheduled that evening, and Jason was out of town. My phone rang. It was a neighbor calling to ask a simple question, The conversation was friendly enough and my neighbor asked how I was doing. Truthfully, this was a really rough week and I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t say that, but I said that I was struggling to come to grips with the continued chaos of our lives.

He then said to me, “You know what, though? That’s all on your terms. It could be a lot worse. You could have a job and have to be at a desk all day.”

I was so taken aback. I said, “Well, I consider what I do work.” He then said, “Oh that’s fun work. What you do everyday is fun.”

I cannot explain how angry this made me. I quickly made an excuse to get off the phone. Tears filled my eyes as I raced to get to school on time. It stuck with me though. All day it stuck with me. Fun work.

At the pediatrician as I restrained Sienna so they could examine her eye, I thought, is this fun? Racing to pick up Haley from school and get to Sienna’s therapy appointment, as my blood pressure rose, I again thought…is this fun? While there and watching Sienna struggle to do things that come so naturally to other kids, I thought…is this fun? Is this life on my terms? As we got home and I rushed to do the laundry, cook them dinner, do their bedtime routines, and get them in bed so I could moderate a zoom meeting for the DS community, I thought…is this fun? Anyone who has small children knows that very few things are on your terms at this stage.

I want to make something very clear. I respect working women with all my heart. I really do. I wish the world respected stay at home moms. When I worked, I had time to schedule doctor’s appointments for myself. I could enjoy a cup of coffee at my desk while working in peace. I could chit chat with other adults and not worry about a child injuring themselves. I could do things for me. I enjoyed it. I ultimately made the best decision for our family. Jason’s career led him to traveling during the week and my heart led me to being home with Haley full time. Those first couple years of her life were some of the best of mine. I endured four miscarriages, but I had my girl to pick me up. The miscarriages also weren’t on my terms.

I reflected on that call, and thought there was no point in dwelling on it, but I am sharing it today, so that maybe you can learn from my neighbor’s mistake. Never assume you know what a person is going through. We all have burdens and some carry them more gracefully than others.

There is an “extra” in this life. Things can be extra hard. Emotions can take over, and that can take a toll. During those still days, I wasn’t watching Sienna next to other kids her age. I wasn’t comparing her with others. There was peace in that, and readjusting to that has not come easily to me. I am not proud to say that, but it’s the way it is.

But that same day, something miraculous happened during Sienna’s therapy session. Haley participated in the session and rode a scooter down the halls. Sienna was trying fervently to do the same thing watching her in awe. I watched her cry as we pushed her, and made her forge on. It broke my heart to challenge her and watch her struggle, but her therapist knew she could do it, and I knew I could trust her therapist. I was certain this was going to be a a failed mission, but then Sienna did what she always does. She proved that she was capable. Her sister being there motivated her. I got to witness a small miracle. Tears filled my eyes for the second time that day on the way home from therapy. That moment right there makes the extra worth it. There is so much beauty in this journey. I would not change my life for anything. I am grateful for the perspective I have been given and the small celebrations and miracles I get to witness every day.

Sienna’s therapist assists her trying to ride a scooter, while Haley rides one to the right of her.

I am happy to say that I am now adjusting to the continued chaos of our lives. The muscle memory was there. I just needed to find it. Our days are flying by, but watching my girls soar as we race from place to place is a gift. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess some days it is actually fun.

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For the New Families Entering this Extraordinary Journey

I stood in your shoes. I stood at the precipice of this life, my emotions engulfed in fear, grief, and uncertainty. I remember the congratulations and the welcomes from our community. I still felt uncertain and then I felt guilt for my uncertainty. I want you to know that everyone entering this unexpected path has felt what you are feeling. We were not sure we could do it, yet here we all are saying congratulations and welcome to you. There is a reason for that. We have the gift of perspective. I promise that you will have that gift someday. You will process this and when you do, you will come out the other side. Someday, you will be dancing alongside us with your silly socks at a World Down Syndrome Day dance. I promise this life is something you will want to celebrate.

​Emotions are fleeting. Love is permanent. This child you have been gifted with is your baby and you will love him or her with a fierceness that will move mountains. You will become an advocate. As you settle into this role, you will learn about adults with Down syndrome living meaningful lives. Adults competing in Ironman triathlons, lobbying in Washington DC, acting in movies and television shows, and being celebrated for the people they are and the gifts they bring into this world. You will learn that emotional intelligence can take you far in life. You will see parents throwing parties when their children walk, talk, sit up, and everything in between, celebrating every milestone in agonizing detail because it warrants that reaction. You will have deeper friendships with other parents in this community. When you take away the pretense of perfect parenting, you connect with people on a more meaningful level. When you let your guard down and are given the opportunity to be truly vulnerable, the reward is a supportive lifelong community.

I would be lying if I said this path was easy. It’s full of mountains to climb and roads less traveled, but there is wonderment in this life. Hard work gives us an appreciation for things others take for granted. This journey turns life’s most ordinary moments into the extraordinary. My daughter, Sienna age 4, is sunshine, rainbows, and laughter. She has made us slow down and enjoy each day. When she was born, I found myself focusing too much energy on the future and unknowns. But Sienna in her wisdom, taught me that it was wasted energy. The truth is that none of us knows where ANY child’s life will take them. So now, we take it slow, enjoying each stage. We experience more everyday magic. I am so grateful to her for that welcome change in pace.

Sienna has forced me out of my comfort zone. She has made me take risks. Because of her, I started a blog that has been published by the TODAY show and ScaryMommy. Because of her, her 7 year-old sister and I advocated and fought for her rights in front of a US Senator. Because of her, he read my words on the floor of the United States Senate. Because of her, I have taken trips to Chicago, Phoenix, Nashville, and several trips to Harrisburg to connect with other parents in this community, each trip more meaningful than the next. Because of her, her sister has a front row seat to empathy and compassion. I can honestly say that Sienna has enriched our lives. She has made us better people.

Your child will do the same for you and your family. One day, you will stand in my shoes with a four year-old with Down syndrome, and you will be the one telling new parents that this life is worth celebrating. Until then, know that we have all felt what you are feeling and we are here to help you navigate it all.

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