Fear of the Future

How is it possible that I am still awake? I have knots in my stomach and a flutter in my chest. I think I’ve played out every worst-case scenario for Sienna’s future. I don’t know when it happened. When did I start spending so much time being anxious? I think it all began with school. 

Sienna began preschool this fall. It’s a difficult transition for all parents. We have to learn to let go of our kids. As a mom of a child with special needs, I have found it more challenging this time around. We enrolled Sienna in a program called gentle separation. She struggles with detaching herself from me, so this seemed like a natural fit. I could be in the classroom until she gained her independence. I decided to start her out in the two-year-old program, because developmentally, she aligns with these children more.

Since school began, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night over and over. I wrestle with the fact that time is passing and no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop it. When Sienna began school, the bubble we’d been living in popped. I quickly realized that I’d been sheltering myself from reality. When forced to see her side by side with other children on a daily basis, the reality of her development hit me like a 2×4. I had to observe her side by side with peers much younger than her. I watched as they physically and developmentally did things with ease. I watched as her entire class walked to the playground and she fell behind. Her teacher was always by her side. But the visual image of children soaring past her while she slowly walked down the long hallway is one I play over and over in my mind. It’s a metaphor for this stage we find ourselves in. It’s the stage where the differences in her development between herself and her neuro-typical peers become glaring. There is no hiding from reality anymore.

Let’s start with the positives of the process. The gentle separation program involves a series of steps. The parents and I spend our time in the hallway and library. We are present in case our children have separation anxiety. This time also allows us to share parenting challenges with each other. It’s opened the doors to meaningful conversations. I was able to explain Sienna’s challenges. Every single parent in this classroom is welcoming and inclusive. I worried the parents might think Sienna was dominating the teacher’s attention. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This has been a nice surprise. 

The biggest challenge involves the fulfillment of Sienna’s IEP. I never anticipated challenges this early on. I had heard the horror stories, but up until this point, we’ve had all positive experiences with therapists. Here is what I’ve learned. They don’t always show up. They don’t always tell you they aren’t going to show up. They don’t come at the time you’ve scheduled. They don’t communicate with me. They communicate with the school. Had I not been in the school, I might not have been able to confront them and demand they fulfill her plan in the way she deserves. There are points during the day when Sienna needs assistance -the physical demands of recess and during times of transition. This is why they’re scheduled at specific times. In my opinion, they view Sienna as a box they have to check off their list. This has led to many worries about her future. I cannot explain how much this wakes me up at night. What if she can’t communicate her needs in kindergarten? I opened up to other parents in the different abilities community during Special Olympics, and what I learned is this problem is all too common. A father shared a story about his son being placed in the special education classroom too often and the school did not communicate that. He was made aware because he knew someone inside the school.

It’s just another part of this journey that is new and scary. It’s a fear most parents don’t face. I am hands-on in every single therapy session. It’s always been that way. I am still able to play that role in outpatient therapies, but at some point we will need to rely solely on the school system. As I learn more, I realize the aides and therapists are underpaid and overworked. My plan is a charter school for Sienna, but it’s an extremely competitive lottery system, so there are no guarantees. When the walls of her nursery school are no longer there to protect myself and her, what will it look like? It’s terrifying and it’s out of my control.

This week, I left school. I went to two hot yoga classes. That’s my plan. I am fitting in self care to help direct my frustration and anger about my lack of control. Sienna’s transition has been seamless. She hasn’t asked for me once. The teachers share stories of her holding hands with friends. The kids love her and each other. This is a wonderful time in her education. For now, I can relax and celebrate the fact that inclusion does work. I can celebrate that there are parents that value it. But in the middle of the night, when I wake up, the future looms and my lack of control suffocates my rest. The image of Sienna falling behind in the hallway plays over and over in my mind.





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Lessons from a Mom that Values Inclusion

Two months after Sienna was born, Haley started preschool. As we walked into her classroom on the first day of school, I mentally took inventory of all the mothers. I assumed they all had perfect lives with perfect newborn babies. At the time, I was resentful. My husband was traveling constantly. My family all lived far. Sienna was not sleeping well, and as a result, I was sleep-deprived. I was living in a fog, still processing Sienna’s diagnosis. If I am truthful, this was a time full of despair. It was probably the hardest point in my life. On top of feeling like a victim, I was angry.

In my selfish mind, I owned the rights to hardship. I had no idea I was standing among warriors that had fought battles of their own. What kind of battles? There was a mom who had lost a pregnancy and endured medical trauma. She had to resort to surrogacy to have children. There was a mom holding a newborn. I didn’t realize her children were adopted. I didn’t know she had almost died of heart failure while pregnant. She subsequently lost that pregnancy. There was a pregnant mother with two boys. I resented her the most. You have to remember I had been through four miscarriages. I didn’t know this mom had been through a miscarriage of her own. I didn’t know she had endured the most unimaginable of tragedies, the swift loss of her own mother to cancer. I didn’t know these women were about to become my village.

I was not in the mood to make friends, but there was a mom in the class, Diana Rodgers-Genuardi, that refused to accept that. She was the kind of mom that wouldn’t let you refuse help. In the midst of my selfish misery, Diana invited us to her house for a group playdate. I assumed no one knew about Sienna’s diagnosis. I was nervous about explaining, but Diana made me feel comfortable from the moment I entered her home. She could see that I was at a breaking point. This simple interaction changed my life. She gifted me with a support system. She gave me friends that became family.

Last week, Diana texted me to check-in, as she often does. She knew I was struggling. She asked what she could do to help. I had no answers for her. She did what Diana does. She took the reigns and made an executive decision. In the midst of a terrible week, I received a love letter in the form of a blog post from Diana. Please read her wisdom below. I hope you will find inspiration in her words.

Lessons from a Mom with Typically Developing Children

Louisa and Haley met in Mrs. Davin’s three-year-old class at nursery school. Their love of princesses, space, and each other was instant and deep. Their strengths couldn’t be more opposite. Haley is an extrovert who raises her hand eagerly, makes friends with ease, is unafraid to be silly. Louisa is soft-spoken, gentle, and seriously focused. And yet, they became the kind of ride-or-die best friends that you hope your daughter will have throughout her life. It was the first time Louisa made a friend without me.

The ride-or-die best friends, Haley and Louisa.

Because of Haley and Louisa’s friendship, I got to know Shannon who had just had Sienna. I knew before Shannon shared it with me that Sienna had Down syndrome—I’m an educator—but we didn’t discuss it because I wasn’t sure she was ready to talk about it with almost-strangers. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on Sienna, and I had no idea what Shannon was going through. I wish I could go back in time and be a support for her in those early months. I’m actually getting teary writing this knowing that I knew her and was totally unhelpful. But, I was going through our own crazy medical journey that resulted in our daughter, Susanna, and maybe I was a little self-absorbed at that point. However, over time, Haley and Louisa became closer and Shannon and I went from carline acquaintances to casual mom friends to also being the kind of ride-or-die best friends that you hope your daughter will have throughout her life.

The more I got to know Shannon and Sienna, the more I wanted to know and be able to be a support system. It was becoming increasingly clear to me was that Sienna, like Haley and Louisa, and Shannon and me, was going to need girlfriends. Maybe even more than we do, she was going to need girlfriends who would love her wholeheartedly because, despite, and irrelevant of her diagnosis. When my daughter, Susanna, was born about a year after Sienna, we started calling her Sienna’s bestie. Susanna, Sienna, and their other girlfriend Ellen are still toddlers and the differences between them are limited at this point. But Ellen’s mom, Maggie (one of Shannon and my other close friends), and I have normalized this friendship, so hopefully when those difference do become apparent, their love for each other will transcend diagnosis. I imagine them together, twenty years from now, as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings.

From left to right, here are the besties Susie, Ellen, and Sienna.

At the same time that Shannon and I were becoming close, Louisa made her second ride-or-die best friend without me at her ballet class. Cooper saw Louisa and understood her in ways that I didn’t know were possible for a four-year-old. She drew Louisa out of her serious focus and into uproarious giggling games of detective and Star Wars and knew when Louisa’s anxiety was heightened and she needed to hold hands or a tight hug.

Just like how Haley made me become friends with Shannon, Cooper’s mother, Annie, has become one of my close friends, too. Annie is forthright and direct about the fact that Cooper has autism, and I’ve seen, over the four years of our friendship, how Cooper has responded to therapy and become more confident, social, and resilient. After Cooper had a particularly bad day with a monster meltdown when the girls were four, I had to talk to Louisa about Cooper’s diagnosis. I didn’t want her to think that her friend was mad at her or that she had done anything wrong, and I wanted her to be sensitive to the fact that this might happen again. I also knew that transparence is what Annie wanted. Louisa thought for a while after my feeble attempt at explaining what it means to be neuro-atypical, and concluded that Cooper has “superpowers,” a word she continues to use in her own explanation of what makes Cooper Cooper. Annie and I were tickled to hear that Greta Thunberg also describes her autism as superpowers. A coda to this story is that Haley and Cooper are classmates and Annie and Shannon have become friends, too.

I have, as far as I know right now, three typically developing girls. If you would have asked me 5 years ago about my children’s friendships, I would have imagined them having typically developing best friends. That’s not what happened, but I’m grateful every day for the love, friendship, and diversity that our friends who are more deeply affected by disabilities bring to our lives. Last summer we left Pittsburgh and the friends whom we love. Louisa still says Haley and Cooper are her besties, and Susanna still proudly wears her Sienna’s Squad shirt. I’m trying to find a buddy organization here so they can keep making friends with kids with disabilities. I am still learning how to be an ally and a friend to families with children with disabilities, but in the meantime here are some things that I have learned on this journey so far:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the child’s diagnosis. I read a bunch of blogs (I had been reading Girl in the Party Hat about Down syndrome far before Sienna came into my life), articles, and medical posts about these diagnoses. I needed to make sure that I used person-first language and accurate terminology. I also wanted to learn enough so that in an emergency, Shannon and Annie felt comfortable dropping their kids with me with no lengthy explanation.
  2. Give your child permission to ask questions. By saying that your friend’s child with autism is just like your typically developing child misses the point. Explain to your child in an age appropriate way what makes them different and what they should do best include a child with a disability. Questions are going to come up. Louisa knows that she can ask me and my husband anything about her friends, and if we don’t know how to explain it, I text Shannon and Annie right away to use the language they want.
  3. Offer to help and mean it. Families with kids with disabilities have some rough weeks with therapy or surgeries or extensive testing. Drop off a meal. Take the other siblings for a fun day. Just send a text offering support and don’t expect a response. Host a fun fundraiser for the family’s favorite charity. March, dance, walk, whatever with the family. By doing this, they will stop feeling bad about asking you for help.
  4. Listen and be a source of stress relief. Your friend who has a child with a disability has a lot on her plate. Let her vent to you. Ask questions and try to learn what you can. Also, do stuff together. Annie, Shannon, three other friends, and I had a standing monthly dinner and an annual spa weekend. We make time for our friendship and know that while we all have complicated lives, our friends with children with disabilities have a totally different level of crazy. The rest of us are thrilled to be the comic relief and the distraction.




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The Magic of Siblings

“What do they see, Mom? She’s the cutest baby ever. Why are they staring?” Haley looks frustrated as I begin to buckle her into her booster seat.

“I don’t know, honey. They just see someone different and they stare because they don’t understand.” I kiss Haley on the cheek and I climb into the driver’s seat.

“I still don’t understand. Just because her eyes are shaped like almonds. Everyone’s eyes are shaped different.” Her brow furrows and she looks out the window staring.

How do I explain this? I love that she looks at her sister and only sees her sister. She doesn’t see Down syndrome. She sees Sienna.

However, this will be impossible to avoid. When I carried Sienna into Girl Scouts today, I thought nothing of it. Then, I noticed all the older kids. This was, most likely, their first experience with someone like Sienna. They couldn’t help themselves, but I also watched my observant little kindergartner look at the older kids curiously. Her eyes followed their stares to her sweet little sister, Sienna.

I decided in that moment, during this conversation with Haley in the car, that it was time. It was time to call the school and ask if I could do a Down Syndrome awareness presentation. This is Haley’s school and her friends will have to understand some of Sienna’s challenges.

The presentation was a huge success. We taught kindergarten through sixth grade and I now watch those same Girl Scouts stare at Sienna with affection. They no longer feel the need to investigate her. They understand her muscle tone challenges. They know they don’t have to be afraid of differences. They realize she is more alike than different.

Some days, I wish the whole world could see Sienna through Haley’s lens. I think of how I first stared at my newborn baby girl. I didn’t know a thing about Down syndrome. The fear paralyzed me. Haley’s lens changed all of that. No one in Sienna’s life accepted her as earnestly as Haley. She was the first one to accept her, all of her, while us adults still struggled. It happened the moment she laid eyes on her. The day they met was magical.

The magic of their love is our greatest blessing. It’s a gift we get to witness every day. I used to worry that Sienna would take attention and affection away from Haley. During those first few moments of learning Sienna’s diagnosis and the doctor portraying everything so negatively, I blamed myself. I remember these words going through my head over and over, “I am the reason this happened. I destroyed my family. Life will never be the same.” Over and over those words danced in my head. It’s hard admitting that. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Everything changed the next day when Haley entered our hospital room. She didn’t hesitate to give her love away. Not from the second she saw her baby sister. Her joy filled the entire room. I began to realize I was looking at everything wrong. Sienna was a gift. She was just a baby. She was a beautiful baby that I had much to learn about, but there was nothing to fear. She was just as much our baby as Haley had been. She was a piece of all of us.

Haley gave me the strength to move forward. She saved me from my fear. As I immersed myself in this new world, I began to realize that siblings in the Down Syndrome community were grateful. Sienna would make our life better. She would make us better people. Haley showed me that. Haley shows me that every day. She was Sienna’s first advocate.

Their bond continues to amaze me. They have an unbreakable connection that I cannot penetrate. Their emotions are one in the same. When one is sick, the other is depressed. When one is hurt, the other melts down in grief. When one is happy, the laughter fills our home. Haley is the most consistent feature in Sienna’s life. I wanted to pay homage to their love for each other.

I made this video as a tribute to them and all rockin’ siblings in the Down Syndrome community. What a gift we have been given!



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