Six Years Old

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Emmy is six years old! She was only one year old when I started this blog. Hard to believe!

Emmy is feisty, fearless, and persistent. Those qualities have remained since she was born. She actually broke her arm at the end of the last school year because she was climbing up a structure on the playground during recess and fell at the very top. (I almost passed out when the school called me. But so far, it looks like she’s healing beautifully.) After her arm was out of the sling, we walked by the school playground and she casually asked if she could climb that structure again.

“That one??” I asked. “You fell from that one!”

She smiled and started climbing. No fear whatsoever.

When we were trying to plan her activities for this year, she asked if she could take karate classes. I wasn’t sure about karate… Let’s just say that it’s not really my speed. And a friend said that it really tests your balance, so I was concerned that Emmy would have an especially tough time.

When we showed up early for our trial class, we got a chance to see the older kids sparring. Emmy sat on my lap while we watched the kids really going at each other. My eyes nearly bugged out of my head. I was going to sign up my little darling for this? I figured that after watching the sparring session, she wouldn’t want to do it anymore. Clearly I do not know my daughter!

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked nervously.

“Yes. I love it,” she replied, smiling.

So now Emmy takes two karate classes a week. She was right. She loves it.

It’s interesting to see the activities that really capture her interest. She’s tried dance, gymnastics, piano, t-ball, yoga, and soccer. And while she enjoys them, she will drop everything for karate and swimming.

She also loves arts and crafts, but I fear that this interest is really about being destructive. One thing we still struggle with it that Emmy likes to tear things about. I know that this can be common for kids with Williams syndrome. But for a neat person like me, there are some growing pains associated with this one.

For example, Emmy loves to use scissors. And I trusted her with scissors because she does a solid job cutting paper and has never cut her skin. But one day I popped my head into the study to see that she found a bunch of her nice bracelets in a jewelry box and cut them up. Ughhhhh.

Or she’ll take a bottle of glue and, at first, she’ll be purposeful about where she puts it. And then, it’s all over…

Or, we were watching Charlotte’s soccer game the other day, and I gave Emmy a piece of paper and pencil to keep her busy on the sidelines. The paper had interesting designs on it that you could trace. She turned it over to the back and started poking holes in it.

I can tell that she gets a thrill out of being destructive.

But I’m being nit picky here. Most of the time, Emmy is a pleasure. Her personality is awesome. She’s usually in a good mood and smiley. When she does get upset, there is always a legitimate reason behind it. I don’t think she’s ever thrown a tantrum “just because.”

Emmy still loves Halloween. She talks about Halloween from January through December. She’s actually brought a new joy of Halloween to everyone in the family. I wasn’t majorly into Halloween when I was younger. I liked the candy, but that was about it. I was much more of a Christmas kid.

But now, Halloween is such a happening in our house. We have a store nearby called Spirit Halloween with zombies and werewolves that pop out when you walk in. When we went on our first Spirit Halloween visit this fall, it was practically a sacred event. I even took a video of us walking through the hallowed doors and getting scared by the fake spiders that jump out. I think Charlotte and Theo also appreciate Halloween even more because of Emmy. When we drive by houses with Halloween decorations, everyone in the car gets especially excited to point them out to her.

While Emmy’s personality is lovely and she’s a joy to be around, my heart still hurts as I watch her struggle in different areas. She’s repeating Kindergarten this year. She actually entered Kindergarten on the younger side, at five years old. And she immediately stood out in every class picture because she is so tiny. She loved school last year and never complained, but it was tough for her. Once school started, everyone was off to the races. And while other kids progressed quickly onto writing sentences, we were still practicing how to write Emmy’s name. Thankfully, this year, she’s holding her own quite nicely. School only started a few weeks ago, but she’s with the pack much more than last year. I’ve already seen significant gains in her progress.

Emmy has a new phrase: “A little help.” The first time I heard her say it was when she was riding her bicycle with training wheels and got stuck on a dip in the pavement. She continued to push the pedals around and around, but they just kept grinding. She is a persistent kid, so she tried desperately to get herself out of the rut. Finally, she looked my way, flashed her adorable smile, and asked, “A little help?” I’ve heard her say it a few times now. It’s very gentle; very sweet.

The truth about Emmy is that she doesn’t WANT help. She wants to do everything herself. But sometimes, she NEEDS a little help. I think this is a misperception about people with special needs. I’ve heard it said that people with special needs expect things to be handed to them — or that they needlessly demand help with every little thing. I’ve found it’s just the opposite. Emmy doesn’t WANT the help. She would love to be able to do everything herself. But sometimes, she NEEDS a little support to make it over the finish line.

When she does struggle, it’s hard to watch. Every morning, as she reaches for the banister to walk down the stairs, her hand shakes slightly with an intention tremor. I think her brain is still getting in sync with her nervous system early in the morning because it’s most obvious at that time and then subsides as the day goes along. Other people would probably not even notice the shaking. It’s so slight. But I feel it in my heart. It’s that tiny, little shake that is the give away. Things are harder for her, even though she never complains.

Emmy just adores her brother, Theo. If she could smother him with kisses all day, she would. He mostly runs away from her smothering, but they have a ton of fun together. They’re little buddies.

And Emmy looks up to Charlotte, who has very much adopted the big sister role for her younger siblings. Charlotte is a caretaker, but I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to put too much pressure on her. We had a disagreement over the summer where I asked her to watch Emmy at camp, and she pulled the reigns too tightly around Emmy’s fun. So we had to talk about what it means to “keep an eye on your sister” versus chasing Emmy around and telling her to not participate in activities because she might get hurt. But Charlotte has always been mature and, at eight years old, she was able to embrace that concept a bit better once we talked about it.

As time moves along, we all find our roles. It’s interesting to see them sway and shift as school, activities, and friends circle around our lives.

My goal this year is to move towards Minimalism. You know these guys?: The Minimalists

I’m very, very good at acquiring STUFF. It’s somewhat of a speciality. So I’m dipping my toe in the pond of minimalism, starting with The Minimalists and everyone’s favorite declutterer, Peter Walsh. As I look over all of my STUFF, I realize that this needs to be a major overhaul. Wish me luck. ūüôā

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Doing All Of The Things

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Our babysitter was telling me about how she was excited to see a friend that she hadn’t seen in a while. The friend said, “Can we do all of the things?” And our babysitter replied, “Yes, we will most definitely do all of the things!”

Every time I think of this expression, it makes me laugh. I guess it’s a new expression that means “doing everything we love to do”?? I guess??

Sometimes I’m tempted to use it in conversation, but then I think people would accuse me of trying to be¬†younger than my years…

But I do think of this in terms of Emmy. I want her to do all of the things.

I want her to play sports, go to dance class, take an art class, participate¬†in the various clubs at school…

She doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t WANT to do. But I want her to have the opportunities that any typical child has.

Some experiences have been easier than others. We have a gymnastics studio near us, and the teachers have been awesome with Emmy. She takes classes with her peers, but the teachers will modify a little bit for her. One¬†student might walk across the balance beam on her own, while Emmy will get a little support from the teacher. One student might do a cartwheel flawlessly on her own, while the teacher might hold Emmy while she practices her cartwheel. But she does everything that everyone else does, and the teachers have been very happy to accomodate for Emmy’s needs. I didn’t even have to ask them. They just did it.

On the other hand, we have had a doozy of a time with dance.¬†I enrolled Emmy in ballet classes at a very strict studio. It wouldn’t have been my preference, but Charlotte really liked the studio¬†at first, and she wanted to go there. I’m a big proponent of having Emmy try everything that Charlotte does. So I signed Emmy up for the class, but I also told them that she has Williams syndrome because I knew that¬†the standards of the studio are more strict than others. For¬†example, a student would have to pass a “dance test” before moving to the next level.

The receptionist gave me the side-eye and said, “We can put her in our youngest class…We’ll start her there…That’s as young as we go…”

This was one of those situations that made me very uncomfortable. I could feel the judgment. I knew that the kids would be younger than Emmy. But I also felt that this person wasn’t keen to have her in the dance school — period — and this was a way to get her in. After all, the aim of this school is to build up dancers in a very strict, professional atmosphere. If Emmy couldn’t perform the steps, how would the teacher react?

But, on the other hand, Charlotte took a practice class, and the teacher was great. I really wavered back and forth on this, but I signed Emmy up nonetheless and put her in the youngest class.

The interaction with the receptionist made me feel “less than.” It made me feel as though I had to apologize for intruding on the professional atmosphere of the school. It made me feel as though I had to make excuses for my child who was born as she was — through no fault of her own.

I should have known *at that moment* that this wasn’t the right place for us. But, you see, I want Emmy to do all of the things! I want her to wear her little ballet outfit with her hair up in a bun. Mostly, I want her to have the exact same opportunities that Charlotte does. If Charlotte is accepted into the class as a typical child, I want Emmy to be accepted as well.

Here’s the irony. The class ended up being a disaster but not for the reason I imagined. It wasn’t because Emmy couldn’t keep up with the steps. In fact, because the kids were younger than Emmy, they were totally out of control! They didn’t follow directions. They cried during the whole class and ran out of the room constantly. I don’t blame them one bit. They were quite young! But that wasn’t the class for Emmy.¬†Just because Emmy has some challenges doesn’t mean that she should immediately be placed with younger children. It was really illuminating! Emmy surpassed these kids in maturity. I asked the teacher to move Emmy to the next level, and she declined. She said Emmy was placed correctly. I kindly disagreed.

This is a dance school that many people praise, but we ended up leaving. It just wasn’t a good fit.

That interaction¬†soured me to dance for a while, but it was something that continued to eat away at me because Emmy loves to dance. I didn’t want to deny her the experience of a dance class just because of this one situation.

After a few months, I decided that we should try a free practice class at another dance studio near here. It’s¬†a very popular studio, but I’ve heard that it isn’t as strict as the first.

Everyone seemed very nice — the owner, the receptionist…we were off to a good start! This time, I didn’t tell them that Emmy has Williams syndrome. I didn’t want them to put her in the younger class again. I couldn’t risk another experience like the previous one.

This class was for five to seven year olds, so both Emmy (at age 5) and Charlotte (at age 7) would be in the same class. It’s an “acro” class, so it’s like “acrobatic dance.” Charlotte would look out for her sister. This seemed like a good set-up.

I dropped the girls off in the class and was lead to an area where I could watch them. As the minutes passed, I almost cried. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see how the teachers were treating Emmy. When she couldn’t get into a straddle perfectly, they¬†stood over her and admonished her. When Emmy did a bridge (which is really hard for someone with Williams syndrome!! Really, really hard!!), I could tell that they weren’t impressed. They weren’t kind. I¬†walked back in the class, picked up Emmy, and carried her out of the room. The teachers saw me and completely ignored me. Charlotte came running over and said, “This isn’t going well.” I asked her if she wanted to leave, but she said she would finish out the class. I watched the rest of the class while holding Emmy in my arms. I was fuming.

After it was over, the teachers walked out of the room and looked at me with disgust. They didn’t say anything to me and just marched¬†by.

“What happened in there??” I asked Charlotte.

She was rattled.¬†“Mom, they were so mean to Emmy. She did that bridge, and it was AMAZING! Emmy said, ‘Am I doing a good job, teacher?’ and the teacher said, ‘No.’ Can you believe that? I WAS SO PROUD OF HER!”

She continued. “I could hear the teachers talking about Emmy. They said, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ And ‘I thought she was supposed to be five years old?'”

Charlotte was very upset. My seven year old knew this wasn’t right.

I was appalled by the way they treated Emmy, and of course we didn’t go back. Friends told me to contact the owner and express my disapproval. I haven’t done that. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard similar things about this studio, so it makes me feel as if this is the atmosphere, and I don’t know that things will change if I speak up. But maybe they will. I don’t know. The whole experience really upset me, and I kind of just want to move past it.

But I want Emmy to do all of the things! Just because other people don’t know what class she fits in or don’t understand her challenges doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have the opportunity to do all of the things, right? The Americans with Disabilities Act is something with which I have become very familiar. It protects my daughter. She should be able to experience everything that everyone else does. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t change people’s reaction to her. While she may be able to DO all of the things, she may not be viewed in the same light ¬†— or with the same promise — as the other students. That part is rough.

You know what? Third time’s a charm.

A mom told me about yet ANOTHER dance studio that just opened. The owner, she said, is fabulous — very kind and understanding. I pushed my misgivings aside and only saw hope. I emailed the owner and explained our situation. I told her about Williams syndrome, and I also told her briefly about our past two experiences. I told her that I don’t want Emmy to be automatically put with the younger kids, but I also don’t want her to be admonished for not doing the steps properly¬†when she ALWAYS, ALWAYS tries her best. I asked if we could figure out a class that might be right for Emmy.

She called me right away. She told me that my email broke her heart and that she would absolutely find the right class for her. She did, and Emmy loves it. It’s another “acro” class. She is with her typical peers that are her age, and the teacher helps her when necessary. She gets some modifications. When she has trouble with a big cartwheel, she tries¬†a small¬†cartwheel. And her bridge has only gotten stronger and more beautiful. The teacher consistently praises her effort. It is a wonderful experience. They have made us feel welcome and included.

I don’t know why every place isn’t like this. It took us three chances to find a place that would accept us as we are. It’s not that I’m being difficult or that I’m expecting special treatment. I just want Emmy to be able to do all of the things that everyone else does. I think that’s reasonable. In fact, I know it is.

Williams Syndrome Convention

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We drove for 9 hours to get to Columbus, Ohio…with 3 kids in the car. When we first signed up to attend the Williams Syndrome Convention, it seemed like the drive would be palatable. But as the days inched closer, I kept turning to Dan with fear in my eyes and saying, “I think we should reconsider…can we cancel?” I was freaked about that drive.

Well, as Theo loves to¬†say, “Weeee DID IT!”

And I’m so glad we went! It was worth every minute in the car and then some.

When we first arrived at the hotel, Dan and I were totally out of sorts. It took us a while to get the stroller out, grab our suitcases from the car, and chase kids around the lobby. The kids were anxious to do everything immediately!

As we were checking in and trying to calm them down, Charlotte started to notice all the people with Williams syndrome in the lobby. We had already been to a Williams Syndrome Convention in Boston in 2012, when Charlotte was only 3 years old, but she didn’t have any clue about Williams syndrome at that time. Now at 7 years old, she understands a little more about it, and she¬†started to take in¬†the sight of all the friendly people in the lobby.

It’s interesting to see how the week has an effect on you. When we went to the Convention in Boston, Dan and I were at first overwhelmed by the friendly nature of people with Williams Syndrome. Emmy was only 1 year old at the time, so we didn’t have a¬†strong idea of how social¬†she would be. Plus, we’re quite reserved ourselves. So when people started approaching us right off the bat to have a chat, we were a little thrown off. As that week went along, we totally embraced the culture and loved every second of the friendliness. There’s something so awesome about someone remembering your name and greeting you with absolute joy every time she sees you on the elevator. We missed that feeling of joy like crazy when we got¬†back home.

Just like us, Charlotte wasn’t used to the friendliness. As she looked around that lobby, she said cautiously, “I think I’m the only person here who doesn’t have Williams syndrome…”

“You’ll see lots of people here,” I said. “Can you tell that Emmy has Williams syndrome?”

“No, definitely not,” she replied.

Charlotte just sees Emmy as her sister. She doesn’t really think about Williams syndrome.

Later at dinner that night, Charlotte seemed to really ponder the idea of “Williams syndrome.” I could see her working over it in her mind as she sat next to Emmy in the restaurant booth. She was studying her face.

Finally, she said, “Mom, I can see it.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“I see it in Emmy. I see it in her lips.”

As the days went on, Charlotte¬†met many people with and without Williams syndrome. I could visibly see her grow more and more comfortable with everyone’s friendliness. She allowed herself¬†to loosen up and just enjoy all the different personalities. I have a very boring saying that I tell her all the time that kind of sums up life: “Everybody’s different!” We use that one a lot, especially when kids on the playground ask why Emmy is smaller than everyone else or why she can’t run as fast as the others:¬†“Everybody’s different!” I’ve noticed that it’s a good way for Charlotte to close out a conversation with a kid¬†on the playground who keeps prodding her about Emmy.¬†Who can possibly argue with “Everybody’s different!”??

During the week, Charlotte went to a YMCA camp (organized through the Convention) and made a bunch of friends — mostly typical siblings of people with Williams syndrome. She really got along with these kids nicely! Every night she was bubbling over with stories about her new friends.

Emmy and Theo also went to camp in the hotel. There were all sorts of activities for them to do throughout the week. I think Emmy’s favorite part was meeting Batman. She has no fear. Ever.

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While the kids were at camp, Dan and I attended sessions and learned a lot! I have to sheepishly admit that I thought I was pretty much an expert at Williams syndrome after 5 years with Emmy. There is SO MUCH more to learn! There were plenty of people with grown children in their twenties and thirties who still came to learn — and perhaps mostly to share their stories with others.

My favorite session was the exact same favorite that I had at the Convention in Boston: the sibling session. When you hear brothers and sisters talk about their siblings with Williams syndrome, it immediately brings tears to your eyes. It would be IMPOSSIBLE not to cry in that room. They see their siblings like no one else can. And they’ve become more tolerant, understanding, and patient people because of their siblings. Many of them go into teaching, physical therapy, or music therapy. Many of them volunteer at Williams syndrome camps, and many of them were volunteers at this Convention. Imagine learning the beauty of volunteerism as a young teenager? That has to change your life.

The siblings said that coming to these Conventions every couple of years really helped them to better understand their own brother or sister with Williams syndrome. They encouraged us to keep bringing all of our kids because it helps the typical siblings to comprehend Williams syndrome and helps to foster understanding and appreciation of their brothers and sisters, instead of frustration or resentment.

So of course Emmy and Theo had a great time at the Convention. They just played and had fun all day. Theo didn’t know why we were there because he’s too young. I think Emmy is starting to understand Williams syndrome just the tiniest bit, but it’s still very much of a foreign concept. But¬†we didn’t know¬†how Charlotte would react. I know it sounds silly, but being surrounded by friendly people can be overwhelming. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way. In a perfect world, everyone would be friendly! But our society is generally more closed off, so it’s¬†like being in an alternate universe when you’re surrounded by social¬†people who approach you without reservation.

To our delight, Charlotte had the most amazing time. She declared that it was the best vacation she’s ever been on!! She really, really loved it. Kudos to the Williams Syndrome Association for putting together an awesome Convention that had my 7 year old gushing!

On the last day, we were standing in the lobby checking out, and several adults¬†with Williams syndrome came over to talk to us.¬†One woman pointed at my kids and said, “They are so adorable!!” Then she looked closer and said, “Which one of you has Williams syndrome?”

I was surprised to see Emmy raise her hand right away and say, “I do!”

I’m not sure that she knows what Williams syndrome¬†is, but now it’s official — she definitely knows that she has it.

We can’t wait for the next Convention! Especially Charlotte.

A New Twist

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So here’s a fun, new, little twist. We found out that Emmy has Celiac disease!

She’s always been petite, which we attributed to Williams syndrome. But she’s also fatigued most of the time, which we also thought was related¬†to Williams syndrome (and the low muscle tone that comes with it). Stomach problems were only an occasional thing, so Celiac disease never crossed our minds.

I brought her to a new¬†doctor to discuss Emmy’s growth, and she asked if we have any allergies in the family. I have a sensitivity to gluten and dairy, but other than that, no formal allergies. The doctor said, “Well,¬†since we’re getting her blood taken, let’s check her for Celiac disease because of your gluten sensitivity.”

During that time period,¬†our attention immediately focused to Emmy’s heart because a few doctors heard a heart murmur (which hasn’t been heard since before her heart surgery in 2013), and there was a scramble to get an appointment with our cardiologist. I was totally focused on her heart, which is ok — thank goodness, and I put the discussion about Emmy’s growth temporarily out of my mind.

On the same day the echocardiogram of her heart came back ok, we got a call from the first ¬†doctor to say that Emmy has¬†Celiac disease, and her numbers are off the charts! (They don’t even need to do an endoscopy to confirm the results because her numbers were so high.) I was shocked but¬†also so incredibly relieved about her heart that I thought, Hey, we can handle Celiac disease. No big deal. Especially because I’ve been gluten-free for a while, so I already had some familiarity with what it means to eliminate gluten.

Then, as the days passed, I realized:

  1. A child going gluten-free is totally different from¬†an adult.¬†I’m ok with salad and nuts. Emmy¬†wants mac-and-cheese and chicken fingers.
  2. Eating out will never be the same. We can no longer just grab something anywhere at anytime.
  3. Birthday parties are going to be a bear for her. When the other kids are having the standard pizza and cake, I’m going to have to find an alternative for her. (Incidentally, am I supposed to show up with my own pizza and cake?? This is going to be a weird situation and has the potential to alienate her from her friends. I’m nervous about this one…)
  4. Classroom parties at school are also a problem. For her St. Patty’s Day party, my husband Dan had to quickly bake some gluten-free cupcakes.
  5. Emmy has a severe level of Celiac disease, so she has to wash her hands after touching something as¬†innocent as Play-Doh (which has gluten apparently!), and we have to read every label to make sure that the food wasn’t processed in a facility that also processes wheat.
  6. My very first blog post, Green Bagel Morning, takes on a whole new meaning. When I wrote that,¬†I never would’ve thought that we’d have to stress about something as simple as green bagels three years later.
  7. Oh and…I’m going to have to learn how to cook. Ughhhhhhhhhh. And BAKE. UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

About that last one… I’m an ok cook, but it doesn’t come easily to me AT ALL.¬†If you want to see me pull my hair out, give me a recipe. It’s all so overwhelming. I actually go into panic mode. I will read a recipe ten times and still not know what I’m supposed to do. All the words start to blend together, and I begin to have a mini panic attack.

If you don’t believe me, consider this. The other day, I asked Dan¬†if we have a Cuisinart. He started laughing and said, “Of course we do! We got that for our wedding!” Then I asked him to show me where it is. And because it¬†all became so daunting¬†(with the blades and everything — yikes!!), I asked him to just take out the Cuisinart and leave it on the counter. It’s been sitting on the counter mocking me for about a week. I haven’t touched it…

But¬†I can throw together an ok meal (usually sans recipe because I just go for the trusty olive oil and seasonings). However, baking is a JOKE. Here’s a secret: I have not baked anything from scratch ever. EVER. EVER. EVER.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I did try once. When we were trying to sell our house, I was thinking of ways¬†to make it smell nice for a showing, and somehow I came to the conclusion that baking brownies was the answer!¬†Because recipes make me panic, I just casually glanced at a recipe and then threw the following in a pan: eggs, butter, cocoa, baking powder, and something else (maybe milk?). I stirred it all together and baked it! Ok, I have to say that it smelled AMAZING. It actually smelled like brownies, and even our realtor commented that the house smelled great. I thought, This baking thing isn’t so hard after all!

But when Dan came home, he made the mistake of taking a bite. I think he’s still recovering…

That was the last time I attempted to bake anything.

The picture at the top of this post was taken when I discovered a gluten-free bake shop! It’s an hour away, but I’m willing to drive. The kids loved it!

So here we go on our new journey. Hang on tight! ūüôā

Why Words Matter

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I don’t read baby books anymore. With Charlotte, my first born, I read them diligently. I wanted to know when she would be rolling over, standing, and saying her first words. I didn’t really worry about her meeting those milestones, but I wanted to know what was in store for us. When we found out that Emmy has¬†special needs and then when she started missing her milestones, I couldn’t bear to read¬†the books because they served as¬†constant reminders of the things she wasn’t doing yet.

And, often, it wasn’t so much what they were saying as how they were saying it.¬†I would see gentle reminders that some babies just develop later than others, accompanied by words like “Your baby may be normal!” There were reassurances that even if your baby wasn’t meeting milestones,¬†things would most likely be ok. There were broad ranges for milestones and, as long as your baby fell into those ranges, everything would be fine.

But what if your baby didn’t fall into those ranges?

Then I would see words like “Talk to your pediatrician” or “Contact a doctor.”

So everything seemed happy and cheery when your kid was meeting milestones but, if not, you knew that there was bad news lurking around the corner.

There were two camps. The children that were developing “normally” (this word is used all the time) and the children that weren’t. If you were in the first group, the implication was that things were going swimmingly well! But if you fell into the second group, it sounded like things in your life were about to get pretty miserable.

But I have to say that even though Emmy didn’t meet all of her milestones, our life is¬†far from miserable! She¬†is an absolute joy to be around — milestones be damned. No, she didn’t fall into¬†the “normal”¬†(I hate that word)¬†charts, but she has enriched our lives beyond belief. I could gush about her all day but, to sum it up in a word, she’s awesome.

So now I have an almost-10 month old baby, Theo, and I haven’t opened a baby book.

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After years of physical therapy sessions¬†with Emmy, I know a lot about how children develop — more than I ever dreamed I would know. So I have many of the milestones filed away in my mind and, while I don’t obsess over them, I am aware of them. Theo is on schedule, but I still ended up breaking¬†my rule and did a Google search to find out whether standing comes before or after crawling. And that lead me to a page about walking. And here is what I found:

“Most babies take their first steps sometime between 9 and 12 months and are walking well by the time they’re 14 or 15 months old. Don’t worry if your child takes a little longer, though. Some perfectly normal children don’t walk until they’re 16 or 17 months old.” (Baby Center)

“Some perfectly normal children…”

Isn’t it funny that I haven’t looked in a baby book FOREVER — for this reason alone — and then, on my first search about milestones, these are the words I find?

Why are we calling children “perfectly normal”? And for that matter, what about the children who aren’t deemed “perfectly normal”? What about them?

And then, on the next page, the inevitable dismal line:

“Don’t fret if your child is simply taking her time. But if your child doesn’t stand with support at 12 months, can’t walk at 18 months, or isn’t able to walk steadily at the age of 2 years, bring it up with her doctor.” (Baby Center)

Can’t you¬†just hear the threatening music? So now we know that if things don’t happen by a certain timetable, something scary may be lurking around the corner…

Well, what was lurking around our corner was Williams syndrome! And it hasn’t been bad at all! Her beautiful smile is a Williams syndrome smile, and it lights up our lives¬†every day.

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But, beyond all of that, let’s revisit the words “perfectly normal,” and let’s look at them in terms of a child who is typical.

The first word, “perfect,” is a heavy word. We throw it around a lot, but it is heavy. When you strive for perfection, you will always fail — every, single time. Nobody is perfect. Perfectionists always feel like they’re doing something wrong because, until they’re *absolutely perfect*, nothing is ever right. And because they can never achieve the status of *absolutely perfect*, they end up constantly unsatisfied.¬†So a perfectionist, like myself, is often caught in a trap of inevitable failure. Cheerful, huh? ūüôā

Perfectionism can be debilitating. It stops you from doing tasks. If I don’t have time to arrange everything on a shelf perfectly, I won’t even put one thing on the shelf. I had to ask my husband to unpack my boxes (we just moved) and put things on the¬†shelves anywhere he wanted because my desire to have things just so was getting in my own way.

I REALLY try not to use the word “perfect” — especially around kids. However, it’s a word that often pops into my mind. If Charlotte carefully writes her name at the top of her paper, it certainly looks perfect to me! But I don’t want¬†to put that on her. So I choose another word. Or if Emmy puts on her socks the right way, it certainly looks perfect to me! But, again, I pick another word.

And after the word, “perfect,” we have another favorite of mine — “normal.” Someone once said that “normal is a setting on the washing machine.”

What’s the opposite of normal? It’s abnormal. Do we really want to call a child¬†abnormal?

I like to use the word “typical.” As in, “typically children develop like this.” But if they don’t, that’s totally ok too. Everyone is different. That’s what makes life interesting.

I feel like there’s a lot of fear around milestones. You’re either developing “perfectly normally,” or all hell is breaking loose. There’s no grey area. I want to share that, in our case, things went as far from “perfectly normal” as you can get. We are¬†all the way at the other end of “perfectly normal.” But I want to let you know that things over here are pretty great too! In fact, they’re magnificent. ūüôā

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Starting Over

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One week before Emmy’s first birthday, we were headed to Boston for a “vacation.” A mom asked me why we were vacationing in¬†Boston. Did we have family there? Were we going to take the kids to the Children’s Museum?

I was vague¬†with¬†my response. “Oh you knowww…the usual stuff people¬†do…”

If I had told her the real reason — that we were going to the Williams Syndrome Association‘s National Convention — I would’ve had to tell her that Emmy has Williams syndrome. And I wasn’t prepared to do that.

Very early on in Emmy’s diagnosis, we met with many doctors to¬†find out more about our little girl. One of those doctors advised us not tell people about Williams syndrome right away.

You see, right before Emmy was born, we moved to a new town. So nobody knew us. And the doctor wanted people to get to know Emmy, and our family, first¬†— without the label of “Williams syndrome.”

I took that to heart, and I didn’t tell anybody. Only our immediate families and a few friends knew. As time passed, I used to think, “Gosh this is starting to feel very uncomfortable¬†and secretive.” But so much time had gone by, and I hadn’t said a peep. So it felt¬†strange for me to now say, “Listen, I’ve been meaning to tell you something for the past year…”

It was a cycle that fed upon itself. The deeper I got into the secretive nature of it, the harder it was to say something.

And then, when Emmy was 1.5 years old, and we were a few weeks¬†away from heart surgery, I FINALLY opened up to a neighbor. She was so incredibly sweet about it, and I wondered why I hadn’t just told her all along.

At that point, I kind of began “The Big Reveal” and started telling people left and right. But at this point, it was odd because everyone thought that we were just a regular family going through regular family stuff. And I would say, “Sooo you know us very well by now…but there’s something surprising I have to tell you. Emmy is going to have heart surgery next week” [which was met by complete shock and, sometimes, horror] “and she has something called Williams syndrome, which is very rare, and comes with all sorts of implications” [which was met with more shock followed by kindness].

If I were to do this all over again, I would’ve kept it a secret until I got a better handle on it, and then I would’ve told people. So maybe 2-3 months. After a year and a half, it came across as very shocking. And I think people also wondered why I had been hiding it for so long. When I think back on it, it’s very possible that the doctor meant for me to keep it a secret for 2 months and not a year and a half. But I didn’t think to ask about the exact timeline. I was just trying to process it all myself.

So¬†after “The Big Reveal,” everyone knew. And I actually felt more comfortable with people knowing than not knowing. We needed a lot of support during and after her heart surgery, and people were there for us in droves. I was glad that I shared it publicly (I started blogging a little before then)¬†because we couldn’t have gone through heart surgery without¬†that¬†support.

I was very comfortable with Williams syndrome, very accepting of Emmy, and very open about the diagnosis.

And then we moved.

And I never realized that we would be starting over. We would be back to a point where no one knew. I didn’t even have time to think about all of this before because we moved so quickly. And then once we were here, it hit me.¬†All new people. None of them with any clue about our little family and what we’ve been through.

And now I would have to start telling people again. If I had thought about it before, I probably wouldn’t have imagined that it would be a big deal because I’m so open about Williams syndrome. But, somehow, it ended up being a big deal. Because I’m back in that same picture that the doctor painted early on. I’m new to a town. Nobody knows us. And, yet, we’re carrying a label.

Shouldn’t people get to know Emmy first before I hoist this label on top of her? Shouldn’t people get to know our family before I say, “My daughter has a syndrome that you’ve never heard of…” What would they think?

It’s been so long since I’ve thought about what others think when it comes to Williams syndrome, or how our family will be perceived, or¬†the implications that a label would¬†have on Emmy.

Things have changed because she’s older. She’s 3.5 years old, and she wants to play with other kids. She’s no longer a baby. She’s much more aware of how she’s treated by others and more aware of the reactions she gets. She can read people’s faces now. She can feel how they relate to her and can tell if they’re comfortable around her.

Keep in mind that Emmy doesn’t know what Williams syndrome is. I’ve told her, but she doesn’t understand it yet. Charlotte, my five year old who is typical, doesn’t really understand it either. So it’s a lot to take in. But I think that Emmy can feel that she’s different in some ways. She knows that she takes longer on the stairs when other kids just race down. She knows that she stands in the front of the line because she’s so tiny. I think she knows that there’s something there, and I think she is perceptive about how others relate to her.

So I find myself in the same place but a different circumstance. I’m in a new town where nobody knows about Williams syndrome…but now my child is older. And¬†my mind doesn’t go to, “What will people think? How will they react to our family?” My mind goes straight to, “I just want to protect her.”

My instinct is not to tell. I want to protect Emmy, and I worry about how others will treat her. Not everyone understands what it means to have special needs. Not everyone grew up around someone with a disability. I, myself, had no clue about any of this until she was born.

But, even though my instinct is not to tell,¬†when I finally told people before, life got a little easier. I wasn’t carrying around a secret, and I wasn’t silently censoring myself in every conversation — wondering if I gave too much away.

It might be better for me to tell.

Another Williams syndrome mom said a while ago, “It’s a great way of weeding people out.¬†You¬†can see¬†who you really want to be friends with very quickly.”

So there I was, last Friday, talking to a mom¬†in our new town. A possible new friend. She asked me casually about Emmy’s therapies, which she gets in school. So I replied, “Emmy has something called Williams syndrome.” My explanation of Williams syndrome is still lacking. It comes out in a rush like: “It’s a very rare syndrome that no one has ever heard of and has lots of implications…but she’s doing great!”

I have to work on my explanation. It’s a lot to take in.

But the mom¬†smiled and said, “Oh, ok.”

This is where we are — starting over.

She Can

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You have a bowl of ice cream in your hands. A¬†bowl of raspberry¬†ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. And you’ve been waiting all day to eat this thing. You’ve been talking about it to anyone who will listen. Well, the moment is finally here!

You push your plastic, white spoon into the ice cream and pull it out…nothing. You jam¬†your spoon in again, a little harder, and pull it out. Nothing. Your mouth is watering. You notice the other people around you. Everyone else is absentmindedly dipping their spoons into their ice cream and pulling them back up with a heaping mound of yummy. No one else seems to have trouble with this. But this is really hard for you. You even mutter, “is really hard.”

You try again, and finally you manage to spear a little bit of ice cream with the tip of your spoon. Victory!! But as you pull it towards your mouth, the tiny bit of ice cream falls off the spoon and onto your lap. Now you’re wet, your clothes are¬†stained, and you still don’t have ice cream or sprinkles in your mouth.

But you don’t give up. And you don’t accept help. This is your battle to win. Again and again you try until, finally, you manage to keep ice cream on your spoon long enough to get it in your mouth. You weren’t able to get sprinkles too, but that’s ok. You’ll try again next time. As you enjoy your first small bite of ice cream, you look around. Everyone else is done. Their bowls are empty; licked clean. In the time it took you to take that first bite, everyone else gobbled theirs down.

So it¬†takes you a little longer. And it’s a little harder. But you don’t give up. You keep eating away, content to finally have your ice cream after a day of waiting.

This is what it’s like for Emmy when she eats ice cream, something that most people do absentmindedly. When I eat my ice cream, I don’t think about what I’m doing. It just, well, happens. But when Emmy eats ice cream, she has to work harder.

But she does it! She tries and, eventually, succeeds.

This is why it upsets me so much when people assume that children who have¬†special needs can’t do things (Just Like You — my last post).

It’s not that they can’t.

They can, but it may take a little longer. They can, with help. They can, but they may need modifications. They can, with the proper supports in place. But they can.

Sometimes Emmy says, “I can’t.”

Not only are things harder for her, but she is TINY. Climbing on a big couch is difficult for her. Operating scissors with her little fingers is tough. And sometimes she defaults to “I can’t.”

But that’s not true. She can, and she proves it time and time again. Because with a little nudge, she’s up on the couch. With the correct positioning, she’s operating those scissors. She can. She just needs help sometimes.

And sometimes she doesn’t need help. There are many things that she does beautifully on her own, like dribbling a soccer ball. She learned that one from her older sister.

Last night at dinner, Charlotte proudly spelled her first and last name aloud. So, on a whim, my husband Dan asked, “Emmy, can you spell your name?”

She looked straight at him and replied, “E-M-M-Y.”

Dan and I practically leapt into the air and shouted, “Yes, yes, yes! That’s it!”

Then she gave a grin and continued calmly, “O-A.”

We’ll take it!! ūüėČ

The teachers at her preschool have been awesome about including Emmy in all of the activities that everyone else does. And she’s learning so beautifully from both her teachers and peers. Sure, her construction-paper pumpkin looks a little different from the others. And her circles are not as perfectly formed. But she’s doing it all.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that people with special needs CAN.

She can. She will. She does. She did.