Just Like You

NJSTORY

Photo credit: nj.com

Liam is a 4 year old little boy who wanted to have his birthday party at a gymnastics studio in New Jersey. When his mom went to sign the contract, she noticed that there’s a “Special Needs clause.”

It reads: “Special Needs children: Please indicate if your child or any children attending the party have any mental or physical disabilties/special needs. (Surgent’s Elite is not certified in special needs instruction and reserves the right to deny party and gymnastics instruction.)”

Liam’s mom asked about the clause, while mentioning that her son has Down syndrome. Consequently, the gym turned her away.

This didn’t happen in 1954. This didn’t happen in 1994. This didn’t happen in 2004.

This happened YESTERDAY.

You can read about the story here:

http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2014/10/cranford_mom_of_boy_4_with_down_syndrome_denied_birthday_party_at_surgents_elite_gymnastics.html

And you can read the contract here:

Click to access PartyContract.pdf

(***Update: The contract appears to have been taken down. However, you can see it if you click on the link to the story and scroll to the second image:

http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2014/10/cranford_mom_of_boy_4_with_down_syndrome_denied_birthday_party_at_surgents_elite_gymnastics.html)

I’ve been upset about this since it happened. I assumed that this was a misunderstanding. And then, when I realized that it WASN’T a misunderstanding, I figured that the gym would quickly apologize and give Liam a free party. On the contrary, they doubled-down on their decision.

Their policy is that no children with special needs are allowed at this gym. Not for parties. And not for classes. Again, this happened YESTERDAY — not 50 years ago.

What the owner of this gym doesn’t understand is that Liam is just like every other child. I don’t even know him, but I know he laughs, cries, likes to have fun, and loves birthday parties — especially his own. How do I know this? Because he’s just like me. He’s just like you too.

People with special needs are human! They’re not meant to be segregated by our society. They’re not meant to be excluded from activities. They’re not meant to be pointed out and sent packing.

Imagine if this was you. Imagine if you wanted to have a birthday party at a particular place and the owner said, “You’re not allowed here.” Imagine how that would feel.

Or imagine if you were a guest at a birthday party, and you showed up in your best outfit, only to be turned away at the door. “Didn’t you see our clause? You’re not allowed here.”

Now imagine that this wasn’t you…but that this was your child. Your child showed up for a birthday party and was turned away at the door.

Just imagine that tear-streaked face. “Why don’t they want me here?”

Imagine telling your child why he or she is not allowed at this birthday party.

“It’s because you’re different, honey…”

“I am? How?”

People have left comments on the news story supporting the gym. They say things like, “Well, what about medical issues? I can see where the gym is coming from…”

So where does it stop? Pretty soon, people with special needs and/or medical issues can’t go to gyms, can’t go to parties, can’t go to parks, can’t go to malls, can’t ride in cars…

Everything is a liability, right?

I have a better idea. How about we treat people with special needs as if they’re just like us. We’re allowed to go to gyms, parties, parks, malls… We’re allowed to experience all aspects of life. That’s called being human. Everyone is afforded the same rights.

I know that my daughter loves birthday parties. LOVES THEM. I’m imagining her getting all ready for a party, cheering in the car when we drive up, and then getting banished at the door because “Didn’t you see our Special Needs clause?”

I’m imagining her turning towards me with that tear-streaked face and saying, “Why?”

And what would I tell her? That people with special needs aren’t allowed to go to birthday parties? Really??

I can’t do it. I can’t tell her that. She deserves MUCH, MUCH, MUCH better than that. She’s an incredible kid.

And if you met her, you would see that she’s just like me — and just like you too.

Don’t Help Me

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Emmy and I were walking down the front steps to our car, so I extended my hand to help her out. Do you know what she said?

“Don’t help me.”

Here I had just written a post about a mom who helped Emmy down the stairs of her school (The Kindness of Others), and now my daughter is saying “Don’t help me.”

Can you imagine how I felt?

Ecstatic!

When you first find out your child has a disability, you go through all kinds of emotions and work through many scenarios in your head. Some of the things you likely think about are, “Am I going to have to help her with everything? Will she live with me forever? Will I even know what retirement feels like?”

There’s the expectation in our society that you raise your kids until they’re 18, and then they fly the coop. Of course, parents will often share winks when their kids come back home to save up money before getting a place of their own. But do parents of kids with disabilities share those same winks? Or is it just assumed that your child will live under your roof forever?

When she was a baby, I had no idea what Emmy would be like, and I didn’t know what was in store for our future as a family. As she gets older, she’s showing more and more of her personality. She is feisty! She is determined! She is persistent! 

This past Easter, she was playing with a plastic egg, trying to put it back together. That’s really hard for someone whose little fingers can get tripped up on each other. She fought with that egg for quite some time…until she fit the two pieces in place! Then she gave her signature smile and said, “I did it!”

And a couple months ago, I heard the sound of a music box coming from the girls’ bedroom. It takes a lot of effort and strength to turn that heavy knob. I thought, “Charlotte is playing with the music box again.” But wait…it couldn’t have been Charlotte — she was in the livingroom. I poked my head into the bedroom to see Emmy determinedly turning the knob on the music box. And then I ran to grab my camera.

She wants to do what the other kids are doing. It may take longer. It may be harder. But she wants to do it.

When she was first diagnosed, I had no idea that the strength of her determination would take her so far. I was more focused on the negative “What ifs.” What if I have to do everything for her? What if she’s completely helpless?

Here’s a thought…

What if she totally surpasses every one of my expectations? What if she teaches ME how to be persistent?

A secret…I can be guilty of giving up too soon when I’m not good at something. Eek! It’s true. I have been known to swiftly turn around when something is out of my comfort zone. You can be SURE I wouldn’t sit down with that Easter egg for a half an hour if I didn’t fit it into place within the first three minutes. And if I struggled to turn the knob on the music box, I probably wouldn’t have kept at it. I would’ve found something else that came more easily to me…

But Emmy doesn’t do that. She pushes her boundaries! I’m glad she doesn’t take after me in that way. 😉

So, yes, I’m totally ok with the fact that she doesn’t want my help. You go, girl!

I Love to See You Laugh

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We were about to walk out the door on our way to school, when Charlotte asked, “Mom, have you ever laughed?”

I froze.

She wasn’t being sarcastic. She was asking me earnestly if I ever laughed. I thought, Wow my child hasn’t seen me laugh in the 5 years she’s been alive?? Something is wrong here.

Her words resonated in my head throughout the day, as I turned her question over and over in my mind. Was I really walking around in a state of misery 24-7? I certainly didn’t feel that way…

Then I realized what she was asking. She wasn’t asking if I was miserable all of the time. She wasn’t asking about my smiles or my chuckles (many of which I give throughout the day). She was asking about the belly laughs.

Can you picture the belly laugh of a child? It is the cutest thing ever! The first thing you notice is the grinning little white teeth and gums. Then you hear the sound of hearty laughter as they throw their head back. And then they often bend over, clutching their sides.

And what makes them laugh like this?

Usually the word “poop.”

That’s all you have to say to a child: “Poopy poop poop.” And you are gifted with the most incredible belly laugh, one that rings in your ears just thinking about it.

At one point in our lives, that belly laugh was instantaneous. As a child, you could access it at a moment’s notice. But as we get older, that belly laugh is tougher to find. Perhaps the things that once made us laugh aren’t funny anymore. Or perhaps there are fewer things to laugh about.

It was 6 months ago that Charlotte asked me if I’ve ever laughed and, ever since, I’ve tried to let that belly laugh back in. I know she sees my smiles and my chuckles. But I want to show her that I can belly laugh too. I want to show her that I’m having fun with life (even if I’m often stressing about many aspects of it…).

I thought back to my own life and two people I love to see belly laugh — my parents. There’s nothing better than my dad getting red in the face and laughing so hard that he cries. I don’t want my parents to worry or stress. I love to see them happy — to see them truly experiencing lighthearted joy.

Some of the most wonderful belly laughs I’ve ever seen came from my grandmother, who we lost in August. She used to say, “I love to laugh!” And it was true. Even in her 80’s, she allowed herself to go to that silly place. She didn’t constantly mull over the hardships of life and say “Woe is me.” Just the opposite. Even when she had cancer, she laughed and laughed and laughed.

I want to make an earnest effort each day to tap into my belly laugh, especially around the kids. I want them to see their mom having fun with life. I don’t want to teach them that life is difficult and grueling and tough. I want them to see the lighthearted side of things.

And something else… I don’t want my kids to lose their ability to access that genuine belly laugh. But if they see that I’ve lost it, why wouldn’t they just follow in my footsteps?

The tricky part is that it’s hard for me to laugh at “Poopy poop poop” jokes. But we’ve started to move out of that territory a little bit. Emmy now puts things on her head at the dinner table, and there’s something very funny about her saying, “Napkin on my head!”

The good news is that my efforts haven’t gone unnoticed! We were in the car yesterday when Charlotte said something silly from the backseat, and I genuinely belly laughed.

Her response?

“I love to see you laugh.”

The Kindness of Others

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Yesterday, as Emmy was working her way down the steps at school, a parent held out her hand.

“Want some help?”

Emmy gladly accepted the hand, and the two of them walked slowly down the steps together. I don’t know this woman. I’ve seen her around, but we hadn’t officially met until yesterday. Yet she saw that Emmy was a bit slower on the steps, and she was eager to extend a hand.

And when I came to pick up Emmy at school the other day, a little girl saw me and said, “Emmy, your mom is here!” But she didn’t stop there. She put a hand on Emmy’s back and gently guided her through the sea of children. This little girl of about four years old led my daughter to me.

Because my daughter has special needs, I see something that others may not see. I see people who show a level of kindness that goes above and beyond what is expected.

Sure, we all say “hi” to each other as we go about the hustle-and-bustle of our daily lives. We offer a quick smile or a wave. We hold the door for each other. We say “Excuse me” and “Oops. I’m sorry.” We’re in our own little worlds. It’s how we live, and it’s what we’re used to.

But now I also see the people who drop everything to help someone with special needs. When that happens, there’s an incredible kindness that comes through. And there’s a softening. Our crisp, sharp world becomes fuzzy around the edges.

As I stood waiting for Emmy to work her way down the steps holding a woman’s hand…

And as I stood waiting for a little girl to guide her though the crowd…

Time stood still. Everything became softer. 

I wonder about people like this. Where does this kindness come from? Do they have a sibling with special needs? Do they work with people who have special needs? Did their parents teach them to be kind to people with special needs? Or are they just born this way?

Before Emmy was diagnosed, I didn’t have this trait. Of course, I was perfectly pleasant towards people with special needs. It’s not like I was cruel or anything. But I didn’t have the stop-everything-and-help trait. I didn’t know anyone with special needs and, actually, I didn’t think much about it. I was very much in my own little world.

I’d say most people are just like I was. They offer Emmy a quick smile. Or they might look quizzically at her, perhaps thinking, “What’s wrong?” Or they don’t even notice her at all.

But then there are these people who stop EVERYTHING and extend a hand. This woman’s own daughter was at the bottom of the stairs already. She could have easily raced down the stairs, offered me a brisk “Hello,” and marched towards her car — already thinking about what to make for dinner. I wouldn’t have faulted her a bit. It’s what everyone does. Hey, I’m busy too, so I get it!

But, rather, she stopped. And she extended a hand.

When I see the kindness come through in children is when it really gets me choked up. When I see kids holding Emmy’s hand to help her along. Or when I see kids try and pick her up to help put her on a tricycle. Or even when kids stop to say, “Hi Emmy!” Those things make her day. And they make mine too. It makes me feel like we’re going positive places in this world. I applaud the parents who are able to teach this kindness to their children. I think it will make them better people, for sure.

I already see how Charlotte has blossomed because of her sister. She is so kind and so helpful. When she takes Emmy’s hand, that softness happens. Just writing about it, I can actually feel it.

People with special needs deserve this kindness. They don’t deserve hurtful words and teasing. I see how Emmy has completely changed my life. Her incredible spirit has softened me. And she has shown me how to really stop and see these little moments of softness in an otherwise fast-paced world.

Theodore

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I was actually in the middle of a blog post on Monday when I clicked “save draft” and headed to my doctor’s office. My blood pressure had been high for the past few weeks, so they asked me to come in for another check. Sure enough, it was even higher. They sent me to Labor and Delivery, where it was determined that we should go ahead with my C-section, three days earlier than scheduled.

I was nervous about the C-section, but I’m nervous anyway when it comes to surgery. It did seem as if my body was giving me signals that it was time. The high blood pressure was a problem and, sure enough, when the OB opened me up she found the uterine window that we’d be warned about.

When I had Emmy, my uterus was very thin, and we knew that we would have to be careful during this pregnancy. A thin uterus could lead to a uterine rupture, which would be bad news for everyone involved. I was monitored during this pregnancy but, sure enough, when the OB performed the C-section a very, very thin window was there. She also saw my baby’s hand under it, waving. So, yeah, we were advised not to have another after this one…

But here he is! My third baby, Theodore. We call him Theo. 🙂

When they put Theo on my chest, I immediately noticed that he was coughing up a fair amount of mucus. I knew right away that he was going to the NICU. I’ve learned so much since Emmy was born. I know the signs. Theo actually didn’t look as bad as Emmy. When she came out, she was blue, ice cold, and had a strange cry (like a cat with its tail caught). Theo, on the other hand, was rosy and warm, and his cry sounded substantial, though a little garbled from the mucus. But I just had a feeling.

Sure enough, Theo ended up in the NICU. His blood sugar was low, but it looked like all he needed was a little intervention and some time to clear the mucus out of his lungs. I actually felt ok with him going there. It wasn’t ideal, but I knew that they did wonderful things for Emmy when she was born, so I wasn’t as afraid as I was the first time around.

I put on my brave, big girl smile and waited patiently for him to come out of it. And he was doing ok for a while…until he wasn’t.

A day or two later (I can’t even remember…), the doctor came into my room to say that Theo was requiring more oxygen support and would have to go on a ventilator. I couldn’t help myself and asked about all kinds of hypothetical situations. And then I just lost it. Everything came up again. And I mean EVERYTHING: Emmy’s time in the NICU, Emmy’s heart surgery, Emmy’s cardiac arrests; Emmy’s crash onto life support. I relived all of it. While Dan went down the hall with the doctor to watch Theo’s vent get put in, a really sweet nurse came to comfort me. I told her that you can only be brave for so long before you just lose it…and I lost it.

When I wiped my tears and was able to make my way down the hall to see Theo, one of the NICU nurses kindly handed me a tissue and said that it’s been a tough few days. I heard myself say, “It’s been a tough few years.”

I was really down.

When I got back to my room, my sister sent me a text that said she was amazed at our positivity when Emmy was in the hospital last year. She was impressed by our optimism and our faith that everything would be fine. She loved that we cheer-leaded Emmy along to good health. Emmy needed that positivity, and luckily it was radiating out of me.

But now it was harder for me to conjure up that positivity. I just felt completely drained. I guess I never thought I would need to harness that ability again. And I didn’t know how I was going to get it back.

Luckily, a wonderful friend called and talked me through it. She’s a very smart and solution-based person, and she’s also spiritual. All of it helped IMMENSELY.

One of the things that was difficult for me was that Theo’s numbers would jump around whenever anyone touched him or talked near him, including his mama. So I had to leave him be in order for him to get better. I felt so helpless. But my friend had a great suggestion, which was to ask for some of Theo’s swaddling blankets, sleep with them, and then give them back with my scent. That made me feel soooo much better. My spirits came back up, and Theo also started doing well.

So now it’s the slow and steady wait. He’s still on the ventilator, but he’s showing signs of progress. I’m sad and exhausted and still in pain from the C-section…but I’m also positive! I know he can do it. I can’t wait to have him home, and his sisters are SO excited to meet him. Emmy keeps saying, “Theo coming!”

Yes he is, Emmy. Sit tight. 🙂

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To the Newly Diagnosed

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A couple people whose newborn babies were just diagnosed with Williams syndrome contacted me over the past few days. They found my blog and were comforted by the cute pictures and stories about Emmy, who has brought such incredible joy to our lives.

When you first find out that your newborn baby has any kind of syndrome, it can be a devastating time. You were expecting the experience that you so carefully planned out in your mind (What to Expect When You’re Expecting, anyone?? That book certainly doesn’t talk about Williams syndrome!). And then you find out that the little person you just gave birth to had a secret when he/she was in your belly–and you had no idea. You Google the syndrome and find information that frightens you. There may be serious medical complications, and there will surely be learning disabilities. How could this little baby that you don’t even know yet come with a laundry list of possible problems? It’s the biggest shock of your life, and you’re not even sure where to begin.

And here is where the wedge comes in. A barrier sinks down in between you and your baby, and it’s completely out of your control. You want so badly to lift that barrier. You want to stop the rush of feelings that come at you every day (sadness, guilt, anger, confusion). You want SO BADLY to accept this baby. You want to just “get over” what you’re feeling. What can’t I stop thinking about this syndrome? And then you wonder…When will it get better? When will I stop feeling like an awful person and begin to embrace this diagnosis and accept my own child?

I think we’re expecting a lot from ourselves. We had a certain vision in our mind. That vision was completely turned upside down, and we expect ourselves to just “get over it.” There’s actually a grieving process that needs to happen. You need to grieve the loss of your original vision–the perfect plan that you had in your head. You need to allow yourself to feel every single feeling that comes your way–without passing judgment on yourself.

And then, with time, that barrier will start to lift. You feel yourself getting drawn into your child. You stop thinking about Williams syndrome as much. You start to really fall in love with who your child is becoming. Those old visions that you once had are now replaced by new visions and plans. You get excited at your child’s potential. You see your child blossom into a sweet, loving person, and you can’t believe your luck. You were given this incredible child. You were given this opportunity to stand side-by-side with your child and watch him or her do amazing things. You were brought into a special world that not everyone gets to see.

For me, it was Emmy’s personality that changed everything. Early on, I read that people with Williams syndrome have “a very endearing personality.” They have big smiles and are overly friendly. I clung to those words as if they were my life raft. Everything else I read seemed scary. But “endearing personality” and “friendly” were music to my ears. Please let this be true, I thought.

And then Emmy cried and screamed for 6 long months, and I thought “Well, I guess this isn’t going to be true in our case! There goes that life raft!”

And then came the big smile that turned my world upside down. HOW I LOVE THAT SMILE!!! That was a Williams syndrome smile, and it was big and beautiful and bright. It was a glimpse into her personality.

The next thing to emerge was the friendliness. We’d be sitting at a restaurant chatting away, and then someone at a nearby table would squeal with delight. I’d look over, and a woman would be waving to Emmy and saying to a friend, “She’s so cute!!” I’d look at Emmy, who was happily waving back and grinning.

The thing is that she knows she’s cute. She knows exactly how to draw you in. First it’s the smile, then it’s the narrowing of her eyes and the tilt of her head, and now it’s followed by a phrase. She might say, “Hi. How you doing?” or she’ll call out, “Hi, kids!” or she’ll even blow you a kiss. I mean, she KNOWS what she’s doing, folks. She KNOWS that smile is pure gold.

The other day we had an evaluation at a school with teachers that are unfamiliar to her. In no time, she was putting on a show of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” complete with smiles and hand movements. Anyone watching can’t help but say, “AWWWWW!”

She’s also very funny. If you ask her an obvious question (like “Is that a shoe?”), she’ll give you an exaggerated but joking “Noooooooo.” And then when you respond, “No? Are you sure??” She’ll say “Nooooooo” again, just to get you to laugh. She knows it’s a shoe, but she’s pulling your leg.

And she loves to chase her sister around the house while saying nonsense words like “Beebee beebee beebee.” Charlotte will run away from her laughing until, finally, both girls collapse in a giggling heap on the floor. It’s so much fun to watch.

So to the newly diagnosed I say: Wait.

It will take time to get to this point. And, in my experience, the first year is the hardest. So let yourself feel all of those feelings. Don’t pass judgement on yourself. Just really feel it. Get mad. Scream. Be upset. Say, “It isn’t fair!!”

And then, as the days, weeks, and months pass, things will change within you. You will connect with your child. You will fall in love with your child. You’ll be bragging about how wonderful he is. You’ll be glowing, fresh from the thrill of something new that she has done. And, even though you didn’t sign up to travel this road, it will feel as if this was meant to be–all along.

Inseparable

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These two have become inseparable, and that makes me so happy.

The backstory here is that, during my pregnancy with Emmy, I constantly fantasized about the relationship between my daughters. My sister and I are very close, and I could only imagine how strong the bond would be between Charlotte and Emmy. I imagined them just like my sister and me–sharing secrets and giving advice.

My weaknesses are my sister’s strengths. She’s six years younger than I am, but she’s often stepped into the big sister role on my behalf. I used to be painfully shy, and I would be terrified to return anything to a store. When I was fourteen and she was eight, my little sister marched into a music store on my behalf, walked right up to the register, and said, “Hi. I need to return this CD please.” I cowered towards the entrance of the store and peered around the aisles to see how the return was going. She came back triumphant with the money in her hand. I was always amazed at how easy she made it look. In a way, it was embarrassing to rely on my little sister. But I was also glad that I had someone in my life who would stand by me–no matter what.

Now that I’m older (and maybe a little wiser), I feel like I can pay it back. I’m usually able to give her a glimpse of life experiences before she goes down any road. I dated a couple of guys who were really (how can I put this nicely…?) awful. I like to think that she learned from my heartache and, sure enough, she was able to escape all the bad boys and ended up with an amazing boyfriend, who later became her husband. I’ve also been able to give her advice about her career or her life’s purpose. And, even though I’m the big sister, she still gives me tons of advice too. She’s mature–that kid. (She’s almost 30, by the way…)

I feel as though we have an equal give and take, and I value that so much.

And I saw the same for Charlotte and Emmy.

Then we found out about Williams syndrome, and all my visions of replicating the bond that my sister and I have went right down the drain. I just didn’t know anything about Williams syndrome. I didn’t know how Emmy would act or talk or think. It was an enigma. Would she be able to offer her strengths for Charlotte’s weaknesses, as my sister has done for me? Would she be able to give career advice? Would she know how to keep secrets? Would she even want to keep secrets? And how would Charlotte feel towards her little sister?

Early on, I started looking for stories about people who have siblings with special needs. I did find some very sweet stories. But I also found other stories–ones about feeling ignored by parents or resentful and angry. I found one story that really shook me. It was about a boy who was so embarrassed by his sibling with special needs that, instead of standing up for him, he joined the bullies in their taunting. Every day after school, a few bullies and his own brother made fun of this little boy as he walked home. GOOD GRIEF!!! That was hard for me to digest. If your sibling won’t stick up for you, who will?

All of this has been swirling around in my mind since Emmy was born. I’ve talked to my own sister about it several times. On the day we found out Emmy’s diagnosis, I remember sitting on the phone with my sister, crying, and asking, “But do you think they’ll be like us? What if Charlotte needs advice about her job? Will Emmy be able to give it to her?”

And my sister said the most wonderful thing: “Maybe Emmy will able to give the best advice of all. You just have no idea how she’ll see things. Maybe her way of seeing things will be so different from everyone else’s that her advice will be the most helpful.”

That positive spin really, really helped me.

And as the years have passed, this younger-version sisterly bond has grown very tight. When Emmy was a baby, she and Charlotte had the typical baby-toddler relationship. Sure, Emmy was cute, but she wasn’t able to communicate yet and cried…a lot.

The first glimpse of their close bond came when Emmy was in the hospital for heart surgery about a year ago. Every day, for twenty-two days, Charlotte would bring home a drawing from school that said “Emmy” all over it. If you gave her a crayon, she would just write “Emmy Emmy Emmy” over and over. She got a chalkboard for her birthday last year and, sure enough, the first words she wrote were “Emmy Emmy Emmy.” To this day, almost every time she makes a piece of art, she writes “Emmy” at the top. She doesn’t write “Charlotte.” She writes “Emmy.”

And now, as Emmy has become more verbal, they really have fun together. They playfully tease each other with high-pitched voices, they laugh and roll on the floor, they tickle, they share toys, they draw together; they hold hands.

Charlotte loves to be the teacher. “Emmy, look how I brush my teeth. See that? Now, you try it.”

And Charlotte is such a good cheerleader too. “MOMMY! DADDY! You won’t believe what Emmy just did!!” She’s so proud when Emmy hits little milestones, and she really notices those milestones, just as we do.

At almost five years old, Charlotte has started to develop fears (monsters, darkness, bugs). And wouldn’t you know that two-year-old Emmy has become her protector? If Charlotte is afraid to go to sleep at night, I say, “Don’t worry. Emmy is right here. She can protect you from anything.” And that seems to work!

On her end, Emmy just adores her big sister. We were at the hospital the other day, and someone who works there was named Charlotte. Well, every time Emmy heard “Charlotte,” she looked around frantically and asked for her sister.

Also, Emmy is eager to show her big sister any new thing. If she puts on funny sunglasses or finds a sticker or opens a book, the first person she wants to show is Charlotte.

At the dinner table, Dan and I just watch the two of them banter and giggle. There isn’t much eating going on (Charlotte is repulsed by my food most of the time…), but there is a lot of laughter. It will be interesting to see how their dynamic evolves when a little boy arrives in June. Right now, I am so happy with how close they’ve become. It’s better than I even imagined.

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What About Me

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I’ve been waiting for this day. Although I certainly haven’t been looking forward to it.

We got our first “What about me?” And it made me feel AWFUL!

Ever since we found out that Emmy has Williams syndrome, I was conscious of how it would impact Charlotte. In the beginning, Charlotte had no idea that there was anything different about Emmy. But, as time has gone by, we’ve had conversations about heart surgery and Williams syndrome and how things are more challenging for Emmy.

Charlotte clearly doesn’t notice any differences yet with Emmy. She’s just her sister. Period — end of story. But now she’s started to take notice of all the special treatment Emmy gets. The additional doctors’ visits, the therapy sessions at school; the meetings with therapists at home.

One wouldn’t think that she would be envious of doctors’ visits, but she is! Charlotte actually loves going to the doctor and dentist. (I’m sure Emmy would gladly trade places in that respect because all hell breaks loose when Emmy senses that she’s going to get poked and prodded by someone.)

And Charlotte is envious of the therapy sessions because they look like fun! Emmy is spending time with really nice therapists who play games with her and cheer her on. What’s not to like?

Well, all the special treatment has started to add up, and it came to a head yesterday when we had an Early Intervention meeting with Emmy’s team of therapists to discuss her goals. Charlotte was supposed to be at school, but it was cancelled. So she got to watch everyone fuss over Emmy some more…and it wasn’t fun for her. She wanted to be fussed over. And in her effort to get attention, she jumped on the couch and tried to get somebody — anybody — to focus on her. Of course, this resulted in a lot of wild bouncing around, and it was hard for me to try and hear what the therapists were saying. It was difficult to manage the situation, but I tried not to get frustrated with her. I know what she wants because I would’ve wanted the exact same thing when I was her age.

The thing is that I’ve been trying so hard to over-compensate for Emmy’s special attention. I wanted to head this off before it started. I didn’t want Charlotte to ever feel ignored. So my husband and I both take her for one-on-one time every weekend. We also signed her up for soccer, gymnastics, and swimming, and we try and make a big deal over all her various activities. My husband even coached the soccer team! I take her for mani/pedis. I read to her. I snuggle with her. I do arts and crafts with her — just the two of us! I try everything in my power to make her feel like she’s special too!

But yesterday when all the therapists left, her face fell, and she said, “What about me?”

She wanted to know, “Why doesn’t anyone get together to talk about me?”

And she’s right. All the outside activities that I do with her don’t compare to the fact that a bunch of people sit in a room and talk about Emmy for an hour. How can I possibly recreate that situation for Charlotte? I don’t know…

I told her that I talk about her and how awesome she’s doing with her teachers all the time, but that’s not the same…

The thing about Charlotte is that we don’t have to sit in a room and talk about how to get her to open a Ziploc bag, or climb the stairs, or keep her balance. She does all of those things beautifully. They’ve never been a struggle for her. Every single goal we set for Emmy yesterday are things that Charlotte has already met. And they all came easily to her. I don’t think I ever had to teach her how to use a fork and spoon. She just did it.

And I’m so conscious of the fact that she is very sharp. This morning, Charlotte was playing with her dolls, and I heard her doing math very quickly! She was saying, “What’s five plus three? Eight! What’s two plus seven? Nine!” I mean, she was QUICK. I was really impressed. And I told her so right away! She’s also really good at gymnastics — very strong and fearless. I watch every gymnastics’ practice. I take videos of her hanging on the uneven bars and send them around to family members. I celebrate her artistic talent and hang up her paintings.

But kudos from mom doesn’t compare to a bunch of people sitting in a room and reviewing her accomplishments for an hour.

So with all of my attention and praise, I don’t know how to recreate that aspect — that type of special treatment that doesn’t apply to typical children. The therapy sessions, the doctors’ visits, and the goal-based meetings. How does an arts and crafts session with mom compare to those things?

If anyone has suggestions, I am all ears! Maybe I can have relatives dress up as strangers and come over to discuss Charlotte’s progress. 😉 I’m picturing my mom with a funny hat on and a feathered mask over her eyes…yikes!

Or maybe the answer is just to keep stressing that things are harder for Emmy and, while these therapy sessions seem like special treatment, Emmy would rather not have to work harder than everyone else. That’s not an easy concept for a 4 year old to understand though. Especially because she notices how Emmy loves getting doted on by her therapists. It certainly doesn’t look like hard work to Charlotte!

I just want to do it right. Like every other mother out there, I have guilt up the wazoo — both for things that have and haven’t happened yet! (I love that I already have guilt for things that haven’t happened yet, by the way. So silly yet so true.) I want to get on the right path, but sometimes I don’t even know where to start.

Something to Watch this Weekend

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Photo credit: http://www.missyoucandoit.com

If you have HBO On Demand, do yourself a favor and watch a documentary that will capture your attention and melt your heart. If you click on HBO and go to “Documentaries” then “Feature Films,” you’ll find a movie called Miss You Can Do It.

You can watch the trailer here: Miss You Can Do It Trailer

I’m not usually into movies about pageants, and when my husband and I sat down to watch it, I thought, “I hope this isn’t too pageant-y…or too depressing…” Usually, when we do video date night (because you know we’re not going out to the movies), I try and find something funny and light-hearted.

So, for this one, I took a chance. And, yes, I bawled my eyes out–but in a good way! I highly recommend it, for parents of typical children and those with special needs.

I wish that I had been more interested in special needs before I had a child with special needs. Does that sound strange? I feel like I was incredibly closed off from that world, and now I realize that I could’ve gotten involved a long time ago.

If my daughter didn’t have special needs, would I have watched that awesome pageant documentary?

Or this one? Monica and David

Or this one? Best Kept Secret

I can tell you the answer. I probably wouldn’t have watched any of them. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I think we’re drawn to what we know. And I didn’t know ANYTHING about special needs until July 2011, when Emmy was born.

I know that Oprah loves this quote by Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.”

In my case, I think that it would be: When you know more, you do more.

I’ve stretched my boundaries because I had to. But I’m so glad that I had to because I never would’ve seen what was on the other side.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a fair amount of people who have dedicated themselves to special needs work without having a child, or sister, or brother with special needs. They just did. For various reasons, or perhaps for no reason at all, they wanted to help. I am always touched by those stories. I think I’ve asked almost all of our Early Intervention therapists, “So how did you get into this?” Where did that all start? One therapist told me that, as a teenager, she was helping a friend of the family with her autistic child. I can’t tell you how much that impacted me because I thought back to what I was doing as a teenager and, while I was a good girl :), I wasn’t involved in anything meaningful on that level. I didn’t stretch much out of my comfort zone. One of my goals is to open my children up to a world beyond what they can see. There are many people out there, each with his/her own story to tell. It makes me feel good to finally open my eyes to all of those stories, not just my own.

Why I Stopped Apologizing for My Child

Apologizing

A while back, I was looking to find a daycare that Emmy could attend a couple days a week. Before I started my journey as a mom, I assumed that my kids wouldn’t go to daycare because I had images of constantly-runny noses, unchanged diapers, and bored staff. Woah, was I wrong about that one! I’ve been able to find daycares that are run more like schools, so my kids are learning, having wonderful social interactions, and making cool art projects. They’ve also become very close with their teachers, and I love to see those special bonds forming. So I am pro-daycare, if you can find the right place.

This happened before I found the right place…

Emmy was too young to attend Charlotte’s daycare, which we’ve been very happy with, so I needed to find a place that would take younger children. And I needed to decide when I would drop the words “Williams syndrome.”

Here’s the thing. Not all parents reveal that their child has a diagnosis. They don’t want a label, they’re worried about their child getting into the school, the don’t want their child treated any differently, etc. I empathize with all of these concerns, and I’ve thought about the same things myself.

In my case, though, I knew I had to tell the school about Williams syndrome. First, I knew that our pediatrician would have to fill out a Universal Health Record before Emmy started school, and that it would say “congenital heart defect due to Williams syndrome.” So the cat would be out of the bag at some point. Second, I figured that the teachers would pick up on her delay and ask me about it. I didn’t want to have to fib my way out of that one. Third, my memory is not great. I would never have remembered who I told or who I didn’t. That’s part of the reason I don’t keep her diagnosis a secret from anyone. I would literally have to carry around a notebook and jot down who I told and who I didn’t — and hope that those people never run into each other!

Ok, so I knew I was going to tell. I just didn’t know when or how.

I called the first school and asked if they had room in their program for her age group. The Director said, “Yes. Come on over.”

I hopped in the car and mulled over how I would tell him about Emmy. When I arrived, he offered me a seat in front of his desk. All I could think was: Williams syndrome Williams syndrome Williams syndrome. He told me a little about the program. I nodded and smiled. Williams syndrome Williams syndrome Williams syndrome.

Finally, he stopped talking and asked me about Emmy. He wanted to know if she was either cruising or walking because that would determine her classroom. They had room in both. At this point, Emmy was barely cruising. She was holding onto furniture, but she wasn’t cruising with ease. I knew, though, that if I didn’t talk her up, he would put her in the infant class with the kids who weren’t walking at all. I didn’t think that holding her back, in that sense, was best for her development. She needed to learn from the kids who were already walking. She was also closer developmentally to her own age group than to an infant.

So I took a deep breath and confidently said, “Yes, she’s cruising. She’s been a little slower in that respect because she has Williams syndrome.”

Cat’s out of the bag!

I swear his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“And what’s that?” he asked.

I told him about Williams syndrome and, in doing so, I realized that I was apologizing for my child. I was emphasizing that she was practically typical and that Williams syndrome was no big deal. Honestly, I felt gross. I was sugar-coating. I wasn’t being real, and I wasn’t being true to my child. When I saw the look of concern on his face, I just kept laying it on thick — how Williams syndrome would be no problem at all. I didn’t dare say that she might need help on the playground or with art projects. I didn’t mention how great it would be if her Early Intervention therapists could come and work with her. I acted as if she would be just fine with no help whatsoever. And then I sat back and waited for his response.

He looked incredibly uncomfortable. He didn’t embrace the situation. Instead, he probably heard nothing I said after the word syndrome. He nervously said, “Ok, let me go check back in with those numbers and make sure that we have room in the cruising class.”

He walked away and came back with a post-it note that had a number on it.

“Turns out we’re at our limit!” he proclaimed. “I thought we had room, but I was wrong. But I’ll certainly give you a call if anything opens up.”

I’m sure he was lying. On the phone, they had room. In person, after my revelation, they were suddenly booked.

I got back in the car, feeling sick, and drove to the next daycare. I debated not revealing her Williams syndrome this time, but I knew I had to for all the reasons I mentioned above.

This time, I toured the school first and then sat down with the Director who said they had one more slot. Great! She couldn’t back out on me now.

I then told her that Emmy has Williams syndrome and, to my horror, I fell back into that sickening apologetic tone. At one point I even said, “You wouldn’t even know there was anything wrong with her.”

UGH. OUCH. I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth.

The Director smiled sweetly and replied, “But there isn’t anything wrong with her.”

I felt awful. Here was a stranger who needed to tell me that there wasn’t anything wrong with my child. But talking to her made me feel like I was getting somewhere. I felt as though she understood and was ready to accept Emmy with open arms.

She then asked if Emmy had any medical issues. I said that she has a heart problem due to Williams syndrome but, here we go again, it’s no big deal.

Heart problem?? The air left the room. Her attitude of acceptance turned into a brick wall. This sounded like a liability.

“Welllll,” she started. “You know I’ll have to check with Human Resources about that.”

People have since told me that it’s illegal to not accept someone with a heart condition, but I haven’t done enough research to confirm that. All I know is that, when I called her later to see if she had checked with Human Resources, she said she was mistaken and that they actually didn’t have room for Emmy. The class was full.

So the woman who just told me that there was nothing wrong with my daughter was able to find something wrong. Thanks for the life lesson, lady.

I felt disgusted. I had basically sold my soul to explain away Williams syndrome, and both places rejected me. I felt as if I weren’t giving Emmy the credit she deserves. Instead of proudly embracing what was special about her, I was apologizing for her and explaining her differences away. And they didn’t take her anyway! All of my sugar-coating got me nowhere.

So I decided to speak honestly and openly about Williams syndrome. It is harder for her to do things. But, damn, does she try HARD at everything she does. She perseveres like no one else I’ve seen. And her sweet personality is just such a gift. I’m so proud of this girl.

Just as I resigned myself to not finding a place that would take her, there was a phone call from another school that we had been trying hard to get into. We had been on the waiting list for a while. They were packed but found a spot for Emmy a few days a week. The Director was so welcoming and, when I talked openly about Williams syndrome, I didn’t scare her away in the least. She said that she couldn’t wait to meet Emmy and that they were so happy to have her. I asked if we could have some of her Early Intervention therapists there to help her, and she responded, “Of course!” She didn’t freak out about Emmy’s heart or about her lack of walking. She wanted to put Emmy in with her age group, which I whole-heartedly agreed with. It felt good, finally, to be heard and understood.

Thinking back on my “apologies” for Emmy makes me feel icky to this day. Hey, this diagnosis isn’t her fault! She did absolutely nothing wrong. Through a completely random genetic event, she was made this way. And, boy, do I love everything about her.

So this whole experience, while stomach-churning in parts, gives me the confidence to say:

I am no longer apologizing for the special needs of my very special child. 

Love you, kiddo.