Little Reminders

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Everyone tells you not to compare.

If you have a child with special needs, you tend to compare that child’s progress to her siblings. Because as much as people tell you not to compare, you can’t turn your brain to the *off* position. If you could turn your brain off, you’d stop thinking about the Halloween candy in the kitchen. Or you’d stop thinking about the phone call you have to make by Friday. Or you’d stop thinking about the next chapter in your life.

But you can’t just *stop* thinking. Your brain turns and moves, turns and moves–as much as you might want to quiet your thoughts. I’ve actually tried meditation many times, and I’ve gotten decently good at it. But even if I sit down to quiet my thoughts for 20 minutes, only 3 minutes of that will be successful. For the other 17 minutes, my mind is still on overdrive.

So if people tell me not to compare my children, it’s impossible because I can’t just shut down my thoughts.

But I want to explain that comparison isn’t a bad thing!

I used to beat myself up about it. I would think: Hmmm…Emmy’s not rolling over yet. I’m pretty sure Charlotte was rolling over by now.

Or I used to think: Was Charlotte able to cross midline this early? Emmy isn’t doing it yet. (Midline = a term I never thought I would have to learn. Now, I know it well.)

And when people would yell at me to stop comparing, I would criticize myself for doing so. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I stop?! Yet, I was unable. So let me rephrase…

I was thinking.

It’s ok to think, right? Everybody does it. And it doesn’t sound as bad as “comparing.”

When I was thinking about Emmy’s progress in relation to Charlotte, I was simply *thinking.* I love, love, love, love, love Emmy dearly. I think she is amazing and smart and funny and gorgeous and sweet. I feel the same about Charlotte and now, Theo. But my kids are different. They do things on different schedules. They have different personalities. They progress differently. It’s not that one who moves more quickly is better. It’s that one who moves more quickly is different.

When people use the term “compare,” it sounds as though one is better than the other. That’s not true. They’re just different.

And I think it’s ok to observe differences. I think parents should give themselves permission to see the ways in which their children are unique.

There is a parent who has twins with Williams syndrome. She commented that she has a hard time not comparing them. Can you even imagine having twins and being told not to compare? Isn’t that the most impossible task in the world? I mean, how do you NOT compare?

But please understand that these comparisons aren’t negative. They’re just thoughts…observations. As human beings, we have thoughts. And, unless we’re going to meditate 24-7, it’s impossible to shut our brains off.

Now, of course, if you notice that your comparisons are turning negative, that’s a different story. “She’s not crossing midline yet” is different from “Why can’t she cross midline yet when her brother did it so perfectly at 1 month old?” Of course, that’s totally different. And, yes, that would be negative.

But most parents I know are proud of even the smallest accomplishment. Their comparisons aren’t negative. Their comparisons don’t affect their LOVE. These are just thoughts…passing thoughts. Love is constant.

So if you have one of those passing thoughts, don’t beat yourself up (as I did for so long). It’s ok to see differences. They’re just little reminders that your children are unique and special in their own ways.

As you can see, my girls dressed very differently for Halloween. Charlotte knew for months that she wanted to be princess Elsa. That’s it–do not pass go. Emmy, on the other hand, isn’t into princesses. She has always been obsessed with monsters. First, our red, furry friend, Elmo. And now, blue Sulley from Monsters Inc.

I love that she loves monsters!! It’s different. It’s cute. It shows a side to her personality–a fun and daring side. She’s rarely afraid. In fact, when Charlotte didn’t want to stick her hand in the “eyeball” soup at Halloween, Emmy dove right in–grabbing prizes for both of them.

Of course I had the passing thought: It’s funny that Emmy is so into monsters, while Charlotte never was.

But it’s just that…a thought.

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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!! 😉

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.

Just Like You

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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:

http://surgentselitegym.com/pub/docs/Forms/h_Parties/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.

Blog Hop: My Writing Process

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I was in the middle of this post two weeks ago when I unexpectedly dashed to the hospital to have a baby–who is doing great, by the way! Gosh, he certainly gave us quite a scare.

So let’s try this again…

I’m happy to take part in the “My Writing Process” Blog Hop this week. I was invited by Amy Reade, which is one of the best names I’ve ever heard for a writer!

Amy’s blog, called Reade and Write (again, love the title), can be found at http://amreade.wordpress.com. Her first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House, will be published in July 2014, and she has two more novels on the way. One of the things I like best about Amy’s writing is something that she mentions on her own Blog Hop: “My books have a strong sense of place, so hopefully my readers will want to visit the places I write about.” She does a lovely job of painting a picture for the readers, and I definitely find myself wanting to take a trip to the places she describes.

For this Blog Hop, I’ll answer a few questions about my writing process and then introduce you to three other writers, who will pass the Blog Hop along next Monday.

The questions:

1. What am I working on?

I’m working on a memoir about my first few years as a mom to a daughter with special needs. And I just helped edit a fantastic anthology written by parents, family, and friends of people who have Williams syndrome. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon. And here’s a link to the book on the Williams Syndrome Association’s online store. The book is inspiring, heart-warming, funny, and informative. I think that everyone will enjoy reading this book, whether his/her child has Williams syndrome or not. But I also think it will be especially helpful to those parents whose children are newly diagnosed. It gives you a glimpse into possibilities for the future and also makes it clear that you are not on this road alone. I’ve known about Emmy’s diagnosis for almost three years, and I still learned a lot from the stories in this book. I highly recommend reading it!

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My writing falls into the category of memoir/personal essay. I’ve actually been writing memoir for a really long time–well before I had children. For some reason, I can be brutally honest in my writing, something that can be more difficult for me in conversation because I’m kind of shy. But when I write, it’s all out there on the page. Likewise, my favorite memoirs are the unflinchingly honest ones. (And I read A LOT of memoirs.) I don’t respond to a book as much when I can tell that someone is hiding behind his/her words.

3. Why do I write what I do?

If I don’t write about my experiences, they sit beneath the surface of my skin and drive me bonkers. I’ve always felt compelled to just get it out. And, perhaps more importantly, I like that my personal writing builds a connection to others and sometimes offers them advice, comfort, and support.

4. How does my writing process work?

Wellllll, I commit to turning in a draft of a chapter. I put it on my calendar and stare at the date for a while. I procrastinate on the actual writing for a long time, while still obsessively thinking about the chapter topic–turning it over and over in my mind. And then, FINALLY, I find a couple hours before the deadline and pound it out. Very healthy process. 🙂

And now I’m sending the Blog Hop along to these talented writers:

  • Eva Lesko Natiello is a native New Yorker who wrote her debut domestic thriller, THE MEMORY BOX, as a result of relocating to the New Jersey suburbs with her husband and two children. THE MEMORY BOX is a Houston Writers Guild 2014 Manuscript award winner; it will be released June 2014. Eva is a self-proclaimed curious observationist whose oddball musings can be read on evanatiello.com. She improvs songs as a way to dialogue with her kids. They find it infrequently entertaining. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  
  • Lillian Duggan is a creative writer, mom, wife, wannabe world traveler, and freelance editorial professional and translator. Her short story, “The Orchid,” was published by www.everydayfiction.com in August of 2013. She’s currently working (slowly…) on her first novel. On her blog, My Ideal World, she writes about her efforts to achieve her goals and make her dreams come true one step at a time while raising two children (www.myidealworldblog.com).
  • Rosanne Kurstedt has a Ph.D. in education, teaches at Fordham University and William Patterson University, and is the author of And I Thought About You (illustrated by Lisa Carletta-Vietes), an honorable mention recipient at the New England Book Festival, New York Book Festival, and Paris Book Festival. She was also the recipient of a 2013 Barbara Karlin Grant Letter of Commendation. In addition, Rosanne writes professional books for teachers, including Teaching Writing With Picture Books as Models (Scholastic, 2000). You can visit Rosanne at her website, at her blog, Kaleidoscope, on Facebook, and on Twitter too! @rlkurstedt

And here’s Theo…awww…

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He’s Home!!

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Thanks for all of your well wishes and words of support! They mean so much! Theo came home yesterday. He spent 8 days in the NICU which, coincidentally, was exactly the same amount of time as Emmy when she was born. Theo had RDS (Respiratory Distress Syndrome) and PPHN (Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn). Emmy, too, had PPHN. Isn’t that bizarre??

It’s probably obvious to parents of children with Williams syndrome that Theo doesn’t have that diagnosis as well. (You start to become an expert at identifying the facial characteristics.) But I can’t get over the fact that both kids had PPHN and ended up in the NICU. (By the way, Charlotte was healthy as an ox when she came out. All 3 kids were full-term C-sections.)

Over the past few years, I’ve become fascinated by genetics. If I had more time, I would study it.

For now, I’m tired and totally spacey. (I can barely put a sentence together. I keep saying to Dan, “Can you get that thing? You know that thing? It’s on the other thing?”) But I am also THRILLED to have Theo HOME!

Oh and I am so thankful for NICU nurses. PICU nurses too. Labor and Delivery nurses too. NURSES IN GENERAL!!!! They took such good care of all of us. Thank you!!

Here are pictures of the girls holding their baby brother for the first time. Charlotte was talking in a sweet baby voice: “Hello, little Theo. Look at your little feetsies!” And Emmy wanted desperately to hug him, kiss him, and hold his hand. She kept saying, “My turn!”

And Theo looks totally different. He lost a bit of weight. We’ll see what he looks like when he fills out more.

Charlotte

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Happy to be home!

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.