What Down syndrome taught me about gratitude

A couple of days after Kate was born, my husband received a note from a friend congratulating us on our new daughter.

Before he ended his kind correspondence, his friend added: My wife and I have been praying to have a child with Down syndrome.

I remember feeling an intrigue about his comment at the time. But then again, I had never known a person with Down syndrome until I had my baby girl. Obviously, he had.

I think about that note from time to time as life goes on — as I grow to know Kate and to understand what it truly means when so many parents refer to their child with special needs as a “gift.”

The reason for this gratitude is different for everyone, of course — I can only speak for myself. But truly, Kate has shown me the true meaning of Saint Paul’s words: “In everything, give thanks” in a few key ways.

Because of her, I have learned:

1. We don’t always know what’s best for us. Having a child with Down syndrome seemed like an incredibly scary thing at one time, but it has turned out to be an incredible joy in our life. So when unexpected things happen, I always do my best to accept them with faith.

2. There is value in hard things. Even when we have been faced with scary medical tests or inconvenient therapies or unknown outcomes, I have become acutely aware of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. I have grown in trust and faith. I have been exposed to incredible love and compassion in the world.

3. Things don’t always go as planned — but sometimes they do. So I never take for granted that every day I get to wake up and turn on a coffee maker and change diapers and make peanut butter waffles and read books and watch the leaves fall. These are the great joys of life — the “normal” days, the routines. This daily dance of love and service is what life is all about.

Kate is a gift — like all my children. They all teach us things in their own unique, individual ways. But the surprise that came with Kate is a blessing all her own. My husband is a contributing author for an upcoming book for fathers of children with special needs and he so beautifully writes:

Many of us spend our lives trying to make life easier. We imagine that having a lot of “success” — extra money and influence, a nice house, the ideal family and plenty of free time for pursuing hobbies and career interests — will make for an easier, happier life.

Deep down we know it’s not true. Not only does every bit of conventional wisdom testify to this lie, but we also see it played out every day as we learn the unhappiness of the rich. Yet we still insist on learning it the hard way ourselves, often wasting our lives pursuing this “easier life.”

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. Having a child with special needs is like a secret short cut. When you have somebody who needs you a little differently, you have much less time to waste on such other pursuits. Of course, having any kids at all does this in its own, beautiful way. But having a child that nudges us out of the norm and demands our attention in a different way has been a great gift.

Yes, some things in life are harder. There is no sugar-coating the extra challenges that come with having a child with special needs. But, for us, while some things are harder, the most important things in life are actually easier. It has compelled us to live the life of service we were already called to. And when you begin to live in this way — with less room for your own selfish ambitions — it’s easier to see the simple and miraculous life God planned for you.

Mother Teresa says, “The fruit of service is peace.” Well we’ve learned that all the unexpected trials of life are not really burdens at all, but opportunities to serve. They are the path to peace.

Kate and her daddy

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Three super cute and easy Thanksgiving crafts for kids

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Craft #1: Adopt-a-Turkey

Kate was born in November — and in my “nesting” mode of the 3rd trimester with her, I got the itch to do a festive Fall craft. I had made some cute little owls for a baby shower out of styrofoam craft balls and Felt a few months prior, so I thought it would be fun to duplicate that craft with a Thanksgiving twist. [Here’s a link to a similar tutorial for owls.]

Enter: our little turkey friend.

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I just cut feathers out of Felt and glued them with a hot glue gun to the styrofoam ball — added some googly eyes and some red “snoods” (betcha didn’t know that’s what the red fleshy bits hanging off turkeys’ beaks are called, huh?) (I didn’t either — Google just told me.) I also glued some big feathers on the back to make him extra festive.

Then, because a Felt turkey wasn’t silly enough, my son and I decided to name the turkeys and send them to a couple of family members for a fun Thanksgiving gift, complete with an “adoption certificate.” And yes, that is a picture of the turkey photoshopped into a field. I had more time back then.

This one is “Yellow Feather.”

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Gobble, gobble.

Craft #2: Count your blessings chain

This is a fun way to count your blessings — just write something you’re thankful for on every circle and hook them together for a fun Fall decoration.

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My 5-year-old’s first three blessings: 2 of his sisters and the cat.

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Craft #3: Fall birdy

This bird is just pretty and is easily made out of stuff that I had laying around — a paper plate, some watercolors and some tissue paper.

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We got the idea for him in this book. My kindergartener loved it — just takes a little assistance from an adult for younger kiddos. I love that big bushy tail.

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Happy Thanksgiving week, everyone!

The secret ingredient of gratitude

For the record, gratitude is consistently one of the words I always have to think about as I spell.

I pronounce it grad-i-tude — so I always want to write a “d.”  I also pronounce “congratulations” with a “d” sound — except when I say congrats.

But I digress.

Next week is Thanksgiving.

I plan to make this pie and this turkey and my Grandmother’s macaroni and cheese recipe. My son and I have been discussing what Thanksgiving is and why we celebrate it and what’s up with this rock named Plymouth.

But we’ve also been discussing gratitude and what that means — which, for a 5-year-old, isn’t an overly detailed explanation but one that begins to instill the idea that what we have is enough.

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I read an interesting study not long ago that talked about gratitude as THE defining thing that affects peoples’ happiness levels. It quoted the book, “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” saying:

Whether you win the lottery or are paralyzed from the neck down, after about three to six months you’ll have returned to your usual level of happiness. While these findings are deeply counter-intuitive, they also raise a serious problem for those wanting to increase levels of happiness permanently. A possible answer comes from recent research in the psychology of gratitude. Yes, you read that correctly – being thankful might be the key to raising your happiness ‘set-point’.

I think that’s because gratitude adds an extra ingredient to the feeling of happiness — one that comes from a deeper place than a fleeting emotion. Gratitude, as GK Chesterton says, is not just happiness: it’s “happiness doubled by wonder.”

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It is the acknowledgement that something beautiful, inexplicable, bigger than ourselves has a hand in our lives. It is knowing that the blessings before us are not of our own doing — even the blessings in disguise. It is the surprise of the little miracles all around us. It is joy.

In many ways, I think gratitude comes very natural to children. I may still have to remind my 5-year-old to say Thank you and my 2-year-old that no, not everything is “mine!” But I never have to remind them that the earth is full of awe.

Because they find it completely magical that every day the sun rises and the moon sets. That food grows from the ground. That water flows when we turn a handle and light illuminates when we flip a switch. They squeal with delight when their grandparents stop by and can’t sleep when they know friends are coming the next day.

They drink up the little joys that we so often take for granted — they unwrap the God-given gifts of love, beauty and life with curiosity and enthusiasm.

They are in a constant state of wonder about the world — and really, they are entertained with the most basic of things until I hand them a singing toy or a glowing screen. In many ways, “appreciation” comes very naturally to them.

So as I’m teaching my son about gratitude, he’s teaching me. As I’m reminding him to say thank you, he’s reminding me to stare at the stars. As I’m wondering how best to help him be gracious, he’s showing me what it means to wonder.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

The secret ingredient of gratitude

What’s it like to grow up with a sibling with Down syndrome?

“Are they twins?” the woman asked me in line at the checkout.

My precocious 2-year-old with blonde curls and a big smile sat content in the shopping cart while her big (yet petite) 4-year-old sister, Kate, smiled and snuggled against her.

“No,” I replied gently, “But I get that all the time. They’re 21 months apart.”

Twenty-one months may be between them — but that’s all that keeps them apart. The rest of the time, they’re almost inseparable.

In many ways they are like little twins — similar sizes and hairstyle, sharing clothes, playing constantly, bickering at times. When they were younger, they even had their own “twin speak:” a demonstrative, secret babble language that only they seemed to understand. (Though we now understand their conversations better as they’ve both grown older.)

Their bond is one that I, an only child and mother of 4, love to observe for many reasons. It is a bond of sisterhood that both comforts and fascinates me — as does the relationship between all of my children. It is also one that I couldn’t imagine just four years ago.

You see, when Kate was first born with Down syndrome, I wasn’t sure what our family would look like or how it would continue to grow. Kate had a big brother — but would we have more children? If we could, should we? I had always dreamed of having a big family — would a Down syndrome diagnosis affect that? All families have many unique, personal reasons for their family size, would having a child with special needs affect ours? What would those sibling relationships look like?

Shortly after those questions came to mind, I read a study that surveyed hundreds of siblings to find out how they felt about having a brother or sister with Down syndrome.

The results included:

More than 96% of siblings indicated that they had affection toward their sibling with Down syndrome.

94% of older siblings expressed feelings of pride.

Among older siblings, 88% felt that they were better people because of their siblings with Down syndrome.

More than 90% plan to remain involved in their sibling’s lives as they become adults.

Those statistics were encouraging — but what has been so much more encouraging? Our own experience. And not because our other children treat Kate particularly special — but because she’s just one of the bunch, loved and accepted for who she is.

Her big brother is a pal, protector and sometimes pest, as big brothers are. Her little sister is her best friend and also a stealer-of-toys who teaches Kate to stick up for herself and develop an independent spirit. Her youngest sister — the baby in the house — brings out her nurturing side, as Kate loves to hold her, hush her, sing to her and softly stroke her face.

These little people by her side support her, while spontaneously challenging her to be the best she can be — and she does the same for them.

Since writing this blog, I have received many lovely notes from parents of children with Down syndrome — but I have especially enjoyed notes from siblings. The ones who confirm everything the aforementioned study shared with their own stories of growing up side by side with a sibling with Down syndrome.

Full of pride and doting, their encouraging notes have told me that their sibling with special needs “brings out the best in them.” That their time with their sibling with Down syndrome has been “the best time of their life.”

Some siblings have gone on to pursue careers in fields helping those with special needs. Others joyfully help care for their sibling. Others have shared heartwarming stories of how life is more meaningful. But all of the stories are love stories. They are words laced with selflessness, joy and a unique perspective that have shaped their own lives.

I am asked often if my two little girls are twins — a comparison that makes me smile. Because they’re right — my two little girls are so much alike, even in a world that often only sees Kate’s differences.

And isn’t that the beautiful thing about family? We are all so very different — but in the family ties that hold us close, we have the opportunity for the closest bonds.

And the greatest love.

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Kate and her little sister

Why you should always be who you are meant to be!

We just moved into a new house out in the country and there is a portion of our land that we are dedicating to be “wildflower land.”

We threw down some seeds, stomped it in to the freshly tilled dirt, and are hoping that come Spring it will be abuzz with watercolor blooms and honey bees.

Wildflowers are one of those things I think God gave us just to make us smile.

But as I learned more about our little field of pretty, I realized that wildflowers are much more than just ornamental. They are also a great example for how we can all better bloom in this life — how, as Thoreau said:

“All good things are wild and free.”

The wild and free flowers are not uniform beds of well-behaved gardens, which, though beautiful, often require a lot of maintenance and fertilizer. Rather, these little beauties tend to be much more hardy because they thrive when they are planted where they are meant to be planted.

And because they are just being themselves — who they are meant to be — they are incredibly fruitful, creating a lovely ecosystem that is beneficial for neighboring plants and animals.

What I also love about wildflowers: they often surprise us, popping up in the most unexpected places, often when we need them most.

For instance, when the smoke cleared after California’s Santa Monica Mountains were scorched with wildfire — tiny blossoms of pink, yellow and blue coated the hillsides. Providing comfort to the bald, blackened earth, the seeds of those specific flowers actually needed the heat of fire to germinate — blooming best when needed most.

But what I find most intriguing about wildflowers? Their diverse nature. Some are almost neon in color, some are subdued pastels.

Some have round, plump petals — while others are delicate and thin.

Some reach high above the rest, as if on watch for bees and butterflies — while others sit soft in the shadows watching for the crawlers and climbers among the dirt.

But together — they create a stunning landscape both purposeful and pretty. Every difference celebrated. Every unique quality needed. Every colorful one adding a little something special — just as they are.

Just like all of us.

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