Dear mom with a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis

Dear mom who just received a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis,

I know how you feel.

Except — unlike you, I was holding my new baby, Kate, in my arms when I found out. She was wrapped in a blanket, looking up at me as I cried, listening to the Neonatologist on staff tell me — only minutes after she was born — that she had Down syndrome. And what that meant.

He said that it meant she had an extra chromosome. And that she would have learning delays. He said that it meant she was significantly predisposed to certain medical conditions, including congenital heart defects — and that we should get her heart tested right away. He said that it meant she had low muscle tone and may not be able to breastfeed. He said that it meant she would do things on a different schedule than other kids.

And in those first few days, after hearing those statistics, talking to doctors and researching online, I thought I knew what it “meant” to have a child with Down syndrome. And quite frankly, I was devastated.

And so it is with you.

But let me tell you — from one mother to another — those facts are not what it means to have a child with Down syndrome.

Many of those facts may not even apply to you. Some might, but many might not. I’ve learned this with all of my children. And I never allow generalizations to set my expectations. (For the record, Kate breastfed like a champ and continues to break stereotypes.)

What those facts didn’t tell me about Kate is that — along with almond eyes and slightly lower muscle tone — she would also have my thick, blond hair and full lips. That she’s a Daddy’s girl. That she loves peanut butter waffles and rocking her baby doll to sleep. They didn’t tell me that she’s a nurturing big sister, a doting little sister — and the star in the room wherever we go.

Those facts didn’t tell me that she would make funny faces and dance like crazy to Fresh Beat Band. That she loves to sing. And swim. And go to gymnastics. And unload all of my kitchen cabinets.

What those facts didn’t tell me in all that they “meant” is what she would mean — to me, to our family, to our friends.

I look back on those first days and I remember the feeling of craving normality. I didn’t want to hear how life would be forever altered in some big way and that I would just learn to accept it. I just wanted life to be the way it was before — routine, “normal.”

Will things ever be normal again? I thought.

And then one day — soon — they were. Except they weren’t like before. They were better.

Suddenly, the overwhelming facts and fears faded. Because instead of knowing a diagnosis, I grew to know her.

And so it will be with you.

Because of her life, I have the unique perspective of seeing the best in the human spirit — and not just in her spirit (though she’s quite spirited!) but in everyone else.

In a world where it’s easy to view strangers through skeptic eyes, I have seen an outpouring of love and compassion surrounding her. I have connected to those I wouldn’t have otherwise. I have had strangers stop me on the street — just to tell me how beautiful she is. The world can seem like a scary place for any child, especially those with a disability. But I have met so many who just want to love her.

I cannot tell you what challenges your precious one might have — just as I cannot tell you what challenges anybody’s child will have, “special needs” or not. One aspect of your child’s life just happens to be detectable by prenatal medical technology. But prenatal testing cannot tell you who your child will be, anymore than a fuzzy, black and white sonogram can tell you how your child will look.

When Kate was just a few months old, I went to Target to pick up some groceries. In line that day, I met the mom of a 19-year-old man with Down syndrome. And when I shared that my daughter also had Down syndrome, her eyes softened and she held my gaze with a warm smile.

It was as if we were both part of a secret sorority and she was an old pledge member. She asked me a few questions and before leaving, softly said the words that I’ll pass on to you here:

“Welcome to your beautiful journey.”

From my heart to yours,

Lauren

Kate

***To download a PDF of this letter that you can easily print and share with someone who might need it, simply click here.

Originally posted June 12, 2013

The grass is not always greener on the other side

It was a particularly frustrating day several months ago when I sat down beside my husband on the brown leather couch.

“See this?” I asked, pointing to the image of a Tachometer Gauge I had pulled up from Google images onto my phone. “This perfectly explains how I am feeling right now.”

He looked at the image and then at me with an expression that said: Please explain.

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“Well, see that red zone right there over the 7, 8 and 9 — the one that tells you your car is about to implode or spontaneously combust — well my needle has been close to 7 all day. So every diaper disaster, meltdown and incidence of cat throw up has pushed me into the red zone. I’m exhausted.”

We talked a bit more in metaphor about how I can “drive the day” so that I can “stay out of the red,” and after a lot of discourse about my (actually helpful) Tachometer image, he said: “It’s really all about energy management.”

This sentiment reminded me of a book I read by journalist Michael Pollan. Pollan was interviewing a well-known farmer, Joel Salatin, on what he does for a living: Is he foremost a cattle rancher? A chicken farmer? Salatin answers in no uncertain terms, “I’m a grass farmer.”

He goes on to explain that grass is the foundation of the “intricate food chain” he has on his farm. And while it may look like he’s just growing cattle or chickens, he’s actually most acutely focused on the health of the grass that feeds the animals. Because guess what: if the grass ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

I know it may seem unrelated, but it’s not.

For in this roundabout way, I realized that I may need to re-imagine my own job title as Salatin has, and add “energy manager” at the top.

In the intricate food chain in our house, my good energy is the green, green grass. It is the foundation. I set the tone for the day with my mood and planning. The kids look to me for how they should feel about spills and surprises. And I am teaching them at every turn, how to react to life.

I thought further about the grass-farming comparison: To keep his grass healthy, Salatin rotates his cattle on varying pastures so they don’t get over-grazed, thus yielding even healthier grass (he gives it a break). He allows the right animals at the right time to help fertilize the grass (he gives it nourishment). And he understands the complexity of the unique needs of his location (he realizes that it’s not one-size-fits-all).

Funny enough, keeping grass healthy is not all that different than keeping us healthy. Both living things that nurture other things, we need: rest, nourishment and attention to personal needs (which may or may not be what other people need.)

So with that in mind, I became more aware of what helped me feel my best.

Was my free hour best spent browsing the internet and clicking on random links (for me, most often not) or was it best spent devouring a good book in the quiet of the livingroom? Were my first moments out of bed best spent in prayer or checking my email? (You guess.) Was our Saturday best spent cleaning the house or playing with friends? (Depends on the Saturday.)

But mostly, I realized that so much of how we react to whatever is happening in front of us is not about the thing specifically; rather, the chain of events that have led up to this moment. Am I rested? Am I hungry? Have I plugged into God’s perspective? Have I spent quality time with my husband? Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there someone I need to ask forgiveness? Have I said I love you? Do I need the reminder I am loved?

The nature of motherhood is beautifully sacrificial — as it should be. But it is also important to remember that the most magnificent cathedrals are built on strong foundations. To best nourish others, mothers must first be nourished — a sentiment which carries no selfishness at all.

For even the grass under our bare feet needs the warmth of sunlight and the refreshment of water to be a soft place to fall.

The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered.” – Robert Fulghum

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One thing I’m adding to our back-to-school schedule

I’ve been making lists and checking them twice.

It’s that other notorious list-making season of back-to-school, back-to-schedule, back-to-back activities. I have been planning sports and home school schedules, vegetable planting dates and weeknight meals, workout routines and play dates. Should we build another raised garden bed? Sign up for ballet? Get a gym membership?

On our wedding day, we asked guests to write a hand-written note giving advice or simply best wishes and to drop it into a big fish bowl vase made from golden mosaic glass. My neighbor at the time simply wrote:

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” 

In many ways, plans and schedules are so important. With four children 6 and under, I certainly couldn’t survive without some sort of routine in my life. And as they get older and ready for new things, I long for them to have varied experiences for growth and joy.

And as a rookie homeschool mom, I am also experiencing a whole new world of planning with curriculum choices and implementation. Though I am looking at our daily Fall calendar with excitement, I also have to remind myself that the typed words in that spreadsheet are not what it’s all about.

I was watching a talk the other day from a speaker named Sonya Shafer. Sonya’s expertise is on the educational philosophies of Charlotte Mason — a British educator from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who strove to improve the quality of children’s education.

In her talk, Shafer references a book she recently read, written by a well-traveled pediatrician. The doctor indicated that he was starting to see in his practice the same symptoms and levels of stress among his American preschool patients as he saw when he traveled to war-torn countries abroad. After much research about the subject, he came to the conclusion that children in our society are prone to an immense amount of stress because of three things:

Too much stuff. Too much information coming at them. And too busy of a schedule.

She goes on to offer an antidote for this stress in the words of Charlotte Mason:

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them… a quiet growing time.”

The last words jumped out at me and nestled in my heart.

A quiet growing time.

Was that on the schedule? I needed to look.

For the fact is, if I’m not careful, the things on that paper could actually inhibit the learning opportunities I long for my children to have most: the nurturing lessons of life that happen in the nooks and crannies of the day, the wonder found in carefree time outdoors, the creativity born in boredom.

As the children get older, I am so eager to get them (and me!) involved in stuff — but I am tempering myself, trying to make my choices wisely. To choose only those that are most nourishing and enjoyable, to not give in to unnecessary “educational and social pressure,” but to leave room for quiet growth.

What a beautiful perspective that the most important learning is often found in the things we say no to. The times we unplug. In the focused play and bedtime stories. In the nature walks and daily chores. It is a reminder that as many plans and activities fill my online calendar, what matters most are the nourishing, simple, “uneventful” moments of today.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is yet to come. We have only today. If we help our children to be what they should be today, they will have the necessary courage to face life with greater love.” — Mother Teresa

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Something new for SippingLemonade.com

I always like a little something new, don’t you?

New flowers peeking over the grasses in my wildflower field, new life awakening in the vegetable garden, a new recipe to get me out of a dinner rut. It’s nice to freshen things up a bit, rearrange the furniture, get bangs. So that’s what I’m doing here at the blog, too — a little makeover.

People have asked me what my blog is about for some time (OK, like 2 people) and I’m like, oh, you know, I write about this and that. Sometimes I write about motherhood and sometimes about Down syndrome and sometimes about old women sweeping porches. And at different times, I have gone through different stages of what I want to write about more — and that’s OK, the blog reflects my muse at the moment.

But lately, I’ve felt the tug to make it more focused (mostly to me). I want to write a bit more intentionally and I’ve been reevaluating how this blog has changed since I started it 4 years ago as a city-girl advertising writer with a toddler and a new baby.

Since then, I’ve had a couple more kiddos, moved to the country with dreams of a family farm, have started homeschooling my first-born and spend a lot more time immersed in the “nurturing arts” (as writer Barbara Kingsolver calls them) — cooking, gardening and alike. As I have grown, so has the blog, which is why much of my writing here is focused on what I focus on daily: family, faith and (aspiring) farm-life.

The name Sipping Lemonade came to me in the first days of starting this blog in the simple sense of making the best of life. Focusing on the sweet rather than the bitter — and then, drinking that up. Looking for beauty and letting it become a part of you. That’s what I’ve always hoped to do here and what I hope to continue to do.

There are challenges in all of our lives, hard days, frustrating moments, but that’s never really what has inspired me to write. What moves me are the magical moments between them where God’s abundant grace floods in. That’s the stuff I like to focus on. That’s what makes words come to me in flashes of poetry and prose. Everyone who writes does so for different reasons and that’s why I do: to look for the best, to be grateful, to see beauty. To sip lemonade, so to speak.

So that’s all — just a little something new that’s not really all that new at all. As my Nana used to tell me, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Thank you for reading and following along and writing kind words and being a special part of this little space.

This photo is of our farmhouse diningroom table, built by my husband and brother-in-law out of local pine wood. It stands heavy in our home holding the things that nourish us most: Fresh food on the table, grace said in thanksgiving, and family gathered round.

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I want my kids to know how to party

We recently celebrated my husband’s 35th birthday with Mexican food, a giant, backyard blow-up castle and a house full of people we love.

To keep it a proper fiesta, energetic Tejano music floated through the rooms and accompanied the mellifluous conversations of huddled friends holding margaritas on the rocks. Barefoot children ran in and out of doors with grassy toes and sweaty hair. Babies were passed (as were lap dogs). Strings of white twinkly lights hovered above a hot summer patio at dusk, where laughter was the side dish to chicken enchiladas with salsa verde.

We sang Happy Birthday as a guitar was strummed and lights were dimmed and German chocolate cake with thick coconut icing gave way to a late-night livingroom jam session: two guitars, a trombone, some bongos, a few honeyed voices, a tambourine and up-past-bedtime children as back-up dancers. In a vision I won’t soon forget, my own 3-year-old stood to the side in her pink princess nightgown with Shirley Temple blonde curls, her gaze affixed to her father singing, her hips swaying to the beat.

A day later, while cleaning up party decorations, I happened upon a timely podcast discussing the beauty and importance of not just community, but of celebration within that community. The hosts of the Messy Parenting podcast (a married couple) shared their own reflection on a party they had just enjoyed. The husband mused, “There’s something beautiful about celebrating life and savoring it… savoring the relationships. It’s not partying for our own pleasure, it’s about relationships — people — about enjoying each other’s company.” His wife concurred, saying she looked around the room at their recent celebration and said to herself, “This is what heaven is going to be like.”

Yes.

I nodded as if she could see me scrubbing the sticky margarita residue on my countertop. She was right. These celebrations truly are a taste of heaven — full of love, community and joy. And though I haven’t had the words “taste of heaven” specifically in my mind, I have had the same feeling time and time again (throughout my life, really) at family reunions and birthday parties, weddings and baptism receptions, Christmas mornings and New Year’s Eve. Even lost in a good conversation with a close girlfriend in a corner booth. Perhaps that feeling is simply one of joy, which truly is quite deeper. Especially if joy is what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin defines it as: the sign of the presence of God.

It wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me: knowing how to “party” is a value I want my children to learn. Of course not in a sorority-gone-wild sense, but in the purest sense of living a life of  joy. I want them to know how to enjoy simple pleasures. Relax. Connect with the people around them in a meaningful way. I want celebration (large and small) to be second nature to them, because we celebrate out of gratitude. Not all parties are a big ole’ Fiesta, but even a weeknight family sing-along is communal, joyful and nourishing.

It’s funny that we can all too often see celebrations as frivolous or simply nice-to-have’s, when C.S. Lewis reminds us to not “underestimate the power and importance of celebration.” He continues, “It should be our perpetual way of life.”

And just last week, Pope Francis spoke on the subject at hand, saying, “Celebrations are God’s invention. They are a “time to look at children or grandchildren who are growing and to think: how lovely! It is the time to look at our home, the guests we entertain, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world, and he does so continually…”

The older I get, the more I realize the immeasurable importance of community. Friendships that are worked at, nurtured, invested in. Family relationships that are built and sustained with time spent and history shared. Neighbors who are known and connected with. And in a world where so much time is spent staring at screens and smart phones and scrolling feeds, there is vast importance in real, authentic, soul-sustaining face to face interactions. Gatherings in livingrooms. Merrymaking for milestones. Communities of people who know each other by more than a status update or newsfeed — but by the living, breathing, intimate connections of interwoven lives.

My 6-year-old son and I sat on the back patio a few months ago when he asked me out of the blue: “Mom, what does heaven look like?”

I’m not sure I answered his question perfectly that day — or that I could do much better right now. But I do know this: I can hold my son close when dear friends gather around the soft glow of birthday candles. I can catch his eye when we sing along with his Daddy playing guitar. I can squeeze his hand when grandparents come visit and stay up too late laughing and I can say:

I’m not for sure what heaven looks like, son, but this is a taste of it.

I want my kids to know how to party