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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