A Little More: Different and the same

Filed under: Just For Moms, Preschoolers, Special Needs, Big Kids

I have a memory from when the twins were about 2-years-old--I was past the intense worry of any relapse that would send us back to the NICU, and I'd finished reading everything I could find about Down syndrome. I began to poke my head up and look about and wonder, What are other families with kids with Down syndrome like? It was this curiosity that brought me to my first special needs play date at our local Child Development Center.

I remember rushing out the door, after spending too much time looking for an inexplicably missing shoe. I remember feeling nervous at the thought of meeting new people, especially other moms. Several times, I nearly turned the car around and headed home. Even in the parking lot, when I could see that a small circle of women had already gathered, I was overcome with doubt, thinking, Why did I agree to do this? and then telling myself, "It's for the kids; it's for Avery." But of course, it didn't turn out that way.

All these thoughts were familiar, and reminded me of my very first play group with my oldest son Carter. Both times, there was a wicker laundry basket in the middle of the room, filled with board books and stuffed animals and a Little People Yellow School Bus and bright Duplo blocks and a Lights and Sounds Shape Sorter. Nearby, there was an assortment of cookies and juice boxes. A mountain of shoes and jackets were piled in a corner, next to a stack of empty baby carriers and a line of parked strollers.

Other things were familiar: introductions, including the names of the children. The questions: "How many kids do you have? and "How old is your baby?" and "Where did you deliver?" Later, mostly told quietly, birth stories.

But these birth stories included a part about getting a diagnosis. Sometimes they were sad; other times they told of great relief in having an answer. The stories often referenced medical terms, and things like monitors and IV lines and extended hospital stays, even surgeries on tiny newborns.

The conversations covered practical matters, like PT, OT, ST. SSI, SSA, Early Intervention. Low tone versus high tone. Ear tubes, vitamin therapy. Dry skin, thyroid tests. And theoretical matters, too, like how prenatal diagnosis impacts the rights of the unborn, or how sibling relationships are affected by disability, or how various cultures view children and adults with visible differences.

The same, in both groups: mother guilt ("Am I doing enough?"); striving for balance ("Sometimes I feel overwhelmed."); and love ("I can't imagine my life without my child.") Both times, the hours passed too quickly, resulting in a mad dash to match shoes to feet, coats to kids until everyone was headed out the door, back to real life.

What I've come to realize is no less true for its obviousness: the play groups are as much for the moms as they are for the kids. It's a place where women can meet, if only briefly, with other moms who might share similar experiences--who might come to their mothering with common reference points.

Increasingly, I've been finding those shared experiences by connecting with other mothers online. Our words are what defines us; I'm drawn to the woman whose son might have a different diagnosis than mine, but her outlook on parenting feels like my own. Or a family halfway across the world, living in Australia--but they, too, have one older sibling and a set of twins, one with Down syndrome, one without. Sharing our stories--across the miles, across time--enables me to see our connectedness, our common bonds as families.

In the spirit of sharing, here are two sites that I love: Can I Sit With You? is an ongoing book and blog project that explores "The Stormy Social Seas of the Schoolyard." It's a collaborative effort fueled by donations of time and talent, and all proceeds are used to fund a local Special Needs PTA.

And identical twin sisters Janice and Susan, founders of 5 Minutes for Mom, recently launched 5 Minutes for Special Needs, edited by Tammy, who writes about her experiences mothering a medically fragile boy with Down syndrome at Praying for Parker. It's a group blog where parents of kids with special needs can find "support, insight, and inspiration."

What I've found, in all these instances--online and in person--is the value in telling our stories, to each other and because of each other. There we find strength, we find solace, we find commonalities. But mostly, we find ourselves.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.