2014 has been a year of polar extremes for us – to put it lightly. It’s been a year of unbelievable highs and lows that would rival any world-class roller coaster. We have experienced the most difficult and challenging, yet by far the most fulfilling and joy-filled times we have ever known.
It’s now been over a year from the moment we first knew we weren’t having the dream pregnancy and first child-experience we thought we would. Just before Christmas 2013, our world was turned upside down in an instant. From the moment we were first told in our 20-week scan that there was a problem with our baby, to being told after the birth that Caleb was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, until now, this past year has been a journey into parenthood far different to how we thought it would look. Yet it has surpassed all our expectations to be the most thrilling, life-changing, challenging and fulfilling experience we have ever had. I have discovered things about parenthood that I wasn’t expecting, that go against everything that the world has told or implied to me about parenting. And I have learned much that has caused me to question how we as a society in the west view raising children. I have learned this:
1. Parenthood is a fierce joy.
It is a tidal wave of love that is overwhelming in the power of its strength. It is an instinct of being willing to go to any lengths to protect your child from harm, a warrior instinct that is almost frightening in its ferocity – even before they are born. It is a joy that makes your heart feel full to bursting every time you hold them and look into their smiling, fully trusting eyes that reflect a small piece of who you are. It is everything we were made for and, in my experience, one of the best, most fulfilling things you can ever do with your life.
Yet how is it that on a daily basis, we are told by our culture and society that focusing on raising a child (any child, let alone one with special needs) or children is a waste of your life? That life is over as soon as a child comes on the scene, that it’s impossible to do anything that you’d like to do after having a child so you’d better do everything you possibly can before that terrifying day arrives? Forget traveling. Forget living your dreams. Forget having a life of your own, because as soon as that baby comes you cease to exist as a person.
This is what our culture would have us believe. And because of this people are waiting later and later to have children. There has been a huge increase in the last few decades in the use of IVF because of infertility, many times because couples are in their mid to late thirties before they finally feel ready to ‘settle down’ and start a family – only to find they are now heartbreakingly unable to do so. I personally know people who have done this, who have told me they now wish they had started trying for children earlier as they no longer can have any of their own. Yet we are being told constantly by the media, our peers and our culture that life is over when you have children – so we need to put our other desires, passions and dreams first whatever we do.
Then, there is the other extreme the world tells us – that you can have a baby if you want to, but if you do, nothing should change. A baby is an accessory, an additional token of a successful life that can and should be handed over to someone else to raise when they become inconvenient or get in the way of our career, our wants, our ambitions. These children many times become orphans in their own homes, closer to the nanny that raises them than to their own parents who they hardly ever see. Of course there are many times when this is unavoidable, when in order to provide for their family both parents have to work. Yet the same world and society we live in that has made this so often a necessity then drives guilt and condemnation into us for not being there for our children. It’s a catch-22 that creates so much frustration and fear that it can often put people off having children altogether, or at least until much later on in life when they feel they can afford it.
These are some of the lies and fears that are subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly driven into us on a daily basis. Consciously or subconsciously, in the western world almost all of us have bought into it to a degree. I certainly did. Until I had a baby.
2. Parenthood and pursuing your dreams are not mutually exclusive.
The truth couldn’t be further from what I thought. I thought that to avoid this second scenario, I could never pursue my dreams of having a successful career as a photojournalist and a recording artist as well as becoming a young mother at 25. I thought traveling would come to an end, I’d have to give up my passions and that I would essentially lose my identity as a person in the vast vacuum of exhaustion, weariness and mundane jobs known as motherhood.
But the truth is, life is what you make it to be after having a baby. We decided to try for a baby despite all this and since then, the reality of the joy of it has far outweighed all the other expectations our culture puts on us. Since having a baby, my life dreams and passions have been becoming reality in ways I never thought possible.
In the last year and a bit since finding out we were expecting, I’ve had the opportunity to record and launch a debut album of self-written songs (with a full band at 7 months pregnant no less! Madness I know. You should see a hugely pregnant woman playing the accordion up to her chin over her bump. It looked ridiculous. I loved it. You can find it here) that made it to number 14 on the iTunes singer/songwriter charts. There is now a second album and another EP in the pipeline, largely made up of songs written as a direct result of the journey we’ve been on this last year.
We’ve rebranded and reinvented our husband-and-wife wedding photography and photojournalism business, now called East West Photographers (new website to be launched very soon – watch this space!). And I’ve been inspired to start writing again for the first time in years (hence this blog).
We’ve been given opportunities to travel around the world seeing family and friends. Caleb has been to six countries in his first six months of life and has loved every minute of it. Our fears of not being able to afford having a baby so young were for nothing – almost everything we need has either been given to us or we’ve been able to find them secondhand, nearly brand new for a fraction of its original price. We’ve realised what advertising companies and marketing ploys tell you is essential and what you actually need are two very different things. Having a baby has ended up costing us far less than we thought it ever would. Every preconceived notion I had in my head of having a family from the world’s perspective has been blown to pieces and is nothing like what I had imagined (feared?) it to be.
I’m not saying life doesn’t change after having a baby. Trust me, it does. It is harder to do certain things and there are things that have to be given up for the sake of your family. There are days where it feels like too much and that you’re not enough. Days when it’s harder to choose joy than others. And it is hard work maintaining a healthy balance and being committed to your family while pursuing your dreams. But, it is possible. And the rewards are more than worth it.
3. Parenthood is all about perspective.
In our (very limited) journey of parenthood so far and becoming parents to a beautiful boy with Down’s Syndrome, I’ve been learning this: It’s all about perspective. And what you focus on defines your perspective. It’s a bit like a photograph taken with a large aperture and a shallow depth of field. In photos like these, one element of the image is in focus while everything else blurs into the background. Your eyes are drawn to the one subject that the camera is focused on – everything else is insignificant. Change which part of the image the camera is focused on, and the whole picture changes. In this way, two photos can be taken of the same exact subject but, depending on where the focus is, they can tell two entirely different stories.
This is what I’ve found parenthood (or anything in life, really) to be like. You can focus on the issues, on the negative, on the hard parts of it. Yet if you do, this will consume you until it’s all you see. All the beautiful parts of the image fade into insignificance because you’re viewing life through this lens of negativity, of what the world tells you to expect. The world may tell you to expect to be exhausted, overwhelmed and financially frustrated as a parent. And if you go into it expecting the worst, you most likely will experience it to be like this. Yet if we take the time to intentionally realign our focus on the elements that make the rest of the image beautiful and whole, everything changes. Suddenly the hard things, the negative things about it, don’t seem as significant. You start seeing life through a different lens that still acknowledges that, yes, life can be hard – we live in a broken world full of broken people and this will always cause hardships. Anything in life that is worth having is hard at times. But there is more. There is a beauty and a wonder to life, even in the hard times, that is often missed because of our culture’s cynical view of hardship.
There are always going to be reasons why not to have children yet. Let me debunk some myths from personal experience here: There is never a ‘right time’ where everything lines up perfectly in place to start a family – circumstancially, physically, financially and emotionally. You can never be fully ready before being thrown into the deep end of the pool of parenthood (and if you think you are – you’re usually not.). And parenthood alongside living out other passions and dreams is, in fact, possible.
What I’ve learned is, though we have already been given life and life to the full, it is up to us to take hold of the life we’ve been given and live that life to the full. It doesn’t just happen. It is often a gigantic leap of faith. It is often a risk. But it is possible. And it is one well worth taking.