There is always hope.

Sitting on our kitchen counter is a block print of a Banksy work of street art. Since Bristol-based celebrated graffiti artist Banksy is somewhat local to us, we’ve always been big fans of his thought-provoking, often provocative works of art. From a work showing a crucifix where Jesus is holding Christmas shopping bags as a statement of what Christmas has become, to a child stitching flags as a scathing statement against government-sanctioned child labour, his works of art are often a satirical commentary on the state of the world. There is one in particular, though, that has always struck a chord in me. It’s an image of a little girl standing in front of a gust of wind, letting go of a red heart-shaped balloon. Seeing it always stirs up thoughts in me of a loss of childhood wonder & innocence; a little girl choosing to let go of her child-heart when faced with the harsh realities of life. It would potentially be a dark, depressing picture of the inevitable loss of childhood faith and optimism if it weren’t for these words written next to it: There is always hope.

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It’s not known for sure whether Banksy wrote these words to go along with his stencil or if someone else decided to juxtapose the image of loss with this truth; the truth that no matter how much loss and grief we may face, it can never eliminate all hope. I’ve found that this is a truth that, though it is so simple, has the power to transform how we live life. How would we live if we truly believed that, even when faced with unthinkable circumstances and loss, there is always hope?

I have had to face this question again in my life recently. A few weeks ago, unbelievably, I found another lump. After having gone through two separate surgeries and intensive nutritional therapy for ten months, this came as a huge blow to us. Especially after we got the news back from the doctors that this time it didn’t look like surgery could be an option. Thankfully the CT scan showed that it hadn’t spread and was still localised to the lymph nodes in the same area as before, which came as a surprise to the doctors. After another long consultation with the oncologist, we came away having to make a hard decision. She reiterated what she had told us before, that because it is the rarest and most aggressive type of breast cancer there is (grade III, stage 3c and triple negative) and because of my age and circumstances, chemo would most likely not be effective in my specific situation. We had already started looking at other options before this happened, and thankfully already had made plans for me to go see a health and wellness treatment centre run by believers in Germany that we had been personally recommended.

I found it to be an incredible place, combining an intensive medical and natural treatment plan (custom-made, based on individual lab and blood test results) with emotional and spiritual healing and prayer in a peaceful, welcoming and restful atmosphere. They have many success stories of people who have come from around the world, many with more advanced stages of cancer who were only given days left to live, who were miraculously able to turn it around and live long, healthy lives (some of who we know of personally). After a series of events that seemed to confirm this is the way forward for me, I made plans to come back for an extended time of three weeks of intensive treatments.

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A typical first course of lunch in the Wellness Café

These last few weeks have been challenging in more ways than one. The biggest challenge we’ve been getting to grips with has been to find the balance between living in wisdom, yet not allowing fear or worry to have any hold on our minds, and living in faith, yet not living with blinkers on shielding us from the facts or with our heads in the sand. We’ve had to have some hard conversations. There have been hard moments where the full harshness of the situation has made itself all too clear.

I had one moment recently where the possibility of having to leave my loved ones finally hit me like a sledgehammer with full force. It broke me. I had a strange experience of being detached from myself, looking down at my body collapsed on my knees with half an avocado in my hand, weeping my heart out on the kitchen floor. I had to come face to face with the very real possibility of having a life cut far too short. Yet, and I know this sounds crazy, it wasn’t a fear of death that overcame me. I had read this book a few years ago that completely changed my mind set about death. It changed how I viewed the end of life as we know it. I believe that facing death is not the end. I believe that it is only a stepping stone to the fullest, most thrilling adventure we could ever undertake. That there is more than we could imagine waiting for us on the other side. More intense pleasure, more freedom, more pure unadulterated happiness and sheer joy than we could ever experience in this broken world. I believe that this is the world we were made for, the world that the deepest parts of us craves and is homesick for. C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

“If we find in ourselves a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, we can only conclude that we were not made for here.”

So no, I wasn’t a wreck on the kitchen floor because I was feeling sorry for myself (though that is a totally valid response to anyone going through something like this and I have definitely had moments of doing that before). Thankfully because of my paradigm shift that had taken place before any of this happened, I can honestly say it wasn’t that I was concerned about myself. Of course, I would have regrets or things that I wished I had had the time to do with my life. But the most painful part of being hit with the possibility of this was thinking about my loved ones being left behind. My amazing family and friends, who have stood by me, supported me and who have loved me so well this last year. My incredible husband, who has sacrificed and given up so much of himself and his hopes and dreams to keep our family together. My beautiful little boy who brings so much life and joy wherever he goes, who loves nothing more than sitting on my lap, snuggling in and having giggle fests at random noises and words he comes up with.

The truth is, I couldn’t imagine them living life without me. I didn’t want to. I think the reason why I never was able to fully face the harsh facts was because I didn’t want to think that they would have to go on without me. And, although it was hard and I do still believe wholeheartedly that I am going to make it through this and live a long life worth living, I believe this was a necessary part of letting go. Of getting to the point where I could genuinely release my family and have the pressure taken off of feeling it was all on me. It was hard. But it was beautiful. It was freeing. And it made it possible for me to think about leaving them for an extended time of treatments, which I could never have imagined doing before. It’s still hard being away. But I can give them up to God and know that it’s not up to me to take care of them – it’s up to Him. And this is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever experienced.

After these hard conversations and moments, it would have been easy to dwell on the what ifs and dark possibilities of what’s ahead in the name of living in wisdom. Yet this is where faith comes in as the counterbalance. It’s been the kindness of God that, after carrying me through this hard experience of letting go, He has confirmed again and again that there is more in store for me. That this is not the end. That my dreams and hopes for my future are nothing compared to what He has in mind, and that this is only the beginning.

I’ve just arrived in Germany and have the guest house where the treatment centre is almost completely to myself. For an extreme extrovert and verbal processor like myself, finding it hard enough already being on my own and away from my husband and little boy (especially on Thanksgiving Day!), this could feel like a prison sentence. Instead, I’m seeing it as a retreat; a time to rest, get the treatment I need and have some spiritual rejuvenation. Time to write and come to terms with this news we’ve been given.

Time to come to a place of balance of living in wisdom, of being aware of the facts, yet living in faith in the conviction that this is not the end of my story. To get to a place of being able to be thankful and stay thankful in all things. I’m slowly learning to live from the place of knowing that no matter the circumstances, there is always, always hope.

Sunrise overlooking the fields surrounding the treatment center

(PS – Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! May we all learn to be thankful every day, not just today;)

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Breaking out of the ‘Downs’ Box

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Today was a beautiful day. The first day of spring sunshine warm enough to walk outside without a coat on. The first day of almond and cherry blossoms blooming, signalling that the long winter days of darkness and gloom are over and that spring has finally (!!) sprung. (Sounds a bit like our lives this past year.)

I spent the day outside, putting off my to-do list and focusing on spending time with my son who, unbelievably, is only a few weeks away from celebrating his first birthday. Time has literally FLOWN. IMG_1375Everyone (including strangers on the street as soon your bump begins to show) tells you how fast time goes after having a baby. I can’t count the number of times I was told by one granny or another to enjoy every minute because they grow up quick. They don’t stay babies forever, they say, it flies by in a second and you’ll never get that time back.

I always thought they were exaggerating. Really? Spending all day, every day at home with a helpless tiny human being who has constant needs and wants? How much longer of a day (and night) could you have? How would that do anything but make the hours drag on for what feels like forever? And it’s true, there have been days when the hours stretched out endlessly – when, by the end of the day, I’d be frazzledly, constantly watching the clock, listening for the key in the lock that would mean Daddy would be home and could finally take over baby duty. In one way it has felt like forever, that Caleb’s always been in our lives and life before parenthood is only a distant foggy memory. But in another, very real way, those grannies were all too right.

It feels like we’ve blinked – and like magic, that tiny, naked, wriggly, fragile and vulnerable little human that I held against me that spring evening nearly a year ago has suddenly transformed into this mini person with his own sense of humour, his own favourite toys, foods and games he’s invented – a little boy full of character with a big laugh and an even bigger personality.

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Our son has broken out of every single box that doctors, society or even we as his parents, however unintentionally, have put on him. You can read more about how he’s defied medical and developmental expectations here. Yet beyond that, he’s broken out of every box put on him limiting his personality, intelligence and character – of what society told us we should expect of someone different like him.

When Caleb was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at 3 days old, we were blindsided. Despite knowing that a genetic condition could be a possibility after the 20 week scan where they found excess fluid on his brain and a possible problem with his heart. Despite the niggling thought that came slicing through the haze of joy and elation and unadulterated love when he was first laid on my chest to do skin-to-skin – the thought when I first saw his upturned face that something, somehow didn’t seem quite right. Despite the midwife telling us an hour after the birth the words that I had been subconsciously dreading – that she thought that he could have some features consistent with Down Syndrome.

I still remember the feeling of chilling numbness, starting in the pit of my stomach and spreading its ice-cold fingers across my body, even as she confirmed my fears. Yet even then, she said she wasn’t sure at all, as he didn’t have many of the symptoms usually found in babies with Down Syndrome – so we decided to try to push it from our minds until the tests came back. We were determined not to let anything steal the joy of this beautiful little person we had created together, and those first few days were filled with wonder at the beauty God had created through us. Our hearts broke as we had to watch Caleb go through one test after another and then, after a few days, go into the intensive care unit under the lights for jaundice.

Just before he had to go in to NICU, the doctors came in to tell us the tests had come back for Down Syndrome. They were positive. I still remember the icy numbness, the inability to think or process what this meant – we were so sure he had been cleared of everything they had found in the scan that we were convinced the tests would come back negative. We thought there’s no way that this could happen to us; with our first child when we were both 25 years old, what were the odds that our baby would be the 1 in every 1000 babies born in the UK with Down Syndrome? Despite everything, until that moment, we had still doggedly refused to believe it could be true. We were well and truly blindsided.

Then, suddenly, the dam broke. All the fears and doubts and misconceptions began relentlessly flooding in and I broke down into a heap as deep sobs began wracking my body. As I sagged into Will’s arms, we wept together as the reality of the news began to sink in through our walls of disbelief.

Looking back now at the weeping, devastated pile on the hospital floor we had become, I wish we knew then what we know now. That instead of the near-death sentence we felt we had just been served, that this beautiful baby would bring us more life and joy than anything else we had ever experienced. That instead of being imprisoned by parenting a child with special needs, it would be the most liberating time of our lives – freeing us from the shackles of stigmas and stereotypes that society puts on anyone slightly different to the norm. And that instead of our dim misperception of imagining raising a child that would have limited intelligence, character and personality and that would be so different to the one we had dreamed of for 9 months, our child would be razor sharp (too clever for his own good sometimes), be full of life and joy and would have his own very unique, cheeky personality that would know every trick in the book of getting attention and laughs from everyone he meets.

There were times at the beginning that I wondered if we should have done the screenings during the pregnancy, if only to prepare and steel ourselves for what was ahead. The first few months after finding out I believe are best described by my friend Nicole who writes the ‘The Baby Blogs’ , who has been through it herself. She aptly calls the time of initial shock ‘the dark cloud period’ – where everything is filtered through this hazy lens of grief and disbelief. During this time of processing and coming to terms with the shock twist that life had just handed us, I wondered many times if it would have been better to get through this ‘dark cloud period’ before Caleb had been born so that I could have spent every minute just focused on him.

But now I am so glad we waited. He was the one who made it so much easier to take in. Every time we would look at our 10291239_10203787483708710_5626427546989223500_nperfect baby, hear his cooing newborn noises and laugh at his thousands of sleepy newborn expressions, we would forget for a little while and just be family. Whenever we were with him, his diagnosis faded into the distance and we’d be swept up into a deep gratitude for being given this perfect angel baby. Although we were going through a (what I believe is very natural and necessary) grieving period to mourn the child we had imagined having for so long, him being physically with us as his uber cute baby self somehow made it that much easier. We were head over heels in love with him from the first and that carried us through until the dark clouds finally, gradually lifted.

Don’t get me wrong – even though we felt after a time that the clouds did lift, they can suddenly sweep back into our lives with a vengeance for a time. There are days when it all feels too real again and the fears and doubts start whispering (or thundering) their way in again. It is an intentional, daily decision to stay rooted in today, to not think about tomorrow and to trust that there is a plan in all of this. But those are the bad days.

Most of the time, now I can honestly say that my life with having a child with Down Syndrome is better than I ever imagined it could be before we had him. Living with this little firecracker makes life so much more fun. I laugh more now than I ever have.IMG_1327 Caleb’s favourite thing to do is make people laugh. His favourite game for the last few months has been what we have come to call Pokerface: suddenly pulling a frown face (think upside-down smile) and not breaking it until the person facing him (many times random strangers on the street who say hello and try to make him laugh) does a frown back, facing off until someone breaks. If you manage to do a face that makes him break his pokerface first and smile, he’ll usually go straight back into his pokerface and keep playing until he wins. But he usually wins with a face that’s too cute not to laugh at. Every time he does win he then cracks up as if he knows he’s the funniest kid ever. Which – I know I’m biased – but I think he probably is.

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He’s smart: he’s figured out the one noise that is guaranteed immediate attention is gasping as if he’s choking, sometimes even finished off with a few fake coughs. Then as soon as he gets the reaction he’s looking for, he cracks up. He now does this ALL THE TIME. Constantly. In the shops. While he’s getting changed. In between every bite of food, making me panic IMG_1192thinking he’s going to inhale the food into his windpipe – which he seems to find even funnier. We also found out a couple weeks ago that he needs glasses as he’s long-sighted – I didn’t even know they did glasses for babies that small, but he rocks them. He figured out how to take them off, pull them apart and take apart the curly ear pieces within the first few hours. It’s now his favourite toy, and every time we look away he’s at it again. See what I mean about too clever for his own good? This boy.

His favourite things in the world are people, music and dancing. As long as he’s getting attention and cuddles, he’s happy. He already hates missing out on anything – if there are people over, he wants to be right in the middle of where the party’s happening. He loves IMG_1321music – if he’s ever fussy or whingey, we just put some baby music on and he’s loving life again. If there are actions or bouncing along to it, all the better. His favourite thing ever, though, has got to be dancing. Sometimes the only way to stop him fussing in his high chair is to break out into a little dance in the kitchen. He LOVES it. His favourite thing to do (and mine too at the moment) is having a family dance party in our living room – when Will gets home from work we put on some old Paul Simon or Doris Day vinyls on the record player and the three of us dance away. He can’t get enough of it. Neither can we.

This boy, extra chromosome and all, is our absolute dream baby. He is nothing like we were expecting our child to be beforeIMG_1323 we found out about his diagnosis. Yet he is nothing like we were expecting him to be after finding out about his diagnosis. He has broken every single stereotype, stigma and misconception we didn’t even realise we had about people with Down Syndrome before having him. He is 100% perfect in our eyes and we couldn’t be prouder of him.

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. It’s a day for celebrating those rocking the extra chromosome (as the amazing blogger Heather from The Lucky Few puts it). Those who bring a beautiful diversity to a world obsessed with fitting into an impossible image of perfection. Those who are unafraid to be who they are, so different to the mould that the world tells us we have to try to fit into at all costs. And today we have celebrated our son. This boy has broken out of the ‘Downs’ box again and again and has made us appreciate those beautifully different to us in an entirely new and real way. Thank you, Caleb, for opening our eyes to see the value of what those with an extra chromosome bring to our world. We are different people to who we were before we had you. And we are better people for it.

The Modern Myth of Parenthood

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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.

IMG_0277It 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.

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7 months pregnant at the debut album launch of All Shall Be Well, March 1st 2014

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Baby-wearing while doing a professional shoot for a website, September 2014

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.

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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.