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.

Finding Perspective

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.

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Beauty in the Unexpected

Caleb

This is Caleb. Our son.

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He is the happiest, easiest, most contented baby you can imagine. He smiles with his eyes and his entire body, often looking as if he’s about to burst with the sheer joy of being alive. He loves hearing the sound of his own voice talking to himself and anyone who will listen. He has the brightest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen and he melts everyone he meets, including complete strangers on the street.

He has also been diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

He is not what we expected. But he has already brought us more joy than we could have imagined. He is beautiful, healthy and strong. To us, he is perfect.

He is a fighter. He has proved the medical professionals wrong time and time again. He has broken off every expectation put on him and out of every box health professionals try to make him fit into. He has proven wrong every preconception, mold and stereotype that has been put on him and overcome definition time after time.

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They said he would most likely have health issues and that he would develop much later than his peers. He has been thriving and developing in some ways much earlier than what is considered ‘normal’. He first smiled at 5 and a half weeks, slept through the night at 8 weeks and rolled over at 12 weeks. The average age these developmental milestones are hit are 6 weeks for smiling, anywhere from 4 months to 3 years (!) for sleeping through the night and 5 months for rolling over for most babies.

They said he would have heart problems, as many babies with Down Syndrome are born with heart defects and require open heart surgery in their first year of life. Caleb also had what looked like a problem with his heart in one of his scans during the pregnancy, which made them sure that he would have heart issues. Yet Caleb now has a healthy, whole heart. They couldn’t quite believe this, performing test after test to try to prove their prognosis right. Time and again they tried to hide their looks of bafflement when every test came back saying that his heart was 100% whole.

They said he had problems with his digestive system and bowels and would most likely need major surgery before he would be able to poo normally. After they had spent ten minutes telling us all the problems he would have, saying we would need to rush to a hospital in Bristol for him to undergo emergency major surgery, they opened his diaper and were promptly proven wrong. (That’s our boy!)

They said he would get ill easily and very often. For the first 5 and a half months of his life he didn’t catch so much as a cold.

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One of Caleb’s favourite things to do is pose like Superman.

They said almost all babies born with Down Syndrome have very weak muscle tone and are floppy (known as hypotonia) for the majority of the time they are babies. From birth, every midwife or health care visitor who has seen him has commented on how excellent his muscle tone is and what a strong boy he is, even by typical standards. He has been a wriggler (and a future footballer, judging from the strength of his kicks) from the womb onwards. He has always been determined and known what he wants and many times has been strong enough to get it.

They said that often babies with Down Syndrome have trouble breastfeeding. This has been a battle for us, as for the first part of his life he did refuse to latch on and I would express every feed, every day and night in order for him to have breast milk. For 16 weeks I would try to get him to latch on almost every day, and when he wouldn’t be able to I would attach myself to a pump every 3 hours to express enough milk for him to feed from a bottle. It was hard. After four months, I had reached the end of my rope and had given up completely. We made the decision to wean him off breast milk and switch over to just feeding formula. Just before making the switch, I thought I might as well make one more last ditch attempt at breastfeeding, even though I was told and was sure that after four months of bottle feeding there was no human way possible he would latch on.

HE DID.

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On our recent trip visiting his grandparents, aunt, uncle and 8 cousins in Israel – this was taken on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

He latched on straight away and fed for over an hour. Something suddenly clicked and he has now been breastfeeding and latching on with no problems for two months, gaining weight and being contented and happy after every feed. It’s an actual miracle and a direct answer to a prayer we prayed every day for four months.

We have been praying for him constantly since being told at our 20 week scan that there was a problem. They said he had excess fluid on his brain and what looked like a problem with his heart. We were told he could have long term brain damage and heart issues and that we should think about aborting our baby.

This was most likely the hardest time we had ever been through in our lives. Yet through it all, unbelievably, there was a peace. A peace that made no sense, a peace that went against everything we were being told. The support and prayers we have had from our families, church family and friends from that time until now was and has been incredible. We are so, so thankful for it. Two weeks after the initial scan just before Christmas last year, after two weeks of having many people praying hard every day, we went back to have a scan by a heart specialist. She told us his heart was now 100% whole with no defects whatsoever. Miracle.

We continued going to the fetal monitor unit in Bristol for scans throughout the rest of the pregnancy to monitor the amount of fluid on his brain. The consultant’s projection was that the amount of fluid, which was classed as severe ventriculomegaly and hydrocephalus, would continue to grow and take the space needed for his brain to develop, potentially causing severe long-term brain development problems. He said our baby would most likely need to be rushed off for major surgery as soon as he was born. He spoke to us at length about terminating the pregnancy, even after we said that would not be an option for us and we would love our child no matter the outcome. He kept pressing the issue, saying that although the legal limit of abortion in the UK is 24 weeks, if we changed our minds after this point it would be considered a ‘grey area’ and implied that something could be ‘worked out’. We were offered screenings for genetic and chromosomal conditions, which we declined since we knew it would make no difference to us of whether we would keep the baby. We later discovered that if there is found to be a significant risk in pregnancy that a baby would be born with Down Syndrome or a variety of other genetic or chromosomal conditions classed as disabilities, it is legal in the UK (and many other countries) to abort until the day the baby is due. Approximately 92% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome in utero are aborted (many times with diagnoses that turn out to be false). On the UK national healthcare website, they list several reasons why, in their medical opinion, ‘abortion may be necessary‘. One of these reasons they list is if there is a ‘significant risk’ that the baby would be born with what they would consider a disability. Apparently, according to the government (which is a reflection of the society we live in, not just in the UK but all over the western world), babies with Down Syndrome or other conditions labeled as disabilities are seen as less than human.

IMG_4032All this, however, made no difference to us – our minds were made up. We would keep and love the baby we were given, even if they were different to what we had been expecting. We would pray for their healing but we would love them for who they are, no matter the outcome.

We continued to pray and every time we went to the specialists in Bristol, the amount of fluid either had become smaller or the brain had grown and developed to the point until, at the end of the pregnancy, the consultant said he simply wasn’t worried about it anymore and that it should no longer affect our baby’s development. He said that our baby would no longer need surgery straight away, that I could be classed a low risk pregnancy again and that we would be able to take our baby home as soon as he was born. He said we were a very interesting case and to stay in touch as it could change the way he advises couples in the future. Miracle!

Caleb (Calev in Hebrew) – a name we had decided was our favourite and that we felt God had given us at the beginning of the pregnancy before we knew any of what was going to happen with his heart – means whole hearted. It also means brave, courageous and strong warrior after Caleb the giant slayer in the Bible. He has already been all of these things. Rafael, his middle name, in Hebrew means God has healed or God is healer.

We believe that the healing process began in the womb, beginning with the heart. We believe it is continuing every day and will continue for the rest of his life.

God has been good to us.

These last few months have been a journey for us. We needed time and space. Time to process, to ask the why and the how. Why we weren’t given the child we had been expecting.  How his life will look and how our lives will look from now on. Space to be a family and heal together without having to answer painful questions. And time for healing to come through the wonder and beauty of creating a tiny human being, one so like us yet so entirely unique and individual. Time to get to know this beautiful, perfect little person with a big personality that God had entrusted us with, different to how we imagined our child would be yet a blessing unlike any we have known. Time for others to get to know him for who he is, a gorgeous, happy boy full of life and wonder, instead of seeing him through the lens of preconceptions and stigmas our society has placed on people different to us. Time to rest and become rooted in a place of deep peace. And time to grow in thankfulness for this gift from God that has brought a richness and joy to our lives we couldn’t have imagined.

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Caleb, first and foremost, is our son. His diagnosis is a side point, not who he is. His identity is and always will be not as a ‘Down’s child’ but as a child of God. We have come through this storm knowing all shall be well and the closeness of God as Abba Father in an entirely new way. And we are confident that our son will grow to change the world for a better place. He has already changed ours.