“When I found myself unexpectedly widowed at 39, I couldn’t have imagined what my life would look like five years later. Looking back to that devastating time, I can see that every life experience had prepared me for widowhood and the important people that would come into my life afterwards. All I ever wanted was to be a wife and a mother, and I knew I wasn’t destined to live my life as a widowed mom. The faith that had been instilled in me by my parents and the small community we lived in provided the conditions I needed to navigate my grief journey in preparation to move forward towards a happier future.
In a surprising turn of events, I met my husband in a faith-based dating website. We had an instant connection and a common desire to make our broken families whole again. When you fall in love after experiencing a tragedy, you feel empowered to tackle any challenge you face. We never could’ve predicted the complicated task blending our families was going to be, especially accommodating the needs of nine children between the two of us.
In a leap of faith, my family moved from small-town, coastal Virginia to big-city Atlanta where we were married. As an act of faith in God’s plan for our future, we decided to discern if a baby would be part of that plan. With great anticipation, in just 10 months our first baby was born. The children called him our ‘smoothie baby’ and close friends called him the ‘healing balm’ our family needed to unite this big crew of ours. It brought us both great joy to see the children loving him, bonding with him, and realizing that his arrival drew our family closer and stronger. It was a very hectic time with children ranging from 23 to newborn, who were at every age and stage. Our schedule, our home, and our hearts were full to the brim.
It wasn’t long before it occurred to us that our new baby, who would always be accustomed to a full and busy house, would be without his siblings when he was just 11. It crushed us to think about how lonely he might be. When we found out we were expecting our second baby together, that concern dissolved. We knew the two youngest would have each other after the others went off to school and started their own lives. We celebrated the opportunity to give him the gift of a younger sibling.
As we had done before, we elected to have genetic testing because we understood the risks of having children at our age. The outcome of that test wouldn’t change our decision but at least we could be prepared. The testing came back fine and our 20-week ultrasound was also normal. We were free to dream about the baby girl who would join our family and what she would bring to the mix. We had a toddler, 6 homeschooling, two in college, and one who was planning for her own family, so it was chaotic but happy time.
I knew this would be my last baby, so I had high expectations for a perfect delivery to welcome our little girl into the world. On the last day of my pregnancy she seemed to stop moving, so we hurried, in fear, to the doctors’ office where they monitored us while we prayed intently for her safety. After their monitoring calmed our concerns, we were sent home relieved and filled with gratitude that our baby was okay. Later that night labor began and seemed to be moving along pretty quickly. We rushed to the hospital where they immediately began filling the birthing tub and again monitored her before I was permitted to have a water birth. Shortly after completing the monitoring period, I was ready to start pushing. I was ushered to a half-filled tub and just a few minutes later, our sweet Adelaide was born with the delivery I had hoped for, beautiful in every way.
When I lifted her from the water to my chest, I experienced the typical exhilaration that comes with delivery – but immediately I knew there was something different. Her precious little body felt weak and floppy and upon looking at her tiny face, I saw traits of Down Syndrome. All at once I was happy, terrified, confused, and protective. I experienced a wide range of emotions rushing through my body like I never had before.
While embracing Adelaide in those first few minutes my midwife casually asked me if we had genetic testing done. At this point I knew the midwife knew what I had suspected, but I couldn’t muster up the courage to confirm my suspicion. Instead of letting me hold her for an extended time as we had planned, they whisked her away to check her heart and breathing. Once my doula escorted me back to the bed and my husband stood to oversee Adelaide’s care, I finally found the strength to ask my doula, ‘It’s Down Syndrome, isn’t it?’ It took all I had to hold back the tears. I knew it was my job as her mother to be strong and brave, but I doubted my ability to do so.
Once they knew our daughter was well, she was given back to me to begin our earth-side bonding. I vividly remember looking into her peering eyes, sensing her vulnerability, and silently promising to guard her trust with immense devotion. Through my fear of the unknown, I vowed to God that I would trust His plan for our daughter and our family. The first 12 hours were filled with the typical challenges of postpartum recovery compounded by the unknown of this diagnosis and the tears that accompanied it. The medical professionals were certain to inform us of all the various complications we may face and very little about the joyous blessing we had just received. It’s very difficult to admit we cried for much of the first day and we dreaded telling our family and friends the news. It wasn’t going to be the ecstatic announcement we had shared before.
We told our parents, siblings, eldest children, and closest friends through tears and trepidation. Then my husband wrote the most beautiful announcement to share publicly on Facebook. I could not have been more proud or strengthened by the courageous sentiment he wrote. Everyone, without exception, was very supportive and encouraging, which served to get us past the hardest part of processing the diagnosis. We heard a few ‘I’m so sorry’ reactions, which prompted more tears in retrospect, but I know people, in an unsuspecting moment, didn’t know what else to say. I hope readers of our story will know that offering your congratulations is encouraged and will be received with tremendous appreciation.
As we had seen before with our son’s arrival, the children welcomed and accepted Adelaide with tenderness and love. As the days passed and we bonded with this exceptional baby girl, the more we came to recognize the utter joy and blessing of this special gift. Had the hospital staff handled the diagnosis with a little more optimism and sensitivity her first few days, wouldn’t have been so frightening for our family.
Adelaide has been remarkably healthy and made her own way to reach her milestones. One of the things the medical professionals didn’t tell us in the hospital is that a baby with Down Syndrome gives you a chance to enjoy babyhood a little bit longer. Celebrating each of their milestones is 10 times more exciting when you know they’ve had to work a little harder to get there. We have come to realize, as so many families blessed by DS share, that she is actually more alike our other children than she is different.
We are only 22 months into this journey so we try to take it just one day at a time with a hopeful yet balanced expectation for what her future will hold. We decided early on that Adelaide would be raised as similar as possible to the rest of the children and she will have one of the biggest family teams cheering her on from our little corner of the world.
Our goal is for her to know she is wonderfully made, deeply cherished, capable of valuable achievements and contributions, and worthy of acceptance and inclusion. The DS community has made great strides in paving the way for the new arrivals to our community and we are eager to do our part to spread an optimistic message of hope. I am the proud mom to a big, blended family of 11, and our 11th with Down syndrome is the cherry on top of our sundae special.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kirstie O’Neil of Southern California. You can follow their big blended family’s journey on Instagram. Be sure to subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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