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How I Deal With Down Syndrome Pity

It happened again. I found myself explaining to someone that being a mother of a child with Down syndrome isn't horrible or like being in prison.

I shared with a woman I had just met that I was tired after having spent a long weekend with my son. She asked how old I was, and when I told her I was 46, she said, "Oh that gives me hope. I'm 37 and looking forward to having children one day soon. Your son's happy and healthy, so I'm excited."

I should have left it there. I should have ignored the urge in me to address the "healthy" part, because I know what people do when they learn I have a son with Down.

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I've seen the season on their faces go from summer to winter and the pity arise in their eyes. And I remember what I thought about parents of children with special needs before I was one. I recall the terror I felt and how sorry I was for them—the parents, the kids, all of them.

Her words, "He's healthy," rang in my head. I started to ignore them, but then I felt myself doing what I do.

"Well it depends on what you mean when you say 'healthy,'' I said. "He has Down syndrome."

Parenting a young child in your 40s is more than notion. And there is nothing you can do to be ready.

I knew what was coming, but this time I was ready for it. Her face contorted. Her head lowered and her eyes bulged. She was actually a lot more dramatic than most have been. She then apologized to me because my son has Down syndrome. "I'm so sorry," she said.

I saw myself in her response, the fear that once overtook me, the color rushing out of her face the way it had once rushed out of mine. I stood before her with a huge smile on my face. For the first time I wasn't offended. I didn't take her fear as a personal attack.

Having a child with Down syndrome has taught me many things about myself and about my son. One of things is that parents of children with special needs should share their unique parenting experience so it doesn't occur as some type of plague. Our voices and journeys need to become more mainstream.

In that moment of her projected sorrow of being too old and possibly having a child with Down, I shared how amazing my son is. I told her about his joy. I told her about his love for learning, his compassion and ability to light up room with his smile. I felt her spirit lighten a bit, but I could see that she was genuinely troubled by her belief that older mothers have a greater chance of having children with special needs than younger ones.

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Her mind was spinning, and I could see it clearly. So I looked her straight in her eyes and said, "Being an older mom doesn't mean you will have a child with Down syndrome—it will mean that you will a 40-something-year-old mother with a toddler, and you will be exhausted by the demands of parenthood. Parenting a young child in your 40s is more than notion. And there is nothing you can do to be ready for the demands of being 40-something and riding a skate board, playing basketball and wrestling. If I were you I'd be more worried about that, than about having a child with special needs."

She looked at me with a confused expression, because you have to be a mother to understand what I shared with her. She gave me a fake smile, and we parted ways.

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