It’s no laughing matter

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a mom and I love being one (you’d hope so, given I have four children!). But let’s be honest, while it is extremely rewarding, it can also be a pretty thankless job. There are days when you feel like you’ve lost your identity as a well-rounded person. You wake up feeling like ‘just’ a mom. Since having kids, there definitely were times where I questioned my purpose in life besides raising and nurturing little people. But then Nicholas came along and his Down syndrome diagnosis soon after. My world turned upside down but when I came up for air and was able to look at the bigger picture, as clichéd as it sounds, I finally found my reason for existence. I was going to educate and create awareness for Down syndrome and other special needs. It was a life I never would have chosen for myself, but I knew it was the right one.

I wanted to help those going through similar experiences and I wanted to create awareness. But along the way it’s easy to lose confidence. Am I making any form of impact? Do people actually need to be educated about accepting and celebrating differences? And then you have a week that makes you realise that there is still so much change necessary in society and yes, you need to do whatever you can to start those small steps towards that change.

Last week on one of my husband’s Whatsapp chat groups, a guy he doesn’t know well, sent a meme that was followed by deathly silence from the group. There was silence because 90% of the participants knew my husband and they knew his son Nicholas. The meme showed a young adult male with Down syndrome stirring a pot and the caption read ‘got a new slow cooker.’ I actually felt sick when my husband told me. Someone must have informed the sender of the inappropriateness, as my husband very quickly received a separate apology. The sender claimed that he just didn’t think. He barely read it and just forwarded it on. And he felt terrible about it. I appreciate the apology, but it’s so hurtful that this kind of joke actually exists. Whether you read it or not, by forwarding it on, you are condoning this behaviour. It made me sad that Nicholas has to live in this kind of world where he can be made fun of, purely for being the person he is.

That was the first incident. The second occurred days later, when I was driving to school. I was switching between radio stations at an attempt at finding a decent song. I eventually gave up and ended up listening to the female DJ explain how her boyfriend had to help her with her cell phone, along with the other gadgets in the house, as she was ‘technologically retarded.’ She laughed and so did her colleague. I still feel angry when I think that there was someone supposedly educated and intelligent, talking to thousands of people on the radio and using the most offensive terminology possible. They have a huge social platform and this is what we are subjected to.

We all just want to find our place in the world, to be included and accepted purely for being who we are. Look at what’s currently happening around us at the moment. It’s not positive. I know I can’t change things on a global perspective. But I can continue writing and talking about what I believe in, and that is the fact that everyone is special and unique regardless of their abilities. No one is perfect, which means we can’t judge others. And teasing, bullying and just downright exclusion is what makes for spineless and weak people. We all have a right to belong. I can’t change everyone but what I can do, is start the change at home with my four children.

My little girl is too young to understand at the moment, but my older boys are very privileged to be growing up and experiencing first-hand what it is like to be part of a special needs environment. They have been caring and compassionate towards Nicholas from day one. And they also get to be exposed to other children with special needs, not just Down syndrome. Being young themselves, they are naturally curious and we discuss it all. I want them to be educated and to realise that we should all be proud of our differences. And those differences are to be embraced, not to shy away from. The other day they wanted to know how a deaf person communicates, so we discussed sign language. Then it was a blind person, so I explained to them about braille. All these things make up who we are. I truly believe the greatest gift you can teach your child is empathy. For me, the person with the high EQ, will go further in life than the one with the high IQ.

My older boys are very lucky to attend a school that celebrates all different races and religions. One of my 7 year old’s good friends is Muslim, so he’s become quite knowledgeable on that particular religion, despite us being of the Christian faith. And my 9 year old is learning about the Chinese culture from one of his Chinese friends. Without knowing it, the boys are learning and embracing others for who they are. That’s where it needs to start and the same thing needs to happen with special needs. Children must be taught from an early age that it’s ok to be different. No two people are alike, even my husband and his identical twin who share the same DNA!

One of my proudest moments as a parent came at the end of last year during the parent-teacher meeting. My eldest was in Grade 3 and his teacher and I sat down to discuss his progress for the year. Being a parent is hard. You do your best, but just like we’re imperfect with flaws, so are our children. On the flipside though, we too all have our individual strengths. And sometimes you get those glimmers of hope in parenting, that indicate that maybe you’re actually doing something right. The teacher said to me that my son was well-liked and respected by his peers. The clincher for me though, was that if there was a child on their own feeling excluded or not part of a group, my son would be the one who would go up to them and invite them to join his. It honestly brought tears to my eyes because that is the type of child I wanted to raise. That is the type of sibling I had hoped for Nicholas. And he’s so blessed to have more than one.

I am going to continue to raise my children in an empathetic environment that is accepting of all races, religions and most importantly, abilities. And I will carry on advocating for special needs. If this post reaches just one person who may previously had not given a second thought when forwarding on an offensive joke, but that now think twice having read this, then I’ve done my small bit. Well, for now anyway.