Well, Phil let the cat out of the bag – yes I am celebrating a BIG birthday this weekend: THE BIG 5-0! Today is my actual birthday, but the festivities kicked off on Friday night with a surprise birthday party in our backyard featuring the perfect combination of family, friends, food, champagne – and gifts. (I can’t believe everyone brought presents– and not a package of depend undergarments or any other aging gag gift in the bunch – thanks, guys – I’m so grateful to see all of you are not giving up on me just yet! :-))
Thanks to all of you, I have actually been able to embrace this big birthday and call a truce with my age. You see, for years, I didn’t divulge my age. I didn’t actually lie about it. It just rarely if ever came up because people other than very close friends and family assumed I was years younger. (I have young children – a younger husband – she’s got to be younger than Phil, right? :-)) So, heck, I just went with it – if they were going to erase five – or even ten years, why shouldn’t I? And, as a former female news anchor, I learned that increasing age is not always a desirable job commodity – there is always a less experienced, but less expensive, ingénue waiting in the wings to take your job – I know this, I’ve been her, too :-)) So age was always just a number for me. Until Jonathan.
Phil and I got into the procreation game pretty late. I was 35 when we got married. We weren’t even sure if we wanted to have children when we strolled down the aisle. But shortly before the big 4-0 my clock started ticking – BIG TIME! And thankfully, fifty days before my 41st birthday, Charlotte was born. I was the typical older career mom who embraced the idea of being able to decide exactly when I wanted to get pregnant and was confident nothing would ever “go wrong” because nothing ever did. I was blessed with a wonderful husband, a thriving career, great friends, great health, lots of energy and lots of resources. And when I made up my mind I was going to have a child – or two – by God, I was going to have a child – or two! So almost a year after Charlotte was born, with me now fifty days shy of my 42nd birthday, there Phil and I were, ready to take a peak at our second child, with the same ultrasound tech we had when Charlotte was in utero.
And this was when the reality of my age first kicked in. Within minutes of looking at this second baby, it was clear the ultrasound tech wasn’t up to joking around like he was when he took a look at Charlotte. With Charlotte, it was like having Pee Wee Herman do the ultrasound. With this new baby, it was more like Russell Crowe. Russell was stern, Russell was silent and Russell raced out of the room with Gladiator-like quickness to grab the perinatologist and the cardiologist to deliver the news that our baby had a congenital heart defect seen in 40 to 50 percent of children with Down syndrome and that there were other markers of Down syndrome on this baby as well.
And here I am – 41 years old thinking I only have myself to blame for this state of affairs, because as youthful as I may look or feel, and as willing as I may be to not spill the real truth about my age, my aging eggs do not lie. And now, the statistics that I’ve read about but never really worried about (but Phil DID worry about) are racing through my head – and his as well. What were they? – oh yes. At 35, your chances of having a baby with Down syndrome are 1 in 350, up from 1 in 1,200 at age 25 and up from 1 in 2,000 at age 20. Let’s do the math now – yes, at 40 when I had Charlotte the odds were one in 100 – dodged that bullet didn’t I? Okay – so now I’m 41 and it’s one in 80 and by the time I have this baby at the age of 42, it will be one in 70. The stream of consciousness panic stricken thoughts continued – what was I on crack? thinking I was going to get away with this – that I was never going to have to answer for the date of my birth or the arrogance of thinking that there would be no consequences for that baby boomer birthday? When Phil and I left the clinic that day, I was actually apologizing to him in the parking lot about my age. And there it began – not a birthday party, but a pity party. Grief, shock and worry started to settle in.
I’m not proud about the way I felt that day or often during the weeks and months thereafter – but I know now it is the common reaction to the unexpected news your baby has Down syndrome. I also know now that eighty percent of children with Down syndrome are born to younger mothers, since younger mothers are having most of the babies. I also know now that when Jonathan was born – ninety days after my 42nd birthday, I can honestly say it was one of the happiest days of my life.
During my pregnancy, I was blessed with the gift of certainty and preparation – and time. Time soon became my best friend, instead of my worst enemy. We decided to have an amino to confirm we were having a baby with Down syndrome and that allowed us time to learn more and to wrap our heads around the idea. We tried to learn everything we could about this baby before it was born. I even found out (because a nurse let it slip) that we were having another girl. However, Phil was adamant he did not want to know the sex of this baby. (He wanted to savor the one last thing we DIDN’T know about this child.) So I kept the secret to myself – I went through the motions of picking out a boy name for the baby – we chose Jonathan . It means “gift of God” in Hebrew. It is also Phil’s middle name. The girl name was Faith. For months, I had a running mantra in my head, “You’re having a little Faith! You’re having a little Faith! – Don’t worry – Just have a little Faith!”
So talk about faith! Imagine my surprise when JONATHAN was born!
The clinic nurse who had spilled the beans about “Faith” came by the hospital room to apologize – says she was sure we were having another girl – probably because we had just been there 17 months before-having a girl. She kept muttering she was sorry, but I actually thanked her for helping to provide the biggest birthday surprise of my life. It came on Jonathan’s birthday, not mine, but I don’t think anything or anybody will ever be able to top that surprise as long as we’re both here to celebrate birthdays. Jonathan, this baby we supposedly knew everything about – Down syndrome, congenital heart defect – was a HE and not a SHE. We had a boy! And suddenly I wasn’t mad at my aging eggs anymore. I was just grateful that I was still able to have a baby and yes, that I was able to have THIS baby. Jonathan has been pleasantly surprising me since the second he was born – and continues to do so to this day.
And now, with Jonathan ninety days shy of his eighth birthday and me celebrating (yes celebrating!) my fiftieth – I’ll just come out and say it, “Happy Birthday to Me!” Under the BIRTHDAY BABY heading in the newspaper today it says, “You have an eye for WHAT WORKS and WHAT DOESN’T. You will not give into FAILURE. You are PRACTICAL and PATIENT.” So , Happy Birthday to me, the BIRTHDAY BABY, but also to all the other mothers with children with Down syndrome – both the older mothers like myself and the younger ones as well. Because we all know that WHAT WORKS is raising our children to be included, to be accepted and to become full participants in society. We know what DOESN’T WORK are the outdated notions of low expectations, stereotypes and isolation. We also know we will not give into the FAILURES of the past, when most of our children were shunned or institutionalized and not allowed to reach their full potential. We know that by being PRACTICAL and PATIENT, perceptions – and lives- will change – for the better. We also know that no matter how great the gifts we may open each year on our birthdays, we will never receive a gift as great as our children with Down syndrome. Jonathan, and all the other children with Down syndrome are indeed, gifts from God.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY FROM A VERY GRATEFUL MOM.