Why I adopted a baby with Down syn­drome: a mem­oir

Seven years ago, my hus­band and I adopted a baby with Down syn­drome. Now we can’t imag­ine our lives with­out him

Toronto Life - - Front Page - by lau­rie mendoza Lau­rie Mendoza is a res­pi­ra­tory ther­a­pist in Oakville. Email sub­mis­sions to mem­oir@toron­to­life.com

Carlo and I al­ways wanted to fill our home with children. But in 2009, after we’d spent four years and nearly $20,000 on IVF, we ac­cepted the fact that we couldn’t con­ceive. We were frus­trated. We wanted noth­ing more than to start a fam­ily, but it seemed to be tak­ing for­ever.

We de­cided to adopt. For the Children’s Aid So­ci­ety to con­sider us, Carlo and I had to sub­mit our fin­ger­prints and have a po­lice check done, pro­vide fi­nan­cial proof that we could sup­port a child, and an­swer a litany of in­va­sive ques­tions about our­selves, our lives and our re­la­tion­ship. We filled out a ques­tion­naire about what kind of child we were will­ing to adopt. Would we adopt a deaf boy or a girl with a phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity or a child with a fam­ily his­tory of schizophre­nia? It felt wrong to shut the door on spe­cial-needs children, so we re­mained open to ev­ery­thing.

In Oc­to­ber 2010, we drove to the Metro Toronto Con­ven­tion Cen­tre for an adop­tion re­source ex­change, where prospec­tive par­ents like us could view children from across On­tario who’d had dif­fi­culty be­ing placed. Children’s Aid agen­cies pinned up por­traits of smil­ing faces, looped heartrend­ing videos of adopt­able kids and handed out re­sumé-like pro­files of the children avail­able. It was over­whelm­ing. How were we sup­posed to know which child was right for us?

Our anx­i­ety sub­sided when we saw Liam’s beau­ti­ful brown eyes star­ing up at us from a photo at one of the booths. He was four months old, and his par­ents had put him up for adop­tion be­cause they felt un­able to raise a child with Down syn­drome. He was adorable. We left our in­for­ma­tion at the booth, a no-com­mit­ment ges­ture ex­press­ing our in­ter­est.

Over the next month, CAS sent us more pho­tos and info about Liam. Carlo and I paused. Could we re­ally par­ent a child with Down syn­drome and han­dle the ex­tra stress that came with it? He’d likely need physio and speech ther­apy and ex­pe­ri­ence be­havioural prob­lems. He might strug­gle with his neck and thy­roid and re­quire surgery. But by the time CAS asked to meet us, we were con­fi­dent Liam was the right child for us—we felt we could give him what he needed to thrive. We would adopt him if they be­lieved we were also a match for him.

The CAS work­ers were warm and wel­com­ing. They all but told us that if we wanted Liam, he was ours, and to our sur­prise, his foster par­ents in­vited us to their house that day to meet him. Ner­vous but ex­cited, we ac­cepted. They ush­ered us into their home, led us to their liv­ing room couch and placed Liam in my arms, as peace­ful and cute as we re­mem­bered from the pho­tos. I wish I could say I felt a spe­cial con­nec­tion with him. But, to me, he still seemed like a stranger’s baby. Ev­ery­thing was hap­pen­ing so quickly. My heart needed time to catch up.

Liam of­fi­cially be­came a part of our fam­ily on De­cem­ber 9, 2010. Carlo and I sat at home in jit­tery an­tic­i­pa­tion, wait­ing for a knock on the door. When his foster par­ents ar­rived, they handed Liam to us with a box of his toys and clothes. We sat in our liv­ing room for hours, ad­mir­ing him as he napped. Our dog, Canon, sniffed Liam and wagged his tail ap­prov­ingly. Slowly, it be­gan to sink in. We weren’t Liam’s babysit­ters. We were his par­ents.

To pre­pare us to raise Liam, we re­searched ser­vices he might need as he grew up and joined the Hal­ton Down Syn­drome As­so­ci­a­tion. We learned he had mo­saic Down syn­drome, a rare strain in which the dis­or­der doesn’t af­fect all cells. As a re­sult, he was a strong, steady boy with­out any ma­jor med­i­cal is­sues. So far, our spe­cial-needs child had few spe­cial needs.

That changed around the time Liam be­came a toddler. While other kids his age were pick­ing up lan­guage, Liam fell be­hind. He strug­gled to pro­nounce cer­tain sounds and find the right words. We en­rolled him in speech ther­apy and he made progress, but he still tends to ex­press him­self with phys­i­cal ges­tures. We’ve since adopted a sec­ond baby, Jamie, who is two years younger than Liam. At home, Liam loves wrestling with Jamie on our liv­ing room floor. Un­for­tu­nately, Liam doesn’t re­al­ize he shouldn’t treat his class­room like a UFC cage, too.

It’s hard to de­cide what to tell peo­ple about Liam. We want him to par­tic­i­pate in reg­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties like bas­ket­ball and gym­nas­tics, but we worry that by telling his teach­ers and coaches about his Down syn­drome, we may doom him to lower ex­pec­ta­tions. We can’t deny that Liam is dif­fer­ent: even now, at age seven, sim­ple things like print­ing and do­ing up zip­pers are hard for him; he needs an ed­u­ca­tional as­sis­tant by his side at school, and he doesn’t fully grasp the cur­ricu­lum. He still at­tends reg­u­lar classes, but he may one day trans­fer into a life-skills pro­gram, which pri­or­i­tizes prac­ti­cal abil­i­ties like ev­ery­day math over the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts like al­ge­bra. We dream, like any par­ents, that he will go on to en­rol in col­lege, find a job and live a ful­fill­ing, in­de­pen­dent life, even if he gets a lit­tle ex­tra help from Mom and Dad. When peo­ple hear we adopted a child with Down syn­drome, they think we’re saints or fools. Nei­ther is true. We were just be­ing self­ish. We wanted a child, and we got not one but two ex­u­ber­ant, goofy, lov­ing lit­tle boys.

When peo­ple hear we adopted a kid with Down syn­drome, they think we’re saints or fools

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