When my husband Ward and I started dating I was 42 years old and he was 29. Yeah, I have a trophy husband.
We eventually wanted a child. We briefly explored fertility counselling, but after I cancelled our introductory appointment with the clinic—twice—I had to explain to Ward that I didn’t want to be pregnant. A biological child wasn’t important to me. Understandably, it took a while for my husband to come to terms with the fact that adoption would be our path to a child.
We couldn’t afford to adopt internationally so we decided to go the route of state adoption. It was simple really: we wanted a kid and the state had free ones through their foster-care program. We attended their classes and entered into the Byzantine world of state adoption.
What followed was months of excruciatingly close calls and near misses: we kept hearing about children who might be available for adoption—but turned out not to be.
Almost nine months to the day our adoption classes ended we stood next to each other in our dining room listening to a voicemail from Cathy, our foster-care worker. It went something like this:
“Hi guys! I met someone today who may be a match for you. He is a beautiful boy who is two years old and (pause) he has Down syndrome. Let me know what you think.”
What? Hadn’t we made it clear the biggest disability we were capable of handling was a child who was left-handed or colour-blind? We were first-time parents and we weren’t sure of our skill set (of course you don’t need a skill set, you just need to love your child, but we didn’t know that then!).
“Did she say Down syndrome?” I asked Ward.
“We better listen to that message again,” he said.
We played it six or seven times, until we were absolutely convinced she had said Down syndrome.
“I don’t know why, but that doesn’t bother me,” said Ward.
“Me neither,” I said.
We were silent for a few minutes.
“Do you feel calm?” I asked. “Because I feel strangely calm.”
“I do, too” he said. “Everyone has something. We just know what his something is.”
He was right. Everyone in foster care—and really in life—has something that makes them more vulnerable.
We talked a little more and realized there must be a reason we both felt this sense of calm. It wasn’t logical. It wasn’t planned. Something had happened that made us calm.
We decided to trust it. That was the extent to which we considered Down syndrome at that moment.
I called Cathy back and told her we were interested.
Then I started researching online. Googling ‘Down syndrome and adoption’ brought up mostly Christian adoption websites. Many people who choose to adopt an infant or child with Down syndrome do so as a part of their religious practice. That wasn’t us.
I was shocked by one fact I learned in my search: upwards of 90 per cent of women who discover they’re pregnant with a fetus that tests positive for Down syndrome abort. I had no moral judgment about their decision. I did, however, find it interesting that we were considering an option most people would reject.
I called a couple of friends who I remembered talking about families they knew with a child with Down syndrome. Without exception, the first thing anyone talked about was grief. These stories were essentially the same: they were about parents not getting the child they had planned on—the one without Down syndrome.
I spoke to a woman who had a teenage son with Down syndrome. She was shocked we would consider this: “I love our son,” she said, “but I wouldn’t seek it out.” She added: “I wonder if you will end up grieving who he could have been, too?”
“What about who he is?” I wanted to say.
I’d known about our kid—as I’d started to think about him—for only a few weeks then, so I was surprised that what she said made me angry. I was already feeling protective.
When we shared the news of our adoption with friends and family we found out what people really think about kids with Down syndrome. No one said “Hey, awesome you found a kid!” Instead, we heard “Why do you want to do that to yourself?” or “That sounds hard” or “Don’t do that, please.”
These reactions got to me and I started questioning things. I shared my concerns with my husband. He wasn’t moved by any of it. But I just couldn’t stop. Every few days I had some new tidbit of negative information about what to expect when you’re adopting a child with Down syndrome.
The last straw was when I told Ward that I’d talked to a woman who said she and her husband still changed their son’s diapers—at age 13.
“So, do you think you could change a 13-year-old’s diaper?” I asked, baiting him. “I mean, really, could you?”
“If it was just any 13-year-old boy, no,” he said. “But, if it was our son, I could.”
That was the heart of the matter. This boy wasn’t just any boy. This boy would be our son.
“Hearing all of these doubters and reading the information is frightening,” I said.
“So stop listening to it, kid,” Ward replied.
And that’s exactly what I did. I stopped my online searching. I stopped listening to other people’s fears, anxieties and doubts. Instead, I began to wonder about the emotional life of my son, who I hadn’t yet met. Children in foster care don’t get there by having stellar families. I thought a lot about how we might help our son overcome his own feelings of anxiety and fear and loss.
A social worker who was a 20-year veteran of state adoptions told us early on in the process: "You get the one you’re supposed to."
She couldn't have been more right.
This post is a compilation of pieces originally published on Kari Wagner-Peck’s blog A typical son. She’s now homeschooling her son Thorin (in photo above centre, with Mom and Dad), who became part of the family at age two and is now eight. Kari has a master's degree in social work and is a freelance writer and development consultant. She and her family live in Portland, Maine.