Off the Beaten Path: Baby Belly

When I see a woman with a baby belly walking toward me, I can't help myself. I smile, feeling overjoyed, happy at the thought of pregnancy, happy for her and for me, as I remember my own two pregnancies, one almost nine years ago and a second, twin pregnancy four years ago.

Lately, though, I hesitate when I see a pregnant woman. "What is she thinking," I wonder. Eyes that go from my face, to my son Avery's, then back to mine again. It makes me feel uneasy. I don't know what to say.

And I imagine the women with baby bellies don't know what to say to me, either. It's like trailing a pink elephant around, all these possible questions that my situation inspires: "Did you test, did you know ahead of time, do you care?" And the biggie: "How are you okay with all of this?"

My answers are yes, and no, and yes and no. Yes, we tested. No, we didn't know ahead of time--the triple screen came back fine so we didn't have an amnio. And yes and no, about the caring. I don't care that Avery is who he is. When he smiles, his face bunches up and his eyes crinkle and a little dimple appears in his right cheek and I think, "I love you so much I could eat you up!"

But yes, too. Being Avery's mom has shown me the world is sometimes a very unforgiving place. People have said things to me like, "I'm so sorry!" or "How brave you are!" or even, "I don't know how anyone would willingly choose to raise a child like that." To which I think, clearly—if you have to ask, you really don't get it.

The tickles, the hugs. The gentle kisses. The kindness. The music, the laughter. The love. Why would you chose to raise any child? With Avery, it's all the same reasons.

Avery has also shown me that the world is full of wonder. For every person who has disappointed me with their intolerance, their judgment, their unkindness, there's another person who has surprised me in the opposite way. All the many people who reveal themselves to be kindred spirits, like the Hell's Angels biker who stopped to play peek-a-boo with Avery, or the grouchy old woman picking over the cantaloupes who brightened when she saw Avery, and gave him a little wave.

I think back on my pregnancy and feel that if I'd known about Avery's diagnosis, it wouldn't have changed anything. I just would have worried more. I also feel that another woman might think about it differently.

This past January, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (AGOG) changed their recommendations for prenatal screening. Instead of offering the tests to at-risk women and women over the age of 35, they now recommend all pregnancies be screened for various conditions, including Down syndrome. Currently, the abortion rate for babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in utero is a little over 90%. (Mansfield, Caroline and Hopfer, Sue and Marteau, Theresa M. "Termination rates after prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, spina bifida, anencephaly, and Turner and Klinefelter syndromes: a systematic literature review" Prenatal Diagnosis. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.)

Sometimes, I'm asked, "How you feel about that?" Which brings me back to that pink elephant I've got trailing around behind me. You know how I feel about it—my answer is my life. I don't know what you feel. You might not even know what you feel, until you get there.

When I was a new mom to the twins, I had all the ordinary new mother anxieties, plus one more. I worried about how my son with Down syndrome would be received by the world. The new ACOG recommendations don't help. I fear the world will become a place where life and liberty are not rights granted, but rights that must be earned, with a good set of genes or a high IQ or the right gender.

So when I see a big baby belly, I'm at a loss for words lately, but I'm still happy. Perhaps I can say, "Look, I'm the statistic. I'm the 1 in 733. If you know me, you're okay!" Or I can say, "Don't be afraid!" Or. Nothing. I can let the happiness in my voice be the only answer: I loved being pregnant. I love my children. I wish you the same.

column added on 2007-09-02 :: ::

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Jennifer Graf Groneberg

Jennifer Graf Groneberg lives and writes at the end of a twisty gravel road with her husband of fifteen years and their three sons. She maintains jennifergrafgroneberg.com, writes the blog Pinwheels, and a blog on ParentDish.

Jennifer's book Road Map to Holland about mothering her middle son Avery, a fraternal twin born with Down syndrome is due out April 2008, and is available for pre-order now.

Read more of Jennifer's Off the Beaten Path column.

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