The night Lydia was born, my water broke and we checked into the hospital full of all the excitement and hope common to parents who have just spent nine months (or longer, as was our case) dreaming of their child to be. During the early stages of labor, my husband and I walked the halls of the labor and delivery wing, gazing at the beautiful pictures of newborn babies that lined the walls while I pushed through contractions. “What will she look like?” we wondered, placing ourselves and our little girl in every image. “Who will she be? What beautiful love will be ours?”
As labor progressed, we left the pictures in the hall and returned to our room. The work was harder, now, but still full of hope and excitement. Once I had my epidural, there was even laughter! And then it was the final push and at last, at last! The baby girl I had been dreaming about for all my life was here!! The nurses weighed her, bundled her up, and placed her in my loving arms. But as I gazed for the first time on that beautiful face, my heart stopped. It actually filled not with hope, but fear. This beautiful, beautiful miracle rainbow baby was not the little one I had expected. She was markedly unique. As I looked on her in shock, no one around me said anything. No one even looked at us. I had to ASK, and with that asking came a sense of shame and brokenness.
There’s so much you don’t know in those first hours during and after a birth diagnosis. You don’t know, for instance, that everything will actually be ok, even though you feel like your world just fell apart. You don’t know that your heart will fill with ten (100?) times the amount of love and even thankfulness that it feels fear in that moment. I know a lot of moms regret the initial feelings and thoughts they had in that moment, but I try not to judge myself too harshly. Because it’s new, and it’s painful, and you JUST DON’T KNOW.
But the emotions are real, and they have to be dealt with. And I was not in a good state of mind when they took my baby to the NICU and took me to my room to “recover.” The first thing that greeted me when they wheeled me into my room was a large picture of a perfectly healthy, typical newborn. It seemed in that emotional moment like an affront. A brutal reminder of what then seemed like a lost ideal. “That’s not my baby,” I thought, in shock.
The whole time sweet Lydia was in the NICU I walked up and down the halls of Mom and Baby from my room to my daughter’s, passing picture after beautiful newborn picture. There were full body shots and detail shots of babies of both genders and every race. But there were no special needs babies. There were no NICU babies with monitor leads or tubes. For the first time in my life, I was part of a real minority group living in someone else’s world. And it hurt.
One of those early days, when everything seemed made of emotion and haze and time, the CEO of the hospital came to us. The hospital had recently received an email from another mother, he said. This family had also had a baby with Down syndrome, just one year before, and they too had a birth diagnosis. While the mother complimented the excellent care she and her child had received in the hospital, she mentioned that she wished for one thing: that there had been a picture of a baby with special needs on the walls. Instantly recognizing the need for change, the hospital considered buying a stock photo of a baby to hang on the wall. But then Lydia was born, and there was the opportunity to make it much more personal. “Would you mind,” he asked, “if we had a picture of your daughter taken to hang on our walls?”
Well, we cried. It’s hard to articulate what that moment and offer meant to us. It meant that our feelings were validated. It meant that even though it seemed like it, we were not alone; another family out there had walked this path, before, and they were reaching out to us in love. Most importantly, it meant that our daughter mattered. Her life was worth celebrating, too. And even being born with a disability, at just six days old she was stepping up, making a difference, and changing the world for the better. “Oh, you thought she was limited?” Heaven seemed to be saying. “No, no, Mom. Think again.”
This is the picture that now hangs in that hospital. It doesn’t match any of the other carefully posed and minutely edited images that hang alongside it. It was taken on a hospital bed surrounded by beeping monitors instead of in a studio surrounded by fluffy props. But it is real. So real. That’s my girl, and she, like so many unrepresented babies like her, is beautiful. While it is flattering that my girl is now the one whose image is on the walls, that’s not the most important part. What matters most is that these kids are represented and valued and their lives are celebrated, just like everyone else. It’s a lesson we learned early in this journey, and one I am entirely passionate about.
Through a series of miracles, I was able to befriend online (and eventually meet in person) the mother who sent the email to the hospital, and her darling, amazing girl. We’ve messaged each other almost every day since then, and they have truly welcomed us into this community and offered such love and support. We consider each other dear friends. It is amazing how God will place just the right people in your life at just the right time. That mother not only reached out to me in love in a critical moment; she also empowered me. Through her example and influence she taught me about value and love and advocacy and what being a special needs mom is all about.
This account used to be my photography account, before it got hijacked by more important things. And with this hospital photograph thing I’ve thought a lot about that. I hope, in the future, to use my voice and Lydie’s light (as well as some of her friends’ if they’ll let me) to "put these kids on the wall” as it were. Because now I know what I didn’t before: that they are beautiful not broken, and life with them is beautiful and full of hope and completely worth celebrating.
Is there a picture of a child with critical care or special needs hanging on the walls in your hospital? Write a letter. Give them a call. Let's get those kids up there.