Ladies, it’s time to shatter that perfect image you have of motherhood. If you’re already a mother, most likely that image has already been broken. How are you handling it? How will you handle it? Adapting to the challenges life brings might be one of the hardest tasks we face and yet it is crucial to not only live, but to thrive.
Michelle Bengtson knows this truth all too well. Like many first time moms, she had grand visions of life with baby and high expectations. When she received the news that her first born child would have Down Syndrome, those dreams and expectations rapidly changed. Michelle shares her journey and the lessons learned with us.
4word: Every woman has her own picture of what motherhood will look like. When you found out you were expecting your daughter, what did that picture look like to you?
Michelle: When I found out I was pregnant I was cautiously optimistic…I had miscarried previously and felt extremely grateful just to make it further than I had previously. So in some sense I just hoped my baby would survive.
But deep down I think I expected my mothering experience to be something like a reversal of my own childhood experience…that I’d get to bring up a mini-me. I looked forward to showing my kids the world, helping them explore and discover, teaching them the things that I enjoy – playing the piano, tending a garden.
Later I realized I had other unspoken assumptions for my children: that they would get married, live independently, be likely to produce grandchildren, carry on deep and meaningful discussions with me.
4word: Obviously receiving the news that your daughter had Down Syndrome changed that picture. Can you share what that was like for you? How did you adapt to your new reality?
Michelle: When I found out my baby would have Down Syndrome I wasn’t even half way through the pregnancy. The news was shocking. I grieved my assumptions that my motherhood experience would be “normal.” I had a sense that the course of my life was changing without my control into unknown territory. It was scary!
It took me a while to embrace my new reality. After about a month of crying all the time I started crying less and doing more to learn about what I could do to prepare to mother a child with special needs.
4word: How did you have to readjust your thinking to push past your perfect image of motherhood and family?
Michelle: Having grown up with a strong faith, I knew that I had to trust that God was working things out for good. For me, it was hard to see the good at first- everything felt so far from my own hopes and dreams for the possible family I imagined.
In some ways, having my reality so far from what I thought was “perfect” helped me experience freedom - freedom from trying to squeeze into a socially acceptable mold, freedom from obsession with academic and athletic performance.
John 8 and the story of the man born blind really helped me. The people asked Jesus who sinned that this happened? And Jesus replied that the blindness wasn’t from sin, but rather “so that my glory may be revealed” in his case, through a healing miracle.
I’ve always known that life is about honoring God and letting our lives reveal his glory. It felt clear that when I pushed aside my personal comforts and thought only about how God could be glorified, our family and my mothering had much potential for redeeming value – through things like acceptance, perseverance, love and simplicity.
4word: Your new reality- a daughter with Down Syndrome and your son- how does that compare with the original picture/expectations you had for your family?
Michelle: Hardly anything child-related has gone according to plan. Our son Dylan was a surprise, born 14 months after Whitney! The bigger surprise, though, is how normal my life feels. So many of my original hopes have been reinstate. I’ve already gotten to start sharing my passions with both of the kids.
And family time when two happy toddlers are involved has been quite entertaining and enjoyable. Also, I hadn’t thought about it before kids, but the best part of motherhood has been being loved by my children – when they started giving voluntary snuggles, kisses, and “I love yous” my heart just melted. My new reality is pretty darn good.
4word: What have you learned from your daughter?
Michelle: When Whitney was just turning two, I remember vividly an afternoon where my husband and I were in the nursery passing her back and forth stumbling between us as she almost took her first steps. She still wasn’t ready, but she was happily soaking in both parent’s attention.
At one point I thought to myself there must be something I should be doing, a project to work on, chores to take care of, but I stopped myself as I realized that the moment I was experiencing there with my family was one that I wanted to freeze in time and there was nothing more important or fulfilling than being right where I was. It was supreme happiness - contentment.
Whitney has been a delight. In some sense she's taught me to love simply. I just love her. It doesn’t have to do with what she accomplishes, or if that outfit looks good on her or other kids like her. When she’s happy, I can’t help but smile. When she’s sad, my heart aches.
I’ve also learned that true hard work is persevering when things don’t come easily. Everything she learns she has to be exposed to or practice dozens (if not hundreds) more times than most people. I am so pleased with how my life is turning out with her being a part of it, and that has deepened my trust and understanding of God’s goodness.
4word: What words of advice do you have for new moms who are discovering that their parenting journey is not what they thought it would be?
Michelle: Cooperate! Embrace your reality and instead of asking why, look for evidence that the Lord is at work and join in with what he is doing. We continually have opportunities to reflect His glory, especially when challenges come.
And be in community. Summon up a village. Do it for your sake because you need support, and also for the community’s sake. Other people’s understanding of truth and reality are improved by being touched by your unique experience and perspective.
What are or were your expectations of motherhood? Are you willing to be used by God in any circumstance?
Michelle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two toddlers. She has her BA in Psychology from Princeton University and her MA in Marriage and Family Therapy from Western Seminary. Along with all things housewifery, she blogs about adventures in family at www.laughodil.com and works as a freelance photographer (www.poplarphotography.com).