WHEN mother-of-seven Karen Lawrence was handed her newborn baby, she instantly knew her child had Down Syndrome. But, if she didn’t think about it, or say it, perhaps it wouldn’t be true?
Aged 41, Karen knew her pregnancy carried risks. But after a year in which her husband’s father had died, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Karen lost a baby to miscarriage, her own father died and her husband lost his job, Karen was reeling from the merciless series of shocks, and was desperate for some peace, calm and hope.
I knew the statistics that having a child with a disability rises steeply after 40, but I had not anticipated my aching need to replace the lost pregnancy. I was fit and healthy and not expecting anything to go wrong.
In a brutally honest and raw book just published, Letting The Light In, How A Baby with Down Syndrome Changed My Life, Karen, now a qualified midwife and health visitor, explains the impact that Martha has had on her own life, her marriage and on her other children, who instantly became carers, and on her deeply-held Christian faith.
From the ways that the medics, her friends and church family responded, to grappling with the darkest of thoughts, Karen provides valuable insights into how a child with a disability can turn life upside down, creating immense challenges, but also blessings. From being put in a private hospital room, away from prying eyes, and damaging comments by other mums, to messages that her disabled baby was ‘a special baby given by God to special parents’, or ‘an angel from heaven’, Karen shares how painful well-meant comments can be, but also, how people can respond positively in these situations.
Revealingly, the book explains how Martha’s entry into the Lawrence family impacted every member, and brought severe challenges to Karen’s deep Catholic faith. Karen explained: “Today, having travelled a lot of rough ground, I can honestly say that I believe Martha is one of the greatest blessings of my life. But that belief has been reached at a price.
“In those early days my initial thought was to give her up for adoption. But I knew I could never, ever tell my other children that I had given Martha away because there was something wrong with her. What would that do to them and their sense of security? It was unthinkable. Impossible.
“Down Syndrome seemed like a black chasm that I had blundered into by mistake. But there was something worse too. Something I didn’t talk to anyone about. Sometimes I thought about killing her. Smothering her with a pillow.
“I was a Christian. I’d always declined antenatal screening in all my pregnancies because I had been certain I would never want to abort. And yet, here I was thinking about murdering my living, breathing child.”
Karen says she felt terrible guilt that her body had brought a damaged child into the world.
“Before I could wholeheartedly accept the damaged child in my arms,” Karen explains, “I had to grieve the loss of the perfect one in my imagination, and grapple with the ‘why God’ question.
“As a teenager, I once asked my dad how God could allow children to be born with disabilities. He thought God allowed it to teach people to be more compassionate as they cared for the weaker members of society. I disagreed. How could anyone justify the suffering of innocent children just for the sake of making other people are kinder? Suddenly the questions came crowding in. Why had God allowed this to happen to me, to us? Can I still trust God? Some people have the fight or flight response. In my Christian faith, I froze. I just couldn’t pray.”
Movingly, Karen gives readers rare insights into the emotions of parents awaiting open heart surgery on a tiny child. She demonstrates to ways in which God brings other people alongside those in pain at their deepest times of need. In the kindness of a health visitor, the wisdom of a hospital chaplain, and the inspired words of a priest, God was evident in remarkable ways.
Karen explains: “A few days before Christmas, I’d gone to church to make my confession. Lots of questions flooded my mind, but most of all, I couldn’t forgive God forgiving me Martha. God had done this to me and my family. I was furious with him
“At last, my turn came. He was a young priest,, one I’d never met before. I said: ‘Father, I have a baby with Down Syndrome. She is almost a year old, and, the thing is, I’m just so angry with God for giving her to me. I don’t know what to do about it.’
“He paused and was silent for a long time. Finally, he said something I had not expected: ‘Have you ever thanked God for this baby?’ It was a bold question. ‘No’, I said, and as I spoke the word I realised it was true. ‘No Father, I have never thanked God for her.’ He said: ‘Then go and do that now, before you leave the church today. Thank God for your child’.
“So, I knelt down and whispered the words: ‘Thank you for giving me Martha. Thank you.’ And as I spoke the words under my breath, the tears began to flow. I covered my face in my hands and felt the tears running down between my fingers. My whole face was wet with them. ‘Thank you’, I repeated. ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ The tears, dripping down my nose, and off my chin, kept on flowing. ‘Thank you.’
“Once I had thanked God for Martha, something was released inside me. I went home smiling that day, prepared to unwrap the gift I had received.”
Karen says when Martha was born, she thought her life was over. That nothing positive would ever happen to her again. That her carefully curated world was smashed to pieces.
“But,” Karen concludes, “those pieces became an opportunity. In the 15 years since Martha’s arrival, my life has been filled with adventures. I’ve taken up running and karate, completed several half marathons and ran my own small business as a baby signing teacher. I’ve studied for a diploma in art history and once Martha was in full-time school, spent three years training to be a midwife, going on to practice in London. Later, I studied for another year to be a health visitor, and since the Covid-19 Pandemic, I have taken up writing and have published two books.
“Before Martha, my life was carefully sealed up against the strange, the difficult and the imperfect. I was like a closely shuttered window. Martha cracked me apart and let the light in. I will be forever grateful.”
Letting The Light In, How A Baby with Down Syndrome Changed My Life, by Karen Lawrence is available via Amazon or local Christian Bookshops, priced £8.99.
Written by: Revd Paul A. Eddy