It popped up again on my Facebook timeline this week. That sentence.
“I wanted to go to Italy but I ended up in Holland and I love it.”
On first glance it seems a throwaway comment about a second choice holiday destination turning out to be a bit of alright. In actuality it is part of a parable written by Emily Perl Howard as a way of describing how it feels to welcome a child with a disability to your world. Welcome to Holland is its full title and if you are unfamiliar with it,here’s the gist-
You’re off on your holidays to Italy.You’ve been planning this trip for years and have read the guidebooks,even learned some of the language. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime,one so important that it will alter your destiny. Just before you are due to begin your descent into Rome or Milan or Naples or any other beautiful Italian city,the captain comes over the intercom and explains that there has been a problem.You will not be landing in Italy as planned,but will be shortly arriving in Holland instead.
This throws you for a loop.You have no guidebooks on Holland.You don’t speak Dutch. You arrive and there is no mouthwatering alfresco dining to enjoy, no sumptuous gelato to be sampled,no glorious Roman architecture to behold. Meanwhile everyone else is telling you about their trip to Italy; raving about the amazing time they’ve had there and you feel disappointed and upset at how unfair it is that you don’t get to go there. But then you discover that Holland has its own simple charms-tulips and windmills and whatnot. They are not as flashy or as ostentatious as the sights of Italy but they are enjoyable nonetheless and over time, you grow to love Holland.
That’s the story in a nutshell. Many parents have proclaimed it as wonderous and I regularly see it on Internet forums through people describing how it helped them come to terms with their child’s diagnosis of Down syndrome but I have a number of issues with it.
First off-what’s wrong with Holland?Its beautiful and historic,just like Italy. Secondly,you can read all the Italian guidebooks you want,it still won’t prepare you for a possible pizza burn on the roof of your mouth or the wonder that is the spectacle of the Colosseum. Similarly you can devour all of the parenting books out there. It won’t prepare you in the slightest for the exhilarating,terrifying,mind-blowing trip that is parenthood.
Thirdly,it describes a scene where a parent is disappointed at the loss of their “perfect” child and that it a loss they will never get over. That was the way I felt when we first got Minis’ diagnosis but then I got to know her and to wish for any other child would be to ignore the fact that she is practically perfect in every way. When I was pregnant with her, I dreamed of giving birth to a healthy baby who would grow into a lovely, sweet, charming, funny, crazy girl. I got all those things and more.
It’s this notion that the life of your child is a book which has already been written and you have to change your dreams and hopes for this child purely because of their intellectual disability that doesn’t wash well with me.It doesn’t take into account the immense love you feel for your child no matter how they are born. The advent of parenthood means it’s not Italy or Holland you’re going to,it’s a whole new undiscovered country. There has never been not will there ever again be the unique combination of genes that make up your son or daughter. To believe that you are somehow getting a booby prize or a holiday destination that you never wanted is to instantly disregard the amazing person who has come into your life and chosen you out of all the other souls on this planet to be her parent.
Like any other child, your child with Down syndrome comes with a book of life loaded with blank pages waiting to be filled in,not a stock guide that you must follow.
Be your own guide and no matter where you end up, know that is exactly where you’re supposed to be, not Italy, not Holland but your own brand new country.