From the Winter 2013 issue of the Human Life Review.
I used to teach fourth grade at a school for boys. One of my favorite lessons was about ancient Sparta.
The boys loved it, too. Spartans were soldiers. They prized strength. They celebrated those who could withstand great pain and survive harsh conditions. Spartan boys began training for war at age 7, but the process of weeding out weaklings began at birth.
The Spartans would put the puniest babies on the mountainside to die. They didn’t want weak men, so weak babies were exterminated.
My students would initially decide that the idea made sense. Eventually, however, they’d notice a problem.
“The biggest and the strongest don’t always have the best ideas,” one would point out. “You’d also want smart people to help make battle plans.”
The Spartans sacrificed their unwanted children because they thought it would make them stronger. Even fourth graders could see the mistake.
I don’t teach boys anymore. Now, I’m a full-time, stay-at-home mom of four, one of whom — my six-year-old daughter — has Down syndrome.
There’s a fellow mom I enjoy seeing around town from time to time. I also can’t help but envy her. She’s beautiful, sporty, friendly, and warm. She remembers people’s names. Her children are lovely and well behaved. I, on the other hand, am always a half step away from total chaos, and I can’t recall the last time I brushed my hair.
One day recently this mom approached me at the park. We made small talk. She commented on how well my daughter seemed to be doing. Then she locked eyes with me.
“You know, I had a daughter with Down syndrome, too. Well … I mean, I was pregnant, but she passed away a month before my due date.”
“Oh my goodness,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
She nodded and went on. “I used to be a teacher. I’ve had a few students with Down syndrome… I was so excited … so ready for her. She would have been the same age as your daughter…”
Tears pooled in her eyes. I stood stunned, as much by the information as by her sudden confession of it.
“Every time I look at your daughter,” she said, looking at me, “I imagine they would have been friends.”
At this, the tears rolled down her face. She smiled quickly and wiped them away. I could tell she was embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry! I haven’t talked about it in a while!” She brightened up as she beamed at my daughter.
I, too, had tears in my eyes.
I envied this woman because she seemed to have everything that I lacked. In fact, she wanted what I had. She wanted the kind of baby that the Spartans would have left on the hillside to die. She wanted it more than anything.
When you have a child with a disability, someone will invariably send you an essay written by Emily Perl Kingsley called “Welcome to Holland.” It has helped hundreds of thousands of new parents adjust to the confusing news that their newborn child faces unexpected developmental or physical challenges.
“When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip—to Italy,” Kingsley writes. “After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, ‘Welcome to Holland.’”
Most travelers would be justifiably angry at such a mix-up, and most parents go through a period of despair at learning they will spend their lives in Holland rather than Italy. But Kingsley explains:
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.
… It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy … But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
Things have changed a lot since Kingsley’s essay first appeared in 1987. With advances in prenatal testing, the presence of a third copy of the 21st chromosome—the cause of Down syndrome—can be spotted earlier and less invasively. As a result, flights to Italy are no longer unexpectedly redirected to Holland. Instead, the captain offers passengers a choice: Holland or home. Most choose home.
But not all.
I used to be part of an e-mail support group for moms of children with Down syndrome. There I learned of an expectant mother in her mid-40s. In her third trimester she found out that her unborn baby had Down syndrome. But, she wrote to us, after countless miscarriages and considering her advanced age, she was unfazed. In fact, she was overjoyed to have made it far enough in the pregnancy to be on the verge of welcoming “a healthy baby.”
Those were her exact words: A healthy baby. She didn’t think something had gone wrong. She didn’t care that her plane had been redirected to Holland. She was just happy to have it land safely.
I followed this expectant mother’s story with interest. Her family and friends lived overseas, so some of the moms planned a virtual baby shower for her. Folks arranged for baby items to be sent to her apartment and offered to help in the earliest days after delivery.
Then, the unthinkable—she lost the baby. She went to the hospital on her due date thinking the decreased movement meant the baby’s birth was imminent. It wasn’t. The baby was dead.
The group now sought volunteers to collect the items from the baby shower. The sight of the new stroller in the entranceway was ripping her apart.
I used to send my fourth grade students home with an assignment after our talks about Sparta. “Find out your birth weight and write it down,” I told them. “Don’t share it with anyone, but bring in your paper tomorrow for an experiment.”
Invariably, it would turn out that those who had been preemies or had spent the first weeks of life in the ICU because of low birth weight and underdeveloped organs ended up among the biggest, strongest boys in the class.
They were stunned at this. They loved it. What a discovery!
“What would have happened to you guys in Sparta?” I’d ask.
And so we learned. What the Spartans wanted—strength, power, superiority—they ultimately sabotaged. Their priorities were all wrong. They sacrificed the most vulnerable because they thought it would make them more powerful. But it had the opposite effect. It made them weaker.
Welcome to Sparta.