I was holding my baby girl in my arms when I got the news. My daughter, I was told, is a reincarnated Buddha, come back to teach us all lessons of compassion. At least that’s what my mother-in-law said. For months I had been grappling with how to think about this baby. She was my Bean, my Sweet Pea—a whole garden of cuteness—unique and perfect.
Or maybe not so perfect, given her Down syndrome diagnosis. I had spent hours struggling to reconcile my experience of her with all of the deficits that I couldn’t see but was told to expect. I had thought of almost every angle on the problem, but I had not considered that she might be a major religious figure. Hey kid, I whispered, no pressure.
Few believe that my daughter is a god, but many think she is an angel, perpetually pure, innocent, and sweet. After her birth and diagnosis, kind people comforted me by echoing the stereotype that individuals with Down syndrome are especially sweet and lovable, happy and uncomplicated. The stereotype may be true, for all I know, but I’d rather reject it out of hand than interpret my Bean’s sweetness as yet another characteristic of her diagnosis.
I have resisted the pull to idealize or deify my daughter. I even qualify the seemingly benign, “She’s a gift from God!” by adding “Yes, like all children.” It is not that I am an atheist; I just believe she is human. She is one of us, after all, and accepting her as one of us means recognizing her shortcomings. But that said, what new mom goes around insisting on her child’s imperfections? It’s more natural to claim that your baby is special than to argue that she is not.
This is just one of many mental contortions I have experienced since her birth. It’s awkward because, in fact, she is special, and not just euphemistically. Her smile, her toenails, the peaceful way she sleeps—these things seem magical to me, and I revel in them as if they were supernatural gifts that no mother ever experienced before. This has nothing to do with Down syndrome.
When my daughter was born, one of my many fears was that raising a child with Down syndrome would diminish my experience of parenthood, that this would be a less joyful kind of mothering. It is not. I cheer her on as now, at six months old, she grows into the person she is going to be. I sigh over the poignancy of moving up to size two diapers, and I applaud her discoveries of laughter and feet.
My Bean is not a Buddha, at least not any more than anybody else is a Buddha. I believe she is valuable just as she is, and that by embracing her humanity, we make the most of our own.
Beth Crawford, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Richmond, lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia. The Buddha Bean is now a kindergartener who loves dance class, strawberry ice cream, and teasing her little sister.
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