Repealing the Eighth: I just want to say this one thing

The Eighth Amendment, giving the lives of mother and unborn baby equal significance, makes abortion illegal in the Irish State.  There will be a referendum in May giving people the chance to vote on its repeal, and it is currently the topic of much discussion in the media, in the Oireachtas, or Parliament, and on the streets.  The politicians are more or less united in the view that the law needs to be updated; what to change it to is the subject of far greater disagreement.  There are protests and marches by both ‘sides’, there are people on street corners handing out leaflets, there are women telling their stories.

When we arrived here something that caught my attention often  – and still does – was how many people with Down Syndrome there are.  Every time I go out I see them waiting at the bus stop, playing at the park, in cafés with friends, walking in school groups, on the bike thingy at the gym, doing their shopping.  I see them with carers, on their own, and in peer groups.  Daniel’s high school, with a roll of around 300, has a special needs unit comprising two full classes.  I think the reason I found it so noticeable to begin with is that, when I came to think of it, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw somebody with Down Syndrome out and about in the community in New Zealand.  I know they’re there, of course they are.  But as far as I can recall, by the time we left, times that I would see them were few and far between.

Ireland's Chris Farrell (left) alongside John Ryan, Quinn Roux and Jack McGrath pose for a photo with fan Jennifer Malone on arrival for the training session at Carton House, Co. Kildare. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 22, 2018. See PA story RUGBYU Ireland. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial or promotional use without prior consent from IRFU. No alterations or doctoring.


Then I read an article, which I can’t reference for you because I can’t remember where it came from, about the very low rate of birth of babies with Down Syndrome in New Zealand, and how, in effect, you could see this as a form of eugenics.  We have the technology and the medical expertise to prevent people from coming into the world like this and it’s possible that in the near future Down Syndrome will be eradicated entirely.  The author was asking, is this what we really want?  Are we making the world a better place by doing this?  We can do it, but should we?

Down Syndrome has become the poster child for the ‘pro-life’ movement in the lead-up to the abortion referendum.  There is an enormous billboard on the side of our local shops showing a very cute baby with Down Syndrome and the information that in the U.K. 90% of pregnancies with this diagnosis are terminated.  Mothers are talking about their children, advocacy groups are saying don’t assume you know how people with Down Syndrome and their families feel about the abortion issue, and, for World Down Syndrome Day, the Down Syndrome Centre has released this lovely video.

As I move through my community here surrounded by people with Down Syndrome living their lives, this is what occurs to me.  If I was given this diagnosis during pregnancy when I was living in New Zealand, I imagine I would be scared.  I would be worried for my baby’s future.  I would wonder how we would cope as a family with the extra stress and medical needs.  I would wonder what sort of quality of life my child would have and how they would manage as an adult.  Part of the reason for my fear, I imagine, would be that I have no experience with the condition.  I have known no children with it and no mothers of children with it.  Because it is pretty much an invisible condition in NZ I would worry that my child would be the only one.  That he or she would be isolated, different, would be stared at and pointed at by other children who had never seen anyone who looks that way.  I would worry that there wouldn’t be sufficient support available, or adequate funding or medical resources, because that’s what happens when a medical condition becomes rare –  less money is put into it, less expertise is available, resources are diverted into other areas.


The talent show at the local high school

These worries may be unfounded.  Perhaps I would do my research and discover that plenty of help is available.  I don’t know.  But I would still be scared of what the future would bring because it would be a big, huge unknown.

If I was in the same situation here, I would also be scared.  Of course.  But it wouldn’t be so much of an unknown.  Every day I would be seeing children with the same condition as mine swinging and sliding at the playground.  Teenagers at the local food court sitting around a table scattered with phones, keys, drinks, chatting away as teenagers do.  Adults looking through clothes on the rack next to me in Penney’s.  I would know that my child has a decent chance at the sort of quality of life that is worth having.  I would know that they wouldn’t be the only one, they wouldn’t be seen as anything particularly out of the ordinary, they would be accepted by other children as different, maybe, but not unusually so.  If I wanted to, I could go down to our local village any day of the week and just rock up to a person with Down Syndrome, or a parent, and say, talk to me.  Tell me what to expect.  Tell me what my child’s life might be like.  Be realistic.  Tell me the hard parts.  Tell me the great parts.  Discuss.

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I have never been in a situation where something’s come up during pregnancy that has required any major decisions.  There but for the grace of God.  I cannot say what I would do and I certainly can’t say what anyone else would or should do.  It seems to me, though, that if I were pregnant here with a baby with Down Syndrome I would be less scared than if I were in the same situation in a country where it’s so much less visible.  And that might make a difference to my decision.

Common sense tells me that in many cases when parents decide to terminate because of fatal foetal abnormality or a diagnosis such as Down Syndrome, it’s not because they didn’t want the baby.  At least, not in any higher proportion than with any other pregnancy.  In most cases, surely, the baby was planned, loved, and very much wanted, and the decision to terminate would be absolutely heart-breaking.  It would be made sometimes out of  love for the baby, because nobody wants to bring into the world a child who’s going to experience more pain and misery than anything else, and sometimes out of fear of not coping, of the stress damaging the existing family unit, of the potentially enormous difficulties ahead.  For whatever reason, we know that in countries where abortion is freely available, many parents choose it after a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

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Here’s what I wonder.  If you took this group of parents before they made their choice and put them here, in Sallynoggin, Dublin, Ireland for a few months, how many would choose differently?  I believe some would.  I believe some who desperately want their child, but are worried about whether bringing it into the world would be an act of cruelty, would find at least some of the weight of worry about the unknown lifted, and maybe that would be enough to make the difference.  If that were the case, how happy they would be.

This situation, it’s nobody’s fault.  Each individual and each society, we have to believe, is doing their best.  The cycle of more people choosing to terminate certain pregnancies because of the increasing invisibility of people with various conditions, therefore contributing to this invisibility and perhaps making it more likely that the next parent faced with the choice will do  the same, was presumably an unintended and unforeseen side-effect of laws put in place to allow people the freedom to choose the best path for their own family.

I have no idea what the solution is.  I doubt that there is one.  I am not saying the Eighth should not be repealed.  For one thing, abortions are happening plenty in Ireland already, and they’re illegal and unsafe.  I would never presume to tell anyone else what they should or should not be doing in such a situation.  I am sure that even here, life as the parent of someone with Down Syndrome or any other high-needs condition is often gruelling and stressful.  I do know this, though: when I come back to New Zealand to live, I will miss seeing people with all sorts of disabilities out there living life in their community, on a daily basis.  That’s all I’m saying.







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After 42 Years I Finally ‘Get’ Christmas

Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  I did enjoy Christmas as a child.  But for a long time now, a really long time, I could take or leave it.  As a teenaged child of divorced parents there was the issue of where to be and who to spend the day with, which, as I got older, turned into Christmas Days spent driving from city to city.  Then I married someone whose parents are also divorced, we produced the only grandchildren on both sides, and the dilemma doubled in complexity.  I would like to say for the record that there was never any pressure put on us by anyone, the grandparents have always been very flexible and patient and good at sharing, but we still wished we could be in four places at once.

Then, once the children get to a certain age, there are the expectations to be managed.  Young children are easy but they soon grow out of that and into the stage of wanting very specific things.  I don’t mind that when said things cost under about ten dollars but you’d be surprised at how often this isn’t the case.  Some of our children helpfully talk non-stop about what they’re hoping for from around September, which means we can choose things we know they want and strip them of hope ahead of time for anything that’s just not going to happen, theoretically avoiding disappointment.  Some of them, though, keep their cards close to their chest and whatever I choose is a great big gamble.  It’s stressful, is what it is.


If you don’t say, you get socks.

Noah seems to be in a transitional stage this year.  He’s written a page-long wish list and stuck it to the fridge, but nearly everything on it is just a tad unreasonable.  Cassia, who does everything that Noah does, followed suit and between them they’re hoping for, among other things: a computer, a phone, 3 pet fish in a fishbowl, 1 driver’s licence with car, 1 plane licence with plane, a remote-controlled unicorn, a hotel with a swimming pool, a bazooka, a dog, 2 parrots, a cat and an armadillo, a flying fox, a horse and saddle, a stable for the horse, and a ‘small loan’ of a million euro.

Well that makes it easy then.


Once the children reached school age December became a marathon of class trips, class parties, prize-giving for school, sports, and all the other extra-curriculars; dance shows, art exhibitions, farewell lunches and final assemblies, with – for added challenge – various hurdles along the lines of someone needing a plate or Secret Santa gift and only mentioning it half an hour before the school bus comes.  Added to the usual end-of-year work parties and community events, by the time Christmas arrived it was just the last thing in an exhausting, stressful month.  And hot.  I don’t deal with heat well at all.  Sometimes I have to turn the hair drier off mid-use because I’m feeling physically sick.

So you see, although I tried my best, the prospect of Christmas always made my heart sink.  And I know I’m not the only one.  Rest assured, weary travellers, there is a solution.  All you need to do is move to the other side of the world.


Last year, for the first time in my adult life, I felt as though I was able to do a good job of Christmas.  It was a very pleasant surprise.  This year I’m doing even better.

There are three factors working in my favour.  One is that it’s not hot.  I am a functioning human being instead of a miserable wet rag.  I rejoice in the cold.  It energises me.  At the moment the weather here is pretty consistently sunny, clear and cool.  The only downside is that when I’m outside the sun’s almost permanently right in my eyes because it never gets high enough in the sky to go over my head, as it were.  Still, totally worth it.


Secondly, it feels like Christmas.  It is winter and it’s dark by 5 p.m. There are Christmas lights and decorations everywhere and all the shopping centres look truly spectacular, inside and out.  Our local village has a little Christmas market along the waterfront, with wooden chalet things selling street food and crafts.  There’s a saxophone busker playing carols.  It’s not just a one-off, it’s all there for the six weeks or so leading up to Christmas, so every time I go to the library or the shops I feel like I’m in a Christmas card.


To get into the spirit even more, people wear Christmas jumpers. I had no idea that Christmas jumpers were a real thing.  I thought it was just a gimmick used in British t.v. programmes for comedic value.


But no!  Once December arrives, a good proportion of people you see around the place are wearing Christmas jumpers.  Amy, Cassia and Noah all have them, and I’m in the market for one.  Amy’s features penguins and stars with flashing lights.  Daniel’s not keen and it’ll be over Josh’s dead body, grinches that they are.  People Cassia’s size can wear whole Christmas outfits, and do.  The local department store has leggings, socks, dresses and hats for children all in cheerful Christmas prints, and it’s all I can do to restrain myself.  The tram line, the Luas, even has a weekend when people who are wearing their Christmas jumpers ride free.  It doesn’t feel cheesey or kitschy, it feels like everyone’s joining together in enjoying the season.


Here’s the best one I have of Amy’s Christmas jumper. It’s a big penguin with flashing LED stars.  You’ll just have to take my word.

Cassia's jumper is a bit like Colin Firth's, only better. I think everyone would be happier if Colin just stayed in that wet shirt.

Cassia’s jumper is a bit like Colin Firth’s, only better. I think everyone would be happier if Colin just stayed in that wet shirt.

Another thing I’d read about in Marian Keyes books and other foreign literature but never clapped eyes on was family-sized ‘selection boxes’ of chocolates.  They are stacked up about six feet high in all the spare spaces in Tesco and SuperValu and all the other supermarkets, and they are quite something.  They’re essentially chocolate buckets.  Last year I bought one early in December for Christmas day.  I showed it to Josh so he could marvel too and we accidentally ate it.  This happened once or twice more before the children ever knew they existed.  You get the best deal if you buy them in threes anyway so it was all for the best.


I will say though, Roses are not what they used to be.

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And I should know.

The third factor in my wonderful rediscovery of Christmas is the fact that December is not the end of anything here except for the calendar year.  It’s only half-way through the school year and the ballet term and the sports season.  So once we get past Hallowe’en the only thing coming up is Christmas.  November and December are free for relaxed planning and considered shopping, not the frantic last-minute rush I always used to end up in.  My Christmas cakes are already in the freezer maturing in plastic wrap and a few pages of the Irish Times.  I have a packet of mulled wine spice in the cupboard.  Many presents are hidden around my room, although I think I need to come up with somewhere a bit less obvious.  Most of the things that need to wing their way to New Zealand have been posted. I know where the Christmas tree stand is, and as soon as the man turns up in the SuperValu parking lot selling trees we’ll get onto that.  I have the Christmas dinner plans made: delegate to Josh and his mum, both far better and more interested cooks than me.  A trip to Marks and Spencers food hall and they’ll be good to go.  In fact, if push came to shove, even I could produce a lovely Christmas dinner with the help of M&S.  Yesterday in Lidl I found a DIY gingerbread house pack – I think it’s sort of pre-fab and you just glue the walls together with icing and stick the jubes on – so that can be my contribution.


Now, lest you think I’m being smug and skitey, the reason I have all this in hand is not that I’m super-organised or anything.  Without all the other December clutter I have plenty of time, which also means that for the first time I’m actually enjoying it.  Instead of having to drag myself around doing the absolute minimum needed to create a passable Christmas for the kids, I’m motivated to do everything I can think of to make it magical.  It’s not just about going through the motions for everybody else’s sake this year, it’s about finally achieving the Christmas feeling for myself.  I’ve had plenty of happy Christmases over the last few years; I’ve been with friends and family and had wonderful food and company and lots of fun, and it’s been special and memorable.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that it’s always fallen into to category of ‘it’ll be worth all this effort when the day arrives’ rather than ‘Yay! Christmas is coming!’


Although I’ve spent my whole life in the southern hemisphere, Christmas here has a feeling of familiarity about it, a feeling of being home, of this is how it should be.  I suppose that’s the result of forty years surrounded by wrapping paper and cards and Christmas books and movies and carols full of snow and reindeer and robins and mistletoe and bundled-up children making snowmen.  It just feels right.


Well, I’m off to dig the tree decorations out of the attic, which I’ve been putting off because it’s a bit chilly up there even for me.  Then I’m going to get myself down to the village to search out a Christmas jumper in my size.  I think I need one of those scented candles too.  Or we could just start on the mulled wine right now, that would do the trick.

Also: Christmas trees are fir, not pine, so they don't shed needles all over the floor. Another dream come true.

Also: Christmas trees are fir, not pine, so they don’t shed needles all over the floor. Another dream come true.

Even I am not so on top of things that I have Christmas Day photos already, so I’ll leave you with some from last year, along with my sincere hope that you make it through December with some Christmas spirit still intact.  If not, there’s always the shifting across the world option.  I’ll have a bucket of Roses here to welcome you.





Posted in family life, Irish life | 1 Comment