Today’s Story of Perseverance comes to us from Shalee Thompson Knowles. She is mom to Asher Kahleo (4) and Liam Max (5 months). Shalee is sharing her family’s journey through infertility and Down Syndrome.
Briefly describe your experience creating your family.
We were married for about 6 months when I had an undeniable gut feeling that we should begin fertility testing. There was no reason for us to begin testing so soon into our marriage, we were young and healthy, but the urgency felt tangible. Very quickly into our fertility journey it became clear that we would not be able to have children “the old-fashioned way.” A year into our marriage we were faced with some very daunting decisions about how to grow our family. We mourned together and tried to support each other the best way we were able. I have often said we were two broken people trying to love and support each other. It was a heartbreaking time in our relationship.
We began looking into adoption and working toward a completed home study. Within a few months of completing our home study we had connected with the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network. We expected a long wait to bring a baby into our home but tried to keep a positive mindset. Two months after finalizing our paperwork we received a phone call. They said there was a couple who had chosen us and wanted to know if we could be there the next day. We were scheduled to leave on a vacation the next day, so we were canceling flights and reservations as we drove. Miracle after miracle aided in bringing him to us. We met Asher when he was 10 days old. When he was placed in my arms my world circled and landed on that baby boy. I promised his first parents that I would do everything in my power to take care of him and make sure he had a beautiful life. The fact that they trusted us with such a precious gift is something I think about every day.
Asher was our first child so in a lot of ways nothing felt different raising a child with Down Syndrome. We revel in every step and stage. We were and are so happy to experience life with this wonderful boy. We thought about having another child soon after bringing Asher home. We continued to apply for adoption situations and explored foster care. Something that had been presented to us at the beginning of our fertility journey was using a donor to conceive. We came back to the idea often and spent years discussing the possibility. After 4 years with Asher, the time finally felt right to try. Choosing to use a donor to grow our family was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. We grieved again, it felt like ripping off a band aid from a wound we thought had healed.
Just as with Asher things lined up in a way that gave me confirmation, we were doing the right thing. Experiencing a pregnancy is something that I had written off in my mind a long time ago. So, as we moved through the pregnancy, I was tentative and careful with my heart. It was amazing and hard and wonderful and heart wrenching. We were awed at each new milestone; it often did not feel real. Liam joined our family after an exciting and scary birth. As he was placed in my arms again my world rocked. Somehow my heart had room for them both. Watching them together has given me such a deep, enduring joy. They love each other so much. We love them so much. We feel so profoundly blessed to have the opportunity to be parents. It is not something we take for granted. Being their mom is my greatest honor.
Who or what helped keep you grounded when you initially found out about the diagnosis? What about currently?
Infertility is often compared to a fire. It can burn a marriage to the ground. It can also ignite a commitment to each other that cannot be extinguished. There were times when I did not know which place we would land. I’m thankful to say we have gone through hell and found ourselves stronger, with more love for each other than we could have imagined as newlyweds. Josh is my rock. When the world crumbles around me he carries our family. I cannot imagine going through these experiences with anyone else.
How did you balance the needs of your family and yourself while still allowing room for coping with this diagnosis?
Coping with any diagnosis is not a straight line. There are peaks and valleys. Leaving room for whatever feelings emerge has been so important in our marriage. We talk through the good, the bad, and the ugly. We seek out help through therapy, support groups, family, and friends. We try to give each other space to explore the things that come up as we move through hard times. It is very difficult to put your needs and mental health at the forefront. I unsuccessfully attempt to do so every day but slowly I am learning. Try and try again.
What advice would you give to parents in a similar situation (or really any parent who is dealing with uncertain challenges)?
I try to put love at the center of everything you do. Moving through life is hard. Keeping love for yourself and those around you makes things easier. I feel like putting the lens of love over our viewpoint allows for grace and patience and understanding. There were times that I wanted to throw up my hands and scream “what did we do to deserve this?” Now I look into my boys’ eyes and think peacefully “what did we do to deserve this?”
What has this experience taught you about resilience?
We can do hard things. Hard things you never imagined. We are built for this. Life was never meant to be easy. You may come out the other side battered and bruised but you will also come out the other side more empathetic and understanding. Experiencing infertility, adoption, parenting a child with a disability, and donor conception have shaped who I am. I am able to appreciate parenthood more deeply. I am able to extend love to those in similar situations. I am a softer and more sympathetic person.
What is something you wish others understood about going through infertility and adoption?
Bringing a child into your family should be an intimate experience. Infertility and adoption are the absolute opposite. You are required to invite so many people into the most private parts of your world. It is so incredibly painful; physically, emotionally, and financially. You are putting your trust completely in other people and hoping for the best.
Update on you and your family.
Our kids are amazing! We continue to marvel at everything they do. Asher set a pace for our family that we maintain with Liam. Our kids are not in a race to meet milestones or benchmarks. We love and adore them for who they are. We do our best to meet each of their unique sets of needs. Each of them brings their own spice to our family. We are excited for the future they have together.
We want to thank Shalee and her family for sharing their story with us. The goal of the Stories of Perseverance series is to help others, who are struggling, feel that they are not alone. We are so thankful for all the women who have shared their inspiring stories of resiliency through life’s difficult moments.