I stood waiting for my friend to get back from the toilet at a wedding. A guy I went to uni with came up for a chat. It’d been a good few years since we last spoke. Despite not being Facebook friends, I knew enough from other’s interactions with him that he was married and a dad. I don’t know how much he knew about my life these days, but the conversation went something like this, him first:
Hello! Long time no see. What are you at these days?
Well, I’m living in Belfast still. Married and have two boys, a four year old and a one and a half year old. I stay at home with them full time. How about you?
Ah, well, I now live in X. I’m also married and have one child with another on the way. It’s great fun, isn’t it?
Parenthood, I guess so. Exhausting too!
Yeah, but they just bring so much joy. As long as they’re healthy, that’s all that matters.
And off he walked. I stood wondering had the comment been directed at me, or had it just been clumsy. It seemed an odd turn of phrase immediately after the conversation about how great parenthood is. Did he know my son wasn’t ‘healthy’? But then I realised this as long as they’re healthy thing is spouted all the time.
During pregnancy, people ask if you know the gender and then said Well, it doesn’t really matter, as long as they’re healthy. The baby is born and whatever happens the mother during the birth and immediate postnatal period and people say Ah well, as long as the baby is healthy (wrong – birth experiences and post natal treatment especially where there is separation of mother and baby can be exceptionally traumatic and shouldn’t be dismissed). Mums chat at baby groups and complain about a lack of sleep or challenges and invariably someone will say At least they’re healthy.
What’s all this about? Are we saying that nothing really matters except a healthy child? Are you saying my experience is the worst, or that my son isn’t really as important as yours because he isn't healthy?
Health is wonderful. Something we often neglect to value until it’s gone. But health isn’t everything. By continuing to use phrases like as long as it’s healthy we are demeaning the children who aren’t and hurting their families. It perpetuates fear around diagnoses given to families of unborn babies or young children. It changes the language in a pregnancy to discussing the challenges your child will face and even the ‘options’ or ‘choices’ around continuing the pregnancy. Because surely death is preferable to not-perfect health…
When we found out antenatally that Daniel had Down Syndrome, sadness came over me not for what our future held, but that I would have to share the news with everyone who would then give their condolences and pity. This was my precious child – I wanted to celebrate, but knew the mood was now anything but. When we shared the diagnosis, we said please don’t say you’re sorry. Help us embrace this new phase in our life and celebrate the gift God has given us in this child.
We don’t turn to adults who get sick and say as long as you’re healthy. Now they're not, we empathise, support, celebrate and continue to live life with these people. And that’s what we should do around families with an ante-natal / post-natal diagnosis that might be considered ‘not healthy’. Congratulate them. Celebrate their child. And stop saying as long as they're healthy.