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The Problem With the 'They're Always Happy' Myth About Down Syndrome

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“They’re just so happy all the time; not a care in the world. I envy that…”

A woman said this to me yesterday morning in casual conversation, referring to people with Down syndrome like my 7-year-old. She was sweet as she spoke, and I could tell she was genuinely coming from a good place.

My mouth wide open, unable to respond, I briefly closed my eyes and took a moment. I know myself and I likely wouldn’t have said anything if I wasn’t getting my teeth cleaned, so I withdrew to my comfort zone, where I could process and write it out later. I also just got home from a retreat for moms of kids with Down syndrome, and I’m feeling a little soap-boxy and inspired.

This phrase… sigh. The “they’re always so happy” phrase. If you have a child with Down syndrome, you probably know what I am talking about, and maybe you can relate. It doesn’t offend me, I swear. Believe me, there are far more harmful perceptions than this. It does, however, carry a certain sort of ickiness that implies individuals with an extra chromosome are angelic. It’s a common blanket statement that groups all people with Down syndrome by suggesting they live their lives blissfully unaware of knowing anything other than happiness. That they carry on without having real feelings. I’ve never heard anything so well-intended that makes me grimace as much, and yet I hear it often. The frequency with which I hear this sentence tells me how much farther we have to go, so I’ll share my two cents.

Having Down syndrome has not shielded my daughter from experiencing a wide range of emotions. It has not hindered her ability to process them either. I know this to be true because I have fought back tears as she cried in my arms when she felt left out. I have watched quietly from the other room when she tells her little sister she is annoying her at breakfast. I listen as she expresses her frustration every morning when she attempts to tie her shoes independently. I’ve witnessed her prideful victory dance after she whooped my butt in a game of Trouble. She has screamed with excitement when she received a birthday party invite from a friend only to be incredibly jealous when her sister got an invite of her own a few weeks. And if someone ticks her off, you better believe she will let them know.

My daughter is compassionate and shows empathy toward others accordingly. She knows the weight that words can carry, and she absolutely feels it when they are used to hurt. She cries when she is upset, and sometimes she yells when she is mad. She laughs when she finds something funny and hugs when she feels the need. She says things like “I love you,” “you’re the best,” “you’re really annoying me,” and “you’re a meanie-head,” and she means all of it.

An extra chromosome doesn’t mean her thoughts and feelings are the exact same as any other person with Down syndrome. She is not a carbon copy of someone else. That 47th chromosome doesn’t make her live in a state of constant happiness. Nor does it mean she is always nice or that she never makes mistakes. She learns life lessons the hard way and apologizes when she has let someone down. She certainly is not happy all the time, and we do not expect her to be.

Like our other children, we encourage her to express herself any way that is comfortable and share how she is feeling. To say when she feels hurt, angry, abandoned, sad, frustrated, annoyed, uncomfortable, joyful, bored, amused, confused, nervous, excited, ashamed and of course when she is happy.

She is a real person who is capable of understanding and experiencing emotions, complete with her own set of thoughts and views on life. Just like you, me and every living human being, she has feelings and they are valid. To suggest anything otherwise devalues her and everyone else this phrase is intended for. We can’t possibly envy something we all experience, even if it may translate differently from person to person.

Appreciate her honesty and genuineness. Acknowledge her feelings and know she is aware of the world around her. None of which has anything to do with the fact that she has Down syndrome.

This story originally appeared on Dear Tessa.

Originally published: October 16, 2019
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