I have been meaning to post a review for Not Always Happy, An Unusual Parenting Journey, by Kari Wagner-Peck for a few months now. I read it in two sittings back in late May, just before my newest child came earthside. It’s probably for the best that it took me so long, as I have since had lots of time to think about it and discuss it with friends who have also read it. I am going to refer to KWP as ‘Kari’ throughout because we are friends on social media and it would be weird to refer to her as ‘Wagner-Peck’– I tried it, it was weird, I edited it. Warning: I personally like to know what I’m getting into and appreciate spoilers. If you do not, beware, as there are spoilers ahead!
Not Always Happy reads in the style of Kari’s blog, A Typical Son, which I do not keep up with regularly, but I do read whenever I am reminded of a new post. It’s like sitting over a cup of coffee with a mom friend and letting her narrate the story of her life without interrupting, parenthetical jabs at villains and all. It’s a smooth and easy to read story telling, making it a very accessible read in a number of ways. Kari creates colorful characters of the people in her life, but the most vibrant character is her son, Thorin. Her blunt and honest portrayal of her own emotional process, from fostering to adopting Thorin, then again as he transitions from Early Intervention to school and from school to unschool creates an intimacy between her and her reader– I was compelled to send a message to her in the middle of the night to thank her for a passage that left me in tears. Just as she sees her son, so I see mine, in a world where no one seems to get it, even other parents of children with Down syndrome sometimes.
As Kari writes about the process of fostering a child (Thorin) who is not yet up for adoption because of a hearing postponement, with the desire and plan to adopt him, she opens up about her somewhat secret wish that family reunification won’t work in his case. I’ll be honest, it was uncomfortable for me to read and process this because I feel very strongly that the focus of fostering should be to support family reunification whenever possible. Kari acknowledges this in the book as well. Mothers who have survived or are surviving abuse, are lacking mental health supports, mothers who are disabled, mothers living in poverty– these are the mothers who are too often revictimized by family courts and social workers, and their children suffer too. My heart wrenched for Kari and her husband, Ward, as much as it did for Thorin’s biological mother, even understanding that a terrible failure in parenting led Thorin to be placed in protective care. As ever, it was most likely a series of failures, some that his biological mother was the victim of, and some she perpetrated. It’s never simple, so I went ahead and felt all the different ways a person could to make sure I covered the bases. I already knew the end of the story– that Thorin is a thriving kid living a great life with parents who truly seem to understand him, but it did not stop me from feeling suspense at the constant uncertainty they faced.
As I sat on the edge of my glider feeling suspense about the adoption, my stomach twisted thinking of Thorin’s biological mom. Has she read this book? Will she? Will her heart break? Will she fall in love with him in a new way through Kari’s eyes? Will she resent or feel ashamed at the story being told? How will this notoriety affect her? What is her story? When Thorin reads this book, how will he think of his biological mother? I am thankful that the most vulnerable parts of this story are kept from me. They are Thorin’s to tell, or not, in his own time and way, and I’m glad Kari believes that too. There is a discomfort in not knowing the details, but I think it was handled as best it possibly could.
As I read about Kari falling in love with Thorin, I connected deeply to the anecdotes she shared, from bath time to eating snacks in the grocery store together. I have always felt that as a mother I am in a constant state of falling in love with my children and the seemingly new people they are as they hit each new stage of development. I did not expect that experience to so seamlessly blend with Kari’s descriptions of falling in love with toddler-Thorin for the first time, but it did, perhaps especially because my son with Down syndrome was the same age in real time as Thorin was in the beginning of the book, and they share a number of charming characteristics. For weeks after reading, each time my son answered me with a definitive “yiss,” I heard imaginary toddler-Thorin in my head affirm, “yessith!”
A superpower I have developed since my first son was born, is the ability to read the faces of people we pass on the street and determine whether or not I hate them based on their reaction to seeing his face. The handful of times I have been in public without him, I have searched the faces of passers by just as intently, and found that the reactions he and I get are dramatically different than those I get when I am alone, with my teenage daughter, or with my other son who does not have Down syndrome. I feel vindicated that my excursions without him prove I’m not imagining it, but also heartbroken. In Not Always Happy, Kari writes, “I knew it had to do with Down syndrome somehow because in our short time with Thorin most things people did that were rude or offensive had to do with Down syndrome.” Yes. Add to the list the weird and awkward things people do as well. As Kari describes her early experiences with people’s strange ideas and outright discrimination, I nodded along, having shared similar experiences, thankful for the validation.
One of the coolest characters Kari introduces is Jade, Thorin’s fiercely protective older sister who is also living in foster care. Jade has the cynicism of a hardened New Yorker, and the fearlessness of someone who has already walked through the fire. Jade tells Kari she often gets called brave by adults when they hear how she went on her own to find help for herself and her baby brother; her courage in demanding quality care from adults for Thorin is even more impressive. She maintains a presence in his life and doesn’t hold back when it comes to his well-being. Jade has so many of the characteristics I love in my own children, and ones I hope they are able to learn without walking through the fire too. I love the way Kari writes about her with the respect she deserves and has earned. It’s one of the many ways the respect she has for children shines in her writing.
The majority of the book is dedicated to the trials and tribulations of navigating Early Intervention (EI) and transitioning into public schooling. Their story is so familiar I think I might have been able to guess many of the brick walls they’d hit along the way, and yet the storytelling is fresh and compelling. From the outset of their journey as new parents, Kari and Ward find that they expect Thorin to receive what he needs and be treated as, you know, a regular person, but every person they interact with in the different systems disabled children are shuffled through patronizingly shuts them down. In EI they are in a fight from the get-go for services that will help Thorin in preschool, such as physical therapy; once he is in preschool, they are in an uphill battle with an outdated, exclusionary, and prejudiced structure– not to mention therapists and teachers who range from overly “helpful” to downright abusive. I am navigating these systems myself, and seeing further evidence that the problems my family and I face are everywhere is both vindicating and enraging. Kari’s style of writing interjects much needed derisive humor– I hope to channel her as my inner voice the next time I’m sitting in an IEP or 504 meeting.
As Thorin moves into public school he is fighting for his place and his parents are alongside him fighting every which way for him to be treated as equal to his peers and given the supports needed to do well. Again, this story will be predictable to parents of disabled kids who have tried to work within the public school system. Kari stops at nothing to advocate for Thorin. She takes risks I find relatable, unafraid to send what I sometimes refer to as the “bad idea email.” It’s the one that goes out in the middle of the night when all your feelings are stewing together in a mish mash of fear, anger, frustration, powerlessness, and a fierce protectiveness. Ultimately, Kari and Ward choose to leave the public school system and transition to unschooling (my personal favorite style of homeschooling)
I already knew the end there, too, because I came to know of Not Always Happy by reading Kari’s media contributions, social media, and blog posts after Thorin had begun unschooling. I wish she had spent more time writing about unschooling and their experience of it, as I think parents of children with Down syndrome who are as fierce as she and I might be afraid of it and feel that it is a disservice. In reality, I think unschooling has the potential to foster immense creativity, knowledge, and especially autonomy, something disabled children are so often robbed of, starting in EI and compounding through school. I love seeing snippets of what unschooling looks like in their family, and I think it would be worth sharing with a wider audience.
My biggest concerns, as ever, with writing about disabled children have to do with their privacy, dignity, and right to tell their own story. I can be very critical of the way people choose to share about their lives raising a disabled child or children. At a minimum, I believe parents should write in such a way that when their children are grown, they will read it and feel tremendously loved, respected, and valued. They should look at our body of work and feel proud of what we have done. I recently wrote a draft of a chapter for the book I am working on that advocates, amongst other things, waiting to share stories publicly until our children are adults and can be a part of the process in a more directive way. Just because a 10 year says it’s okay to share an anecdote doesn’t mean that same kid won’t be mortified people know it in 5 more years. Sharing our children’s stories comes with great responsibility. In sharing their stories, people they have never met feel a sense of intimacy with them. What are the repercussions of that?
I came to this book already respecting Kari a quite a bit for the way she writes about Thorin and their lives together. I think she really toes the line of giving her reader access to their family and protecting Thorin’s story, (although he may disagree about the potty training bit in a few years). What is striking and notable about both the book and her other writing, is that it is clear that she has a deep understanding of and respect for Thorin as a person. She sees him when others don’t. I expect that when he is grown he will read these words and feel affirmed, he will feel her love and confidence in him rather than feel embarrassment or that he has been a burden.
The most important thing this book does is give a template to parents of children with Down syndrome, or any disability really, to truly see their child, and see them as equal. It’s a huge gift she is handing to us in her writing, and I believe it is worth the risks she takes to tell these stories intimately and urgently. I cannot impress enough how powerful this aspect of the book is. Further, it can help people who don’t have a close relationship with anyone who has Down syndrome have a chance to look through that lens themselves.
Don’t mistake this for your run-of-the-mill mommy blog monetizer or yet another story of an angel martyr mother to a burdensome disabled child. Not Always Happy is a beautiful act of solidarity with other parents and their children with Down syndrome, and a powerful work of advocacy.