W. Scott Westerman, III
The discovery that your child will be born with special needs is filled with conflicting emotions. When Juliette arrived as our son and daughter-in-law’s second child, Colleen and I knew instantly that she was special. My wife’s youngest brother had Down syndrome. We could recognize the physical signs and knew about the gift we had been given before the diagnosis was confirmed and communicated to Julliete’s parents. We were grateful that Jules did not have the cardiovascular or allergy challenges that shortened Colleen’s brother’s life. We also knew a little about the journey facing Brandon and Stephanie as they welcomed this precious new life into their family.
Our local Down syndrome association was wonderfully helpful from day-one. It was from a volunteer, another parent of a child with Down syndrome that we first learned about the “Trip to Holland” metaphor. It turned out to be a meaningful way to help us all frame the experience of raising a child with Down syndrome.
The “Trip to Holland” Metaphor
The “Trip to Holland” metaphor is often shared among parents and caregivers of children with Down syndrome as a way to illustrate the unexpected and transformative nature of raising a child with unique needs. The story goes something like this:
Imagine you’re planning a trip to Italy, and you’ve researched and prepared for this Italian adventure. However, when the time comes to land, you find yourself in Holland. It’s not what you expected, and it might feel disorienting and overwhelming at first because you were prepared for Italy. Yet, as you spend more time in Holland, you realize that it has its beauty, its unique culture, and its own way of being wonderful.
The “Trip to Holland” metaphor was first popularized by Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for Sesame Street, who has a child with Down syndrome. She wrote a heartfelt essay titled “Welcome to Holland,” which beautifully captured the emotions and experiences of parents of children with disabilities. Kingsley’s essay has resonated with countless families who have been on a similar journey and faced the unexpected arrival in Holland.
The metaphor resonates with parents for several reasons:
- Unexpected Arrival: Just as the metaphorical traveler planned for Italy but landed in Holland, parents of children with Down syndrome often didn’t anticipate the diagnosis. This sudden change in expectations can be disorienting, but the metaphor reminds us that different doesn’t mean less.
- Discovering Beauty: Over time, parents often discover the unique beauty and joys of raising a child with Down syndrome. Just as Holland has its attractions and charm, children with Down syndrome bring their own gifts and light into their families’ lives.
- Community and Support: The metaphor reflects the sense of community and support that parents of children with Down syndrome often find. Just as travelers in the same boat share experiences and advice, parents often connect with others who understand their journey.
We feel blessed to have known and loved Colleen’s youngest brother. He prepared us well for Juliette’s arrival. As I write this, she’s now a precocious 7-year-old with many of the traits of children her age. We are all learning together how to keep her safe, healthy and happy, with the unique set of tools she has been given to navigate her life’s adventure.
The “Trip to Holland” metaphor gave us a relatable perspective on the journey ahead. It reminds us that while life may not always go as planned, it can still be beautiful, meaningful, and full of love. As parents and caregivers, we navigate uncharted territory, discovering the unique beauty of our children and finding support in a community that understands our experiences.
When I first heard the Holland metaphor, my own memory of our family’s trip to Holland came into focus. It was the first time I had been out of the country. I was a young teenager, enthralled by the allure of the country and the ingenuity it’s people applied hundreds of years ago to help manage the encroachment of the ocean, so a nation could grow and flourish. It’s an experience I still treasure.
As you navigate your own trip to Holland, I hope you will find unexpected treasures. May your journey become adventures filled with love, growth, and joy.