‘When Charlotte was born, I was told to abandon her’
But those hurtful words made Nicky Laitner determined that her daughter Charlotte – who has Down’s syndrome – would lead a full and happy life…
Mother and daughter on Charlotte’s graduation day, June 2021
Nicky Laitner, 53, is an admin assistant and running coach. She lives in St Albans with her husband Steve, a GP. They have three daughters, Charlotte, 22, Jess, 20, and Sara, 16.
Charlotte was just a few hours old when a maternity nurse suggested to me I could leave her at the hospital and return home to carry on my life without my baby. It was the first but not the last time I felt pitied to have a child with Down’s syndrome.
Her words roused me from the fog of shock and worry I’d been in since giving birth ‒ when it was immediately obvious Charlotte wasn’t the baby I thought I was having ‒ and fired up in me a fierce sense of protectiveness that has never left me.
I was 29 when I had Charlotte and, apart from the routine scans, I opted not to have any testing for chromosomal conditions including Down’s syndrome. I wouldn’t have had a termination so I didn’t see the point; and because of my age I’d no reason to think I was having anything but a ‘normal’ pregnancy.
The moment I saw Charlotte I knew there was something different about her features. When the midwife ran out of the room in tears, I turned to Steve in confusion, and he told me he thought our daughter had Down’s syndrome. In that moment, I felt like my whole world had come crashing down.
I’d never known anyone with the condition and my mind leapt to the very worst stereotypes of people living in institutions, dependent on others. I remember having the most bizarre thought of ‘will we ever be able to go on family bike rides together?’
Even though this was my first child, I’d felt confident I’d know what to do and how to care for her. But with Charlotte’s diagnosis, despite the deep love I felt for her, I was plunged into uncharted and unexpected maternal territory, and I was scared.
The next day we took her home with the words of a wise paediatrician ringing in our ears. ‘Charlotte is healthy and will do what Charlotte will do,’ he’d told me when I naively asked how ‘bad’ her Down’s syndrome was. He encouraged me to take each day as it came, never put limits on her and simply enjoy my baby. As any mother of a child with this syndrome will tell you, no matter how much you cherish them, it’s hard to block out the negativity of the world around you.
We received sympathy cards in the post, old friends crossed the road to avoid us because they didn’t know what to say, and I was repeatedly asked why I hadn’t had tests ‒ the implication being this was my ‘fault’.
When other mums I met at baby groups moaned about being tired and frazzled, I didn’t join in. I tried to be upbeat and positive, which was exhausting, as I was too worried about sharing the normal challenges of motherhood, plus the added ones of having a child with a disability, for fear they thought I loved Charlotte any less.
People’s pity only made me more determined Charlotte would lead a full and happy life ‒ and grow up believing she was more than just her diagnosis. I knew she was as valuable as any other child, and hoped in time other people would see that too.
Nicky with Charlotte aged eight months
When she was 18 months old, I had my second daughter Jess, and four years later Sara was born. I’d never wanted to have an only child, plus I wanted Charlotte to grow up with siblings, and to have a support network when she was older.
As the girls grew up together, becoming a tight-knit team, I loved them all exactly the same, but I worried more about Charlotte because there was always less certainty. Would she crawl, would she walk, would she ever talk? With the others I knew they would. With her it wasn’t a linear path, but at each stage, she dispelled my anxiousness, reaching milestones in her own time, including crawling by 13 months and walking at the age of two. Charlotte grew into a bundle of fun and energy with a very sociable and charming personality. She was most definitely the big sister of the trio.
Charlotte went to mainstream school, where she had wonderful support, and left with GCSEs. Academically, she was capable of handling school, but more importantly, I felt it would prepare her socially for the world she would have to live in as an adult.
Those years weren’t without their challenges. She experienced some bullying, and it was very painful to realise I would never be able to fully protect her from cruel comments. At times, life felt like an endless series of appointments and meetings, both medical and educational, to make sure she got the support she needed.
A natural performer with amazing comic timing, I remember Charlotte once bringing the house down at a school assembly, singing and dancing to a Cheryl Cole number. Aged 11 she joined Chickenshed, an inclusive theatre company for children and young adults. When she was 16, she was offered a place on its BTec course where she flourished and went on to gain a 2:2 BA degree in inclusive performance. Last June
I cried tears of immense pride at her graduation. Beautiful, confident and happy, it’s hard to believe expectations of her were so low it was suggested I abandon her or, even worse, that I should have ended her life before she was born.
Today, Charlotte lives a life very similar to any other 22-year-old. She works at a local cinema, keeps fit, goes to the pub with friends. She’d like to have a boyfriend one day and have a place of her own.
Parenting a young adult with Down’s syndrome, I walk a fine line between wanting her to be more independent and live her best possible life, and remaining pragmatic about her vulnerability. She needs help managing money ‒ she’s very trusting, which could make her a target ‒ and when she wanted to learn to drive, I had to say no because it wouldn’t be safe. That was very hard – no mother wants to stand in their child’s way, but I have to be realistic for her sake.
I’ve never wished for Charlotte to be anyone different; I wouldn’t change a thing about her. She’s funny, compassionate and driven. Her emotions and outlook are completely unclouded by self-consciousness, which is so refreshing. She is who she is, and she made me the mother I was meant to be.
Charlotte Laitner works for a local cinema and lives with her family.
One of my favourite things to do is take Mum out for lunch and pay the bill. It’s just a small thing, but it matters a lot to me. To work, to earn my own money, to treat Mum – it all reminds me I’m a grown woman, making my own way in life, no different to anyone else my age. I have Mum to thank for fostering that attitude, and my reluctance to live up to some people’s very low expectations of me. She’s never pushed me further than I’m capable of going, but she’s always known what I’m capable of, and helped me reach that point.
My life is very ordinary and yet I know, because of the negative perceptions that still exist about people with Down’s syndrome, some things I do might be considered quite extraordinary. I’m sporty – I run four to five kilometres daily, and play netball and rugby.
Charlotte performing in one of her theatre company’s shows
I have lots of friends, both with and without special needs, and love going out for drinks or to see a show in London’s West End. I work part-time, I love to bake and Mum and I are addicted to the TV drama Shetland.
I see the surprised faces when I go out jogging, or serve people at the cinema. My hope is that by being visible, and proud of who I am, the next time that person won’t be so stunned to see a woman with Down’s syndrome living a normal life. I’ve been bullied in the past at school, and mocked for how I speak and look. It was really upsetting, but Mum was always there to comfort me, and reassure me that the bullies were the ones with the issues, not me.
My ambition is to become a professional actress, and Mum has raised me to set my goals and go for them. Why shouldn’t my dream be to perform on Broadway? She’s always encouraged and believed in me, and loved me for who I am.
When I look in the mirror, I see Charlotte. I happen to have Down’s syndrome but it doesn’t define me – it’s a small part of who I am. Mum taught me to embrace it, while never letting it stand in my way.