Gretchen and Chris Dodgion and their children, including Madeleine, who was born with Down Syndrome. Gretchen Dodgion has created a support group for mothers who are carrying children with Down Syndrome. (Submitted photo)
When a husband and wife are expecting a baby, they know God directly created the little soul. This baby was created in the very image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26) Furthermore, every single soul, through baptism, has been purchased at the price of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
Nearly five years ago, when Gretchen and Chris Dodgion were expecting their fourth child, they learned their daughter would be born with Trisomy 21, commonly known as Down Syndrome, as well as a severe heart defect.
“Initially, we were devastated and frightened,” said Gretchen. “We knew little about Down Syndrome or how having a child with this disability would impact our marriage, our three children, our careers and our lives.”
While the couple had an abundance of support through their Christ King Parish community, family, friends and medical providers, Gretchen wanted and needed personal support from other mothers who were also carrying a child with Down Syndrome.
“I felt that connecting with others whose feelings, fears and grief would likely mirror mine would have been enormously comforting and would have made me feel less afraid and alone. Inspired by my own experiences, a year after Madeleine was born, I created the Prenatal Down Syndrome Diagnosis Support Group.”
When women learn their unborn child will be born with Down Syndrome, the news is often met with shock, sadness, fear, guilt and grief, Gretchen said. She added women usually mourn the loss of the child they thought they planned to welcome into their family.
“Many wonder if they are equipped to handle the many challenges that often come with raising a child with a disability,” she said. “Oftentimes, they struggle with the uncertainty of not only the short-term health of their baby, as it is common for babies with Trisomy 21 to have significant health issues, but also the uncertainty of their child’s and family’s futures. Many women feel guilt — guilt that it is their fault.”
After a diagnosis of Trisomy 21, women are typically provided with limited resources and are left to find support on their own or learn more about Down Syndrome online. A staggering 70 percent or more of all pregnancies in the United States with a Trisomy 21 diagnosis are terminated based solely on the diagnosis.
Because of these devastating statistics, the lack of resources and support, and her personal experiences, Gretchen wanted women to have the option to have this specific face-to-face, intimate and genuine support to connect with others who are sharing similar circumstances and emotions.
“Hopefully, a woman will find our support group at the critical time of her diagnosis. If she has an interest in joining, she will be asked to fill out a simple registration form, and will be emailed a Zoom link,” she said. “The support group meets virtually on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at 8 p.m. There is no fee to join, and women can participate as much or as little as they desire. There is a mix of pregnant women and women who have already delivered and continue to attend the group and provide support to expectant moms. It is through our shared experiences that we can convey the crucial messages of hope, empathy, encouragement, and love.”
Though apprehensive about the birth of her baby, as soon as Madeleine was placed in Gretchen’s arms, her fear, anguish and grief disappeared. She realized immediately that this beautiful little girl, made in the likeness of God, was completely perfect and meant to be exactly who she was.
“The immeasurable joy that she has brought into our lives, as well as the countless lives of others, is a gift that is greater than anything we could have ever imagined,” Gretchen said. “This is my truth, and I want to share this truth with other women who struggled as I did. I want them to know that there is so much beauty in the unexpected and that often in life, our greatest challenges become our most treasured and precious gifts.”
Though life with a child who has a disability is challenging at times, Gretchen is often told by others they could not do what she does. Others say she is extraordinary to handle the challenges Madeleine faces. Some call her a saint.
“Here is another truth: I am not extraordinary, and I’m certainly no saint. But what I want these fearful women to know is this: You will never know what you are truly capable of until your child needs you. It’s not a mystery, it’s just love. Unconditional love,” Gretchen said.
Contact Gretchen Dodgion for a Zoom link. Webcams are not required but make it more fun. Zoom works on computers, tablets and phones. Women around the state are invited to join by contacting 608-469-4998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.