Sarah Palin: My Life With Trig, Our Down Syndrome Child

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 23, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Sarah Palin: My Life With Trig, Our Down Syndrome Child

by Sarah Palin
November 23, 2009 Note: The following is an excerpt from Sarah Palin’s best-selling book, Going Rogue: An American Life. © Sarah Palin 2009. The book is published by HarperCollins and available at online booksellers and most retail outlets.


A couple of years ago I began to notice some peculiar yet familiar physical symptoms, like the smell of cigarettes making me feel more nauseated than usual. For a few weeks, I brushed these aside. Then I began to suspect something.

There was no way I could buy a home pregnancy test in Alaska. I was the state governor. The supermarket cashiers would know, the people in the queue would know, and the next thing I’d see would be a headline. There were still a few things that I thought were not for public consumption, at least not at first.

My chance came when I flew to New Orleans to speak at an oil and gas conference. I asked my security guy to drop me off at a pharmacy. Back at the hotel, before my speech, I followed the instructions on the pregnancy test box. Slowly a pink image materialized on the stick. Holy geez!

Todd and I had always dreamt of a big family, and he, especially, dreamt of having another boy — bookends for his three daughters.

I quickly prayed about this surreal situation. First, that I’d even be able to fathom it. I was happy but I could hear the critics:

“She’ll be distracted from state business.” “She won’t be physically up to the job.” “That’s what we get for electing the first woman governor.”

I sighed and stared at the ceiling. These are really less-than-ideal circumstances. And for a split second it hit me: I’m out of town. No one knows I’m pregnant. No one would ever have to know.

It was a fleeting thought, a sudden understanding of why many women feel pressured to make the “problem” go away. Sad, I thought, that our society has elevated things like education and career above the gift of bringing new life into the world. Yes, the timing of this pregnancy wasn’t ideal. But that wasn’t the baby’s fault. I knew, though, what goes through a woman’s mind when she finds herself in a difficult situation. At that moment, I was thankful for right-to-life groups that affirm the value of the child.

I didn’t want to tell Todd on the phone, and when I arrived home after the conference, he was away. Between my job and his, we kept missing each other, so it was a few weeks before we were in the same room, and I told him about the baby. He was ecstatic. For him, it’s always been: the more, the merrier.

We kept our news to ourselves. We had always been private about our pregnancies. Our lives were an open book in virtually every other way, so for us this was just a special, sacred time – the one thing it seemed that just we two could know and enjoy together.

At 12 weeks, I saw my doctor, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, or CBJ, as we called her. She looked at me kindly.

“Well, you’re 43, so there’s a higher chance of certain abnormalities.”

Then she showed me some statistics, one of which said I had about a one in 80 chance of having a child with Down syndrome.

I wasn’t worried. I was healthy as a horse, with four perfectly healthy children. Besides, my sister Heather already had a special-needs son, Karcher, who had autism. He was our family’s angel boy. In our family, we always said God knew what he was doing when he gave Heather the child with special needs. She was the one with the tender spirit, who could not only handle but even thrive with a child with “challenges”.

CBJ said she’d like me to have an ultrasound scan, so I walked into the office across the hall. The technician was a sweet, funny older lady who’d been doing the procedure for decades. She prepped me, and we joked about a lot of things while she pressed the wand across my belly.

Then she got a little quieter. Suddenly I flashed back to a grim ultrasound I’d had years before, when a stoic doctor had said: “There’s nothing alive in there” — a miscarriage.

Then the technician smiled. “I see boy parts … would that be good?”

“Yes, that would be perfect!” God is so good, I thought. He knows what’s best.

She kept passing the transducer across my abdomen, more slowly now. It seemed to be taking a long time. “Oops, sorry. Not sure on the boy parts after all. Your baby might be a girl.”

By then she was taking so long that I didn’t care whether it was a boy or a girl. A healthy fourth daughter would be great. Yep, just fine. Please tell me all is fine.

Then the technician said: “The baby’s neck is a little bit thicker than what we would normally see . . .”

My first thought was, 12 weeks along and you can already measure the baby’s neck? Amazing! Then, a bit more somberly, I remembered that somewhere along the line I had heard that that was a sign of Down syndrome. A whisper of fear tugged at my heart, but I brushed it away with a thought: God would never give me anything I can’t handle. And I don’t think I could handle that.

God knew me: I was busy. Got to go-go-go. I’d always yapped about how lucky I was that my kids were all healthy over-achievers, self-sufficient. Now, I thought, I’ve got a tough job and other kids who need me. I just couldn’t imagine how I could add a baby with special needs and make it all work.

Unless He knows me better than I know myself, I thought a bit dismissively, God won’t give me a special-needs child.

CBJ called the next day. Combined with my age, she said, the ultrasound pictures meant there was now a one in 12 chance the baby had Down syndrome. “So?” I thought. That still means about a 90% chance everything’s fine.

“There’s a doctor in Anchorage I want you to go see, a geneticist,” she added. “I’m also offering you an amniocentesis” — the common prenatal test for genetic abnormalities.

I had always flippantly declined the amnios before, thinking they didn’t matter, since I confidently asserted I would never abort anyway. But this time I said yes. This time I wanted information. If there was something wrong, I wanted to be prepared.

Todd was out of town on the day of the appointment, so I visited the geneticist alone — through a back door, under my maiden name. I felt a bit of fear. Three days later, I was in my Anchorage office when CBJ called from her office in Wasilla, my home town. I still remember what time it was: 2:22pm.

“I have the amnio results,” she said. “I think you should come to my office … Can you come now?”

“No, no, just give me the results over the phone,” I said, indulging in a little denial. If I just steeled myself, I thought on some wishful level, if I just took the medicine straight, maybe God would reward my guts with good news.

CBJ hesitated, then said, “No … I really think you need to come out here.”

“Cathy, I’ve got so much to do here today. It’s okay … whatever it is, it’s fine, just go ahead and tell me now.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “This child will be born with Down syndrome — ” “I’m coming to Wasilla,” I interrupted and hung up the phone.

I was shocked beyond words. Shocked that this was happening. How could God have done this? Obviously He knew Heather had a special-needs child. Didn’t He think that was enough challenge for one family? I drove the 45 minutes to Wasilla gritting my teeth. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry.

My stoicism in difficult times had always bugged and puzzled my friends and family. Bristol, my eldest daughter, once asked: “Mom, why don’t you ever cry? The rest of us are watching some movie, crying our eyes out, and you’re just sitting there.”

Though I didn’t tell Bristol this, I choke up all the time — at The Star-Spangled Banner, at any military event, seeing newborn babies — but secretly, where no one can see. Maybe it was because I’d grown up hunting and fishing with the guys, throwing elbows on the basketball court. Even when my heart was breaking on the inside, I just never wanted to seem weak. Now, as I pressed the accelerator past the speed limit towards Wasilla, my eyes stayed dry and my mind raced.

Maybe the test is wrong. Maybe my results are switched with somebody else. Maybe it’s a mistake. God … are you listening?

But when I got to CBJ’s office, she showed me the pictures. There was an extra copy of chromosome 21.

“It’s a boy,” she said.

“A boy? You’re sure? Thank you, God.” For me, that was a glimmer of light, and I let it warm me as CBJ walked out of her office and returned with a book for expecting parents of babies with Down syndrome. I thanked her and laid it in my lap, unopened.

I just wasn’t ready; my sisters were the ones who could handle this, not me. Did I have enough love and compassion in me to do this? Don’t you have to be wired a little differently to be gifted with the ability to raise a special-needs child, a child who isn’t “perfect” in the eyes of society? I didn’t know if I should be ashamed of myself for even thinking these things.

I read that almost 90% of Down syndrome babies are aborted — so wasn’t that a message that this is not only a less-than-ideal circumstance, but also one that it is virtually impossible to deal with? Now, just a couple of hours into this new world, I could not get my arms or heart around it. That fleeting thought descended on me again, not a consideration so much as a sudden understanding of why people would grasp at a quick “solution”, a way to make the “problem” just go away. But again, I had to hold on to that seed of faith.

Todd finally returned a few days later. He plopped down on the bed, still in his winter coat. I handed him the ultrasound pictures, and that’s when the dam broke. I could let my guard down.

“It’s a boy,” I said between the tears. “It’s definitely a boy.”

He looked up at me, and his eyes filled with tears. “See, Sarah? God knows what He’s doing! This is great.”

I stood beside the bed. I didn’t know how to say it any other way but straight. “The baby has Down syndrome.”

Todd didn’t speak. I remember him lying back on the bed, holding the ultrasound pictures and flipping through them. He’d look at one, put it in the back of the stack, look at the next. Over and over, silently, as though looking for answers.

Finally I sat down next to him. In his subdued way, he did not offer a reaction. So I had to ask. “Well … what do you think?”

“How can they tell?” he asked quietly. “Are they sure?”

“Yes. There’s an extra chromosome.”

He set the pictures aside and turned his face towards mine. “I’m happy, and I’m sad,” he said.

I thought it was pretty perfect the way he said that, because that’s the way it was. That’s the way I felt, too.

Todd said, “It’s going to be okay.”

I asked if he had the same question I had: “Why us?”

He looked genuinely surprised by my question and responded calmly: “Why not us?”

From that moment, Todd never seemed to worry about it. Instead, he’d think out loud, wondering what the baby’s gifts would be. “What will he want to do?” he wondered. “Will he want to tinker with me in the garage? Will he want to ride on the four-wheeler and drive the skiff? I bet he’ll love to fly with me.”

He started asking other people with special-needs children a lot of questions: what does your kid do? Does he play any sports?

From the start, my husband was much more accepting and optimistic than I was. His attitude was kind of like, “Well, okay … here we go!” But I was still having a hard time wrapping my head and heart around it. So we didn’t share the pregnancy with anyone else, even our children, Track, Bristol, Willow and Piper.

It was such a tough thing to explain, and I just wasn’t ready to grapple with it yet or answer any questions. I had always faced life head-on, but here was something that had humbled me into silence.

I began writing a letter about the baby to our family and closest friends. In my research on Down syndrome, I learnt that these special kids most often bring joy into their family’s lives. While they had developmental challenges, they were also affectionate, generous and cheerful. Rather than focus on what could be perceived as negative, I wanted our loved ones to focus on the fact that this baby, every baby, has purpose, and that not only would he learn from us, but we would learn from him.

I decided to write the letter as though it were from his Creator, the same Creator in whom I had put my trust more than 30 years before. I hoped that even though this new baby would present challenges, we’d trust that God knew best.

Among other things, I wrote that “every child is created special, with awesome purpose and amazing potential. Children are the most precious and promising ingredient in this mixed-up world you live in down there on earth. Trig is no different, except he has one extra chromosome. Doctors call it Down syndrome, and Down kids have challenges but can bring you much delight and more love than you can ever imagine . . .”

Writing that letter was the best and most loving way I could find to share our news with the people we loved. I had no idea that a year later during the vicepresidential campaign a hostile journalist would use it to mock my family and the Christian faith, saying I was so selfabsorbed that I even wrote a letter “in the voice of God”.

Before we knew it, I was seven months along. I hadn’t put on a lot of weight and with winter clothes and a few cleverly draped scarves, no one saw my girth or suspected I was pregnant. But a blazer was getting tight enough that Willow looked at me one day and said, tactfully: “Geez, Mom, you’re porking up!”

“Oh, hush,” I said. “Now pass me the Häagen-Dazs. Chocolate, with peanut butter.”

I hadn’t quite finished writing my letter about Trig. But we shared the news with family and a few close friends that I was pregnant. The kids, of course, were overjoyed.

Shortly after that, we decided to go public, so I invited over three reporters, whom I knew well. I knew I could have just spoken candidly and said, “Hey, I’m going to have a baby . . .” Instead, I decided to have a little fun.

“Hey, guys,” I said with a grin, “I wanted to let you know that the first family is expanding.”

They all just looked at me. Dead silence.

Okay . . . let me try something else.

“Remember when I promised to ‘deliver’ for Alaska?”

Nothing. But now they took out their notepads and pens. Big scoop coming, they could feel it.

Finally, I gave up on the jokes and went direct: “Guys, I’m pregnant. I’m having a baby in two months!”

Three mouths fell open, and three pairs of eyes dropped straight to my stomach. I laughed out loud. The guys whipped out their phones as I waved goodbye. Within 10 minutes, the news was all over.

The next month, Todd and I checked into a hotel in Dallas. The following day I was scheduled to address another oil and gas conference. My pregnancy was going fine, and with five weeks to go, I felt great. But at 4am a strange sensation low in my belly woke me and I sat up straight in bed.

It can’t be, I thought. It’s way too early. Moments later, I shook Todd awake. “Something’s going on.”

He sat up in bed, instantly alert. “I’m calling CBJ.”

“No, don’t do that. It’s 1am in Alaska.”

I didn’t want to call anyone yet. I just wanted to take stock and see whether this baby was really coming. I also wanted time to pray and asked God silently but fervently to let everything be okay. Desperation for this baby overwhelmed me. Please don’t let anything happen to this baby. It occurred to me, once and for all: I’m so in love with this child, please, God, protect him! After all my doubts and fears, I had fallen in love with this precious child. The worst thing in the world would be that I would lose him. God knew what He was doing.

Over my protests, Todd called CBJ. I told her that I felt fine and absolutely did not want to cancel my speech and disappoint the folks at the conference. We agreed that I would take it easy, give my speech, then catch an earlier flight back to Alaska. I still had plenty of time.

Later that afternoon I spoke on the urgent need to tap conventional supplies and innovate on stabilizing renewable sources. The audience graciously gave me a standing ovation. Then I handed the mic back to Governor Rick Perry of Texas, my co-host, and walked off the stage.

“Hey,” Rick drawled over the sound system with a chuckle, “we’re not finished with the program!”

I turned around, smiled, waved and kept moving.

“I know you’re pregnant,” Rick said, joking into the mic. “But don’t tell me you’re going off to have the baby right now!”

The audience laughed. I smiled and waved goodbye. I thought, if you only knew!

I reached Todd at the exit, and he eyed me with a grin. “Love this state, but we can’t have a fish picker born in Texas.” It was a calm, relatively restful flight home.

Many hours and two flights later, with Todd and our daughters nearby, I delivered Trig Paxson Van Palin into the world at Mat-Su regional medical center. When the nurse placed him in my arms, I was overwhelmed with love and with wonder. I knew God had answered my prayer so completely. He just nestled softly into me as if to say, “Aaaah … I’m here, Mom.”

I was glad God brought him to us early. We were so anxious to meet him. I hadn’t known what to expect. I didn’t know what he would look like or how I would feel. But when I saw him, my heart was flooded with unspeakable joy. I knew that not only had God made Trig different but He had made him perfect.

The girls gently cooed and cuddled and quietly helped swaddle their new baby brother. Todd beamed. I heard him whisper to CBJ: “Hmmm, he doesn’t look Down.” CBJ looked up at Todd and gave him a kind, knowing smile.

When I look at my beautiful son today, I know what her smile meant. She sees it in the eyes of other parents who have a child that perhaps our world doesn’t consider precious or prized. I see photos of Trig and can recognize the physical traits that let all Down children look like brothers and sisters, the characteristics that may puzzle some who, just like me a few months prior, don’t yet understand. But looking at these children in real life, we see only perfection.

During the presidential election campaign in 2008 I visited Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a slice of Americana, with its quaint town square with mom-and-pop stores; red, white and blue bunting; moms and dads; kids in strollers; seniors; and people of every color.

I was moving through the crowd, shaking hands and signing posters and hats and shirts, when I suddenly came to a stop. Standing on the other side of the rope were a woman and two teenagers whom I could not miss. The kids had Down syndrome. A boy and a girl.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I said to the girl, smiling.

The girl stammered for a minute and finally managed to say, “Sarah.”

“Sarah!” I said. “That’s my name, too! It’s so great to meet you, and we have the same name. Isn’t that amazing?”

Then I turned to the boy, and my heart just melted. Trig’s face flashed into my mind, and I thought: this could be my son 15 years from now.

By then, Trig was going on five months old and we were still learning the ropes of having a child with Down syndrome. We were so enjoying this little guy with his just-happy-to-be-here demeanor and his silly smiles, and watching him get stronger, chubbier and more fun every day, just like any other baby. Still, we were curious about what was ahead. We were managing well with him as a baby, but what about a toddler? As a teenager?

I reached over the rope and laid my hand against the boy’s face. “Let me look at you,” I said. “I want to get a good look at how beautiful my Trig is going to grow up to be.”

That was a turning point for me. At that moment, I realized in awe that these precious ones are all brothers and sisters. Before Trig was born, I didn’t know what to expect and we had a natural uncertainty about perceived “imperfection”. There, on the rope line in Cedar Rapids, I realized that my Trig is part of a large and very special community.

Look how their mother was making it work with these two precious teenagers. She cared so much to bring them out to a crowded, hectic but fun rally and give them what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a presidential campaign event in their own hometown. I just knew there was no need to fear any more. At this rowdy rally in Iowa my world became a more peaceful place. Todd was right: everything was going to be all right.

As it turned out, the number of special-needs kids and adults who began showing up at events along the trail was spectacular. It was one of the absolute best parts of the campaign. I heard from experienced staffers that organizers would typically need maybe a sign-language interpreter and a handicapped area large enough to accommodate a few dozen wheelchairs. But it seemed that at all our stops, the number of wheelchairs multiplied, as did the number of kids and adults with various challenges.

On rope lines across the country, I remember making eye contact with special-needs families and careers. This connection was a kind of mutual acknowledgment that said, yes, their lives are precious. They’re worthy. And now we’re going to let America know that there’s no need to be afraid or hesitant. Instead, let’s work together to make this world a more welcoming place for everyone with special needs.

I remember another rally down in Pensacola, Florida. Up in the stands, I spotted a group of 15 kids with Down syndrome wearing shirts that said, “We love Trig!” and, “Trig in the White House!”

It was after meeting all these amazing people that Todd and I proudly displayed the bumper sticker a very cool group from Arizona sent us. It read, “My kid has more chromosomes than your kid!”

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