Having a child with special needs comes with challenges. Having to work that much harder to reach a milestone lends a unique feeling of gratitude and countless rewards. Here are five reasons my journey has taken me right where I need to be.

Oh, believe me, I know about gratitude.

My son, Charlie, was born seven weeks early and had a chest tube inserted almost immediately. Our neonatologists expected him to keep the chest tube for as many as seven weeks.

He ditched it after just one week.

The NICU nurses helped us prepare for Charlie to stay in the NICU until his due date.

He came home three weeks before his due date.

Geneticists, physicians, books and websites warned us that, because he has Down syndrome, Charlie may have multiple health issues, from leukemia to heart defects, and constant ear, nose and throat issues.

In his lengthy 2-1/2 years of life, he has had four colds and one (as of this morning) diagnosis of atypical pneumonia warranting his first experience with antibiotics.

My point is, The Husband and I understand gratitude. This Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks for some of the unexpected ways Charlie reminds us about gratitude.

Learning to clap

Society teaches us that self-promotion is vanity, an egotistical and frowned upon practice. Society can be really dumb.

Let me tell you, nothing is more delightful than watching Charlie clap for himself after he's accomplished something he's been trying hard to do. (From signing for "airplane" to persuading me to put on The Wiggles.)

Certainly, children need balance. They benefit from understanding the highs of personal and team achievements and the lows of personal and team loss.

But maybe we all need to learn a lesson from Charlie, and when we do something we've tried so hard to accomplish, we should take a moment and clap for ourselves, really loudly and with abandon!

Resetting my priorities

I secretly believe people with type A personalities are on God's list to be blessed with a child who has special needs. (Yes, this negates my previously shared theory that God doesn't have a list, but it's election season, so it's natural to waffle.)

Having Charlie was like hitting one giant Priority Reset button. I wasn't expecting motherhood or the heightened world of awareness into which special needs pull you as a parent. But I needed it. I needed Charlie.

I'm so thankful this little boy has opened my eyes (and ears).

He has taught me to sit back, look around and breathe with my eyes and ears, pulling in sights and sounds I used to dismiss.

When I see children with their parents or playing together, first of all, now I am watching. Now, I am acutely aware of their varied, tiny movements and interactions. A child's wrinkled forehead as he tries to force a large toy into a small space. A father's eyes, following his daughter's every step. A mother's hair, pulled back the way mine is, because it was more important to get out the door than to wrestle with a hair dryer.

It seems to me that noticing details is the best way to live fully. I'm so thankful this little boy has opened my eyes (and ears).

Team Charlie

Parenthood is challenging and scary and stressful, and having a child with special needs sometimes amplifies those emotions.

We have so many loving people in our lives whom we might never have met, if not for Charlie. From our very own, modern day Mary Poppins, Lynette, who cares for Charlie and Mary Emma while we're at work, to the many new friends we've met (and immediately cried in front of, upon that first meeting).

Parenthood is challenging and scary and stressful, and having a child with special needs sometimes amplifies those emotions. The experience also plops you directly into a supportive, welcoming community you never knew existed. You find amplified joyfulness. Amplified exuberance. A tangible sense of team.

Sweet Mary Emma

I really do believe things happen exactly as they're supposed to. That's slightly different from "everything works out in the end," because the truth is, sometimes nothing works out and people die. Hello, cynical, cold perspective born of too much time hanging with journalists!

But having a child with Down syndrome made us realize how important siblings would be for him, and so Mary Emma arrived a year and a half later.

My daughter is a remarkable, peaceful, sweet child who gets mildly frustrated when her brother snatches a toy from her hand or gets Cheerios first, and shivers with excitement when he emerges from his nap.

If Charlie had not been born with Down syndrome, perhaps we would have waited a little longer to grow our family — and I can't imagine our lives without our beautiful little girl.

The Husband

By the time one enters her mid-30s, one finds oneself super cynical about relationships. OK, so I did.

To say we've experienced stress and major change are simply understatements. To say I wouldn't change a thing is over-simplifying.

The Husband and I didn't have a lot of time to get to know each other before we found ourselves getting to know Charlie as he grew inside me.

In mere months, we were engaged, married, moving into a new house and welcoming a preemie with special needs.

In mere months, we transitioned from our first kiss to The Husband rubbing my aching legs at 3 a.m. while I moaned in pain and swore I'd never go through pregnancy again. Within two years, we were expecting Mary Emma and I was learning to waddle.

To say we've experienced stress and major change are simply understatements. To say I wouldn't change a thing is over-simplifying.

Charlie, my little turkey toes, gave me the life I was meant to have. I am so very thankful.

I'm telling you, things happen exactly as they're supposed to...

Read more about special needs

Having a sibling with Down syndrome
Learn to advocate for your child with special needs
The truth about my child with Down syndrome

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