As a young woman in her 20s, Christina Smallwood had been just trying to get rid of a few pimples. Prescribed the medication Accutane to treat her acne, she never thought twice about what long-term effects it might have — until she and her husband Josh had trouble conceiving a baby after getting married. She was shocked to discover that there is a suspected link between Accutane and the Diminished Ovary Reserves condition she was diagnosed with, leaving her with a low chance of conceiving naturally.
Now 32, Smallwood, a hairstylist, and her husband, Josh, 32, a project manager from Eastvale, CA, are the proud parents of a 3-year-old daughter, Finley, through an open adoption. And Finley, like their own story, is anything but ordinary.
Despite a normal pregnancy, Finley’s birth mother went into labor prematurely and the baby was born via an emergency C-section at only 31 weeks gestation. The first time she laid eyes on her daughter, Smallwood remembers, was a magical moment. “I stared at her in the little incubator and was crying and stroking the glass, promising her the world,” she says. “I’ll never forget telling my husband, ‘I’m sure every parent says this, but I feel like this little girl is REALLY REALLY special.’ ”
Before they had even tried for a baby early on in their marriage, the couple had chosen the name “Finley” because it means “fair warrior.” And they were soon to find out just how fitting their daughter’s name really was. Because of her premature birth, Finley suffered bilateral grade-3 brain bleeds and was ultimately diagnosed with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy with overall left-side weakness. The disorder is known as “Little’s Disease” and primarily affects the lower body, leading to spasticity, tightness, and muscle weakness that can make walking impossible.
Finding out that they were overnight parents to a baby with medical challenges was a surprise to the couple.
“I remember envisioning chasing my little girl down the hall in diapers and mourning that it [wouldn’t] ever be our reality,” Smallwood admits. “I think mostly we began to worry about her future and quality of life. We both were active kids and I would say we were very social, so we naturally were concerned about that. We’re human. There’s definitely harder days.”
Smallwood documents life with her daughter and raises awareness about cerebral palsy through her Instagram account and blog, Fifi and Mo, which features the feisty Finley and her adorable sense of fashion. Describing her daughter as shy and not lacking of typical kid moments, the proud mom gushes about her daughter’s joyful spirit.
“She’s so colorful and there’s just a light about her,” Smallwood says. “Her smile is contagious. My husband and I are constantly talking about how pleasant she is. Don’t get me wrong, she has her threenager moments, but she’s more awesome than anything.”
Due to her condition, Finley is unable to walk, but that doesn’t stop her from dreaming of a day when she will get her “dancing legs.” To help make that dream a reality, Smallwood’s friend Brittany came up with the idea of a “Dare to Dance” challenge, similar to the ice bucket challenge. “Finley definitely LOVES to dance, and we cannot wait to see her dance one day,” Smallwood comments. The dare challenges contestants to post a video of themselves dancing to Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancing” song with the hashtags #daretodancechallenge and #forfifi.
“Dare to Dance” has been wildly successful, with celebrities like the Bachelor twins and Perez Hilton getting on board. So far, the challenge has helped to raise $60K, an amount Smallwood calls “unreal.” Because of how much they were able to raise, Finley was able to have a surgery that the family hopes will help her to walk someday. The surgery, which Smallwood explains was done to try to rewire the signals the brain sends to the legs to remain flexed, is ideally performed at the age of 3, before the body has too much long-term damage.
Finley will undergo stem cell therapy next. Smallwood says that she fully expects that her daughter, already defying the stereotypes and odds so far, will learn how to walk on her own by next year.
Just four days ago, her proud mom posted a video of Finley’s first steps. (Try to watch this and not smile your face off!) And as for the tiny dancer herself? She’s fully on board with what the future holds. In her own words, she says:
“I go to doctor on a pane, so I can walk!”
Keep dancing, Finley — we’ll all be cheering you on.
The Smallwood family is continuing to raise money for Finley’s next surgeries and hopes to start the Finley Foundation to help other families with special needs. You can donate online.