Stephanie Mullowney gave birth to her beautiful, sassy and fun-loving baby girl in April 2014.
When little Hannah Grace was born, Mullowney told Independent Journal Review she saw “nothing but pure beauty” in her eyes:
“As soon as I gave birth and saw her, I knew she had Down Syndrome. But when my then-husband saw her and asked, ‘Does it look like there’s something wrong with her?'”
What was supposed to be one of the happiest days of their lives quickly took a turn for the worse. The doctors later confirmed Hannah had Down Syndrome, three holes in her heart, and possibly Leukemia. Mullowney said it quickly depressed Hannah’s father:
“My heart broke. I couldn’t sleep or eat, I just wanted my baby to live. That’s NOT what he was worried about. He was nervous people would make fun of us and said, ‘they’re going to look at ME and blame this on me. Look at me like it’s my fault.’ He didn’t want people to look at him and feel sorry for us. He just said stupid stuff that you wouldn’t even think a parent would say. He wasn’t proud of her at all and called her ‘defective.'”
Hannah’s father left their family when she was five days old.
They haven’t heard from him or seen him ever since:
“I felt abandoned, I felt like everything that had happened up until that point, including our marriage, was a lie. I felt that my daughter and I were easily replaceable because we weren’t good enough for him…because SHE wasn’t ‘perfect.’ I felt betrayed and angry. I cried myself to sleep most every night, but tried not to let my daughter see me sad. I felt too insignificant to take care of and provide for someone as wonderful as her. How would I ever be ‘good enough’ or be able to provide for her alone?”
While Mullowney said her former husband’s love wasn’t unconditional, God’s love is and has helped her carry on:
“His grace is sufficient even when I am not. He loves me without condition. I knew she had to have a better life and I knew that I would have to be mom as well as ‘dad’ too. So one of the things I kept praying for after all this happened was for God to give me a door to be able to speak to expecting parents of a child with Down Syndrome and also those who give birth to a child with Down Syndrome, without knowing they would be born with the condition.
I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other families based on assumptions. They need to know the truth about the joys and the positives and the happiness they will bring to the world. My trust for men has went down the drain. I haven’t dated one soul since my husband left. My attention is completely on Hannah. She’s what my world revolves around and God is at the center of it all.”
Mullowney took up photography as a way to capture Hannah’s pure beauty and joy, something that her videographer boss highly encouraged.
He told the single mom she “had a gift” and should do it for a living, and that’s exactly what she’s done ever since.
Mullowney officially launched Paperdolls Photography in March of 2016. She specializes in special needs photography, but says she doesn’t discriminate when booking clients and people of “all abilities are welcome.”
Here’s some of her work:
When photographing her subjects, Mullowney said she’s in “awe” of how they’re all thriving in life:
“They’re marrying, they’re having children, they’re living independently — I want them to be included in society and not be overlooked because they have a disability. They are more determined than most people. It takes them longer to do something, but they will do it.”
She often wonders how Down Syndrome would be seen by the world if the name of the genetic disorder was more positive than negative:
“I wish people would see Down Syndrome like I do. The label itself is an issue. What if it wasn’t called Down Syndrome but was called ‘Miracle Syndrome’ or ‘Amazing Syndrome’? It puts a whole new spin on things.”
Mullowney recalled a time when she and Hannah were in the grocery store and a woman came up to her crying, saying:
“‘Your daughter is so beautiful!’ They don’t have to say anything, you can just see joy in them. They love so much differently than we do — more unconditional and non-judgmental. To me she functions differently, has different physical makeup, but that doesn’t condone discrimination at all.”
Mullowney’s mission is to change the way people view those with Down Syndrome, one photo at a time:
“I always say that each photograph tells a story. Each story touches a heart. And when a heart is touched, it is changed, and when the heart is changed so is the mind. That is my goal. These aren’t just pictures I’m taking, these are captured legacies that speak without words. These pictures are universal and can be understood in every language. They are saying, ‘Yes I am different than you, but I am beautiful too. I have goals and dreams just like you. I deserve a chance at the life you have. I deserve to simply be me.'”
This fall, she’s planning on expanding her photography for the month of October to feature those who have or have had any kind of cancer, disease or illness. She’s calling it the “Ribbons Collection.”
At the end of October, Mullowney will also participate in a nation-wide event that celebrates Down Syndrome Awareness month: the “Buddy Walk.” She’s most excited to that the entire cast of hit A&E TV series “Born This Way” will also be there, posing for her with three families in the Nashville area.
When asked about Hannah’s three holes in her heart and potential cancer diagnosis, Mullowney explained that God worked a miracle on her daughter, yet again. Through tears, she said:
“Our cardiologist kept saying, ‘She’s going to have to have open heart surgery at age of three or four.’ Well, this past December we went in for check up and it had been eight months. We’d been praying and praying since she was born and I was terrified, but the doctors said the hole was so small, she wasn’t going to need surgery at all and the Leukemia was non-existent.”
Mullowney credits her faith, family and community for holding her and Hannah up when their father walked out, and she hasn’t looked back since.