The Funnel

I was doing some sorting out the other day. We have been decorating the sitting room (NOT the lounge; lounges are for people who live in a constant state of 1970s and have things like dark green shag pile carpets and pine-orange furniture), and part of this process has been the temporary removal of the book case (Argos) to the garage and the serious reconsideration of every book that had been shoved onto it when we first moved in, over a year ago now, upon its return. Two sets appeared: those that made it back onto the shelf, and those that have been transported back into the garage, en route to the charity shop. It’s not been easy, I can tell you.

It’s not the books that you know you really didn’t like but are somehow worthy, or the ones you didn’t really like that are the problem, or the ones you know you will NEVER give away (dog-eared tomes, some without covers, testament to how much you have loved them) that cause the difficulty; it’s the ones I enjoyed, but that I know I will never read again. They are the ones I weigh in my hands, on the shelf and off, until I reluctantly make a decision.

Old work diaries fall into this category, bizarrely. I’m not sure why this is, they aren’t ever going to come in useful for something, after all. Not personal diaries, though. I have about four or five year’s worth of them, tucked away in the bottom drawer of my desk, religiously filled in until about the beginning of March, apart that is, from 1987. In 1986, I had discovered Yes Prime Minister, and that Christmas, along with a novelised volume of Sir Humphrey’s diaries, I got a Yes Prime Minister diary of my own. I enjoyed it hugely, and, true to form, attempted to keep it (up until March, and, when I was putting the books back on the shelf the other day, I found it and I read it.

I have to admit that up to the point of perusing my old diary, I had been indulging in a bit of parental guilt over the State of The Children and giving myself a good and proper hard time. In 1987, I was fifteen and in the Fifth Year, the same age, in fact, as A. The first year group to take the GCSE, I was supposed to be getting ready to take my exams. The record of my teenaged days (lie-ins, a lot of lie-ins, Eastenders and novels) was reassuring.  Like my children today, I hadn’t given The Future a second thought, and here I am, sitting on the sofa at the grand old age of forty-six and I seem to have turned out not so badly after all. It made me feel better.

I don’t know, though. I can’t help but worry. Part pf me guesses that this all-consuming, corrosive worry about your kids is part and parcel of parenting in England at the start of the 21stCentury. The sands, somehow, seem to have shifted. It’s no longer acceptable to go along to the odd coffee morning while the kids jump on all the beds upstairs (and pull all the bedclothes off while they are at it) or send them out to play in the morning and only see them at meal times; today we must cart them round to baby gym and toddler singing, rugby/football/ballet tots, swim club, martial arts; the list goes on, it is never ending and gets worse as the children get older. The number of distractions, of things we must say ‘no’ to is exponentially increased. It doesn’t seem acceptable to muddle along, to be good enough; somehow life seems to be painted in extremes of success or failure.

But when I look back to MY education and MY mid-teens(even if I do it with the subjective distortion of memory) the pathway before me seemed much more open. If I got a good grade, it was up to me. If didn’t, I would get another go. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t the end of the world. was the person those grades mattered to, the person who owned them. Not my parents, not my teachers; me. There were opportunities and choices for me, lots of them, or that’s what it felt like, anyway.

I guess that is my greatest fear. I look at my children, my learning disabled son and my typical younger ones, snapping at his heels and growing up fast. Their moment of opportunity and choice is fast approaching (before the straightjacket of adulting rears its ugly head). And yet. In an age of austerity, and what I seem to continually describe, to myself and others, as an ‘increasingly challenging policy backdrop’, what choice, if they don’t fit a certain kind of straight-line progress, standard-child mould, will they have?  Is the world really their oyster? Or have we, unwittingly, as a community of adults continually obsessed with our own performance, despite our constant prating on about social mobility and our love affair with the idea of meritocracy, created instead for them an educational funnel?

 

 

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Maternal Mental Health

Back in March, I came across an article that I thought was very sensible indeed. Seeing as I am more than a bit worried about global warming (I’ve moved on from nuclear disaster, although I lost a lot of sleep over it in my early teens, worrying, as my school was nine miles away from home, that the bomb would go up when I was there) and also about equal rights, and generally interested in matters of education, it made a lot of sense. Educate girls through to the end of the secondary years and all sorts of wonderful things happen that have a direct impact on, for instance, world health and population growth, and thus the preservation of the planet.

Apparently, my auntie Pauline, a very old and somewhat mythical lady by the time I came along, I have a vague memory of white hair drawn back into a neat bun, and dark, dusty corridors with the sort of carpets that didn’t meet the walls, used to say that if you educate a girl, you educate the family; that, while the effects on the individual are profound, the ripples of your positive actions are powerful and far-reaching. And, when I think about it, an education does more than give young (and older) women the knowledge that will enable them to understand, and control, their fertility, but is the means to the confidence to ask important questions of their sexual partners too. No longer do women of my generation have to go through what my great-great grandmother did, and bear thirteen children because she was unable to refuse a Friday night after a visit to the pub.

The thing is, though, that I think that it is more than education that matters in the lives of mothers. I remember, almost as if it were yesterday, a conversation I had with my mum when I was expecting S, my firstborn. I was OK with being pregnant (although I did cry the day I could no longer fit into my jeans, because I knew that, from that moment, nothing would ever be the same again), but every time I thought about giving birth it was if I was staring into a black hole of terror.

“You’ll be alright Nancy,” she said, in that practical way of women who have been through the whole messy business and come out the other side, “it’s not THAT bad.” It was strangely reassuring. If she could do it, so could I.

That said, the experience was, for me, traumatising; and I know I am not alone. When S was tiny, I joined the local library (I’d given up paid work for a while, so I didn’t have any money) and one of the books I read was an account of early motherhood that took on the difficulties, face first. The sleeplessness, the constant responsibility, post-partum pain and the trials and tribulations of feeding the baby, no matter how you do it. It’s a treadmill, all on top of the physical shock that is giving birth. Even when it goes well (and I’ve done that bit too), and everything is fine, there is nothing about the process that is easy. There is a sense of being ripped apart – and then having to get on with nursing a baby (and possibly one or two toddlers) before the ragged edges have even begun to knit together.

Put traumatic birth, and by that I mean anything from mass intervention to emotional shock and something wrong with the baby, from jaundice to chromosomes, defects requiring surgery or brain damage, in the same event and you have a recipe for disaster in terms of maternal mental health and wellbeing. And, like an education, when a mother is well supported, so is the rest of the family.

What annoys me is that we know this. We know that the mental health of mothers of disabled children is fragile. We know that when there is a disabled child, there is often a slow slide into personal isolation, marital breakdown and poverty. We know that the lives of mothers of disabled children can be dominated by conflict and struggle, with education, with health and social care – and yet what are we doing about it? The Children and Families’ Act?

There are real and concrete actions that maternity services could put into place in order to support new mothers, and thus the wider family. Greater support from midwives and health visitors, access to a counsellor – and not just one offer, but an open door, especially where health concerns over the baby mean that mama is a long way down the list of concerns. It shouldn’t get to crisis point before someone steps in. We need to stop pussyfooting round the edges with our educational solutions and go right back to the start.

I, it seems, was lucky.

And I hate writing that because I don’t believe in luck.

The One Way System

I’ve been reflecting recently on our decision to send S to a special school. At the time, it was a no brainer. The moment we walked in and the headteacher said to us, “of course, you do understand that he won’t have his own 1-1 TA,” we knew we had come to the right place. S, of course, preferred the mainstream school next door, where the room he had explored had computers that came up out of the desks. He was, I am sure, convinced that every day there would be a day of games and play, while everyone around him smiled and told him how cute he was (he was, still is, if I may say so myself).

We had been thinking about which school he should attend for some time; when I say ‘breaking my heart over it’ I don’t think it would be an exaggeration. In the world of Down’s syndrome parenting, whether or not your child goes to a specialist school or a mainstream one is a major point of debate. After a diagnosis experience still common to many, I believe, one of sad, solemn faces, apologies and the vague, unspoken inference that the baby you hold in your arms doesn’t measure up, is some sort of alternative, inferior creature, the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream institutions such as schools goes a long way to healing this wound. What would sending our son to a special school say about how we saw him? Would it mean that we were giving up? That he, and we, were failures?

And, like all parents, we worried about who his friends would be. In a mainstream setting, my experience as a teacher rang warning bells. Would he spend his school days swilling around in bottom sets, with all that that entails? Or out in the corridor, present but isolated? Would he be able to spend time with the children he would learn the best habits from – or would he be forever out of their way, removed from them by either the presence of a permanent TA or the effects of setting? If he went down the special school route, what would he be learning from the other children there? Shouldn’t he be with typical kids and learning typical things from them? It was a spiral of indecision and I’m glad that one visit settled the matter. We walked in, had a look around and all our doubts and worries fell away. He would be OK, and that school would do a good job.

I guess the thing that I am stumbling towards is the thing that I, as the mother of a disabled child, forgot, and the thing that people who do not have disabled children often mention (and which I, up until recently, have dismissed out of hand as patronising); that spending time with disabled people, or in this case, disabled children, is good for us, that we learn things, all sorts of things, by doing so.

I had always seen this in terms of the typical population, and underneath my skin-deep agreement there was always the resentment; that my son isn’t here as an object lesson in learning to be patient (or something) for other people. That he isn’t an inspiration lesson and that he exists, just as himself, and that is exactly how it should be.

But.

I forgot something, and I forgot something important.

I forgot that, as much as he could learn from typical people, he could learn from disabled people too. He could learn to accept his own difference, by accepting it in others; he could learn to transcend that strange kind of narcissism that assails a person who has a lot of attention, all fixed on them, you know, the appointments, the meetings, the endless, endless questions about what he wants and how he likes to be helped. He could learn to be the one who helps, and be empowered by doing so. I forgot that all the benefits of being educated with disabled young people were true for him too – a disabled young person. I forgot that it wasn’t one way.

It’s a good thing education’s a long game, or I’d be jiggered, frankly.

The two-way street

I have to admit to a secret weakness for those short videos that make their way round social media. I like the ones where you see how milk bottles are washed and refilled ( there is something equally mesmerising and taky back to the childhood yearsy about them), where kittens crawl over each other (amusing) and even the occasional feat of derring do (although I don’t like to see people hurting themselves). I’m always happy to share something along that has made me smile, and, occasionally, brought a tear to my eye.

Every so often, a video that I share turns out to be incredibly popular. Like this one, at 230 MILLION views, to date. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Biex1XR_mpo

Or this one, at nearly 10K. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wn8VBimrhOY

There is something about them that resonates, clearly.

Would I have shared them if they weren’t to do with Down’s syndrome? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. For me, these short videos hold an added resonance. I, too, have held my toddler and told him (and the world, or anyone else who happened to be there) that I loved him. I recognise the look in these mothers’ eyes, because my eyes have held the same. I have smiled through a tear, taken in a shaky breath at the sight of two brothers, one so tall, one smaller, older; and I have seen, in the corner of my eye, my own sons.

I know why they move me – but why do they move so many others? Why do they move people who have no close, family connection? I’ve thought about it a lot, on and off, and this is what I think.

I think it’s something to do with the challenge of the unexpected. There they are, big, brawny soldiers, being kind. Here are mothers of disabled children, enjoying their lives, having a giggle, being happy.

Because you see, the stats around Down’s are scary, not heartwarming. The vast majority of women in the UK who find out that they are carrying a baby with Trisomy 21 chose to terminate their pregnancy. The NHS is rolling out more and more accurate, earlier and earlier antenatal screening tests. The existence of these tests are welcomed. It’s scary and it’s sad, because these actions and reactions speak loudly about how Down’s syndrome is held in our society at large. A mistake. An aberration. A burden. Something we are better off without.

And I think that’s why these stories, because they are stories, work, it’s precisely why they are so moving. Because that love, that love that isn’t so much said as soaked through every action caught on screen, expressed between mother and child, adult brothers, and more, men who are, you know, Real Manly Men, is something that is, somehow, a surprise.

It is, I think, the biggest tragedy in all the discussion and thinking and acting around Down’s syndrome; that, somehow, you couldn’t love your disabled child or your disabled brother, that, somehow, the love that exists would be a one way street.

Welcome back, the weekend wash

It’s the start of September and I, like my teaching colleagues, am gearing up for the new year by having recurring anxiety dreams (mine involve no one listening to me) and wondering how, after a summer of baguettes, I am going to fit into my work trousers. I have browsed my favourite clothing websites (lovely) and completed as much planning as I can before the starting gate opens (mummy, you have worked for FAR too long today). I have bought the shoes, checked the bags, lunchboxes, pencil cases and stationery supplies, looked at the forms (they are under the fruit bowl, their clamour for attention getting louder by the day), attended all the appointments, fetched the prescriptions (but not visited the hairdresser, haven’t had time for that) and, luxury of luxuries, read five books (didn’t really like The Time Traveller’s Wife, to be honest).

And now, the Saturday before it all starts again, before we put our collective family feet on the treadmill to Christmas, all of us fit and healthy all at the same time for the time being, in that moment of pause while we who are about to go back to school take in and seem to hold a simultaneous breath, I have depressed myself with a reflection upon the state of my household laundry.

Unlike many others of my ilk, I have to admit that I don’t overly mind doing the washing. Leaving aside the anxiety and angst it causes me when my beloved puts my best things in on a hot wash, I am really relatively happy to be in (mostly) sole charge. It’s quite therapeutic, especially the clean bedding bit, and it means that I always have a good idea of who needs new socks and pants, and who has grown out of what. I even know which bits of clothing belongs to which person. I don’t particularly mind the ironing – although I prefer it when my mum does it. She’s so much better at it than me, but more, the act of chatting while she does it brings back echoes of my younger self when I used to hang around for hours while she transformed seemingly endless stacks of shirts from crumpled rags to pristine uniform.

The only part of the process I actively don’t like is the putting away. By the time I’ve got to sorting out six piles and putting them on the bed (one for each of us and one for the airing cupboard) I’m bored. As a consequence, the washing can stay in suspended animation for days, sitting in silent tower blocks in my bedroom or accusingly in the kitchen, waiting for someone to complain that they have NOTHING to wear, not even a sock.

One of the (many) nice things about the long summer holiday is the sudden ability I have to space it all out. Apart from those moments when you return from a week away and you have everything in the entire world to wash, you can take your time, do it in dribs and drabs, set your own timetable. Nothing needs to build up, or wait for the Sunday evening session of sorting out and putting away, the sweaty race against the clock to get everything done before Monday morning comes around again. And that’s what I thought, as I pegged it out (usually a cause for celebration, especially when you can get all the towels on the line as well as the bedding and everything is clean and nice and fresh) this morning.

Living through the school terms, whether as a parent or a teacher (and a parent) has that quality about it that wears us all out – careful about workload or not. If you’ve got a private life (and who hasn’t) you will need a survival routine there too and preferably one that’s shared.

(One day I will write a blog about modern parenting which seems to require double the economic contribution while at the same time demanding one partner stays at home to service the needs of the rest and make a comment about how constant homework and clubs and running around after your kids encourages the idea that they need a support team of their own.)