I had an interesting interview with an occupational health nurse about eighteen months ago, where she told me that I might like to think about lowering some of my expectations. At the time I just nodded and smiled, but when I got home, and mulled the conversation over, I felt troubled by the suggestion. OK, so maybe I do have high expectations of myself and other people, but unrealistically so? After over a year of mulling, I’m not convinced.
For me, things like early nights on a school day, clothes for children that look like children’s clothes and reading the book before you see the film are normal. Eating tea at the table with the family isn’t a luxury, it’s taken for granted. As is being kind to one another, not swearing in front of the kids and showing them that, when we have an argument, we make it up afterwards, trying to come to some sort of agreement and apologise where necessary. Not playing outside when it’s dark. Handing in my homework on time, that sort of thing. And for me both personally and professionally, high expectations are important.
I don’t want you to think that I’ve never had to lower them. There was a time when my children were going to eat at least five portions of organic fruit and vegetables a day. Squash? Not in my house! Milk or water only. Brown bread. Little did I know that children have their own agenda over what they will or will not eat. There have been days, weeks, months, even, when I have been glad that they have eaten anything. But that realism doesn’t stop me aiming.
Take Sam, for example. I know he has a learning difficulty but without those high expectations, would he ever have learned to ride a bike? Not that I can take any credit for teaching him this valuable skill; I firmly believe that any form of bicycle instruction, be it riding or fixing a puncture, is a Daddy Job, much like the fixing of broken toys, or the making of Airfix kits. I’ll admit to a bit of a collywobble over the thought of teaching him to tie his shoelaces, but still. Aim for it we will. To me, living in a state of high expectation has become my normality, so maybe the occupational health lady had it right when she said that I find it hard to cope when people fall short of where I think they ought to be.
Take my relationship with Sam’s teachers, for instance. Now I’m not saying that it was difficult with every single one of them, not by any means, but the pain I felt when things were different to how I thought it should be was intense. You see, I wholly and utterly bought in to the idea that I was working in partnership with the school and I didn’t realise that it didn’t work in the way I assumed. It wasn’t a coming together of intelligent adults, sharing ideas and coming up with an integrated plan that could be followed at home and at school. Instead it went more along the lines of me dutifully doing as I was told, because they were the professionals. When I thought there would be an open door, I found it locked and bolted.
Maybe I made a mistake in identifying myself as a teacher. I don’t know, maybe I’ve got a flashing sign above my head saying ‘difficult’ or something, but whatever it was, something went wrong. Maybe I’d been at home too long, running my own little kingdom. Or maybe it had something to do with the many medical appointments I have attended over the years with my beloved eldest child.
It might have been the one where I had a little chat with an obstetrician who told me (while bouncing my lovely boy on her knee) that, if she knew she was carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome, she would have had a termination. It could have been his first ever eye test. In my innocent inexperience, I didn’t realise that the drops they use to dilate pupils so that they can see the back of the eye can make a young baby sick as a pig. The stomach bug we all picked up after a yearly check up in January could also have had something to do with it. At some point along the line I decided that I was the best person to know what was good for Sam. I decided to take charge of the protocol, because I knew him better than anyone else.
Maybe my real mistake was not in having high expectations, but in not being able to communicate my desire for my son to access a school life I felt he was capable of in a way that didn’t make me seem like an overly controlling, overly anxious, overly pushy nut-job parent who didn’t understand that there were twenty five other children in the class, each of whom were equally deserving of their teacher’s time and attention. When I’m in a state of high emotion I have never been any good at getting my point across. In the heat of the moment I have always been rubbish at making that perfect comment that everyone understands. I was always so flabbergasted that another professional didn’t have quite the same high expectations for my son that I did that I was more often than not in a guppy-like state of opening and shutting the mouth, but no sound coming out.
So when I say that I have become a far better teacher through having my own children, in particular, having a child with learning difficulties, I don’t necessarily mean because I have learned how to teach a child to read, or sign, or sit, or stand, or walk, or feed themselves, or hang a coat on a peg, or any of those other things I did. I think it’s mostly that I understand parents better. I know that they have a wealth of experience and knowledge about their child that I can tap into to help me teach their child better. I can see that lip that is determined not to wobble because they don’t want to cry in front of someone they don’t know very well. I can see behind the exasperation, the broken nights, the rush to get ready in the morning, all those other hurdles over which we throw ourselves with varying degrees of success. I know, not only in my head because I read it in a book, but in my heart that the thing we parents want most of all (maybe especially those of us who are at home with little ones) is to be heard.
And for that, I blame the eyedrops.