Category Archives: motherhood

Happy Birthday Darling

The day I was 18 it was overcast. I’d like to say I remembered the day vividly, but I don’t. Snatches jump into my memory; cards and presents at the start of English, my tutor, Roger, smiling and rolling his eyes, a pizza lunch with my mum and my friend Liz. Alcohol was probably involved somewhere, but I really don’t recall. Right before my A levels, I was in a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. This week, my firstborn, my S, was 18 too. Equally frenzied, like me, he went out with friends, not interested in staying home.

I feel chuffed when I look at the young man he is become. When he was that tiny baby and we were so worried the fact that he would one day be 18 was inconceivable. Toddler, small boy, stroppy teen, stages he has passed through (OK, so he might still be in the stroppy teen phase), the inevitable passing of time, the fascinating transformation through the ages – none of them have prepared me for my amazement at this birthday. It feels strange to have an adult child.

It hasn’t been easy, getting him to this point, and neither do I think my job is over. (I am currently huffing and puffing at the idea that I will have to apply to the courts for permission to assist my own child, but that is a story for another day.) There is plenty to be getting on with, but in some ways I think I can cautiously congratulate myself on a job well done.

This is not to say that it has been easy. Much of parenting, and you can multiply this for any sort of disability parenting I reckon, is hard work, from the almost mindless drudgery of wiping noses and arses to the withstanding of tears at bedtime and the constant turning things off. The ‘no’ word can become the hardest word, and sometimes it feels as if you, the parent, the adult, must have nerves of steel and a heart of stone.

To be honest, the disability thing doesn’t help. As a little one, S was the supreme example of cuddliness. His low muscle tone and a winning personality made him irresistible to many. His eyelashes have never had a problem working, and neither has his smile. Small in stature, especially when he was young, it was easy to kid yourself that, somehow, he would defy time and stay a child forever.

Like motherhood, there is an aspect of disability that is played out in public and Other People, every one of them with a different understanding of your child and most of them with the best of intentions, get involved (lots of them professionally). If you’re not careful, before you know where you are, your hard work is undermined by an ugly combination of opinion and pity.

But here’s the thing. Heartstrings are all very well but in the end there is a job to be done. In the end there is a challenge to be laid down and lived up to. That tiny baby, that little boy, he didn’t stay that way. He grew and grew and I am grateful for all the adults who did not give in, for all the grown ups who gently but firmly said, ‘no’ and, ‘hands to yourself’ and, when he said, ‘I can’t’ replied, ‘you can.’

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Count Your Blessings

I’ve made it. We’ve made it. We’ve made it to the End of Term, we’ve dragged ourselves out of bed and into work and school before the sun was properly awake and returned home, picked our way through the fairy-lit dark, long after it had gone to bed for what feels like weeks. Everything about us was increasingly reluctant the further we advanced into December and the closer we got to the End Date and finally it is here. The children, exhausted by the effort of an eight-week term, have taken themselves off to bed early.

In a short few weeks, I don’t suppose I should refer to them as children any more, here or anywhere else. Next month, S will be 18, technically a fully-fledged man. L will enter her teens.  I will be one year closer to fifty (as will everyone else under fifty, I guess) and I am considerably greyer now than I was this time last year. Time, that constantly stretching, elastic beast, for all the eternal sense of the first night of the holidays, is speeding up.

When people ask me about my children, they no longer comment that I must have my hands full. I guess it must be obvious after all these years, but now, they are far more likely to give the knowing chuckle reserved for Mother of Teens than the rueful smile of Tired with Toddlers.

But here’s the thing. My house isn’t like other houses. My tribe of teens is led by someone different. I’ve noticed it before, when other people’s children came to play, but now I see it strongly reflected in my own. Here, it’s OK to be seventeen and still, somehow, see Father Christmas as a statement of fact, not one of wishful fantasy. It’s fine to want a ‘boy band’ haircut and unselfconsciously take a trip down memory lane with Rosie and Jim. Here, the presence of a big brother with Down’s syndrome allows you to be young, to be who you are, a mixture of heartbreaking innocence and slow awakening, to take your time in growing up.

When I explain that my son has Down’s syndrome to strangers or to new friends, so often the response is, if not sadness, then sympathy. Too often, we are so busy counting the deficits that we neglect to count the blessings.

Happy Christmas.

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.