Rear Window

In which the state intervenes in the parenting process,but fails to offer any sense of direction.

Imagine this. A bright room, full of children and toys. A one to one adult to child ratio. Music. Paint. Glitter. Lovely.

At the rear of the room a large mirror. I am sitting invisibly on the other side. It’s dark. There are a lot of other parents of various shapes and sizes I’ve never met before. I can see Pearl, she can’t see me. I can’t help her. I can’t touch her.

For an hour and a half adults neither I nor Pearl know, interact with her and the other children, in a variety of ways. They play, they question and touch her. They also occasionally share knowing glances with each other. I have 18 months of experience of what Pearl can or can’t do, and how best to help. I can see through the glass when she has not understood, even see when biscuits are being given out and Pearl is asked “Do you want a biscuit?”, “eh” (yes) the reply. She is asked again,replies again.The TA looks exasperated and asks again. Finally the Occupational Therapist who was looking at another child’s hand control intervenes  “Pearl said yes”.  A beat. “Well I can’t understand what she is saying”replies the TA-who disappears mysteriously in the weeks to come. I sit on the other side of the glass, invisible and shrinking into myself. The parents of children with Down’s Syndrome have formed a group, two other parents who have loud opinions on everything are holding forth in a corner. I am slowly reducing in size, wanting to pound the window, pound the TA’s head, feeling utterly disempowered.

This may sound to you, gentle reader, like a hellish dystopian future where the state judges, you, your child and your parenting. It is in fact The Child Development Centre.

As Pearl’s difficulties became more pronounced, and as the Professionals utterly failed to recognise what a beauty and genius she was, we had somehow accessed an open play session at the CDC. We arrived once a week to play with the children, have access to therapy services to ask questions, and chat.

It was fun. Pearl and I were speedily fast tracked into the CDC proper, which is where you find us. Fun and soft observational assessment were quickly replaced by standardised tests,sessions with all the therapists and a growing sense of desperation. I have since found out that the children who attended were thought to be the ‘worst’ in the county. The one redeeming feature for me was the presence of our amazing physio, who continued to provide appropriate exercises, useful suggestions, and spoke to me like an equal. Apart from this I’m not sure what the CDC was for. I had briefly thought that Pearl would receive the golden “early intervention”that would cure her and get her back on track to join her peers, but as the months went on this seemed less and less likely.

What did I gain from this early intervention then?  Well I found out about Disability Living Allowance. Although there were in session, two specialist TA’s a Special Needs Teacher, an Occupational Therapist, a Speech Therapist-the person who told me about this was a parent behind the mirror. I met a ridiculous continence nurse,  who came to give us everyday advise on potty training, and seemed peeved, when a few of us explained that we did not see it as a priority as our children could not walk, talk or sit up on a chair let alone a potty. Later it was another parent who told me that we would be eligible for nappies-not mentioned by the continence nurse. Nobody would advise me on what would happen to Pearl as far as nursery or school was concerned-because it was not their decision. In the end another rear window parent told me about a School for Parents  in the adjoining county, which Pearl eventually went to before being accepted into the attached school.

In a sense then I did learn something about Special Needs Parenting. Firstly that no one would tell you anything, that you would have to find out for yourself. That other Special Parents could offer incredible support and point you towards resources. That some parents operate a kind of reverse competitiveness “oh she sleeps through the night, lucky you, mine doesn’t sleep AND has fits AND is autistic AND has reflux AND… but she did start walking at 18 months so I expect yours will too” Avoid these parents at all costs. In retrospect I can see this was a coping mechanism, but never let someone else’s coping mechanism interfere with yours.  Just don’t. Hopefully these parents found their tribe. I found mine and met some parents whose coping mechanisms involved coffee, cake and dark humour. I also met our current Paediatrician who is just wonderful, got Pearl and us, and begins every report with “what a delight it was to see Pearl in clinic today”.

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So Child Development Centre Professionals and your ilk, what would I say to you?

Don’t become overexcited by the assessment process and forget the child.

Don’t congratulate yourselves on providing “early intervention” if the parents don’t know the purpose or see the outcomes you are working towards.

Use your common sense about human interactions, introduce a group of parents to each other before putting them in a darkened room together, perhaps use this time to lead a group looking at resources or an introduction to Makaton.

Remember that in these early stages many parents will be in denial. Others will be overwhelmed. Do not assume that they will take everything in. Tell them your plans.Tell them again. Tell them again. Write it down. Put it in a handout.

Make sure your TA’s like children.

Explain to each parent why their child is in the group and what you hope to achieve. For example “because they are struggling in some areas we will assess and give you ideas to help at home. We aim to put together information that will form the basis of an individual plan to help them on the educational setting, we want to involve you every step of the way and help you decide what kind of a plan and setting would be most appropriate for your child”

Check that parents know all about support available, do they have a social worker? Do they receive  the relevant benefits? Are they accessing hydro therapy?  Do they have appropriate seating,  adaptations?  Do not EVER for one minute assume that these things are already in place.

Do not forget, DO NOT EVER FORGET, that parents can see EVERYTHING through that mirror. They can see if you are exasperated with their child, they can see if their child doesn’t like you. They can see and hear if you are talking over their child and ignoring them. Treat watching parents like you would an Ofsted inspector. Show them your working, planning and best practice, and then do it again the next week, and the week after that, and keep right on doing it. These parents are your partners.These children deserve it.

 

Echoes

In which the past though a foreign country, suddenly hijacks me on the Millennium Bridge.

There was a road that led home from my school, a long endless road it seemed to me, although I was much smaller, and my legs much shorter. I walked home down this road every day from the ages of 5 ’til 18, often twice a day when I went home for lunch.

I remember small girls thoughts inside my head. Would I always be walking here?  Did the Jane of yesterday and the Jane of tomorrow walk along here at the same time as me?  Could I one day bump into myself?  ( I was a solitary bookish child).

I recalled this when I hijacked a works trip to London with Father of Pearl.  London was so close to my Essex home, that school trips, gallery visits and teenage forays all started at Liverpool Street station. F o P dashed off to his meeting while I moseyed over the millennium bridge to catch a tube to the V & A.  I found myself face to face with St Pauls, and wondered if a primary aged Jane crept around the whispering gallery, awed, excited, nervous.

I stride, child free and grinning from ear to ear over the Millennium bridge. Briefly I was taken aback and wondered if small girl Jane would believe the world of wheelchairs, special schools and endless fights she would grow up into. Before  I had a chance to feel the sad longing for a ‘normal’ life I remembered.

I remembered the quiet serious, bookish child, who struggled to fit in. The girl who was concerned to keep the peace so her poorly Daddy wasn’t worried into hospital with an asthma attack. The teenager who always wore the wrong clothes, bought at the wrong shops and who was declared” the frumpiest girl in the school” (oh how we laughed) The sixth former who on a trip to this very London threw up in Covent Garden (something I ate?  Nerves? I’ll never know) which triggered a two year battle with an eating disorder which seemed would make her fade away.

And then I think of my ‘non typical ‘ life the profession I had to give up, the hospital appointments, statement reviews and filing cabinets of reports. The tired days the worried nights, and I catch myself.

I’m happy (and well medicated) confident, loved and in love, with life my jumbley, surprising, unexpected children, my fabulous Northern powerhouse of a husband, with this London – and with myself. Truly. And I remember that the solitary, serious Jane always had a huge capacity to love and was always loved in return.

So unexpected though my life has been would I change it? Well some days, yes. On the mornings I wake dreaming Pearl has started to speak I will always feel an aching and a longing.

I bend down and whisper to the skipping infant aged Jane ” it’s going to be alright”.

Saturday Siblings

A big thank you to the first born.

Someone here has been feeling a little left out of this blog.

In the blogosphere she is “The Glory” and glorious she undoubtedly is. Unfortunately (!) for her she is neurotypical, independent, helpful and as such doesn’t get much space on here.

So a quick thank you would appear to be in order.

Thank your letting me try out my parenting skills on you. I remember how I shook when I gave you your first bath-I was so afraid I’d break you!

Thank you for bringing Bad Lucy into our lives-I’m afraid she made us laugh lots.. and yes we did know it was you that did those things.

Thank you for growing into such a fabulous person, I’ve been scared of teenagers since I was one, you however are splendid, stylish, clever and witty and HAVE GREAT HAIR-you really do-so don’t ask again!

You show such maturity in your outlook and thinking, you are working so hard academically and I know you are struggling with social anxiety and depression. If I could wave a wand and take it away I would, but I am here and I have tea and cake.

Glorious, glorious Glory I love you, I ‘m sorry family life can be so tricky, and sometimes you get shunted to one side but you and we will be OK ‘cos we have each other and a tonne of love, kindness and humour (oh and video games).

Thank you for growing into a friend, but always remember I’m The Mummy. So there.

 

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Balance.

I had perceptions of special needs parents before I became one.  So strong, so calm.

Genetically programmed to be fairly pragmatic about life, I generally trot along on an even keel with the help of Citalopram and HRT (no I’m not that old, yes it was early).

Apart from having a constant obsession with Pearl’s bowel habits (possibly tmi-let’s just say for her own dignity that chronic constipation is a thing for girls like Pearl and it’s horrible) it’s fair to say our life has rebalanced to a new abnormal, normal.

True, The Glory asks me 100 times a day if her hair is alright, but she is 17.

Also Rab told me he saw a man walking a tortoise on the way to school yesterday, and although I wondered if I was dreaming, I am prepared to believe him.  He is on the spectrum and honesty is kind of his thing.

When Rab was out of school for 11 months having meltdowns and suicidal ideation (more of this in a future blog) our abnormal normal was shaken quite badly. We found the right school, he settled in, we picked ourselves, dusted ourselves off and…well started all over again.

During a regular appointment The Orthopaedic Surgeon blithely mentioned “keeping Pearl on her feet for as long as possible”.  I didn’t actually realise growth and development may lead to a future decrease in mobility.  I was thrown off course but again recalibrated.

Parents and carers of children with physical, medical and learning difficulties are among the most emotionally resilient people I know. Have to be.  We live in the moment, we really do not know what tomorrow may bring.  I took part in a Study  by the local University run by the lovely Dr Katherine Runswick Cole.  Investigating how parents of children with additional needs developed emotional resilience in their offspring, it was very interesting.  First question, “what helps you as parent maintain a sense of yourself when parenting a child with additional needs?”.  Deep thought on my part, “Having my hair cut at Toni & Guy”.  Truly.  Bless Katherine.  As we chatted over coffee later it transpired that she too had a child with additional needs.  What did she do to maintain her sense of self?  Went to Uni got a degree and followed it with a Doctorate.  Hmm.  Hidden shallows-that’s me.

Emotional reliance is essential to us as a family and I feel is an absolute prerequisite for children to develop good mental health.  Pearl has it in spades-she came with it.  The other two, have had to develop it as well.

Thus far frankly, a long preamble about the thing that nearly broke me.

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My washing machine.

Pearl drools, constantly.  She is doubly incontinent.  Hate that phrase.  Prefer “working towards continence”.  As a result I do a LOT of washing.  Three loads a day at least, sometimes six.  Care for the Family suggests that bringing up a disabled child costs significantly more than bringing up a ‘typical’ one.  In our family that money goes on washing machines. (Oh and the Toni & Guy bill).  We average a new one every two years.

Fortunately we have a wonderful local family firm who fix and sell machines.  Bob has come out on many an occasion to fix an ailing washer and before now to “just get me any model and plumb it in before this evening please”

Gentle Reader, I can endure bad medical news, I can fight local authorities, I can speak to MPs, I can even leave the house looking like a reasonable approximation of a human being, but remove my washing machine and I am a broken woman. I wish I was joking.

Last week I was working on some admin when the washer started making an odd noise.  An error code appeared.  I googled and fixed and ran another programme . It worked.  Then it didn’t work, then it locked itself with 8kg of wet washing inside.  I may have cried.  Bob arrived  (I have him on speed dial) it worked.  Bob left  .It stopped working.  It carried on glitching for two days and then, as I was about to phone the manufacturer, spontaneously healed itself.  Clearly a software issue, said Mr PJ, Bob agreed.  I suspect it was possessed.

I began to loose all sense of reason.  The feelings I usually bat away “I can’t do this””I’m a rubbish mother/wife/human being”, “I’ll just run away and join the circus” (my back up plan incidentally, along with two friends,we have names and acts already chosen). Feelings which would more reasonably be linked to having two children with individual needs and one sitting AS levels, all became attached to the washing machine. It is ridiculous, I know it’s ridiculous.

Did you know when the ravens leave the Tower of London it will fall down?  True Story.  In our house when the washing machine breaks down the family crumbles.  More accurately I go under and try to drag everyone down with me.  I am considering having a plumbed in back up washing machine.  We may have to build an extension, but it would be worth it surely?

I remind myself that before the advent of Pearl I had a life, skills, a degree, a Profession for goodness sake.

It has all come down to this. My good mental health depends on good hair and a working washing machine.

Hidden shallows, my friends, hidden shallows.

PS. If I’m alone in this, keep it to yourselves or the next blog will be from the Big Top.

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On a scale of one to ten…..

It’s time to step away from the unfolding story of a wobbly girl and her mildly eccentric brother and talk a bit about feelings.

I am a literary snob and have always hated greeting cards poems. Unfortunately what your midwife fails to tell you is that when you become a mother, they replace the rational part of your brain with mush.

I had already spent my pre-Pearl motherhood opening trite birthday cards, reading the previously despised verses holding them to my tender bosom, while sobbing “so true” If these emotions run riot when you have a “typical” child all I can say to you Extra Special Parents embarking on this journey is “if you have tears prepare to shed them now”

Three years into our journey, during a very low period which  characteristically involved a fight with the authorities to give our daughter equality of opportunity with her peers, you find me,  sitting quietly on the sofa,  having put down the phone on the latest argument. Shaking slightly and near to tears I hear an awful raw keening sound.  This sounds like an animal, caught in a trap, in pain, who had given up hope of rescue. As I begin to rock gently I realise the noise is me.I have honestly never heard a sound like it and as I sit, completely and horribly in the moment, I take apart every single fight, and pain, and triumph and struggle that my precious small girl and I had endured. Clearly I had been fighting for her so hard, and working so tirelessly to remain positive that I had squashed all this excruciating emotion down, down, down and there it all suddenly was.

As experiences go this is most definitely not one I would recommend- and why on earth would I want to share it with you? I have experienced emotions while embracing our new normal (or as a friend and I always say “living the dream”) which are dark,disturbing and hard to admit to. If on your parenting journey you have experienced some of these, please know you are not alone.

Pearl was our ‘extra’. Mr PJ has always wanted a huge family, but then to be fair he doesn’t have to give birth. We had fun practicing making Pearl, but after a year nothing had happened and a more permanent job prospect was looming. I was just about to suggest we stopped trying and I went back to work when I fell pregnant.

When Pearl arrived and it became clear she was entirely herself, along with the fear and panic, I had a few questions. Why did we have her?  We had two children already, I could have worked-what were we thinking?  What was Mr PJ thinking?

I was a Christian, was this my destiny? Would Pearl be healed?  Did God mean this to happen?  Were we being taught something?  Was there a God, or was everything totally random?

I was embarrassed. Embarrassed to have ‘failed’ by giving birth to something that wasn’t ‘perfect’.

I was worried about the future. What would people say?  How would they treat Pearl? Would she talk, walk, feed herself, be toilet trained?

I was uncomfortable, I did not want to be a Special Needs mum. I wasn’t the type. I was the helper, not the helped.

I was regularly hit by waves of despair so intense I felt they would surely wash me away.

Mainly I felt guilty, guilty for feeling all these feelings. Guilty for making this child who was finding the simplest things so difficult, and guilty for changing the family dynamic so dramatically (oh how I underestimated my wonderful family)

I was completely awash with emotion.

 

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At this point nobody asked Mr PJ and myself how we were feeling.

No professionals checked,they were too busy diagnosing.

No friends asked , I think they were worried they wouldn’t cope with the answer.

Several people told us how we felt.

“What a good job you’re a Speech Therapist, you’ll know what to do’

“God only gives special children to special people.”

“Consider it pure joy brothers when you face trials of any kind” Pure joy!  Thanks St. Paul-I’ll give it my best shot.

An older woman of my acquaintance  said “But you don’t regret having her do you?” Never, NEVER ask a parent struggling in the early days with therapists, appointments, tests, NEVER ask them this question.  You don’t want to know the answer and actually neither do they.

“I expect you’re grieving the child you didn’t have?”  No actually, I was grieving the difficulties my beautiful beloved Pearl was facing to do the simplest of things, and the amount of horrid appointments and needles and knives she was facing.

So you discover me overwhelmed by feelings of every kind, bombarded by the opinions of the well meaning, and exhausted by sleepless nights and fights with the authorities. Unable to share these emotions with my amazing best friend/husband/partner in crime- they were too dark and dreadful- and fighting smilingly on. And that is how I came to find a keening animal inside me, and that is when I realised,that I had to be honest, with myself at least, about the trials of those dark days.

With the benefit of nearly a decades hindsight, I can tell you these feelings come and go. Some disappear altogether to be replaced by something else. Life becomes more usual, and positive happy feelings come creeping back. From time to time, a form you fill in, or a look someone gives you, or another family sadness will surprise you into re-experiencing them all again.  When this happens people I have some advice. Don’t listen to the people who think you should have got over all that by now. Don’t try to do too much. Be kind to yourself. Remember, coffee, cake, wine , chocolate,comedy.  Whatever it takes.  Pick yourself up dust yourself off and…well you know the rest.

When Pearl and I are curled upon my bed at story time, or on the sofa with a biscuit; I often say “shall I tell you a story about you?” This child has the highest level of self esteem in the whole family. Of course she wants to hear this story-who wouldn’t?

Once upon a time there was a Mummy and a Daddy and The Glory and a Rab. Daddy looked around and said-“I just don’t think our family is finished yet” and then Mummy found out there was a baby growing in her tummy. One day Mummy said-I think this baby is going to be born, and went down stairs to the playroom-and what do you think happened next?Pearl was born and she was so beautiful, and we looked at her and we knew our family was complete. Pearl was what we had been waiting for.

And dear reader,we lived emotionally ever after.