My son, Ben, is about to turn 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I am interested by how and when this happened. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently, but I was just doing my best with what I knew at the time. I think I would have found it helpful at the beginning to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences and so I am starting a series of interviews with parents who are raising children who are not typical. We will discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Alex, who kindly joined me for a walk in the pouring rain to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’m Alex. I have a husband and two children – Betty who is 11 and has complex needs, and Agnes who is nearly nine who doesn’t have complex needs. And a dog – a recent addition to our family!
What does Betty love doing?
She really loves singing and listening to music. Swimming and being in water. She likes being with people that she knows, though she struggles to know how to interact with them so that can be tricky. She loves Ben (Jess’s son), and his speaker! And bubbles.
How would you describe Betty? Would you say she was disabled?
Betty has some physical delay and she looks different and so sometimes I describe her as disabled and sometimes I say she has special needs. I think I refer to her having special needs more to do with behaviour, and say disabled more for her access needs. I remember when she was born and a nurse was talking about her having complex needs and I was really confused. I asked, ‘Oh, has my child got special needs?’ and she said yes. I didn’t know what the terminology meant. But now I use both.
When did you realise Betty was going to be different or disabled?
I was referred for tests during my pregnancy which showed she would have a rare genetic condition that nobody else has so we didn’t know what it would mean for her. As soon as she was born she wasn’t breathing, she was very still and didn’t cry at all for the first few days. She was floppy and couldn’t feed so there were immediate challenges straight away but the magnitude of it didn’t hit me until later.
How does Betty’s disability affect her day-to-day life?
It affects everything to do with her day-to-day life. Her genetic condition has affected her physical and mental development. As she’s got older she’s been diagnosed with ASD and ADHD, eye problems, scoliosis.
When she was a baby everything was focussed on her fine and gross motor skills, like sitting up and holding things. Initially it was all about endlessly grasping toys and trying to get her to stand. We had loads of equipment – a walker, a standing frame, a special chair, a wheelchair and all that. Then things moved on to her speech and language. Now our focus is on her behaviour because she’s very anxious and she gets very frustrated and which manifests itself as quite difficult behaviour. Now we have less equipment but her needs impact our family every day and she needs care all the time, in everything we do.
In what ways is your life how you expected it to be and in what ways is it different?
I was trying to have a kid for years and I couldn’t so we had to have fourteen rounds of IVF and then egg donation, and I had two miscarriages as well. By the time I had Betty I was so thrilled, so thrilled, to have a child I think that overwhelmed everything else. I couldn’t quite believe I’d got pregnant and had a baby. When she was really young I remember walking about in the rain one day and I was crying because I was so happy because I had a baby. Even though she was in hospital all the time and had to wear a helmet and actually it was quite difficult.
It’s maybe not what I thought it was going to be, but I don’t honestly know if I thought that far ahead because the pregnancies kept going wrong. Then once she was here I couldn’t think about the future too much because it’s too scary.
We’re very fortunate, very lucky in lots of ways, but it can be difficult. When I was pregnant with her and I knew there was something wrong, I thought my life was going to be hard. Everything I read, everything I was told, was all about how bad it was. There was nothing positive. It was all about the challenges you’re going to face, all ‘disability is bad’ and ‘she won’t be able to do this’, nothing about the benefit of just having a child, whatever they’re like. Just hanging out with them. I thought my life would be miserable and it’s not.
Is there anything that could have made the difficult bits easier?
There’s been plenty of people that have been incredibly insensitive. The first few years were difficult because I was in it and learning everything. Every report and every doctor that we saw told us what she was not doing, or what was wrong. People would say things like ‘I don’t think she’ll go to mainstream school’ but she was two! I’d think ‘Why can’t we just focus on now?’ I was lucky that when Betty was about one I found an amazing community nursery and that was really life changing. They were so kind and welcoming whereas other nurseries just didn’t want her because she was more work.
I think it would have helped if services had been more joined up and we’d had more access to services when she was little. Everything is stretched and help is limited. It comes down to money and understanding from people
We had a really lovely nurse that came and gave me a list of all the things I could access, like conductive education, Disability Living Allowance, but unless someone tells you that information it’s quite impenetrable. I think one of the best pieces of advice I would give is try to find some other parents with kids that are different. That is the biggest help that I have had, and that is often where you find the best information. Just because my daughter has a different disability to your son, it’s the same experiences we’re having, even though they’re different kids. In the way their siblings deal with it, or we deal with it, or our families. A lot of it is practical stuff. I think finding people who understand is profoundly helpful.
What would you change if you could?
I would make Betty’s challenges less difficult for her so she could have an easier time but all the things that affect me are things that could be changed. When the Olympics and Paralympics were on in 2012 we went to the Olympic village and it was so easy and brilliant. If things were more accessible and people were more understanding and a bit more appreciative of difference then it would be easier for everyone.
What do you wish people knew about your family?
When Betty started to walk, when she was four or five with a walker, people would all go ‘oh look! She’s walking!’ like that was it. I could tick it off. People have the best intentions, but they cling on to these things, like walking, when she still now has problems with her gait. It’s more complicated than just learning to walk.
I’d like a bit more understanding that you’re not saying no to things or not doing things because you’re being difficult or don’t want to but because you can’t. I don’t want pity, but there’s a lot of planning you have to do just to get out the door, or go on holiday, or feed my child. It isn’t quite straightforward. Everything takes time.
Sometimes you’re knackered because you’re up all night, so maybe be a bit less judgey and a bit less pity-face. We’re not brave soldiers because we’ve got disabled children. We’re just mothers.
Betty is an 11 year old child. She has special needs but it’s not all she is. It’s just part of who she is. She’s a kid. She’s my daughter and she’s funny and she likes ABBA. She can’t do lots of things but that’s alright. I think sometimes you can end up defining everything by about what your child can’t do not what they can. Don’t pigeonhole her.
How has your parenting, and your approach to your daughter’s disability, changed over time? How would you describe how you have changed?
I’m more relaxed about it but I’m armed with knowledge and experience and I don’t think I could have fast-tracked it. I was so worried at the beginning about targets and appointments – every week there would be something at the hospital, but I quite liked that. It was like a security net in some ways being surrounded by people who knew what they were talking about. I felt like I was doing something.
We did endless exercises at home but it all became a bit about that, to the exclusion of anything else. I remember talking to somebody who had taken a standing frame for their kid on holiday with them and they were doing it by the pool and now I’d be like ‘You’re on holiday! Why don’t you just not do that?!’. But you get so caught up worrying that something bad is going to happen if your child doesn’t do so many hours in the standing frame. Now I think I could have done three times the amount of time in the standing frame with Betty and it wouldn’t have made any difference to her development.
I think having my second child made me realise that. I did very little with her and one day she just got up and walked across the room! I hadn’t spent hours showing her what to do or buying her special shoes. I think in hindsight I would try and just enjoy having a child irrespective of the fact that they’ve got a disability.
People see me as the parent of a child with a disability not just as a parent. Sometimes it’s quite nice if you meet people who don’t know and they just treat you like everyone else, not be weird about it or try and help, try to make it better. People want to help and that comes from a place of kindness but it’s exhausting when they’re trying to fix it for you and it doesn’t need fixing and it can’t be fixed.
Agnes had to have a massive heart operation as soon as she was born and the heart problem could have been an indicator of a disability. I was a bit more like ‘well, it’ll be alright, it’s just heart surgery’ but also I was a bit less scared of it. I’m not scared of disability.
I’m not very good at asking for help and just to acknowledge that it’s harder for me than it might be for somebody who hasn’t got a disabled child was quite difficult for me to do. I don’t want to be needy. I don’t want pity. I don’t want a sad face and a link to an article about gut health. But some people will just bring you a meal round if they know you’re struggling. Sometimes I just want a lasagna, or a beer!
Having Betty has completely changed my whole view of everything. You see everything through the lens of having a child with difficulties and it’s made me not sweat the small stuff. But also be a bit more tolerant of some people and a bit less tolerant of others. I’m more understanding of people who are different.
I’ve met some of the greatest, loveliest people through having Betty and it’s made me think about things differently. I’ve had experiences I never would have had and lived my life in a way I wouldn’t have lived it so I’m grateful for that.
Note: Some names have been changed.