My son, Ben, is 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 interviewing parents who are raising children who are not typical to discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Rachel Wright, who kindly met with me (virtually) to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I’m a cliché. I married the boyfriend that I got together with at 17. It gets worse though, because he’s a doctor and I’m a nurse. We have three sons: S is 15, J is 13 and E is five.
How would you describe your eldest son?
He is a boy that laughs from the tips of his toes to the top of his head – he has the dirtiest laugh on the planet. He loves Pointless and could happily watch five episodes in a row. He loves swimming and music, making disco showers the best time of the day. He sings very loudly and if you’re not attuned to his kind of singing, it may sound like he’s complaining. To those of us close to him, it looks and sounds very different. He enjoys an eclectic range of music from Romeo and Juliet to Chemical Brothers, and some cheesy Christian kids music he’s been subjected to since he was born.
If a doctor asked me what the matter with S, I’d say he has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, is registered blind, PEG (gastrostomy) fed, has microcephaly and very complex health needs. He needs 24 hour, seven days a week care.
I describe him has disabled, or as having complex needs, or I talk about his life-limiting epilepsy. I recognise that I’m not disabled so the terms and language used are not for me to own necessarily, but I am not ashamed of his cerebral palsy and disability any more than his blue eyes and brown hair. I’m not going to attach any level of shame because I value vulnerability. I am convinced that our fragility isn’t something which needs fixing rather our weaknesses are at the heart of where connection and purpose is born.
When did you realise that S was going to be disabled, or that he wasn’t going to be a typical child?
As soon as he was born, he didn’t breathe and was ventilated. We were given percentages at that point of his chances of having a disability. We carried hope with us until clarity came at ten weeks old when we had an MRI scan that showed every part of his brain was affected. We went into that hospital with the hopes of minimal or no impact, and walked out with the reality of a very severely disabled child.
How does S’s disability affect his, and your, life day to day?
S likes things the way he likes them. I guess partly because of learning disability and partly blindness. He’s most comfortable when his world is structured and he knows what’s happening. Obviously he still surprises us in a positive way but there is also no hour where there isn’t something that needs doing, whether that’s his milk, meds, or repositioning. That continues through the night. It’s been 15 years of day and night care, which impacts our lives.
I find it really hard to express the relentlessness of that without feeling guilt over betraying one of my biggest loves. I don’t know how to explain how hard it is without implying a level of not loving enough. What I try to remind myself is love doesn’t give me more hands, more hours, or more emotional strength. As a nurse, I got lunch breaks and to go home and sleep. As parents we might have to do the night and then still take the kids to school in the morning, before going to work and then caring the rest of the day. I think it’s really hard to look after your emotional self with the constant logistics of caring for a child with such complex needs – the 80+ people that we have to communicate with, the necessary tasks. With our other kids, I can take a break, say ‘let’s just get pizza’. But I can’t be like ‘let’s just not draw the meds up tonight’. There isn’t that option.
It can feel like there’s no margin in the day, and there’s so little permission to not do things. The emotional drain of that can make you feel like you’re failing the whole time. You get to the end of the day and you can just see the five things that you didn’t do, even if you actually did twelve other things.
In what ways do you think being a parent has turned out how you expected it to? Are there things that are particularly different or, or things that ended up being the same?
I had expected to be parenting somewhere else in the world, maybe South America or Africa. I was going to deliberately choose my life to be different, where we would be doing medicine in other countries. I guess I expected to have complexity, but I thought it would be completely different. When S came along it threw our plans of working abroad out the window because we needed to be near lots of support. We’ve now been living in our house for nearly 11 years, and that’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere my whole life.
Another way it’s different is our capacity to be outside. My husband loves camping and we will camp all year round, but it’s difficult to be spontaneous, to have that ability to travel. S can’t camp when it’s cold and we need five hours of near military operation to simply leave the house. There is so much kit we must remember or practical aspects to consider. We do try to take it in turns to travel alone or without S each year.
The way it is similar is the way that we approach things. I guess S expedited our mid-life crisis. We are focused and very value based. We continue to struggle with an evolving faith.
How do you think being S’s parent has affected how you parent your other children?
I think parenting brings out the best and worst in you. It amplifies aspects of your personality. We were both pretty laid back. When we got pregnant a second time, S was nine months old and wasn’t rolling or grasping, but by the time our next son was born we were in and out of hospital with S’s epilepsy and feeding complications. It was a massive change. I think our parenting was all up for grabs, because it was so disorientating.
That definitely meant when J loved food, he had whatever he liked! I loved how excited he was about ice cream. When he was fussy and didn’t want to eat I knew he wasn’t actually going to starve, so I didn’t worry about it.
Until J was eight years old (when E came along) he had lived his whole life as the second child, just having to muck in because the world didn’t revolve around him. But we also had to try everything out on him because we hadn’t done it before. He was doing things for the first time, but without the undivided attention of being an eldest child.
I worry sometimes that because of S’s complex needs, I didn’t support J to the extent that I could have done. The way J progressed just blew my mind but maybe I would have been more on the ball if I hadn’t had such a skewed perspective. Meanwhile Ethan, as the youngest, just runs rings around all of us.
Are there ways in which being a parent has changed you over the last 15 years?
Yes – completely, and not at all! I think I really lost myself for the first few years, under layers of guilt, expectations on myself, perceived expectations of what other people thought of me. Having S threw everything up in the air, and we had to piece things back together.
I’ve become a lot more feminist. I have a husband who is proactive at home he easily takes care of children and home when I’m not there but the logistics are all still down to me, partly because it’s not realistic to split responsibility for that.
At the start of the pandemic, in March/April last year, I had a massive meltdown because all the emotions I had when I first became a parent were exposed again. Everyone else was making decisions for me. Everything I had worked towards disappeared and there was nothing I could do about it. I was so consumed by the jobs that had to be done minute-to-minute that I couldn’t see how to carve anything out for myself. But also, the layer on top of that was that it would be so different if I had been a man. If the expectation hadn’t been that I was the person who was going to stay at home. My husband earns a lot more money than me, my position as a nurse would always play second fiddle to his role as a GP because I earnt less and couldn’t support our family with my wage. But that feeling of loss, that the last 15 years of not working has impacted my ability to do things now, is something I’m processing.
It feels like when we were clapping keyworkers last year we’d realised the things that made a difference were people that put food on the shelves, who were looking after the vulnerable. But that narrative was sadly still founded on pity rather than value based. We continue to do that with Children in Need and Comic Relief. We portray families like ours with a big violin and a greyed out scene, and then they get a therapy or opportunity and the sun comes out, faces start smiling and…isn’t it lovely. People are quite happy to give a couple of pounds to that. It makes us feel better and distracts us from the need to value and fund the infrastructure within society needed, or recognise our gender-specific values.
The reason things like EHCPs (Education, Health & Care Plans) and IEPs (Individual Education Plans) fail is because we take these things, which rely on collaboration, and plonk them into a patriarchal system that relies on an ideology of productivity, that is financially driven. They don’t look at how this affects people – how much they feel valued, or whether they’re failing because they’re not in a system that can support them. Then when the plans do fail, they say ‘Oh, look, we tried to be collaborative but it didn’t work’.
I think as a parent I’ve got an incredible capacity for guilt. With my five year old, if I don’t sit and read to him he might not be a great reader, but he’s going to learn to read. With S there’s this feeling that it’s down to me. It partly comes from the number of practitioners who are telling me, ‘Just do 10 minutes of this. It’s really vital.’ So vital that they’re not going to do it for us, I have to do it and they’ll see us in six-month’s time. Imagine if practitioners sat down together and decided with families what the priorities are, because parents can’t do it all. This should be about a person’s life and all the people around them taking some of the responsibility.
I’ve always been a challenger and agitator but I get consumed by the emotions of having to fight battles on behalf of my son. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, I want to live in a society which values S and our family. I want part but not all of my identity to be tied up in being a parent. Slowly I’m finding who I am again. I love that Brene Brown quote: ‘When we deny our story, it defines us. When we step into our story, we get to write a brave new ending.’ I was so geared up for a different story that I lost who I was, and it was only when I started stepping more fully into my story that I began to be able to make proactive choices which feel more like thriving than simply surviving.
Her book, The Skies I’m Under, is available here
Rachel runs parent workshops and CPD accredited training for professionals which can be booked through Eventbrite.