My son, Ben, is 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. 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 and I would have found it helpful to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences. I am interviewing parents who are raising children who are not typical to discuss their thoughts and lives. This week it is with Emma Gardner.
Could you describe your family?
I have one child – Dotty. She is seven and she is disabled. Her dad and I are divorced although we’re great friends and still very much a team for her. I have a new partner, Adam and he has two children from his previous marriage.
What does Dotty love?
Since she was a baby her favourite thing has been eating. She is so motivated by food. She loves music, and responds to one to one play, in close proximity. She loves thumbing through books. She can’t read but she just loves turning pages and holding books.
How would you describe Dotty to people who don’t know her?
I describe her as disabled. I used to blurt that out nervously when she was younger and people would look at her adaptive pram. But now I confidently use it. I want her to feel proudly disabled and as a wheelchair user it’s more obvious now. Also her condition is complicated – it’s a rare, genetic condition that is fairly tough to explain.
When did you first realise that Dotty might not be a typical baby or child?
She was a very unhappy baby and we were in and out of hospital for the first few months. From around 18 months, we knew she wasn’t hitting the “typical milestones” but we thought she was probably chilling out after such a difficult start. We went to see a neurologist who had wanted to keep an eye on her following her early hospital stays, and we started to realise that she wasn’t doing a lot of things that were “expected”. She was diagnosed with her condition when she was two and a half after lots of tests. We kind of knew there was something going on, but when you get, ‘Here it is, this is exactly what it is, now off you go,’ you’re like, ‘Wow, what actually just happened?!’
The diagnosis wasn’t very clear about what it would mean for Dotty. There’s no pack explaining things. We were just told to speak to our health visitor, continue with the physio, do what we were doing and see how it went. At the time the internet was definitely not helpful, not least because genetic code and neurology are really tough to understand!
Some of the groups I found online took me to some dark places because I couldn’t see what the condition meant long term. I realise that the pre-conditioned views a lot of us have grown up with around disability clouded this period of time and it was easy to get stuck in a negative loop, focussed on what was wrong. But I knew I didn’t want to do that – I just wanted to move forward.
And now that she’s a bit older, how does Dotty’s disability impact her day to day life?
She needs one to one care. She goes to a specialist school and she has the most incredible team there – her teachers, assistants, physios. I love that it’s all now in one place now. Dotty needs help to do most things but she’s a determined soul. She’s really socially engaged and this past year she’s really developed her connection skills and emotional responses which has been wonderful, especially for me to see having spent so much time with her, working from home.
Are there things that you have been struck by being particularly different to what you expected of motherhood?
Motherhood was such a change, but also a magnifier on everything that was going on with me – my mental health, my lifestyle, my relationships, my career. My marriage broke down, I got divorced and everything changed. When it happened I was really worried that Dotty would be seen as the reason for that, or her disability would. But it wasn’t – there was stuff going on there with me before she came along. Having Dotty shone this intense light into a lot of that stuff that I needed to figure out which was pretty tough to manage but I’m thankful now. I’m happier, the people around Dotty are happier and I think ultimately that’s made her happier. I don’t know what I imagined motherhood to be like, but probably nothing like it is. I didn’t imagine unravelling and rebuilding myself for example. I wasn’t prepared for that.
I genuinely thought I was giving birth into a spreadsheet. I was that person, who made lists and assumed I had it all sorted. Arrogantly so.
I know some people get on brilliantly and becoming a mother doesn’t change anything for them, but for me it was hard and it changed everything. It’s still hard at times. But it’s also the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I wouldn’t change how it’s played out at all. Otherwise I wouldn’t have Dotty or be the person I am now.
Do you think things could have been easier if the people or processes around you had been different?
Definitely. I think that’s still true, although people around you get more used to it. In the beginning, there’s a perception that it’s the worst thing that’s happened to you. So even when you’re getting on, trying to live your life, you’ve still got the pity of other people to manage. Nothing’s easy when you become a parent anyway, but navigating the medical model of disability I found so frustrating, because you’re questioned, it’s hard and there are so many barriers to getting help. I’m lucky enough to have had some incredible support and brilliant people around Dotty since she was a baby. But why isn’t it easier, particularly for people that need more help to access the support they have a right to?
Access (or lack thereof) to places and products can change where we go on a weekend and where we can hang out, particularly now that Dotty’s older. That frustrates me because it’s not really anything to do with Dotty or her needs. It’s the fact that there often isn’t any accommodation or thought for people like Dotty. Those are the things I try to challenge myself, but that can be exhausting and I have to pick my battles.
What do you wish you had to spend less time explaining or that people knew about your family?
I suppose it’s that we’re not sad. We really do believe that this is okay. When I say I wouldn’t change Dotty, I mean it. I’m not just saying it because I can’t. That can be a very polarising view, depending on who you are. For me, yes, things are different, but she’s ultimately the greatest kid. I don’t really want people to look at us as sad or even inspiring but instead as a great example of living with disability, living a happy, colourful life. I’ve found a huge passion in trying to find ways to help people see that, to try and find ways to showcase that to parents particularly…and anyone really.
What do you think helped you come to that view?
When Dotty was younger, I buried myself in work. My ex-husband stayed home with Dotty and I was quite detached. But I was processing by bringing disability into conversations in my workplace. Through that process I read a lot and met and made friends with disabled people, and that naturally changed my mind and educated me. I met disabled people who were unapologetically themselves, talented, wickedly funny, creative and innovative. That really helped me to understand that negativity comes from society’s view of disability which often isn’t the reality. Like the rest of us, disabled people are all different, and a lot of the time just trying to get on with their lives. I’m hyper aware that Dotty can’t tell me her views yet and may not be able to. As her mother and carer, I know her and we communicate in our own way. Outside of that, I take in as much information and perspectives as possible to make the best decisions for her. But, just because I know what the social model of disability is, doesn’t mean I’m done. You’ve always got to keep learning.
Did having a disabled child change your view of the world?
Yes, definitely. It’s been transformational for me. It has broadened my perspective and everything we’ve been through has made me so much more confident.
Now, I want things to be better for Dotty and people like her and I understand how to make that happen. it’s ignited something in me. I feel like I can talk about it and help people, particularly parents, get there more quickly. I just feel so different, and that’s because my whole life has changed in the last couple of years and having a disabled child has been an integral part of that.
I still have my moments. I’m nonstop, don’t sleep enough and I struggle with anxiety, but none of those things are because of Dotty’s disability. They’re more likely to be related to other people’s views of it or of us. Or not related at all and just part of the way I’m wired.
How have you found being a working parent with a disabled child?
When I had Dotty, I was on the board of the agency and had worked there a long time so, for the most part, I was able to carve out the flexibility I needed. Looking back, I was definitely in ‘work comes first’ mode for a long time, which was happening because I was unhappy and hadn’t worked through a lot of the things I have now.
Now I’ve set up my own business and have total control over how that works for Dotty & I. I think the pandemic made me realise that I don’t want to go back to the amount of time I was spending in an office, my priorities changed again and I’ve developed much stronger boundaries.
I would say that working is really tough, depending on the level of care you’ve got, pandemic or not. But I’ve always been somebody that likes to work and I’m excited about what I’m doing again. I think that’s ultimately how I’m going to make it work. It feels like Dotty’s part of it, if that makes sense?
I think there can be a lot of pressure on mothers of disabled child that they should be giving everything to their children. Have you felt the pressure to not work?
It’s something I struggled with a lot before I started my own business and I felt guilty about not giving up work to care full time for Dotty. But ultimately, I know myself. I know that I’ll be no good to Dotty if I don’t also do the things that I need to make me happy. That took me, is still taking me, some time to be at peace with. But I stand by it, and that guilt feeds the attitude that assumes the disabled child, and disability, are tragic and something to pity, and that the mum has to be there by the kid’s side 24/7. Actually Dotty loves school. I love her going to school. I need her to go to school. There’s a place for all of it – people do what they need to do for their situation. I’m privileged that I was able to start my own business and managing both is working for us right now. Everyone’s situation is very individual and that’s ok.
If you’d like to know more about the Medical and Social Models of Disability that Emma refers to there is more information here.
Emma is on Instagram: @ms_emma_gardner and Twitter: @ms_emma_gardner