A Parent Perspective: Interview with Emma

This is my latest interview in an occasional series – A Parent Perspective – with Emma. I first met Emma when her son, Ted, was very small and we lived near each other. Baby Ted reminded me so much of baby Ben. Since then she has moved out of London, had another child, Ted has blossomed and our families have become friends.

My son, Ben, is 12 and I knew very little about disabled people when he was born. My experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. I find it helpful and interesting to read stories about other people with similar experiences and I hope you might too.

Could you describe your family?

There are four of us: my husband, Rik, and me. Ted is my oldest child who is nine now, and my daughter Dilly is six. We often have a carer with us too. We live on the Wiltshire-Somerset border but we’ll be moving to Somerset once we adapt a house there.

How would you describe Ted and what does Ted love doing?

Ted is a very happy, smiley boy. He loves being around people and in the thick of it. His favourite place to go is a supermarket – he literally whoops with joy when he realises that we’re going there. He also loves slapstick comedy, silly games, fart noises, all of that kind of thing.

He has cerebral palsy from a catastrophic brain injury at birth, which affects his whole body. He requires a lot of support with everything in his life so we have a lot of help from carers.

Ted goes to a brilliant school in Bath. He used to really hate goodbyes and would wail as we waved him off on the school bus in the morning. They’d always text 10 minutes later to say he was fine, but it was awful. Then we had this gruff, Scottish driver who’d joke with Ted and now he gets really excited when the bus comes.

Did you know from the moment Ted was born that his brain injury was going to going to have affected him?

He was in a very poor state when he was born and he was whisked off into NICU. That night the consultant mentioned the words cerebral palsy. We were taking each day, each hour, each minute at a time. Once he moved from NICU into Special Care, I think the naive part of me was hoping for a miracle – one of these people whose life support was almost turned off but now they’re six foot and play rugby. There were lots of signs that wasn’t going to happen – feeding difficulties, physios saying he was very stiff, nurses giving us a knowing look with a slight tilted head. We had a diagnosis of cerebral palsy at about three months. Ted cried all the time in those early days.

There were some forums that I joined that I quickly stepped back from because it was just terrifying to me at that point – people’s children were passing away or having terrible seizure disorders. Life seemed very medical and very difficult. At that point, Ted needing a wheelchair was the worst thing I could think of. Now I know that Ted not walking is the least of our worries. I was asking myself if Ted was going to be constantly unwell? Was I going to be in and out of hospital wondering if he was going to make it through the night? At the beginning you don’t know what is going on, you feel like you’re upside down half the time. It’s a lot to deal with.

What was helpful in that early period?

Realising I could say no. There was a physio playgroup at 9am on a Tuesday and I found it stressful getting out of the house that early to get the bus. When I got there, I don’t know what I was supposed to be doing. Everyone else seemed to have a programme to follow or children that could play. The day that I said, ‘I don’t want to go to that, I’m not finding it useful,’ felt really big because I felt like my baby belonged to a system. He wasn’t really mine. He belonged to the hospital, social care, and health care systems, so it was good to take back some control.

I felt very different to other mums and like Ted was very different to other babies when he was tiny. But actually I realised that he didn’t really look any different to anyone else. One of the people I’d met in antenatal classes was persistent in inviting me out for a coffee and we went to baby massage, and that was really helpful. A little normality was what I needed. I learned to accept help from friends. I tried not to hide away and to do some fun things. They were all quite tinged with sadness though, because it was a traumatic time and the antithesis of what I expected having a newborn to be like.

How did you make decisions about having another child?

We always wanted more than one child but there was fear and anxiety. I knew it was very unlikely for the same brain injury to happen again but once you spend some time within those Facebook forums you hear awful stories. I didn’t know if I could do that again, but I knew that we did desperately want another child. I wanted to experience what it might be like to have a neurotypical child and have a non-traumatic birth. Ted was three when Dilly was born and was having a bit of time at nursery. He still had his moments, but he was generally happier about things, a bit more comfortable in his body. We’d resolved some of the feeding issues (he still wasn’t tube fed at that point). It felt like a good time, and it was brilliant.

Dilly’s birth was super easy in a birthing pool but feeding was not smooth. I decided I was going to make breastfeeding work, but it was four months of absolute agony before we found our groove. It was difficult deciding whether to keep going or move to formula because I’d had to do that with Ted. I’m glad I persevered – I fed her for four and a half years in the end and it gave us an incredible bond. Having Dilly made me really appreciate what it’s like to raise a neurotypical child, but also understand everything that Ted had struggled with.

They are completely different children, and you have to accept them for the child they are rather than the child you want them to be, or that you think they are. Regardless of disability. I realised that I had to fully accept Ted as he is. I had to embrace every aspect of him – feeding difficulties, missed milestones, a body that didn’t work as it should – as much as I accepted that he had brown hair and brown eyes.

How have you approached therapies with Ted?

I definitely went through a stage of thinking if I just found the right combination of therapies, I could make Ted do these things that he was clearly never going to do. We settled on ABR therapy which we’ve done since he was six months old. When we first went he was very tight and angry, and I don’t think it’s necessarily given him much more functionality but it’s brought him a lot of comfort within his own body. I focus on the physical therapy, and could probably do more in terms of communication. Ted’s very bright, sociable and clearly understands a lot, but we don’t know where his cognition level is and we haven’t found a good system of communication beyond eye pointing and smiling.

How do you think having Ted changed the kind of parent you are?

I think I appreciate every little milestone of Dilly’s in a way I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d had a typical first child. I think it’s been a real blessing having Ted because he suits who I am as a parent – low key! I don’t feel pressure to make sure that Dilly is attending Mandarin classes or whatever. We prioritise experiences and family time over formal learning.

Before you have children all you know about is sleepless nights and ‘terrible twos’. You don’t feel the love, or see how angelic your children look when they sleep, or know what it’s like when they write you cards saying, ‘I love you’. From the outside you just see the difficulties, but you can’t know the amazing feeling when I make Ted laugh.

How have you found having carers to help Ted, and how have you made it work for your whole family?

I’m extremely grateful for the help that we have. It ebbs and flows but I have a good life and if we had to do all of the 24/7 care, would I be as resilient and upbeat about it? We’ve had carers since about 2016, including some nightcare, and it’s strange sharing your house with other people. For the first time recently, Rik and I were bickering in front of the carers because our house is not particularly big. I think it was making them feel quite uncomfortable, but I can’t wait until 8pm on Friday to schedule an argument with my husband. Having carers in the house is really helpful but there’s not a lot of privacy. It does mean that I can do the fun things with Ted and pass off the boring tasks. I can focus more on Dilly and I’m able to work and do some things for myself, which is incredibly important. It comes with a fair amount of guilt for people that don’t have what we have.

What helped change your thoughts about Ted’s disability, since the period after his birth?

Having talking therapy and processing the emotions was helpful to a degree. Meeting you was really helpful – someone who was a little bit further down the road than you are, modelling that it’s okay. Reading Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From The Tree. Listening to podcasts. Listening to disabled people, partly on social media, and unpicking internalised ableism.

Realising that we’re all different, and different doesn’t have to mean bad. Our life is never going to be how it is in our head. We’re never the mothers that we think we’re going to be because our children come along and are their own people. That’s irrespective of challenges. I looked at what I want from life and how I could go about getting that, and none of that involved taking away Ted’s disability. Before I had Ted, I definitely had times where I felt like there had to be a bit more to life. I wanted a life with more meaning, and that’s exactly what I’ve got. Going through difficult times makes you appreciate the better times.

When Ted was born someone from work sent me a card which said (I think it’s a John Lennon quote) that everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay it’s not the end. It’s really hard to see that in the beginning, when I thought ‘okay’ was a miracle recovery. That’s not what happened and it’s more than okay. You can come out the other side of the difficult times and it can be brilliant.

You can find Emma on Instagram here, and on Twitter here

A Parent Perspective: Interview with Jo

My son, Ben, is 12 and I knew very little about disabled people when he was born. My experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. I find it helpful and interesting to read stories about other people with similar experiences.

This is my latest interview in an occasional series – A Parent Perspective – with Jo. Jo’s eldest son is disabled and her personal experience motivated her to look at the wellbeing of parent carers in her professional work as a psychologist and writer. I loved talking to Jo about how she’s balanced working and caring over the years, which I think is a familiar challenge to so many of us, and how she’s making sure her research is useful to parent carers.

Could you describe your family?

I live with my husband and three sons. My eldest is 14, and then I have a 13 year old and a nearly 10 year old, and we live in north London. I often describe our family as quirky which I’ve come to embrace.

My eldest son is disabled – he has cerebral palsy, learning disability and autism. He’s in a good place at the moment. His sense of humour has come out – he’s discovered some swear words that he’ll suddenly shout out at tea time and I find very funny (and he knows he’s being cheeky). I don’t want to undermine how difficult it has been to get this good place, so I appreciate and enjoy it, but it can feel precarious.

What are your son’s favourite things?

He is happy and really settled in a special school. He loves pizza and chocolate cake, and transport. Once a year I take him away on a train and we went to York in the summer which was special. He sits on the train and shouts ‘All aboard!’ which makes me chuckle. He loves being out and about, for coffee and a cake, to sit on the bus.

In the house, and during the school holidays, it’s quite difficult to entertain him other than TV, iPad, iPod. He likes the trampoline, pacing around. He used to be absolutely terrified of dogs and it was getting to the point we couldn’t go to our local park because he’d scream or run into the road when he saw a dog. But we got a dog three years ago and she’s been incredible, and then we’ve just got a new puppy who we hope will be more playful and interactive. My son loves throwing a ball or a stick for the dogs, and they have now become a big part of his everyday life. He gives them fresh water, puts their food out. He’s in charge of letting them in and out of the garden and they have cured him of his phobia.

How does his disability affect his day-to-day life?

He is very mobile and walks and runs around. His memory is not great so we break things down for him with lots of repetition. That can be quite hard when you’re very tired. His speech is quite affected. Something I found really hard to get my head around with brain injury is that some days it’s like he’s firing on all cylinders – he’s funny and fast, tells my husband he’s going to put custard in his slippers – and it feels like this is him. Then another day he won’t respond – he’ll be staring out the window and it’s like the neurons just aren’t connecting in the same way. I think some of it is tiredness or when he’s coming down with illness. I’ve learned over many years that when he’s getting ill he has a couple of weeks of feeling grotty but it doesn’t show, so I wonder why he’s being so irritable and then it all comes out and he’s lying on the sofa and needing me.

It was interesting during lockdown that he was so well and his behaviour was amazing. It was only when I went to a training session a few years ago that I heard someone say that people with learning disabilities can be more prone to illness, and illness can really affect behaviour. I sometimes feel guilty for not realising these things sooner. You need to know these things to empower yourself, and also to know that some changes are temporary which makes difficult periods more bearable.

Your two eldest sons are quite close together in age. What were their early years like?

After my eldest son was born we were so delighted he had survived following a traumatic birth and we didn’t fully have an idea of what his diagnosis meant for him. Then when my second son was born it was really tough because it was when some of my eldest son’s difficulties became more apparent, when he was 18 months old. I was full of hormones, and I couldn’t recover from the birth with two kids under two. I had some difficulties trusting other people to look after my eldest son, which may have been the case anyway but was exacerbated by his difficult birth, and childcare was expensive so I didn’t get enough support. I remember I had to put my second son on a chair on the sofa, with a footstool in front, to stop my eldest son getting to him and scratching his face. I’d found a way that kept everyone safe, but the health visitor came round and said I couldn’t put a baby in a chair up on a raised surface. It’s difficult when people come into your house and make comments without having an alternative solution. You are quite exposed when you have a baby anyway, but when you have a disabled child that is magnified – the number of people coming, looking, commenting, telling, advising. It can be quite disheartening as a parent. You’re having to prioritise what’s the most important thing at the moment. That’s why parent carers have such amazing skills.

How did having your eldest child affect your career?

I was a psychologist in primary care in the NHS before I had children. After my eldest son was born it was just about manageable, but then his appointments really increased and I had my second son. My eldest was getting ill a lot and there was a lack of flexibility from my employers and it became too difficult. It was a really hard decision to leave my job because I’d worked really hard for it. I know lots of other parent carers have this difficult decision to make – you like your work and it gives you purpose and meaning, but then it adds to the stress so much that it becomes untenable.

I gave up work for a bit, and then I started working in counselling for a charity supporting male survivors of sexual abuse. The team that I worked with and the work I did there was incredible, but I kept coming back to emotional wellbeing in parent carers and wondering why no one was talking about it. It felt like a hidden thing that wasn’t acknowledged because everything is about the child. I was mulling this over for a long time before I decided to go back to do a Doctorate and research that topic. I started my Doctorate when my eldest son was 10 and it took me for four years.

Before that I had set up my website Affinity Hub (www.affinityhub.uk) to signpost to emotional support because I was hearing anecdotes about general counsellors not really getting what parent carers needed and I thought there must be some people with expertise in this area. I wrote a few articles for journals in therapy and counselling and found counsellors that were often parent carers as well, or had worked in the field for a long time and really got it. I also did a brief survey on my website because I was curious about how parent carers were feeling. The response I got to that drove my desire to do the doctoral research, which then fed into my book Day by Day: Emotional Wellbeing in Parents of Disabled Children which was published earlier this year.

What did you find in your research?

To feel well, you want to feel like you have some control over your life and that came through really strongly in my research. The importance of connecting with positive other people as well and how for some people their family or friends could be such a strong support and for others those were the very people that had really let them down. The importance of finding other parent carers, which was not surprising but so strong. Also the importance of the connection, the love and strength of feeling that parent carers have towards their child. I think a lot of parent carers develop an awareness that we don’t have control over life, and it can be difficult at times. There is a kind of a wisdom – you see what’s really important, and that things are fragile and precious.

it was so important to me that something practical came out of my research because having felt quite alone in some of my difficult feelings in the early years, I was shocked at how many studies were out there about risks to mental health for parent carers. I’d never read about these studies and I was a professional in the mental health field. When I found that research I thought I’m not alone. I’m not a failure. It was so powerful, but also made me really angry that it’s not better known. It’s important to me that research gets to the people that need it and I worked not only on my book, but training for professionals and the NHS about how they can better support parent carers.

Has your research made you think you would have done some things differently?

A common theme was guilt, and giving yourself a hard time for things that you could have done differently. I’m reading a lot about self-compassion at the moment and I think it’s so important for parent carers. You’re only human, you can’t know everything, you made the best of things at that time. There are things that I would have done differently, but I try to not give myself a hard time about it now. There are certainly things that I would want to have been different with the support around me, and the support around all parent carers. My big bugbear is acknowledging the emotional impact, which I think is still rare or done very insensitively.

Have you done any research into siblings of disabled children?

A lot of parent carers I spoke to felt that there could be a tendency to overcompensate for siblings. To give them amazing days out and let them get away with things, being desperate to give siblings amazing memories.
I felt guilty for a long time about my middle son because he was born so close to my eldest. I tried to protect him as much as possible but I’m sure it was stressful for him because of some of the behaviours of my eldest son. Now I look back and I don’t know what more I could have done. It was the nature of the experience.

It’s interesting with siblings because they go through phases of getting on. Initially, my eldest and middle were quite close, then my eldest and youngest, and then my youngest and my middle sons. I think you have to remind yourself that those dynamics would be there anyway, disability just adds an extra thing.

When they were all younger and my eldest son disturbed a game, for example, I would say ‘It’s not his fault, he doesn’t understand.’ I was hoping that they would get an understanding of their big brother’s needs. Then I went on a Sibs training course, and one of the things that adult siblings of disabled people reported as hating hearing the most is, ‘Don’t give your brother/sister a hard time because they can’t help it.’ Or ‘it’s not their fault’. So I’ve stopped saying that but it’s an ongoing learning process!  Being a parent is hard, managing all these dynamics, and you never know if you’re making the right decisions at the time. I think it’s important to keep hold of the idea of ‘good enough’ parenting rather than expect perfection. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, you just try and do your best.

You can find Jo @affinityhub.uk on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

Jo’s website is here: www.affinityhub.uk

You can order her book Day by Day: Emotional Wellbeing in Parents of Disabled Children here