Today I took Molly to the GP to talk about something completely unrelated to her lungs, but while we were there I asked about the hacking cough that Molly has now had for over 3 weeks, which is extremely slowly improving. He said he had noticed it already and that it sounded viral. ‘I’m like a mechanic who can tell from the sound of the engine what’s going on with the car.’ He listened to Molly’s chest and confirmed there were no crackles, no need for antibiotics. As the doctor then did something on his computer, I told Molly that this was the room where I brought her as a baby. I’d put her in a special baby bowl on top of scales (though not that often because she was my third baby, who breastfed extraordinarily efficiently).
I knew he’d say her cough was okay. I would have taken her to the doctor sooner if I’d been worried, but I hadn’t been. She wasn’t otherwise unwell, and nothing about the cough had pricked my antennae. It reminded me of seven years ago when I took Ben to sit in the same doctors surgery to wait an undetermined length of time to see a doctor, because I didn’t like the sound of his cough. There weren’t any appointments, and when I arrived the receptionists were saying there were too many people waiting to see doctors. Ben wasn’t that ill, but wasn’t well, and I knew the sound of that cough was wrong.
The GP listened to Ben’s chest and diagnosed a chest infection, and once Ben had antibiotics he rallied. It was a relief, because I was in the early stages of pregnancy with Molly, we had just moved house, and I was being pulled in a million directions – trying to unpack boxes before passing out with the exhaustion of growing a small foetus. One of my many worries had been Ben’s cough and I felt so vindicated that I had been right.
I’m six more years into parenting now. Still making most of it up as I go along, but feeling like maybe I at least have coughs down?
Earlier this week I looked after Ben on my own for the first time in three months. While James was out with Molly and Max, for just over an hour, it was just me and Ben. We did some schoolwork, then I got him changed and back into his chair, started his dinner and we read a chapter of our latest book. It was an entirely routine afternoon, only made remarkable by the fact that I haven’t been able to look after him like that since the beginning of March before I broke my ankle.
It has been strange that lockdown has coincided so neatly with my ankle recovering from being pieced back together by surgeons. In some ways it has been convenient – I haven’t had to work out how to take the kids to school on crutches, or reject invitations to meetings, because there has been nowhere to go and no-one to see. On the other hand it has been difficult because we have had three children at home and I haven’t been able to look after them in the way I usually would – most markedly for Ben. Max and Molly don’t need much physical help – in fact they have often been helping me – but Ben relies on the physically ability of others to be moved, fed and changed, and I haven’t been able to do that.
It has been deeply frustrating. Luckily with James and visiting carers (with the attendant hand hygiene, new protocols and PPE) we have made it work. Ben has been okay, but I don’t like it. I want to be a hands-on parent taking care of him and helping him do the things he enjoys but the ways in which I want to use my hands are, I have discovered, highly dependent on the stability of my ankle and my ability to walk and stand. I could read Ben books thoughout, sit next to him and keep tabs on whether he was being fed or not, but it wasn’t the same. It hasn’t felt like enough.
It’s made me realise how precarious my physical ability to look after Ben is, and that has been set against the precariousness of Ben’s normal life in general. I knew something about the fragility of my body – I have recovered from two caesarean sections and lower back problems which have each meant periods where I couldn’t look after Ben on my own – but I had settled into a naïve belief that the support that surrounded Ben was secure. Until it was all stripped away by the ramifications of Covid 19. At the exact point that my ability to care for Ben was reduced, everything else also stopped and James and I needed to not only be his parents but also his teachers, therapists, friends and carers.
I know that everything has tumbled for everyone – we had all built lives that were dependent on friends, colleagues and professionals – but Ben’s more than most. Some support can be substituted remotely, but it’s not the same. Ben has learnt to zoom call his teachers, and we have sent photos to his therapists so they can review his position. He’s having music via videolink, and we send photos of completed work to school. Many of his carers have been able to keep coming, and we have been gratefully dependent on their help to not only care for him but also to attempt to educate him, but none of it is a substitute for him being at school. Max and Molly are also missing all of the benefits of formal education but we can more easily compensate. There are losses, of course, but they don’t feel as acute to me.
And yet with a realisation of the precariousness of it all, comes an appreciation for all of these people who prop up our lives and the stability we enjoy. My naivety was a luxury – I hadn’t realised how delicate Ben’s normal, day to day, life was because he is usually so well supported and I had forgotten the physical demands of caring for Ben because I had had the benefits of my body allowing me to do it effortlessly.
It’s not all bad. In these last three months, Ben has never spent so much time in the hammock, or been read so many books, or been hugged and kissed so consistently by his sister (our fears about ruining their relationship forever by forbidding her from touching him when she was ill unfounded). He now knows significantly more about Thunderbirds than he did, and he is sleeping better than ever. So pros and cons. I suspect our children will remember this period fondly once they are reunited with their friends, family, teachers and therapists (or actually anyone that isn’t me and James). They probably won’t remember this period as a loss (though Max will take a while to recover from not being allowed to see his friends). As we rebuild all of the connections and relationship that are the foundation of Ben’s normal life, I will notice how valuable all of those people are and hope that we never notice just how precarious our dependence is again.
It has now been over four and a half weeks of us being at home – at first in self-isolation because Molly was ill, then in the typical lockdown that everyone is doing. It has been over five weeks since I slipped on a small hill in a kids’ playground and broke three bones in my ankle. Tomorrow will mark exactly five weeks since I was wheeled into surgery, telling James I would see him in two hours, only to return five hours later with three metal plates and ten screws in my very swollen ankle.
I was discharged from hospital two days before Molly got ill and so our lockdown is inextricably linked with my ankle injury and my often clumsy attempts to manoeuvre myself around on crutches, bearing no weight on my left leg. Having a leg in a cast was not ideal preparation for having three children at home, all the time. Yet, when I was first in hospital the thing that upset me the most was being separated from my family. I was so lonely and all I wanted was to be in my own house with my children. So in some ways all my dreams came true!
Once I could leave my bed, my inability to move, carry or help has been difficult and it has felt like the worst timing because what we could do with now, more than anything, is two adults who can both look after our children. My incapacity meant James doing everything, for all of us, for weeks and it was a lot for him. More than once when I tried to be helpful and independent, I fell over. I have found it incredibly frustrating. I am unused to dependency and have found it hard to rely on nurses, my husband and my children for the most basic of my needs.
But in some ways I injured myself at the best possible moment. We had bumped into a friend in the playground just before I fell and so she distracted Max and Molly while I worked out how to get myself to A&E. I had delivered a massive work project the day before I injured myself so it has been okay that I haven’t worked for a month. James had returned from a work trip to Canada two days before I was admitted to hospital. I was discharged from hospital just before the pandemic took full hold, and my limited mobility is less of an issue since I’m barely allowed to leave my house.
We have bought me a one-legged scooter and so I can now prop my healing leg on it and potter around the house. I can cook, and carry things from one place to another without needing to pack them into my rucksack. I have made it out to the garden and have played an extremely amateur, ridiculous, game of seated volleyball with Max. I have been reaping all of the benefits of a house without steps, with doorways wide enough for a scooter, and a lift that takes me to my bedroom. I have been so grateful for the mobility aids that have allowed me to move around and increasingly parent my children. And yet I am so resentful that I can’t use my legs like I am used to. It’s been a surprise to find myself dependent on crutches and a scooter and I struggle to reconcile my long-standing belief that mobility aids are freeing, not confining, with feeling incredibly constrained, all of the time. I hope this is more a process of change management in my own mind than latent prejudice against disability, but it’s hard to fathom my own thoughts when I have only left the house twice in a month and we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
Because obviously the pandemic weighs heavily. When Molly was ill, we attempted to self-isolate her and Max from Ben, so after years of encouraging our children to touch, kiss and cuddle each other we had to stop Molly going near Ben in the house. It felt necessarily but wrong. Max stopped sleeping in the same room as Ben. We still had some carers coming to spend time with Ben, and we had to tell Molly and Max not to go downstairs when they were here. After years of encouraging an ease around Ben and his carers, we had to police everyone’s exposure to each other, spraying cleaning fluid in their wake. It was heart-breaking. I’m not sure how long it will take for us to undo our policing of touch.
As Molly entered her second full week of illness, it seemed like Ben was in a vulnerable category and we tried to work out what we would do if he got ill. We spoke to Ben’s lead consultant and he suggested a plan which made us feel reassured, but we were on tenterhooks every time Ben coughed or grimaced. Somehow he has so far remained unaffected, and now we are all healthy, touch wood. It now seems like Ben no longer officially counts as vulnerable, though who knows, and there is only so much we can do to keep him safe. We remain vigilant, nervous and concerned.
In the midst of all of this, I scoured the internet for guidance about how we should manage carers coming into the house. Not having carers was not an option given my inability to look after Ben and James needing to look after all five of us. I cannot push Ben’s wheelchair or move him between his chair and his bed. I can barely change him without wobbling perilously and can’t get to him in the night in any kind of timely fashion. So we came up with our own version of guidelines for how we would manage the risk, long before the government produced anything helpful.
I noticed news reports that told us, with a tone of reassurance, that many of the people who died had underlying health conditions. I knew that is how Ben would be described. I was relieved that children did not seem to be among the worst affected, but then there were reports of child deaths, and plenty of other people to still be worried about. When NICE published guidance setting out how access to critical care would be managed, I noticed that it was on the basis of frailty, and that according to their criteria Ben would be frail. I realised these criteria didn’t apply to children, and I was both relieved and still stricken, because Ben will one day be a disabled (apparently frail) adult, and we have friends who are disabled adults. I am still shocked that a formal, public document set out the ways in which a disabled person’s access to life-saving treatment would be considered rather than assumed. It was later edited to say the guidance should not be used with younger disabled people, but why did it take outrage to prompt that clarification? Of the many things I never imagined before COVID-19 appeared, I didn’t think I would ever worry whether my child would have to compete for medical attention and whether his disability would count against him if he did.
I’ve barely articulated any of these thoughts because I am mainly aware of our luck. We are currently healthy, in a large house with a garden where we have time to appreciate the tulips. We have offers of supplies and the money to buy them. I have a husband to help, and subscriptions to streaming services. We have as much hope as anyone else does of home-schooling our children, albeit with the colossal pressure of being not only Ben’s teacher but also his physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist and support system.
We could be in a much more difficult situation, and I know many are. We are okay – letting our kids watch marginally inappropriate films, making and eating too many cakes and wondering how to get any work done. We are more fortunate than many, yet each morning I remember that this crisis has laid bare an assumption that Ben’s life might be, if not now then in the future, a little bit less valuable than someone else’s and I just hope that we are going to weather this storm and then come out fighting, with strong ankles perhaps.
Ben has always had abundant hair. When he was very little he had curly, light hair which his neurologist said reminded him of Harry Styles and when he was one it needed to be trimmed. He had that typical baby thing of very little hair in some areas and way too much in others. The curls were cute but the comb-over + mullet combination was disconcerting.
I did what I had seen other people do and booked a haircut at a hairdressers that did special first haircuts. My mother in law joined me as we tried to entertain Ben while I did my best to hold him upright on my lap. His head was wobbly and I attempted to hold as far up his body as I could without getting in the way of the scissors. Sometimes I held the front of his head while she trimmed the back, or one side while she did the other. It was difficult and the hairdresser was perturbed by the wobbliness of it all, the difficulty of doing what she needed to do as quickly as she wanted to do it. We left with a shorn child, a certificate and a lock of hair. It wasn’t the landmark childhood moment I had hoped. It was an anti-climax – I’d expected to feel like despite his challenges, Ben had taken part in a rite of passage. A First Haircut, with documentation to prove it. Actually I felt like I’d wasted money on a stressful half hour where we had inconvenienced the hairdresser.
As Ben got older his hair grew straighter, longer and it got matted at the back where he lay down so much, rubbing his head from side to side since he couldn’t roll himself. He had an amazing side parting and swoosh of hair to the side, but it was annoying when it flopped into his eyes. A family friend who was a hairdresser offered to trim it at my mum’s house. As Ben sat in his highchair there, bolstered with rolled up towels and distracted by Cbeebies on an iPad, she worked her way around his head taking her time and letting his head loll when it needed to.
This was a good arrangement for us all and over the following years our friend would visit us at my mum’s or at our house regularly, taming Ben’s hair in exchange for cups of tea. As he got older his hairline established itself and it became clear that he was made for the sideburn like a very small, belated member of Supergrass. His hair grew quickly towards his face, and for a boy that is predisposed to being hot and whose body is in a constant state of wiggle, a helmet of hair didn’t help him cool down. Within a few months of a cut the hair would be back, in all its density and effortless perfection, or tousled imperfection.
When he was five Ben had an operation on his brain which meant his head needed to be shaved. In the pre-op consultations the surgeon had said they would do this in the operating theatre, but that we might prefer to do it ourselves first – partly to minimise the shock at seeing Ben freshly shaved post-op, and partly because the team were experts in neurosurgery but not hairdressing.
Our family friend visited us at home the day before the operation and cut James’s hair first while Ben watched TV next to them. When it was Ben’s turn we put an iPad on the dining table near the open doors to the garden. It was midsummer and there was washing drying in the sun as our friend put down her scissors and picked up her clippers. She started at the nape of his neck as she worked up and over the crown of his head, removing all of the glorious hair that had been his calling card since he was born. The surgery was too big and intimidating an event to really grab hold of, but sweeping all of his hair up from the floor felt dramatic and like we were unmooring ourselves from what we knew, taking terrific risks.
Ben’s head wasn’t clean shaven – there remained a downy stubble of hair which was satisfying to ruffle and with one front tooth missing he looked entirely different and incredibly cute. Having been born with very little hair, Max was now three and had more gradually grown a similar mop to Ben’s though darker brown. But now Ben’s had disappeared and the brothers that had looked so similar looked completely different. Max looked even more dark, relaxed, undisturbed in comparison.
Ben had bandage wrapped around his head for the week following surgery, the kind of bandage that cartoon characters have after running into a wall. When this came off we could see the patches where they had shaved the hair completely and stitched up incisions. Over the following months more of Ben’s teeth fell out and his hair slowly grew back but the texture and character was different. Even when the ridge of the scar was hidden, the hair around it was disturbed and you could see a ripple. The hair on the top no longer casually flopped to the side, it had vigour and grew up and out. After a night of Ben lying on his back, his hair would sit straight up like the frill of a triceratops and resist all efforts to be flattened. He didn’t need a haircut for a while but I watched the volume rise and the sideburns return, slightly darker, courser. When it came time for a haircut his hairdresser would not only need to contend with Ben’s near constant movement but now also the scars on his scalp. I was delighted to have his full head of hair back, but wondered how long we could manage it being cut. He hated being held still but it’s risky to have a pair of sharp scissors next to an unpredictable head. I wondered if the close crop would need to become more frequent.
It came time to find a new hairdresser and through a friend whose daughter also found it hard to keep still we found C. She also visited us at home and we would set Ben up at the dining table with a programme to watch and the headrest of his chair removed behind. C is fast and she found a way to dance her scissors around the ever moving target. Her speed meant there wasn’t time for Ben to get too frustrated or annoyed. I clamped his head still for the short buzz of clippers around his ears, but otherwise he wobbled and she coped.
When C visited this weekend she reigned in Ben’s sideburns and commented on how his hair has changed. Four years after the shaved head, the contours of the scars are invisible beneath his thick hair and the dinosaur frill is less pronounced. Some of the floppiness has returned. I trust C’s skill with her scissors and I paid little attention, chatting and making tea because I don’t need to be right there holding his head.
Then it was Molly’s turn to watch her programme and get her hair dramatically chopped after she requested hair more like her brothers. She no longer wanted the soft, light, long curls that she’s had for the last few years and which I later swept into the bin. She now has darker, shorter hair. Not exactly like her brothers, because in the same sentence as asking for short hair she said she also wanted to look like Elsa so I was worried she didn’t understand the long term implications of a hair cut, but closer.
I’m disconcerted by her new bob – she looks older and I have to admit she is no longer a baby – but she just wanted less hair. It’s not the precursor to surgery, it won’t take four years to recover, she just wants hair a bit more like Ben. It’ll grow back.
This is an elaboration on an Instagram post from May. You can follow me on Instagram for cute photos of my kids and occasional thoughts @jessmox
Molly helped me as I was putting Ben’s AFOs on one morning (AFO: ankle-foot orthosis – a custom made plastic splint to support the foot and ankle and keep them straight) by picking them up off the floor each time Ben kicked them off. As she climbed back up, she asked why Ben was kicking her in the face? We had a chat about Ben being disabled and I told her that her brain is in her head and it tells her legs how to move, and the messages between Ben’s brain and legs get confused. She’s 3. She listened and moved on.
I think so much of the cause of people feeling disability is unfortunate, bad or alien is because they don’t have the language to discuss it. If adults don’t use straightforward language to talk about disability with kids, and rather refuse to discuss it or use opaque, unfamiliar words, it reinforces the idea that there is something to be scared of or intimidated by. They get the impression there is something awkward that parents don’t want to discuss. Kids are never too young to be given the words to describe different kinds of people. These conversations can be just as cute as any others: ‘my brudder is bisabled!’
I don’t pretend to speak for everyone on this issue. The rich variety of humans means people like to be called different things, but disabled is a descriptive term not a slur, and it is the most appropriate word to describe Ben along with boy, child, white, male and awesome. Disabled is a political term used to describe people who are disadvantaged and excluded because of their impairments.
Other people would like to be called other things, or parents would like their children to be called something else. I have friends with children with learning difficulties who would describe their children as having special needs. Some adults would not like to be described as having ‘special needs’ since they would say their needs aren’t special, they are specific.
I have read pieces by disabled people talking about how horrible it is to be stared at, and other pieces saying parents should never tell a child to look away from a disabled person – that this compounds a sense that there is something to be embarrassed about. I know that having a child who points and stares at someone, possible saying something deeply uncomfortable very loudly, is awkward. It can be embarrassing. I also know that having a child who is stared and pointed at can be painful.
But most people don’t take offence at children. Parents are often embarrassed because they realise they don’t know what the right thing to say is and they know they are unprepared for this discussion and perhaps are realising how little they have taught their children about disability and inclusion. Children are often pointing out difference and asking straightforward questions which can be quickly and easily answered.
If you have tried to educate yourself in the terminology of disability and taken time to hear disabled people’s stories you are likely to be less intimidated by getting language wrong. The best way of dealing with all of this is to ask people, or parents, what words they would like to use. You don’t need to know the correct word to describe someone to say hello to them.
I have explained to many children that Ben is disabled – that his body works differently and he cannot always control it. I have answered questions about why I am connecting a tube to his stomach and pushing water through a syringe, or why Ben is dribbling, and how his eyegaze computer works. When children ask these questions their parents often look panicked, but kids are inquisitive and I am happy to explain all of these things because none of it is problematic. It’s all really quite straightforward. A lot of it is technologically amazing.
Molly had a friend come to play today and she showed her some teddies. One of them has a gastrostomy button like Ben. ‘This teddy is disabled’, she said as she showed her friend, ‘and this one is a monkey.’
There’s nothing to be scared of. If in doubt, smile and be kind. Let’s raise our kids right.
I recently took Ben to a new place, for a new thing, which involved us swimming in a pool. It was a brilliant morning – the kind of pinch-me event that makes me so grateful that Ben has these opportunities, that I get to do this stuff with him.
But accompanying the #blessed vibe, there was the cold, hard reality of needing to get Ben and me into our swimming costumes. We were at an unfamiliar school and there was a teaching assistant on hand to help get Ben and another child ready. As I got Ben onto the changing plinth, she said she would get Ben undressed while I got changed. This seemed sensible since I couldn’t really get naked in room full of strangers, so I left her to take Ben’s jumper and tshirt off while I popped next door. When I came back, I took over and continued to undress Ben. As I was putting some of his clothing in our bag, she started to undress Ben’s bottom half. I said I would do it but as I did, she continued to help. I repeated that I could do it.
She was being helpful. But it felt uncomfortable. I was there and happy to do all of it. We didn’t need help. Ben didn’t know her, and there is an intimacy to undressing which feels odd with someone who he has just met, who he had been cursorily introduced to, and who he is now expected to be on intimate, but unequal, terms.
Ben will always require assistance, he will need people (mostly able-bodied) to help him access the world. There is likely to be an imbalance in power and a dynamic in these relationships where Ben is more dependent, and this be interpreted as weakness. The solution isn’t for me or James to do everything for him, and for us to reduce his dependence on other people by increasing his dependence on us as parents. I am thinking about how to frame these interactions in an age-appropriate way – all children are dependent on adults in some way, but for Ben that means help to be changed and fed as well as taught and entertained.
Some of this is basic – it’s reasonable for Ben to expect people to introduce themselves and explain or ask him about what’s going to happen next before they start to undress him. Some of it is more nuanced. There are people whom Ben immediately likes and trusts, but we can’t expect that this magical energy will materialise in every interaction. Maybe sometimes Ben’s immediate need to be changed, fed, moved or assisted overrides his lack of immediate warmth to the person doing the changing, feeding or moving. Children don’t get to choose all of the adults who they interact with, but I think they should have a sense of what is okay and what is not, and should always feel safe and respected.
Last year we had a carer at home who was mainly assisting and entertaining Ben with us at the weekend. We weren’t convinced she was hugely enriching Ben’s life but with a full family life including two other kids, she helped ensure Ben had what he needed and was read some books. I felt guilty that he was spending time with her (albeit only a few hours), but that’s the bread and butter of being a mother to three kids.
One afternoon I went upstairs to see how Ben was getting on and as I walked into his room she was hoisting him out of his chair in a way that was wrong, despite having been shown how we do this to make sure Ben is safe and comfortable. I then realised that she hadn’t moved him all afternoon and he was wet and uncomfortable from being in the same chair for hours. I was shocked and explained to her why all of this was unacceptable in front of Ben before asking her to leave the room and having a further chat with her on our landing. I felt protective, like a lioness who needed to corral her cubs and keep them close forever, and I asked her to leave. I bathed Ben carefully and put him in dry, clean clothes and we all watched TV together.
I had reacted in the moment. We generally try to have conversations with Ben’s carers away from the children as we don’t want our house to be a constant management exercise witnessed by them, and they need to have relationships with the carers we employ independently of us. But as I calmed down, I thought it was totally fine for Ben to have witnessed my shock and to know that I thought it was unacceptable.
It is not right for Ben to feel unsafe in his own house. It is not okay for him to be dependent on others for his personal care and for those people to not give it the thought and attention that they should. He shouldn’t have to put up with mediocre communication and monosyllabic conversation. He needs to be able to trust people with intimate moments of access.
I think it’s appropriate for him to see us calling out moments where people do this wrong. We need to make explicit what our expectations are, and to hopefully build in him a sense of what he can expect from adults, how much he has to put up with and when he’s allowed to protest. Later that night Molly, then age two, asked what the carer had done that was ‘naughty’ because she had heard my conversation with her on the landing and had (correctly) interpreted it as a telling off. I told her that the carer had done something wrong to Ben and she had gone home.
As I put Ben to bed, I explained that it wasn’t okay for the carer to have moved him in a way that was risky, to have left him in his wheelchair for so long. I don’t know for sure how much of this he understood, but I hope Ben – and Max and Molly – know that he has a right to feel safe and comfortable, and grown-ups aren’t always right.
We took the kids to Tate Britain at the weekend. It’s a good thing to do first thing on a Sunday morning – we can drive there easily, it’s not busy, and we can get coffee and pastries in the café which incentivises the whole trip for all of us.
It was the last day of the Turner Prize exhibition so I had a chat with a guy at the front desk about whether it was suitable for children. I mentioned nudity, and he started talking through whether there were naked people in any of the pieces. I had to clarify that nudity wasn’t the problem, it was what the potentially nude people were doing, since I’d accidentally once walked Ben into a room of Gilbert & George works which were utterly inappropriate. Oh, no, no sex, he said.
And he was right, no sex. But the four nominees for the Turner Prize had all presented video works, two of which were about people who were being or had been killed. Of the other two, we all enjoyed some of a film about the legacy of colonialism in Tripoli. Yes, really. It was beautiful and interesting, and Molly only asked to leave four times.
Video art is perfect for Ben. He is drawn to screens, and these screens were huge. Each artist’s room had just one bench and people came and went so it was easy to manoeuvre Ben’s wheelchair in and out.
James took Ben into a film about queerness and Scotland which seemed safe for kids. For most of the time it was silent, with sweeping footage of ancient standing stones in remote Scottish islands. The other visitors were sitting silently and Ben was engrossed. The only noise was the rhythmical clicks of Ben’s tongue.
Ben has dystonia, which means he has involuntary movements in his muscles. It makes it very hard for him to control his own movements which affects his ability to sit, walk and talk. It also affects the way his tongue works, in that it moves a lot but not in a way that makes eating possible. This means Ben doesn’t control his saliva, and he makes a clicking noise sometimes as he moves his tongue within his mouth.
When he was first at nursery the staff would call him “Dolphin Boy”, for the little clicks he would make throughout the day, like he was trying to communicate on some level unintelligible to mere humans. He would make the sound when he was relaxed or interested in something – never when he was stressed or uncomfortable, when his mouth would be tense. He would often click when he was lying in bed, or when we were hanging out at home and he was content. Over the years he has done it less.
When Ben was younger we were self-conscious about him making noises, particularly in very quiet places. For a child who doesn’t talk, Ben can be quite noisy. He often kicks which makes his wheelchair squeak, or makes noises to complain, or shrieks if he is excited. It doesn’t matter if you’re in open, noisy areas but in silent galleries (or cinemas, restaurants, planetariums, theatres) the noises can seem loud and potentially disruptive. I would hate the idea of other people being bothered by the noise. I’m the kind of person who would rather not eat sweets than risk making loud crackles with a packet of fruit pastilles in a cinema.
Over the years we have come to notice or care about this less and less. If Ben is making a lot of noise he is often not enjoying himself, and we will take him somewhere else, out of the theatre. But if he’s making noise while enjoying something, then so be it. Ben is often the one laughing loudest and longest at something funny at the cinema, but he may also be making some noise in the quiet bits. If someone else is bothered by a disabled child making some noise, then I don’t really care. Odds are they could visit again, whereas outings for us are logistical challenges. I think expecting one mode of behaviour from all humans in every public space is, when you start to think about it, ridiculous. And actually, much of my anxiety about disrupting other people with our family’s noise is (was) presumptive – I imagine people are annoyed, when the vast majority of people either haven’t heard it, or have but are relaxed about it. We meet lots of people who are friendly to us in these situations, even when we’re blocking their exit from the row with Ben’s wheelchair and the four hundred bags we like to carry with us at any one time.
Still, it’s one thing to intellectually decide that it’s okay for Ben to make his noises in places where they might draw attention, but it can be another to not feel a twinge of anxiety about it. Over time, I’ve come to marry the two. I hear the noises themselves less, I’m less likely to see whether other people have noticed, and I care less about all of it.
In the dark room at Tate, James said no-one turned towards the noise as he, Ben and a group of strangers watched sweeping Scottish scenery accompanied by the rhythmical clicks of Ben being content. I think that’s kind of wonderful.
We then rewarded ourselves with croissants and cappuccinos, and then wandered through the main galleries of Tate looking at art back through the centuries. Somewhere towards the sixteenth century Molly took her shoes off and tried to jump off the benches, before shouting that she wanted to run. I tried to tame her while James talked to the boys about paintings of men on horses, and paintings of men fighting.
Molly’s just turned three, and it’s an ‘interesting’ age. During our trip to Tate our disabled child was at no point the one that we were self-conscious about, that we were noticing people’s reactions to, or worrying whether his behaviour was appropriate for the space. Partly because I think the noises Ben makes are largely appropriate to all spaces, but also because no-one notices him when a small but furious girl is careering towards art of national importance, tripping people up as she goes. There’s a moral in there somewhere, beyond the immediate lesson that one way to distract yourself from overthinking your disabled child is to take a three year old whirlwind with you wherever you go.
Like practically everyone in the developed world, I am trying to be more thoughtful about how much time I spend on my phone and on social media. I try, with mixed success, to not spend time on my phone around the kids, and to avoid disappearing into a blackhole of news about people I don’t know. Every once in a while I think about deleting the apps. Sometimes I actually do it, but I can’t quite resist because those clever engineers know what they’re doing and I enjoy the pretty pictures and surreptitious snooping.
But it’s also because I get genuinely useful information and a sense of solidarity from the social media I use. It’s brilliant to be able to make connections with disabled people, to learn more about their experiences and their politics. It’s great to be able to talk to other parents of disabled children. I find out about events, equipment and approaches, from organisations and individuals. I think there is huge value in sharing experiences, hence this blog!
But once you find yourself in this little corner of the internet, there are many stories written by parents of disabled children, and it can be uncertain ground. There is a fine line between sharing experiences and oversharing information about a child who may not be able to consent.
I question myself a lot about what it is okay to write about and what is not, particularly when I read things which I think are inappropriate – perhaps because they show photos which I wouldn’t want to see of me as a child on the internet, or because they dwell on how difficult their life is because they have a disabled child.
I worry that when that child is an adult they will be sad to read what was written about them. I am sometimes concerned that the parent’s account is disrespectful to disabled adults with the same impairments as their child. I am by no means beyond reproach – I am sure I have shared things that I thought were okay at the time, but would now not. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t be sharing anything at all, but I keep coming back to my conviction that as long as disabled children and adults are perceived as ‘other’ by much of society, there is value in attempting to puncture ignorance with our stories. I try my best to respect all of my children by carefully editing what I share (and perhaps I should share more photos of myself…).
What I am particularly drawn to are stories about disabled children overcoming communication difficulties, and adults that use Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). It is inspiring to see people who have found the communication system that works for them, and are able to say what they want to say. It’s encouraging to see that methodical, consistent use of AAC can pay off – that children who were unable to communicate have a viable way to do so.
If there’s one thing these kinds of internet stories are good at, it’s celebrating the role of the parent, most likely the mother, in facilitating their disabled child’s access to AAC. Often the mother has fought for the right device, has pushed those surrounding the child to presume competence, has homeschooled the kids when the schools weren’t good enough, has modelled AAC language to their child consistently. The kid is therefore doing really well (possibly writing messages saying how grateful they are to their mother).
And, obviously, these stories are amazing. I want Ben to be the subject of these stories – celebratory, happy stories featuring quotes from a child that found it tricky to use expressive language.
So, does Ben have the right AAC system? Is he getting the right education? Is he getting enough specialist input? Should I be homeschooling him? Am I, personally, doing enough to encourage literacy? Are we modelling enough? Are we doing it every day, in every place, at every opportunity? Because if Ben doesn’t become expressively literate, will it be my fault?
These are the kind of myopic, self-obsessed thoughts I have as I peruse Facebook and it’s not that relaxing. I know I don’t want to homeschool any of my kids – I taught an English camp for Spanish kids when I was younger and I learnt from that summer that I am a terrible teacher. I shouted a lot, particularly when it looked like the kids were enjoying themselves too much. I think there are all sorts of advantages to going to school beyond literacy. But still. The pressure. My god, the pressure.
(Sidenote: if crafting expertise was crucial to teaching literacy, I’d be all over it. Gratuitous World Book Day photo: )
And then, occasionally I get a moment of thinking we’re not failing. We’re doing our best, and maybe we’re actually doing okay.
Today Ben was home from school because he has yet another cold (don’t get me started on the sickness count in this house this winter, it is beyond tedious). Molly was with us, and I was pottering around trying to get stuff done between the nose wiping and Calpol distribution. Molly had pulled Ben’s YES and NO symbols off the velcro on the back of his chair, and she was standing next to him holding them up, saying ‘Yes, Ben. No, Sam’.
This is how Ben answers questions – he looks at yes and no symbols. She is doing this because two year olds copy what they see around them. She has noticed our modelling and she is using AAC with her brother. It’s a little bit magical. We must be doing something right.
I’m trying to institute a new tradition in our house: on each of the children’s birthdays we will all get up and do birthday breakfast, open presents and be generally celebratory, and then I will go back to bed for at least an hour. I think it is a good idea for all of us to remember that this is the anniversary of these kids coming out of my body and that body could do with a little lie down.
Molly’s birthday a few weeks ago was the first time I implemented this brilliant new tradition, and as I was lying down remembering her birth two years ago, I read an article by Chitra Ramaswarmy about her tendency to catastrophise. It was poignant to be reading about how incubating and then having children affects your outlook on life, particularly if one of your children is diagnosed with a disability.
Ramaswarmy experienced a very tough year in which numerous difficult things happened. By its end she had – after a complicated pregnancy – given birth to a healthy baby, her partner and mother had been seriously ill and recovered, and her son had been diagnosed with autism. Was it a year of disaster or, actually, was her family lucky?
Ramaswarmy describes how she is naturally a catastrophist, and inclined to be anxious about the potential for the worst case scenario to occur. She makes the case that the parenting is an antidote to catastrophising:
‘The hard graft and small, pure joys of looking after a baby and a little boy with autism anchor me to the present. The baby keeps me healthy, makes me feel lucky and gives me a constant dose of perspective. She is also exhausting: I am too tired and busy to catastrophise with as much fervour as the habit demands.’
This rings true for me. I am not a catastrophist. My natural tendency is towards slightly anxious optimism. But there is no doubt that I thrive when I am rooted in the present, and nothing keeps you in the present like having a small child, and then another, and then another. It’s not all rose-tinted snuggles – Ben’s early months were difficult for us all and he was frequently made miserable by reflux and feeding difficulties. But my focus on looking after him meant that by the time I looked up and around we had largely weathered the storm.
I went on to have two more babies and, luckily for all of us (and I mean luck, because these things are just a roll of the dice), Max and Molly were babies that were easy to please. I have been largely too busy caring for all of them over the last eight years to spend much time thinking about what might have been, or what might go wrong.
What really resonated with me was Ramaswarmy’s reaction to her son’s autism diagnosis:
‘Then there is my brilliantly singular, loving and brave son. Before he was diagnosed with autism (that happened this year, too) I feared this moment: how will we manage? What will we do about school? How will he develop? Is everything going to be OK? The mystery and idiosyncrasy of autism can be frustrating, but it is also a visceral reminder that none of us knows what lies ahead and that compassion is the most powerful weapon against anxiety. So, here I am, living and thriving in the future over which I once catastrophised. And you know what? It is not so scary after all.’
We have had Ben’s birth described as a catastrophe, and in purely medical terms that may be true. But it has not been a catastrophe for our family. Sure there are difficult times, and complications, and we are sometimes sad and frustrated, but there is no catastrophe here. Something that was unfamiliar and therefore terrifying has become normal to us, and with familiarity comes an ease (hugely helped by the privilege of having carers to help and living in an adapted house).
Over Christmas, all the kids were largely at home every day for two weeks, something that is rare, which meant they spent more time together than usual. Molly can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Ben at least every hour. Ben happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Max is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Ben encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Ben let Max play with all of his Christmas presents. Molly clambered on Max and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Ben and Max watched Star Wars for the first time and were scared and excited by the same bits. We went ice skating, for walks, swimming and to the cinema.
The ‘mystery and idiosyncrasy’ of cerebral palsy can be difficult, but it is also a prompt to live this life that is happening right now, even if it is one that would have counted as a bad outcome at some point. We have three healthy kids, and it’s not so scary after all. Are our family the survivors of a disaster, or are we lucky? Perhaps ask me again when they’re all teenagers, but on the basis of this Christmas we’re extraordinarily lucky.
If, like us, you take the view that your child’s disability is part of him and try your hardest not to be negative about it in front of him, how far do you take it?
Molly has just started walking. She’s 13 months and since working out how to take a few steps two weeks ago, she has been practising at every opportunity. She has the typical waddle of a baby and is totally unfazed by dropping to her bum every so often. It’s utterly joyful to watch. If you’re feeling at all depressed by the state of the world, I would recommend spending some time watching a sweet one-year-old walk around like a very tiny drunk.
It feels like a privilege to watch a baby develop these skills and like a small miracle when they keep their balance and toddle off. We, more than most, appreciate the wonder of a baby learning to walk.
And because we are all so amazed we have spent a lot of time talking about it. Visitors comment on it. It can all be a bit of a Molly love-in.
I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about it. How does Ben feel about Molly learning to walk on her own? Is he sad that she is doing something he can’t? When we congratulate Molly does he hear an implicit criticism of him not walking? Was he not really thinking about it much until we all stood around going on and on about how brilliant she was?
I spent a day or two trying not to talk too much about Molly’s walking. Acting as if it was no big deal. Then Max asked me if I was better at maths than him, and I wondered for a moment if I should soften the blow. But then I decided to tell him yes, I was. And I said I’m definitely better at maths than James. I do have an A Level in maths after all and neither of them do.
It struck me that we can’t spend the rest of our lives not being honest about who is good at what, and what one of us can do that the other can’t do as well. Some of our kids will be good at remembering obscure cricketers (James’s genes), some will be good at chemistry (my genes). Pretty unlikely one of them will be talented at everything – so they will all have to experience that irritating feeling of knowing your sibling is better than you at something. In Ben’s case, the nature of his disability is such that he will do lots of amazing things, but some physical skills will constantly elude him. Max and Molly will do things that he can’t.
Obviously, accepting that fact doesn’t mean we need to ask questions like, ‘Isn’t it a shame that Ben can’t walk along walls like Max can?’ (this did actually happen, achieving nothing except drawing everyone’s attention to the disadvantages of being disabled and tainting an otherwise pleasant walk).
I think we have to avoid this kind of direct comparison with all of our children (tricky with Max’s constant questions comparing me to James, James to Superman, Superman to Spiderman, etc etc). Ben won’t walk unaided, but his school annual review lists ‘walking’ (with a supportive frame) under the list of What Ben Likes. Each child is on their own track and we should only compare them against their progress on that track.
Ultimately, I need to chill out and enjoy watching a small child negotiate going downstairs backwards and a four-year-old learn to write. These gross and fine motor skills are easy for parents to take for granted. Do not. See them for the incredible feats of co-ordination that they are. Hold them dear and cherish each milestone.
As a postscript that demonstrates that being an ally to my disabled child is still very much a work in progress, I should mention that I suddenly realised I had written this whole post without asking Ben what he actually thought. So I sat down with him and his eyegaze computer, and modelled what I thought:
‘Molly – walk – great’
I asked him what he thought. He chose:
‘I don’t want to do it’ … ‘Good’
He then got frustrated that I was delaying him listening to The Faraway Tree.
Fair response. Jog on, Mummy, stop asking me stupid questions about my sister walking…