My son, Ben, is about to turn 11 and my approach to his disability has changed a lot since he was little. I am interested by how and when this happened. I knew very little about disabled people when he was born and my experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding disability. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done things differently, but I was just doing my best with what I knew at the time. I think I would have found it helpful at the beginning to have read stories of other parents with similar experiences and so I am starting a series of interviews with parents who are raising children who are not typical. We will discuss parenting, language and expectations. This week it is with Sabrina Russo, who kindly let me video call her one evening to answer some questions.
Could you describe your family?
I am married to Simon and I have two children – Theo, who’s about to turn seven, and my daughter, Lucy, who’s going to be four in April and she is the child with disability in our family.
What does Lucy love? What is her favourite stuff, what makes her happy?
She loves Peppa, completely. She loves the swings at the playground. She’s actually getting too big to lift into the baby swings and there’s no other accessible options so that’s something that’s going to start annoying me very soon. She loves singing. She is a real scribbler, especially on the table rather than on paper. She loves having stories read to her.
When did you realise Lucy was different to your older child, or not typical perhaps?
I noticed that there were certain things that she wasn’t doing when she was about four months old. That sparked a kind of question mark, in my mind. I remember putting her in a baby bouncer that had little dangly toys and suddenly thinking she doesn’t swat them in the way that I remember Theo doing. I thought she was very relaxed. I took her to a baby physiotherapist who said she was a bit floppy but he wasn’t alarmist in any way. I googled hypotonia, which is weak muscle tone, and I remember reading one line that said hypotonia is not a condition itself, it’s always a symptom of something else. I then went down a rabbit hole of trying to diagnose my kid and many months of not being taken seriously by medical professionals.
That was tricky because you don’t want to be the mother looking for a problem. People would say, ‘Well, she’s just taking her time. Don’t worry about it.’ But there were lots of little things that were adding up in my mind. When we got to the point where she ought to be weaning she couldn’t swallow any purees. She started having some tests and when she was one and only just sitting up the doctors started properly looking into it. They did a genetic screening and that showed there was a bit of her DNA missing. I think the period was maybe nine or 10 months of searching for an answer and when it came I felt vindicated in a weird way. It was kind of a relief. But it wasn’t a straightforward diagnosis in the sense that it isn’t a genetic anomaly that correlates to a recognised syndrome because there aren’t enough people that have it. There wasn’t a ready-made support group where I could find out about things and get a glimpse into the future, so there was quite a lot of sort of worry and uncertainty at the beginning.
How did you find the early years with Lucy?
She was a very undemanding baby. She didn’t really cry much and she was very observant. She just slotted into family life and Theo was very sweet with her.
But after we had her diagnosis I had a feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. From the practical stuff of accessing services and doing what’s right for Lucy, but also at a deep identity level. I already felt like being a parent was quite hard. There’s loads of stuff that you don’t know if you’re doing right. I felt the weight of responsibility of this child being more vulnerable than we had imagined and we have to make sure that she has a good life.
Now, a couple of years post diagnosis, I know that in a lot of ways it’s not that different to parenting any child. There’s a kind of relinquishing of control that happens anyway when you are a parent. It’s always a big responsibility. With typical kids you have all sorts of situations that you feel slightly out of your depth. All the time. But I had a kind of slight imposter syndrome – I had this kid who was going to need me to be a good parent, as opposed to a good enough parent. I felt like I needed to up my game, be more professional. It wasn’t that I thought she was a burden. It was more a reflection on myself. I worried about me as much as I did about her – about my, our, ability to be the people that she would need us to be.
What is different from how you imagined parenting two children would be?
I don’t know what my expectations were. I think I had expected that they would be friends in a way that they’re not right now. Lucy adores Theo and is fascinated by everything he does. And he is really sweet with her but they don’t play. But they both really like having stories read to them so we can all read together.
I think we do a lot more split parenting, where one of us takes a kid each and we do the thing that is appropriate for that child in order for them to have a fun time. Then we reconvene as a family rather than trying to do everything together, because it often doesn’t work. You have this notion of what a good family life is and you think that means doing everything together, but that’s not necessarily what it has to look like.
What have you found hard, over the course of Lucy’s life?
I found it hard at first knowing how to talk about her disability. I still find it hard in a way. I don’t know how much to say. When you first meet people, how deep do you go? I’m someone who is really private in some ways and a big over-sharer in others. I sometimes tell people more than they are expecting and then they get that look on their face, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry. It’s okay.’ Or I don’t say anything at all, but then sense that the other person may be looking at Lucy and wondering ‘why isn’t she walking?’. I’d like a handbook for navigating social interactions so they aren’t awkward. In a way, I think this will only get easier when society as a whole stops being so weird and awkward about disability. It just needs to be a normal, ‘fact of life’ thing to talk about.
When you’re in a couple and you’re processing stuff at different speeds, that’s tricky. My approach to the early days was knowledge is power – I’m going to absolutely learn everything I can until it desensitises me to the shock. I reached out to parents whose kids had not exactly the same genetic deletion as Lucy’s but close. It turns out every single child had a completely different set of things. I’d come back and say to Simon, ‘I spoke to this mum and her kid is completely non-verbal but she can walk and she can do x and y’. Then I’d talk to another parent and say, ‘her daughter speaks, she speaks loads, and she’s autistic.’ So I was trying to prepare myself for all the eventualities – Lucy might speak, she might not speak, she may be autistic, she may not be autistic, she might walk, she might not walk. I wanted to know about all these possibilities so they wouldn’t faze me. Whereas my husband, Simon, was kind of in denial and didn’t want to know about the future. He had the attitude of Lucy is Lucy. We’ll just take each day at a time and we’ll figure it out, whatever happens. Navigating our relationship with each other was difficult at times while we struggled with that tension.
Now, we’ve met in the middle and taken each other’s perspectives onboard. Initially I found Simon’s approach quite frustrating, but I think our paths have converged which is good. If you do come out the other side, you do feel like your partner’s really got your back and you’re a team.
Are there things that make you angry, or are there things that you feel like parenting Lucy has opened your eyes to?
The process of accessing benefits and services can be bewildering. I put off applying for DLA for her for ages – I’d take one look at the pile of paperwork and think I couldn’t face it. Now we’re trying to get an EHCP and it’s so much harder than it needs to be. It’s just unnecessarily difficult and it’s clear that those difficulties are a way of discouraging people from doing it, right? Nothing is co-ordinated.
I’m not even thinking yet about physical accessibility of buildings and urban planning because we’re still in buggy mode and we can mostly lift her. But that will soon become something that I start getting angry about. I was with Lucy at a big station the other day and the lifts weren’t working. That’s just unacceptable – this is public transport and this is a member of the public. If you’re going to do maintenance on a lift you need to figure out some alternative.
There’s loads of stuff that is unnecessarily onerous for disabled people and then you wonder why you don’t see so many disabled people around. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy. You don’t see people out and about having a good time because places can be so inaccessible, and because there’s this lack of visibility, disabled people continue to get overlooked. Disabled people can and do have full lives, but society doesn’t make it easy. All of that makes me angry. Not for me obviously, the impact is on my kid. She’s the one who ultimately stands to gain or lose, I’m just the middle woman.
I also found it quite remarkable that throughout the whole time when I was trying to find out what was going on with Lucy and then getting her diagnosis, at no point did any one of the millions of professionals that we’ve come across ever ask me ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ Thankfully I am, but there were moments when I felt overwhelmed. The system doesn’t think holistically about families and helping the whole family.
How have you changed since having Lucy, and what has helped you?
Before Lucy, I had no real first-hand experiences of disability and my perceptions, I now realise, were heavily influenced by a lot of limited narratives that we see in the media and popular culture. I think it’s important to seek out and meet people if you can in a similar situation, because you see that often they are living a pretty normal life. I took to Instagram early on with the purpose of finding people who were leading the kind of good lives that I wanted us to be able to have and that’s been really helpful. I needed to see the things that I felt were important to us, that I wanted our future to have – fun, adventures, travel – and that I worried (because I didn’t know) that having a disabled kid would make impossible. I was, I am, determined to find people who are doing it and actually there’s a lot out there. That was really good for me in the absence of support groups for Lucy’s condition.
Since having Lucy a lot of stuff makes me very emotional. I am very touched by people who really see her. People really warm to her because she’s a very joyful kid. And celebrating all her hard won achievements, every tiny milestone, cheesy as it sounds, really has helped me savour them and focus on what matters.
Find Sabrina on Instagram @sabrinamrusso