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.