All that really matters

When I write this blog, I hope that it is read by people who may find themselves saying things to me like ‘I could never do what you do’, or ‘I’m so sorry’ with their head tilted slightly to the side and a tone of pity in their voice. When I tell people I have a beautiful, thriving son who is eight years old and is also disabled, I don’t want people to react with pity or sadness because it is unnecessary and ignorant. And with those people in mind I write blog posts about triking! And fun playschemes! And ziplining! I write about why we are lucky, and why wheelchairs are enabling (not disabling). I have a feeling that negative portrayals about disability are so ubiquitous that I’ll try and write about disabled children who are well, having fun, happy.

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Then suddenly I realised that maybe I have become some version of all those irritating people on social media who have apparently perfect lives, whose children are never dirty and always engaged in constructive activities. Perhaps I am one of the people that I would unfollow because there’s only so many pictures of Mediterranean holidays and accomplished crafting in tidy houses I can take before feeling a bit shit that my kids are all currently watching Kids YouTube in mismatched clothes surrounded by junk.

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What ends up on the internet isn’t an accurate portrayal of everything going on in a person’s life, and I don’t believe it has to be. But as a species we inevitably compare ourselves to others and I would hate other parents of disabled children to think they are doing badly because they are looking at me with my family and our apparently nonstop wholesome adventures.

All of the adventures we do have are facilitated by me having an enthusiastic husband, a hugely supportive extended family, and a lot of paid help. For all my hatred of the pity faces, and even with all these people helping us, there are aspects of our lives which are tough. We have too many children with differing needs. Sam has specific needs and access requirements and that means we can’t do everything we would like to as a family. Our family is like an oil tanker that takes a long time to get going and has a huge turning circle. We need to be shovelling coal daily (though presumably that isn’t how oil tankers are fuelled these days) to keep the show on the road. The days that have been successes have been carefully organised and James and I will have been put considerable work in for the kids (and us!) to get fun out.

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The majority of days aren’t special days, they are bog standard normal days when the boys are at school, then at home and everyone needs to be fed and cleaned. We have just had two months of not having anyone to help me in the daytime on weekdays and I have to set my expectations accordingly. A good afternoon/evening is one in which I haven’t shouted that much, when the kids haven’t watched TV from the moment they got in the house to the moment they go to bed, when everyone has had some of the food they should and not too much of the food they shouldn’t.

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Some weekends we are taking Sam to a planetarium or an outdoor education centre, other weekends when we have no help and we are tired or have things to do, Sam might watch hours of TV. He’s happy, and he’s learning almost nothing from the second hour of Strictly Come Dancing but we’re enjoying a family chuckle at Bruno. We can go a whole weekend with no physio, ignoring the standing frame, forgetting to practice with the electric wheelchair, not having time to get the trike out, and Sam watching up to four films.

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I’m not particularly proud of those weekends, but I really resent the idea that parents of disabled children are held to a higher standard (by professionals, by themselves) because they have to work that much harder to support their child’s development. And I hate the idea (which I am 100% guilty of) that we look at other parents and feel crap because we’re not teaching our kids phonics, stretching their hamstrings and working on their fine motor skills all the time, every day.

It should be enough to spend time just keeping our kids alive and happy, enjoying their company, or getting done the stuff (and man, there is always a mountain of stuff) that we need to. The bureaucratic load of having a disabled child is tedious but ever present. It takes extra time to feed, bathe and change a child who can’t help with these things. There are extra pressures, more appointments, difficult conversations with professionals. All of this takes physical and mental energy. There is little benefit to a child of doing all the physio someone recommended but having a mother who is losing her mind.

Sometimes you have to just batten down the hatches, recognise your capacity at that point, and accept that you’re doing your best right now. If someone asks how Sam is and I can reply ‘fine’, then we’re doing well. So your kid hasn’t done their exercises, but you’ll probably never know if they would have made any difference, and meanwhile they are clean, fed, apparently happy (or not actively unhappy) and, most of all, loved. You might even have read them a book. That’s all that really matters.

 

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Sending Sam down a zipwire

Over the Easter holidays we took Sam away for an activity weekend. We went to Istanbul for a long weekend with Eli in March, so now it was Sam’s turn to get uninterrupted time with his parents.

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I did not grow up with activity holidays. My family holidays involved weeks in the British countryside going on long walks, or staying on a smallholding in Spain and swimming in a pond full of frogs. Our dad would occasionally take us to the local swimming pool but we were more likely to be taken round Ronda bullring for the twentieth time than to be put in a canoe. Our meals involved omelettes and family arguments. Not once did we stay anywhere fully catered.

The Calvert Trust Exmoor enables people with various disabilities to experience outdoor activities that might be complicated or impossible otherwise. We had heard great things about it, but I was a bit nervous. Mainly about how Sam would feel about it all, but also because activity centres remind me of school trips. All of the schedules and rules and mealtimes make me feel like I’m 11 years old again, and when we arrived I actually felt a bit homesick, even though I was there with my husband and child, and I’m an adult with a car that I can drive away if I really want to. I had a small weep about leaving Eli behind, and then cracked in to the red wine.

We were there for a long weekend. And what a weekend it was – undoubtedly one of the most intense of recent memory.

It’s quite hard to summarise how it went. It could be written one of two ways:

  1. Brilliant adventure! New experiences!

We were told our timetable when we arrived. We were worried about how Sam would deal with any of the activities, but particularly the canoe trip – it would clearly mean an extended period of time with no ipad or books or distraction beyond calm water. And he wouldn’t be able to sit in a supportive chair like normal. What were we going to do when he flipped out, in the middle of a lake on a boat we were sharing with other people?

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In fact, Sam was great. He was patient as we got ready for the trip, sat perfectly cross-legged in the boat and lasted almost and hour and a half before he got bored.

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The next day he was attached to the ceiling of a sports hall in a harness and swung around. As far as we are aware that was the first time he’d done that too.

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Then in the afternoon, we pushed him down a zipwire at high speed. Twice. He reacted to this extreme sport by closing his eyes for the entire thing and giving us a wry smile. He looked more relaxed than ever.

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On both days he went swimming and hung out in the Jacuzzi, where he was relaxed and happy. We walked round a lake, sat by a fire, and read a lot of stories.

Our instructor was friendly and accommodating. He was skilled and experienced so knew how Sam could be supported to do each activity, and quickly worked out if Sam was getting impatient so made sure he went first when possible. He fits in to the category of people we come across pretty often who specialise in maximising the lives of disabled children and do it really well.

In the two days of activities, Sam took part in AND ENJOYED canoeing, swinging from a ceiling and zooming down a zipwire. He had never done any of these things before. If we achieved just one of those things in a normal weekend we would be inordinately pleased with ourselves. We’d spend the rest of the day watching the Paddington Bear film and congratulating ourselves on going canoeing. Canoeing!

  1. Really, extraordinarily hard work

Between all of these amazing activities which Sam enjoyed, we were working incredibly hard to keep the show on the road. Sam was a bit tense almost all the time in such an unfamiliar environment. We were in a group for each activity so there was inevitably some waiting around for our turn. As the weekend went on, we found we couldn’t wait for longer than a couple of minutes before he was getting grumpy. It also became apparent that Sam hates wearing a helmet.

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James and I were working overtime to keep Sam chirpy in between the action. Our timetable was packed with way more stuff that we would usually do with him on one day. Through a combination of fractiousness and tiredness, he didn’t enjoy a forest walk, or a challenge course, or crate stacking. He cried often and whinged a lot. We didn’t even try abseiling – we just stayed in our room listening to audiobooks and napped.

Sam was almost the youngest child there (most of the visitors are adults) so it’s not surprising that he was a bit overwhelmed. I was a bit thrown at times!

Meanwhile, all of our meals were provided but that didn’t include Sam’s gastrostomy feeds, and we didn’t have a kitchen. So we were washing syringes and cleaning the blender in our en-suite bathroom, storing his food in a mini-fridge, preparing medicines on a windowsill. It worked, but nothing makes you appreciate your own kitchen like not being in it.

 

When I was thinking about visiting The Calvert Trust, a friend told me it was the only place she had ever been where disabled and able-bodied people were viewed equally. She said, if only the rest of the world were like The Calvert Trust it would be a much better place. And she is totally right – we have never been anywhere where people (including James and I) assume Sam will be able to take part in every activity, and someone will have thought carefully about exactly how to achieve that. It is inclusive – both in terms of people participating in activities, and because it brings together a group of disabled and non-disabled people to get to know each other, talk to one another and eat together.

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But… I didn’t anticipate that being in a place with lots of disabled people, would make me see Sam as more disabled, rather than less. Even in a group of disabled people, Sam is noticeably less able than most. That is what it is – he’s brilliant, and cute, and clever, but his body just doesn’t work very well.

So by the time we got back to London, James and I needed a holiday to recover from the holiday. But instead James went back to work that afternoon, we decided to move house next month, and embarked on a series of hospital appointments with Sam. We are glad we went, and will definitely go back, but let’s be under no illusions that it will be a restorative holiday!