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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New wheelchair

IMG_4188There are certain milestones along this journey of being a parent of a disabled child which are inevitable. Some are actually the omission of milestones: the missing of typical developmental steps, the absence of a first spoken word, there never – in our case – being a first step. Others are very much present: the diagnosis of impairment, the first feeding tube, the first operation.

One of the big ones is the first wheelchair. It’s possible to keep a baby, and then a ‘toddler’, in a buggy for a long time. At some point it becomes clear that the buggy is insufficient and some kind of wheelchair (or the compromise, a ‘Supportive Buggy’ is necessary). This will be for lots of good reasons to do with postural support. It is entirely possible to be convinced by the need for the wheelchair and sad about the arrival of it simultaneously.

Sam had his first wheelchair (more of a supportive buggy) when he was two. It was needed – he didn’t look at all comfortable in the buggy we had for him, and it was showing the strain of near continuous use. So we went for a fitting and a few months later it arrived. We heaved it up the steps to our house.

I wasn’t in love with it, but I could see the advantages. He sat well in it. It folded, so just as with his previous buggy we could lift Sam into his car seat and put the wheelchair in the boot. The slight difference was that doing so injured us almost every time.

Since Sam was still young he often slept in the buggy, and he was sensitive to bright sun, so we asked about a hood and rain cover for the wheelchair (as is standard with  a buggy). It turned out that as these were not ‘essential’, they would not be provided by wheelchair services, but we could choose to buy them ourselves. They arrived just after Eli was born and I remember fitting them while James held tiny Eli. They worked, but were incredibly clunky and would need to be removed every time we put the wheelchair in the car. They looked like something someone had made in their garage and were as far removed from the slick design of a buggy as you can imagine. I was really cross and after crying for a bit I wrote an extremely grumpy letter to the manufacturers which James had to tone down so that it was only quite cross. We sent them back and found our own solution. I have written before about the way things look here

Since then Sam has had two more wheelchairs, each a bit more ‘wheelchairy’ than the last. Over the last six years we have adapted our house and bought a “Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle” (a car with an in-built ramp, blog about it here) so we have fully accommodated the wheelchair into our lives. I see the wheelchair as an enabler for Sam, and we make do with hats and ponchos so there are no resentful conversations with suppliers of wheelchair hoods.

But what I still struggle with is the particulars of each wheelchair. Sam’s wheelchairs are supplied by our local service which is staffed by great people but, like all NHS behemoths, can be a bit inflexible.

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When we first discussed the possibility of Sam needing a bigger chair last year they showed me the type of chair they thought would be most suitable. Even allowing for the fact that it wasn’t the colour we would pick, and wasn’t set up for him, the chair I saw was really ugly. The base looked to me as though someone had rustled it up out of some spare scaffolding poles. I could see it was practical, and I was told that it was one of the most reliable chairs, but it was winning no prizes for elegant design. The seat was covered in weird synthetic fabric that had a clichéd care home vibe. It was enormous compared to his current wheelchair, and relied on a ‘knee block’ (literally a shaped block, fitted around the knees) to keep Sam in the right position, which he had never had before.

I knew Sam would need a new chair soon, and I respect the opinion of an Occupational Therapist who knew about seating for disabled people. But this was a chair that Sam would use every day, sometimes for 12 hours a day. We would see it every day – in our house, in our car, in family photos. In what other sphere of your life would you think about acquiring something like this and accept the first thing offered to you which happens to be the one in stock? Do people buy cars they hate the look of? Do people get dining chairs that they’re not sure they’re going to find comfortable? There is a huge market for buggies which people spend thousands on and have the kind of designers who formerly worked on Formula One cars.

Of course it would be replaced if Sam wasn’t happy and comfortable, but I really hate the clunkiness of wheelchair design. I resent spending a lot of time incorporating Sam’s needs into the design of our home which – if I do say so myself and may possibly have pointed out before – is beautiful AND fully accessible, only to have it cluttered up with something that may be technically good but is aesthetically shit. It’s unfair to have options for large purchases in every other aspect of our lives, but not this.

The wheelchair service was patient, told me to have a think about it, have a look at other options privately (while recounting some horror stories of chairs breaking and families having to arrange fixes themselves…). Meanwhile, Sam kept growing. An engineer came to adjust the eyegaze mount on the wheelchair and we had another conversation about the chair – we all knew his current chair wasn’t quite heavy enough to support the device, and that a bigger chair would be better. After listening to my monologue about scaffolding poles she mentioned that the base came in different colours. She emailed me later to say it definitely came in black.

And so, slowly, I came round to the idea. The seat fabric could also come in black which made it look a bit less healthcare setting. We eventually ordered the new chair, and it arrived last month. Sam very patiently sat through adjustments and we brought it home with us.

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You know when you are away from your kids for a few days and when you are reunited it’s like you are seeing them anew. You notice the size and the feel of them with a jolt – both familiar and novel. It was like that with Sam in the new chair – it was Sam in a wheelchair, which is our daily experience, but he looked taller and older and relaxed. It made me feel like I must have been squeezing him into a ridiculously small chair before, like we hadn’t noticed that he was now eight. Pushing the new chair is like a dream – no weird knobbly bits on the handle, much less veering unpredictably into gutters. It comes with a tray which is a perk. There’s even just enough room on the side bar for Stella to hitch a lift (don’t tell wheelchair services…)

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There’s of course a little hint of melancholy – it’s wider, it will be a bit harder to squeeze into small spaces. We won’t be able to carry him and it upstairs to friends’ first floor flats like we have done recently. These are sadnesses relating largely to physical barriers, not to Sam’s need for a wheelchair.

Sam’s not hugely keen on the kneeblock so we’re taking that slowly (not as unkeen as we originally thought though – turns out his shoes were too small and we hadn’t noticed which was making him understandably grumpy). It’s all come good in the end. Bring on the adventures.

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Lucky

IMG_9945I’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.

Stella’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 – Sam’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), Eli and Stella 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.

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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 Sam’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).

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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. Stella can now talk and asked about, or talked about, Sam at least every hour. Sam happily tolerated her climbing on his wheelchair, wiping his face, pressing her cheek into his. Eli is currently obsessed with gags about bodily functions and Sam encouraged him by laughing at his poo jokes. Sam let Eli play with all of his Christmas presents. Stella clambered on Eli and ruined his games and he only snapped after such goading that any jury would be on his side. Sam and Eli 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.

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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.

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The privilege of touch

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One of the main things about having kids is how much they touch you – from months of carrying around a baby, possibly breastfeeding them, to years of having a child on your lap and a snotty nose wiped on your arm. It can feel like near constant touching. Of smooth baby skin smelling of milk, of small fingers squeezing you, of hands whacking you in the face.

The physical relationship between a parent and a kid is so unselfconscious and incredibly lovely. Stella is just learning how to kiss and when she hasn’t seen me for a while she will come to give me a cuddle and then repeatedly touch her cheek and mouth to my lips. It is delightful. As Eli has got older there are less frequent but more prized requests for a cuddle, and I will never say no.

When you raise a small child, you get to know their body so well that not only do you know what it feels like, but you also know how it moves. If I see Eli walking down the road, I know if he is happy or sad. If James sends me a photo of one of the kids where you can’t see their face clearly, I’ll probably be able to tell what kind of mood they were in.

In some ways I know Sam’s body better than my other kids. Eli and Stella can choose to walk away from me, or to move their body in almost any way they like. If Sam is sitting on my lap, he will be there for as long as I choose (though of course he can make clear whether he is enjoying it or not). While he is sitting on me, I will be supporting him. Both James and I have been doing this for so long we couldn’t now describe what we are doing, but we use our arms, legs, torso and head to mimic a seat, to find a comfortable way for us both to be within the whirl of Sam’s ever moving body. Sometimes it’s not easy, but in this we join a long list of parents prioritising providing comfort to their child over backache.

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When Sam was little, we would spend hours holding him and rocking him in a figure-of-eight pattern, to ease the pain of reflux or to calm him sufficiently for him to sleep. These days he’s way too big for that and he spends more time sitting in a specialist chair, with us nearby. It is a less intimate physical connection but still one within which I know his body. The nature of Sam’s disability means he moves a lot, and has limited volitional control over the movements, but within the apparent flurry of limbs there is meaning.

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Sam’s often communicates his emotions by making noises – there are different kinds of sounds for happy, sad, interested, annoyed. But even without the noises, just from the way he is moving his body I could tell you whether he’s in pain or just bored. I could tell you whether Sam’s excited or frustrated. Not always, but often.

Sometimes Sam’s body needs to be moved in ways that it does not do easily. I know how to play his limbs, how to bend his knee and turn his foot in just the right way to get his shoe on properly without hurting his toes. I know what kinds of movement he likes, and what he will find irritating (and therefore which TV programme will distract him, if it needs to be done).

His is a body that can frustrate him and be difficult for others to manage. His is a body about which there are meetings held and training delivered to consider ‘health and safety’. But this body of his, which some people may see as inferior or less desirable, is actually something of real value. In the absence of being able to talk, his body can tell the story. In the same way that I can sometimes tell from the particular sound of his cough whether he needs to see a GP, I will be able to tell a therapist whether he is in pain or not from the particular way he moves his pelvis.

I treasure this knowledge I have. That even when my relationship with him, with all my kids as they grow up, is becoming less physical in the every day, that I still know these bodies. They are not mine – I am just nurturing them until they can look after themselves. But as the days of holding newborns recede, there is no absence of the raw physicality of touch, and the accumulated knowledge of knowing how these bodies work. It is an absolute privilege.

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Choosing what kind of mother to be

Note: This is more about me than Sam – low on anecdotes about a seven year old, high on analysis of my life choices.

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(Marginally deranged photo of us at Legoland)

I’ve never been someone who planned my life. I never really thought about my wedding day until I got engaged, I never had a particular career plan beyond qualifying as an architect, I sort of knew I wanted kids but didn’t give much thought to what kind of mother I would be. Then I married someone who also isn’t particularly a planner, and so we pottered along planning what we would do next but not much beyond that.

The one thing we did plan was that we would live abroad. And through James’s job, in 2006 we were planning to move to Damascus. At some point during the preparations I was talking to a good friend who, encouraged by it being late and us both being a bit drunk, said he was really surprised that I was following my husband to another country, that of all the people to do that he didn’t think it would be me.

It really pulled me up short. Was he right? I thought of myself as a slightly bolshy feminist – had I succumbed to being a Good Wife? No, as I explained inarticulately. We had discussed James’s job applications and I had agreed to all of the destinations. I would qualify as an architect while we were in Syria, and anyway we were going to get to live in Damascus which was the opportunity of a lifetime. So no, I hadn’t compromised anything, I was choosing to do this with my eyes wide open.

I am currently a stay-at-home mother to three kids. What’s good about my approach to life is that having had no real plan for who I would be means I can’t compare expectations with reality. But I’m pretty sure I thought I would be working. And I definitely thought we would be living abroad with kids. And travelling a lot.

Some of those things I feel a bit sad about – it is tricky to travel with Sam and he hasn’t seen nearly as much of the world as I would have liked him to. Others make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and I recall the drunken 2006 conversation – have I drifted into being a Good Mother? Have I abandoned bolshy-feminist Jess for a life of wiping and school runs?

I have been thinking about this lately because it’s been a while since I did any paid work. Sometimes I wonder to myself why I’m not working – surely it would be possible to organise enough help to make that happen, surely someone would employ me? Maybe I’m being a bit pathetic and all of my reasons for being at home are actually excuses…

And then I do my annual lecture to some MSc students where I am asked to set out what being a parent of a severely disabled child is like. And amidst the descriptions of a typical day and complaints about social services, I count up all of the appointments Sam has had in the previous year to produce our very own stats which show that in 2016 Sam had 116 appointments. This is down from over 150 in 2015.

Cue: small gasp! The majority of those are therapy appointments (physio, OT, speech and language) and most of those are at home. At least sixteen appointments were to see doctors, dentists or hospital-based clinics. Others were to do with Sam’s wheelchair, or about equipment, or xrays, or community nurses, or school meetings. These aren’t unnecessary appointments – they are useful, constructive discussions with doctors, or crucial tests, or important reviews. We weed out and cancel the very few things that we think are superfluous, to avoid Sam missing school unnecessarily.

Some of these appointments, particularly home-based physio, can be done with a carer rather than me but only if we have a carer here after school which we haven’t for the last two months. Others need to be with James or me.

And that’s why I’m not at work. Because if you work part-time and your son has on average two appointments every week, your working week is going to be massively disrupted. Because the care of your son can only be delegated if you can find the right carer, a carer who will inevitably be challenging to replace when they leave. Because while the 22 different professionals Sam sees are in theory talking to each other, the reality is that Sam gets more out of all of them if I am talking to them all and making sure they are coordinated.

Add to all of this a large construction project while we adapt our house, three house moves within two years, and two other kids keeping me busy and I realise why I don’t feel like I spend as much time sitting around, or writing blogs, as I would like. I do, however, have time to take Eli to the adventure playground after school sometimes.

It’s an individual choice – I know mothers of disabled children who work and their children are no worse off for it. But for us, the juggle of doing all that these three kids require plus us both working would be too much. I have decided that will be me for now (there’s no inherent reason it couldn’t be James) and we are in a position for it to be possible. So I am choosing to work (and I mean work, anyone who thinks a paid job is harder than being at home with my three kids has not spent a week with said kids) at home. I shall not feel bad about it, I will feel proud (and less anxious than if I was trying to do a responsible job in addition to the other demands on my time). This is the right thing for me and my kids right now.

Right, better go, Sam’s got another appointment to get to…

Looking for Alice

I love art and have, for a long time, spent as much of my time as possible visiting galleries, looking at sculpture, paintings, photographs. These days I am as likely to use my Tate membership to take a small child to the members café as I am to appreciate an exhibition, but recently I discovered a new (to me) photographer. I had that thrill of connecting with her pictures in a way that made me feel like today had been a good day, that the time I had spent looking at those pictures had improved the quality of my life.

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That photographer is Sian Davey and the book I discovered is ‘Looking for Alice’, a collection of photographs of her daughter. Alice was born with Down’s Syndrome and Davey’s project has been to photograph her daughter as she accommodated the shock of a baby who was different to her other children, and fell in love. Alice is the same age as Sam.

These photographs are beautiful. If you knew nothing of the intent of the photographer, did not know that a mother was holding the camera and that the girl was her daughter, you would find them to be stunning images. They are part of a photographic tradition of focussing on the domestic, of examining what is in front of you.

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If, like me, you read Davey’s essay accompanying the photographs, you would hear her voice:

‘This is a story about love and what gets in the way. This concerns all of us, my daughter’s diagnosis is only one aspect of it. The rest is about yours and mine and indeed society’s relationship with ‘difference’ of all kinds – this is what Alice is inviting us to reflect on.’

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I can’t help but believe the personal to be political. I don’t think you can be the mother (or indeed parent) of a child who is ‘different’ and not politicise the way you see the world around you – from the way people are treated, included or not, to the effects of social policy, education and healthcare. I have come to realise that much of the prejudice and problems experienced by disabled children and adults come from fear and ignorance of individuals, society and the state. It is easy to think of some people as different if they look different (or behave differently) to how you perceive a child or adult should look and be. This inevitably leads to thinking it is okay to treat them differently.

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Davey is explicit about the fear and uncertainty she felt after Alice was born, and how these feelings dissipated as her love grew. I can’t believe that anyone could look at the photographs of Alice and not see that she is a girl who, as her mother describes, has the same needs and feelings as any other child. It is also blindingly clear that she is a loved member of her family, not least because one cannot ignore the fond gaze of the camera.

Sometimes I feel like a member of an invisible club – one of parents diligently and quietly learning from their ‘different’, often disabled, children and using their children to try and change the world in ways big and small. It is an unashamedly domestic beginning for a political movement, and I am only one of the latest in a long line of mothers and fathers trying to make the world a better place for their children. Because surely our society is only as good as the way we treat those without advantage and privilege.

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Families are messy, imperfect things, constantly shifting and adapting yet consistent and supportive. For us, and many others, our family is where disability is the norm rather than the exception and is just part of the mix. How wonderful it would be if we felt that was the case beyond our front door.

As Davey writes

‘(Alice) is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family, and is loved unconditionally, as it should be. I can’t help but wonder how it might be for Alice to be always valued everywhere, without distinction, without exception, without a second glance.’

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Alice, and Sam, are just (small) people. There is much to value.

Different kids, different kinds of walking

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?

Stella 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.

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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 Stella love-in.

I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about it. How does Sam feel about Stella learning to walk on her own? Is he sad that she is doing something he can’t? When we congratulate Stella 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 Stella’s walking. Acting as if it was no big deal. Then Eli 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 Sam’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. Eli and Stella 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 Sam can’t walk along walls like Eli 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 Eli’s constant questions comparing me to James, James to Superman, Superman to Spiderman, etc etc). Sam won’t walk unaided, but his school annual review lists ‘walking’ (with a supportive frame) under the list of What Sam 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 Sam what he actually thought. So I sat down with him and his eyegaze computer, and modelled what I thought:

‘Stella – walk – great’

I asked him what he thought. He chose:

‘I don’t want to do it’ … ‘Good’

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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…

Sam is 7!

Sam is seven! We celebrated with, amongst other things, an egg-free chocolate cake that I whizzed up in our blender and gave to Sam through his feeding tube.

With every passing year I sound a bit more like my mum: “I can’t believe you’re seven years old! I remember when you were just a baby!” But it’s true – I am genuinely surprised that we have been parents for seven years and that Sam is so big and tall.

As with all recent birthdays, James made a Sam-themed video of the past year and we watched it with our family, projected on to the wall. I would recommend this as a way not so much of celebrating the child’s birthday, though Sam and Eli enjoy seeing themselves, but more as a way of congratulating oneself on another year of parenting. It is heartening to see how much children have changed and grown over the year, how much you have done with them, and ultimately how justified you are in feeling so tired (excerpt from birthday video below).

The other thing that we realise when we (James) make these videos is that there is always way too much material. We have done too much fun stuff and taken too many photos and videos to fit into one short film. It makes obvious that Sam is living a full life, with variety and fun, surrounded by loving family.

Just after Sam’s birthday he had an appointment at our local rehabilitation centre where wheelchair services, assistive technology and other helpful services are based. There are always all sorts of disabled people coming in and out for appointments. I was sitting in reception with Sam and Stella, waiting to be called. Stella was a bit grumpy because she hadn’t yet had her morning bottle of milk, Sam was happy watching a screen showing footage from four security cameras. A lady in a wheelchair was pushed close to us (and I have written that in the passive deliberately, because the person pushing didn’t ask her where she wanted to wait). She was an older lady, I would guess in her seventies, immaculately dressed and made up. She smiled at us and after a few moments said (as is common):

“You’ve got your hands full!”

I smiled and we had a brief chat about how old the kids were, how cute Stella was, how much she liked milk. Then the lady asked, as she looked at Sam:

“Is he able to go to school?”

“Of course,” I said. “He goes to a brilliant school which he loves, don’t you Sam. We’re just here for an appointment.”

I could see the pity-look appearing so I was even more positive than normal about both Sam and his school. But as she was leaving she said:

“It’s so hard for these handicapped children. So hard for their families. I feel so sorry for them.”

It was one of those times when I felt like I didn’t have the words to be able to explain to her what our world is like, what Sam’s life is like, how we (try to) treat him. I have no idea how or why she uses a wheelchair, or how old she was when she first used it, but clearly she has lived a different experience.

It’s impossible in passing conversations like this to say all I want to, but later I felt so sad that she assumed Sam didn’t go to school, that his life is somehow unbearably hard, that it’s okay to talk about him like that right in front of him. Clearly being disabled in some way doesn’t automatically educate you in how to treat disabled kids in 2016 (or 2017).

I don’t want to minimise Sam’s challenges – loads of things are tough for him, almost nothing comes easily, and much is really unfair. And as a family we sometimes struggle when Sam’s disability makes things more complicated for all of us. But right now, as a seven year old boy, Sam is having a good life most of the time (and really, which child is having a good life all of the time? I mean every kid has to tidy up or eat Brussels sprouts or go home some of the time). He has loads of fun. He laughs most days. He is loved. He is learning. He is thriving.

By way of illustration, between his sixth and seventh birthdays Sam:

  • Had a baby sister: tolerated Stella’s wailing, put up with a third of our attention rather than half, learnt to deal with her grabbing onto his legs and pulling his hair. And then got a new baby cousin, Ralph, who also sometimes likes a bit of a wail.
  • Learnt to cycle his trike on his own: whizzed round in circles, racing Eli and being unbelievably pleased with himself. He is still working on learning how to steer.

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  • Made really noticeable progress with communication: starting to eyepoint using his communication book to tell us things, more reliably telling us yes and no.
  • Made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.
  • Went on holiday to Cornwall and France: first flight for three years, loads of swimming and beach time, hanging out with family and friends, getting tanned (and on one unfortunate occasion burned), getting a new passport.

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  • So many jokes with Eli. So many lovely moments between these two boys.

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  • Started staying at a children’s hospice for the occasional night, didn’t seem to be traumatised.
  • Moved house, again. Visited the building site to review progress and try out his new lift. Before he is eight he should have managed yet another move, his sixth since he was born.

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  • Began to be hoisted (rather than manually lifted) for most transfers between chairs and beds: coped much better with this than his mum.
  • Listened to lots and lots of audiobooks: his bluetooth speaker and ipod have become essentials wherever Sam goes, and there’s therefore been less screen time, developed a love for the books of David Walliams (except the highly emotional ending of Gangsta Granny) and late in the year Harry Potter.
  • Finished his first year at a new school: totally smashed it, participated in a whole school play in his walker, another year of loving learning, fascinated by the Great Fire of London.

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  • Was increasingly contented: Sam has spent the last year less fractious and generally happier. We spend less time flicking though films to find the one he is happy to watch, less energy trying to entertain him in public places so we can finish our lunch. This is probably connected to us having more (paid) help, and Sam getting older and more mature, helped – we think – by his surgery in 2015. As long as we explain what’s what is going on or is about to happen, Sam is noticeably more able to deal with unfamiliar or demanding environments. Long may it continue.

As we celebrate another year of Sam being our son, I am so very proud of this boy (and still so very sad that seven years ago he was still in hospital). He is such a joy to us all, so filled with patience and humour and determination. Happy New Year everyone – let’s all hope we come across more Sams, less pity and more positivity in 2017.

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A space rocket for Sam

In December Eli and I went to Sam’s Christmas play at school. It wasn’t what you would call a traditional nativity play – each class did a segment around a theme and Sam’s bit was mainly based on the story of the three pigs and the big bad wolf! This is the second school Christmas play I have been to and they are always a triumph of logistics and imagination.

One of the older classes did a performance based on space, and were dressed as astronauts while singing ‘All About that Space’ to the tune of the Meghan Trainor song. This happens to be one of Eli’s favourite songs and he was outraged, ‘It’s All About That BASS, not SPACE!’

Then, as we watched the kids Eli said loudly, ‘Astronauts are not disabled.’

‘Um, right, don’t they look great?’ I said.

‘Astronauts cannot be in wheelchairs’, he said.

Luckily for me the next stage of the play involved chocolate coins being tossed in to the audience, so Eli was distracted and I didn’t have to deal with the inclusion-disability-space conundrum immediately. But it stayed with me.

Eli is as accepting of difference as you could hope a three year old to be. He’s a kid and they deal mainly in black and white and are hugely influenced by what they see around them. So in the same way that they might think women can’t be sea adventurers because there’s only one poxy female Octonaut on the TV programme, they think astronauts can’t be disabled because they haven’t seen one.

And of course they’re sort of right. It’s unlikely there will be a wheelchair-user visiting the International Space Station any time soon. But it’s also pretty unlikely that any of the children we know will grow up to be astronauts despite their aspirations but we don’t therefore tell them it’s impossible. Right now, they can pretend to be whoever they want to be.

The whole point of childhood is to have dreams and imagination, and the role of parents is to make the landscape of their aspirations as wide and ambitious as possible. That’s why we read fictional books. So in the same way that I don’t tell Eli that he might not meet the stringent selection criteria for space travel, we also don’t tell Sam that he can’t be an astronaut because he’s disabled. In light of Eli’s comments at the play, we spend quite a lot of time talking about how Eli AND Sam can be astronauts. And Stella, come to that (depressingly lack of female astronaut portrayal also).

Part of this issue is about representation – kids needs to see disabled people (and girls, and women, and non-white people, etc etc) in their books and on TV, doing the same things that the able-bodied, white boy characters get to do. That’s what the Toy Like Me campaign is all about – calling on the toy industry to better represent disabled kids. There’s a lovely story about their campaign here

While we wait for the rest of the world to catch up with inclusion, I seized the opportunity for action provided by a massive pile of cardboard following delivery of a new sofa from Ikea and…

I now present to you: THE WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE ROCKET!

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My eight years of architectural education have not been wasted. It’s big enough for Sam to get in in his chair and still have room for his brother. Eli has decorated it with stars and planets, it has a door to shut out the adults, and interior lighting courtesy of the pound shop. It’s a bit crude, not photogenic and an apostrophe has dropped off but the kids love it.

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IMG_0547James, Eli and Sam have between them created an elaborate bedtime routine which involves turning all the lights off, Eli climbing in to Sam’s bed, and then them playing with various light toys. For slightly obscure reasons, this is called a disco (though it involves no music). Therapists would call it Sensory Play.

We recently bought Sam a Buzz Lightyear toy to reward him for all his incredibly hard work using the eyegaze computer and along with the glow-in-the-dark stars and planets and watching clips of Tim Peake in space, the whole thing has become a bit space-themed. Now, the disco often starts with a little trip in to the rocket and a pretend voyage to the moon before the boys get in to bed.

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If the world won’t provide the imaginative horizons my kids need, we’ll have to create them ourselves.

‘To infinity, and beyond!’

Brothers and sisters

All kids look up to those older than them, and Eli is no different. Sam is almost 6, Eli is 3 and Eli wants to do all of the things Sam does: go to school, go swimming, watch Dennis the Menace.

Eli knows Sam is disabled and because chronology is tricky when you are 3, Eli wonders whether he will become disabled when he is older. He doesn’t see this as a particularly negative potential development. He wants to know whether he’ll get a wheelchair like Sam’s, or go to the same school when he’s disabled.

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There is something bittersweet about our able-bodied son climbing in to Sam’s wheelchair when Sam isn’t using it, about demanding to sit in Sam’s specialist supportive chair to have his snack. I hope it continues like this – Eli’s relaxed attitude to disability is how we would all be if we came across more disabled people at school and work.

Over the summer we went to the Liberty Festival at the Olympic Park . It was on one of those British summer days when the rain was relentless and so I can’t say we stayed that long, but they had curated a selection of cultural and sporting events which deserved sunshine and crowds.

One of the activities was a racing track, and a basketball court, with loads of sports wheelchairs for people to use. What an incredibly simple idea, but have you come across it before? Giving people the opportunity to just sit in a wheelchair? There were loads of kids trying to play wheelchair basketball and race along the track. Eli was super keen even though the chairs were way too big for him, and off he and Sam went to race (with James pushing Sam). He still talks about it – remembering the time that he got to go in a cool wheelchair and raced against his brother.

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I am mindful of this whole business of how you raise siblings of your disabled child. I am pregnant and we expect (fingers crossed, which didn’t go that well with Sam’s birth) another, female, mini-Jess in December. We have thought carefully about this. There are disadvantages to Sam of his parents being spread between other kids, just in terms of time and attention if nothing else – there is less time to model a PODD communication book if another child needs a wee or is in the midst of a meltdown. And there are ever present risks of a sibling feeling like Sam gets the lions share of our attention, of everyone’s attention. Sam’s needs dictate our holidays, mean there are constantly carers in our house, that our lives are disrupted by hospital stays.

Eli is also seeing various things I wish he wouldn’t. He recently asked me to teach him how to click with his fingers. When I asked where he’d seen clicking, he recounted in painfully accurate detail an incident a few weeks ago when a lady (who was in a position of responsibility and should have known better) was clicking in Sam’s face as an apparent attempt to distract or entertain him. When James asked her not to, and suggested she speak to Sam rather than click her fingers directly in front of his nose, she got very defensive and we all ended up having an argument. Eli was with us and was confused by it all, ‘You and Daddy were very cross, and the lady was shouting, and Sam is in our family’. He thinks people shouldn’t click in Sam’s face, but he likes the general idea of clicking.

We hope all of these potential stresses and strains are convincingly outweighed by the massive advantages of there being more people in our gang. Eli loves his brother. He wishes Sam didn’t go to school so that he was at home with us every day. He makes us buy Sam toys so he isn’t left out .

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Meanwhile a chatty 3 year old is a marvellous lubricant in social situations and forces all of us, not least Sam, to engage when it would be easier not to. We do all sorts of things as a family that we wouldn’t do if it were just me, James and Sam. And we all laugh more. We now have to charge the stimulator in Sam’s tummy daily so Eli has been comparing Sam to an iPad. Sam thinks this is funny as do we all. (Yes, we overuse screens in our house and Eli spends too much time with an iPad – another consequence of being Sam’s brother).

So let’s hope we can produce another one like Eli. I mean, of course we won’t. Kids have a habit of being their own people as the two we’ve got have shown. But if the next one is even a bit as accepting then it will be okay.