The barriers have been going up lately at an alarming rate. As we move into a new stage of life with my daughter who has Down’s syndrome, so her needs have increased whilst the help she needs is held back.
I’ve wondered at times if the joy I’ve written about here would follow us through the years, or would harsher new realities emerge to crush it? Am I a fraud, claiming Downright Joy when faced with increasing barriers surrounding care needs as well as a few more challenging behaviours? Then there are days of staring into the unknown of what if’s and how will we cope’s of her future? Those are bad days, where joy is elusive.
Authorities are increasingly, or so it seems, putting more and more hurdles in our way to jump over. Not just authorities, but every-day life sets out its barriers at the start of each day. Road blocks all around us, forcing us to divert, often at the last minute. Satellite navigation voices sounding more and more urgent telling us to turn back, we’ve missed our opportunity. Find another route.
Is this what they meant, eleven years ago, by referring to her as a burden?
And yet I don’t recall them mentioning these things back then. In the sonographers room we were quickly told what she probably wouldn’t be able to do. No one told us about the things she wouldn’t be able to have.
Yet, after she was born I quickly learnt that the doing wasn’t all that important after all. We all do things differently anyway because we are all different. But the having is a different matter because we all have needs, even if those needs vary.
So why did they not tell me about the things she wouldn’t be able to have as opposed to the things she wouldn’t be able to do?
Was it because that would shine a very uncomfortable spotlight on us? On society, on Government policies, on community and on our own value systems? A spotlight on lack of resources as well as unwillingness to pay the price of putting others needs before our own. It’s an uncomfortable conversation very few are willing to have.
Sacrifice. Sacrifice is an ugly, painful word to many.
A word often now devoid of its sacredness.
No. Instead they focused on her. On her extra Chromosome. She’s the one with the problem. Not them, not us. And if she were to make it past the 3rd trimester then she would still be the one with the problem. Not them, not us.
They made sure I knew this before I turned down their final solution. But they did not tell me everything.
They did not tell me that there will be so many things she can’t have “because we won’t allow it.”
At birth, she’ll be given a different Red Book to every other baby on the ward. Because she’s different.
They did not tell me this.
As she grows up, the clothes we sell on the High Street won’t fit her, she is the wrong shape. The shoes we sell will not support her mis-shapen feet. But we’ll provide her with a pair that do fit; however we’ll repeatedly let you know just how expensive they are. Please do not ask us for a new pair until these have completely worn out, useless and are falling apart.
They did not tell me this.
Oh and she won’t be able to use the same toilet facilities we do because they will not meet her needs. Please do not ask for ones that do. They are far too much money. You’ll have to lie her on a filthy floor instead. Better still, don’t go anywhere, stay at home instead.
They did not tell me this.
Her school will be different. Good but different. She will be hidden away there from her community but still cared for and loved there by those who know her worth.
I already knew this and it gave me hope.There are good people in our communities and especially in our schools. We need them so much.
She can join in the very limited activities that we will pay other good people to provide, but you will have to attend countless meetings, fill out numerous forms and open your life to intense personal and painful scrutiny in order to access the funding we have set aside (under lock and key) for people like her.
They did not tell me this either.
There will be so many more experiences she cannot have, but not because she cannot do. And when, eventually, she leaves school, the opportunities for her to be part of her local community in a meaningful way will probably dry up to virtually nothing.
They did not tell me this. But others who are further along this road than me are already signalling what (doesn’t) lie ahead.
Doing things differently should never be a barrier to being part of a community. Love can always find a way, but love has to be an action not just a feeling. Love is a commitment. Love is hard work. Love is sacrificial.
The cost of living crisis began a very long time ago, but many did not notice.
What is spoken over the unborn with Down’s syndrome is a discourse agreed long before their parent(s) set foot in the clinic. An unspoken discourse….
All things considered, we’d rather you didn’t come in. Don’t take it personally though. No, no, see it as a kindness! To you, to your parents and to the rest of society. The intelligent, sensible thing to do. We really can’t afford to be quite THAT welcoming. Look, we’ve even developed this great new test which will help matters enormously. Routinely even; It’s no big deal, really. It’s for the best.
Diversity? Yes of course we like diversity. But only the diversity we like.
Obviously, we will leave the decision up to your parents. That’s the accepted thing to do. We won’t tell them what you can’t have in your life, just what we think you can’t do in your life. Make it a matter of personal choice, thus absolving us of our collective responsibility.
Theycan be the ones to take the blame; your parents. Not us.
Either way you lose.
When the cost of living is deemed of higher value than the cost of loving we all lose. To diminish one of us is to diminish us all. I now see exactly where the burden comes from, and it isn’t from my daughter who has Down’s syndrome.
I am glad that they didn’t tell me these things; even if they knew of them. Telling me what she would not do was enough of a barrier to overcome. A prediction based on a value system I do not share.
It seems to me that we’ve got this idea of scrutiny entirely the wrong way round.
We are scrutinising the wrong thing. Instead, the camera, the tests, should be focused on the scrutinisers, on our society, on us. Searching our genetic make-up, and finding out how and what went wrong? When did we allow these anomalies to creep in? When did we become a society that is so focused on perfection, on achievement and success, so focused on ourselves? When did we forget that in order to truly live, we need first to love.
Downright Joy is found in the daily sacrifice.
It’s in the harshest of environments. It is breathtakingly humbling, eye-wateringly costly, yet remains the greatest privilege and honour of my life to receive.
There was no time to prepare you, we were running late. The show was about to begin, we had to take our seats. I pushed you through the heavy canvas opening, into the darkened arena. I’m not sure how much you could see, your eyesight is blurred even with your powerful bifocals.
What did you see first?
Was it the red velvet carpet laid over the sawdust covered ring? Was it the faces of the audience, eagerly anticipating the start of the show. A show they’d been anticipating for days, weeks or months perhaps. Talking excitedly in the days leading up to their visit about what they would see. I often think that anticipation is the best part of the good and wonderful experiences we have in life. And when I stop to think that you do not live life like this it makes me sad. It shouldn’t. It really shouldn’t.
The tiniest of spiralling particles caught your eye as the spotlight fell. You had no idea what this was, where you were or what was about to happen.
I knew what to expect. At least, I thought I did. Yet, somehow, you knew how to anticipate something you did not understand. You picked up on the atmosphere. You understood you were somewhere new, somewhere exciting, somewhere different.
You were not afraid. You were not alone, of course. I was by your side, my eyes were talking to you over the sound of the band that had struck up loudly; reassuring you, letting you see that this new experience was a good one. I held your ear defenders in case you needed them, but you pushed my hand away.
Curiosity was your ticket to the circus. You were born with a lifetime membership.
And unlike most people, you have never learnt how to live your life without it.
Mexican music filled the tent and your curiosity took you right into the heart of the Mariachi band. There you were, in the midst of the violinists, trumpeters, guitarists, vihuela and accordion players, though you never left your wheelchair.
Curiosity made you listen and led you straight into a dance.
You did not dance as though no one was watching, for it would not matter to you what others think. You danced anyway.
Curiosity said this was what you should do, so you did it. Curiosity called you, moved you, as it always does.
Your ticket to the Circus was the same price as everyone else’s, though you entered via a different doorway and were given a different ringside seat to the rest of the audience. And I’m thankful for the Front of House Team who went out of their way to welcome you to the Circus. They sought you out even from a distance as I wheeled you across the field; not to turn you away but to honour you and make you feel welcomed.
I have a feeling that those who live their lives in the Circus are born with the same ticket as you. They know that curiosity is a sacred thing.
You saw the same acrobats perform as I did; you saw trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns, musicians, dancers, actors as they told us a story. A story of triumph and joy, formed over years of practice, of falls, of knocks, of getting it wrong, of picking themselves up and starting again. Of determination, of commitment, of blood, sweat and tears, of silliness and joy, of community, of travelling to unknown destinations and pitching their tents in strange places, of wondering at times if they are going to make it. Of an uncertain but exhilarating future.
We went to the Circus with hundreds of others last week, yet I believe you saw more, experienced more and took more from it than anyone else in that tent that day.
Years ago I was told by well meaning people that it would be kinder for you and for me if you were not born; only because you have Down’s syndrome. They did not know that bolted onto your extra Chromosome was a Golden Ticket of Curiosity with a ringside seat.
And I’m convinced that you still have the best view.
I recently took time out from caring for my disabled child who has Down’s syndrome and took a trip to Italy to visit family I had not seen for a very long time.
It was also an opportunity to spend more time with my eldest child, and introduce her to a whole new cultural experience as well as meet some of our family for the first time. For one entire, exhilarating week, we wandered the cobbled streets of Sorrento, savouring the sights and the sounds of this beautiful coastal town in the Bay of Naples.
Lemon trees lined our pathways, Orange trees also. In the narrow back streets, shops and bars jostled for space and competed for customers, their baskets filled with ruby red pomegranates and lemons the size of grapefruits. Leather goods spilled out of doorways giving off an intoxicating air of ‘We are Quality and we know it.‘
Sorrento, according to Greek mythology, was home to Sirens, who lured sailors onto its rocks with their mesmerising songs. Today, tourists and locals alike gather above those rocks, lured not by song but by sunsets. A place to stand and pause, capturing a memory or two against the vibrant colours of blue, fiery reds, orange and deepest yellow hues that fill the skies.
A short train ride along the coast finds the ancient city of Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum. In AD 79, a cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, known to locals as His Majesty, destroyed the lives of over 16000 inhabitants and the livelihoods of those fortunate enough to escape the suffocating clouds of ash or the pyroclastic flow. Wandering through Pompeii’s ruins, our local tour guide brought this legendary city to life as she told us stories of some of the people who once lived and worked here. The rich, the poor, the everyday and ordinary lives and their extraordinary blueprints for so much that we know and use today. Who knew, for example that house builders in Roman Pompeii knew the design for LEGO centuries before LEGO did? Our guide told us much of what she knew; human stories of human lives, achievements, hardships, joys and sorrows. Baking bread, shopping for clothes, going to the theatre, gossiping in the town square. Every day life of men, women and children, living and thriving in community.
One of the most remarkable outcomes, at least to me, of the story of the Volcanic eruption in AD79 is how the surrounding area eventually recovered from this catastrophe. The whole region is famed for its produce. Olive groves aplenty, vineyards, oranges, lemons and much more are to be found on the slopes of Vesuvius in abundance. And, according to historians and geologists, the land became far more fertile as a result of the eruption. The economy recovered relatively quickly and future generations enjoyed the spoils from the enhanced rich soil. They thrived. His Majesty Vesuvius brought life as well as death.
When my daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, was born I was given a poem. The poem was about a planned holiday to Italy being diverted in the air and landing in Holland instead. This poem is well known in the Down’s syndrome community and is a bit like marmite in the way it divides opinion. Personally, I found it to be well meaning, but deeply disappointing. No offence to the Dutch; I’d love to visit their country too one day. But I will not allow anyone to steal Italy from my heart or my dreams. Having a child with Down’s syndrome is not a diversion or even a different destination; who knows where any of us will end up in life after all? Neither is it a catastrophe as some think or express.
What happened inPompeii was a catastrophe. Having a child with a disability is not.
I do not minimise the challenges that come with bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome. I never have, I hope. The opposite in fact. I have no desire to ‘lure’ any parent faced with the news that their baby might have a disability into a false sense of security, when the journey is clearly fraught with, at times, hard, rocky places. But modern day Sirens still go off where disability or, in particular, a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome is concerned; bringing fear, panic and urgency in decision making. They need always to be tempered, in my opinion, with a softer, sweeter song. A song not of falsities or deception, but of hope. There is still life to be had, to be lived, to be enjoyed. And in many ways it is a life more vibrant and verdant than before.
I do wish that my daughter’s life, and the lives of others born or unborn with disabilities are seen first and foremost as the humans that they are. Perhaps, if they were, there would be no need for a Down’s syndrome community or a disabled community.
Just a community would be enough.
A community more welcoming, more supportive, more vibrant, more fertile, more prosperous and hope-filled for all its inhabitants, its humans, than ever existed before. Thriving.
You’d think after ten years of knowing you, I’d be an expert in you.
You’d think I’d have learnt so much about this thing called Down’s syndrome.
You’d think I’d have learnt so much about what makes you tick. Your likes, your dislikes. Your needs and your wants.
I am your mum after all. To some, like me, the title ‘mum‘ is badge worn with honour in all situations. To others, it’s a lazy or condescending title, used to belittle and control. Don’t call me mum they say. With feeling, with reason.
I hope they are heard.
Some say I’m supposed to be an expert in you, yet there are no letters after my name. They mean this as a compliment I think. To me it’s just a pressure. I am no expert in you. If I were, I’d know what made you cry instantly. I’d know what you were really experiencing as you bit down on your hand, making it bleed in, well I don’t know…is it pain, is it frustration, or is it fear? Help me out here will you? I’m no expert.
I ask you, every time. What’s the matter? But you cannot reply. Not in the way I wish you could. And it takes rather more than a degree or a PhD to interpret the reply you undoubtedly do give.
I try to help you learn to eat, but do you want this food? Is it to your liking? Or is it too hot or too cold? Too difficult to swallow? Too sweet? Too sharp? Shall we just give up and use your feeding tube instead? I don’t know.
And about learning to walk…how are those orthotics feeling today around your ankles? Do they hurt? Are they too tight? Is that why you fall to your knees and stay in one place, or is it because those boots are just so darn heavy?
Why have you taken your glasses off? Did they rub your nose or does the prescription need changing? Ahhh I see they need a clean. Here, let me help you with that. If only you’d said.
What would you say to me if you could?
I am no expert in understanding you. In reality, I know so very little about you. But my face is always turned towards you. My ears are attentive to your plethora of sounds. Your cry. I am sorry I don’t always give you what you need. This is not ok. I wish I could.
Sometimes I may see what it is you want but do not give it to you. This is ok. It may not be what is best, not just for you but for others around you. You are part of us and we all matter.
What matters to me most is that you are always heard, even if you are not always understood. Even if what you ask for I cannot give as it is outside of my ability to either understand or grant or it is in someway detrimental to another.
Our friend, Heidi Crowter…who really is our friend and who we have enjoyed spending time with in the past, has recently been asking for something. Unlike my daughter, she is able to say what it is she wants. Whether or not she gets what she wants is another matter, and one not for me to decide thankfully, though she has my support and my sympathies.
What matters most to me, I’ve been reflecting on, is not the outcome of her case. As others have been quick to highlight, the judge said her appeal was unlikely to succeed. They may well be right and of course, time will tell.
No. To me the most extraordinary thing of all about her journey so far – whether one agrees with her case or not – is what took place last week in the Court of Appeal in London.
Heidi Crowter: a woman with Down’s syndrome stood publicly to speak in the Court of Appeal and was not shut down, either as she spoke, or by the decision of the judges that ensued in allowing her to appeal. All of which happened on International Women’s Day of all days.
Type the words Down syndrome into Twitter, or Google and you’ll soon find, as I did just the other day, words of hatred spoken about people with Down’s syndrome. Words that seek to destroy and shut out people with Down’s syndrome – even from life itself. I even reported one such abusive tweet that referred to another child with Down’s syndrome as “an abomination to this planet ” and that they “wouldn’t consider it as human”. Twitter responded by saying this tweet had not broken any guidelines.
Twitter replied to me, but did they hear me? I’m not so sure.
Whatever happens next in the Heidi Crowter case, that historic moment in the Court of Appeal will never be taken away from her. And I’m no expert, but I am thankful to the two judges who are. They listened to and they heard Heidi. And, I believe they understood and recognised her need to be properly heard in the highest court in the land, regardless of whether her wishes can or should be granted.
I wrapped you up tightly against penetrating winds and prying eyes. I pushed your sister to and fro in the orange bucket swing. I must have fed you there too. Not by bottle or blanket covered breast but by nasogastric tube. Your soft, perfect cheek aggravated red raw by a strip of sticky tape that held the tube in place inside your tiny nose.
Gravity feeding, with one arm in the air, holding up a purple syringe. Fortified milk flowed down a tube, disappearing inside the pram. I glance around the park, fearing the double take. Afraid of what people might say, wondering if they might be cruel or insensitive, as had happened days earlier when a stranger had noticed you had Down’s syndrome and a “funny tube”. They pointed right at you and it stung.
Yet, I’m secretly hoping, wondering, if someone would walk by and say something lovely; to make what hurt sting a little less.
Always wondering, always worrying.
Afterwards, we watched the ducks busy on their little island. We did not feed them; no hands were spare for that. They took no notice of us anyway, as we had brought nothing to their table.
I took you there as a toddler.
In a pushchair.
Head to toe in snow suit, thick socks and fur lined boots. I knew your feet would be cold. Unable to warm them up by running around. You were a toddler who never toddled. Your boots always as good new. I pushed you in the orange bucket swing, your sister now at school. In reality, I wedged you in, both hands holding up your floppy body against rigid plastic as we both went to and fro, awkwardly.
I’m sure I fed you there again. Less concerned by the double takes or curious looks. Your beautiful face now healed. A thousand syringes later and with a battery-operated pump to boot, the tube by now surgically placed directly into your stomach. I worried about you getting cold as I pealed back the layers and connected you to the pump.
Picnic table not required, I sat on a bench and we watched the ducks. We did not feed them, there was no room in your bag for anything other than essentials.
I’m sure you must have wondered what they were, those funny little ducks. What did your blurred almond eyes make of them, I wondered?
We stopped visiting the park several years ago and I think our world shrank a little more. I had deemed it pointless as you could no longer access the playground. We could not enjoy it the way other families did. It was unsuitable for you; a public right of way with a caveat. And dogs. So many dogs tearing around the park with exuberance. Enthusiastically sniffing out their daily moments of freedom with no lead to restrain – though the Official Looking Sign said that, for the benefit of others, they ought not.
Silly sign, the dogs did not read it.
Today you visited the park again.
In your wheelchair.
Only this time, I wasn’t there. I have seen some photos your teacher sent me. I see you share your joy and delight at this unexpected trip. I hear your laughter. I see the spring in your step, even from the confines of your chair. A blanket has been placed lovingly over your legs to keep out the cold wind. I wonder who put it there? I’m so thankful and touched that they did; it makes me cry a little. It’s something I’d do for you.
From your chair you watched the ducks. You held a stick. You’ve always loved a stick. Your face tells me that you wondered at all you saw. You shared your wonder with your teachers and classmates. No doubt you shared it with passers-by as they did a double take at the class of wheelchair users and their carers surrounding the park’s little pond. I’m certain they would have smiled too.
And I wonderedwho was teaching who?
Today you came back to the park. Your pockets still empty, overflowing with untold riches to give away. Pockets filled with wonder. Treasures you woke up with, stored, perhaps, under your pillow? Like some sort of biblical manna, it appears each day. Ready to hand out to those you meet. You are my miniature, giant philanthropist.
I hope you visit the park many more times.
I hope you never hide away. I hope also, that you are never on parade, rather on a par. Experiencing all the park has to offer, as others do, and giving back in all the ways I know you will. Today you were all the things a person should expect to be: surrounded, included, protected, loved, invited, heard, appreciated, present. Though the world may sometimes hold up an Official or Unofficial Sign that says, for the benefitof others and your own, you ought notexperience these freedoms.
Silly sign. You cannot read it. I hope you never will.
Today you came back to the park. And, though I’ve had many sleepless nights wondering if this would ever be the case, you were all those things without me. A walk in the park may be harder for some than for others but there are always sacred spaces to be found, and shared experiences to be had.
And, perhaps in the way you do, I now wonder at it all.
Different posters adorn the walls. Antenatal Word Clouds long since replaced by Musculoskeletal Murals.
And the patients. They are different too. No longer anxiously stroking an unknown bump, nervously avoiding eye contact with others in The Waiting Room as they await their scans. These patients rest their hands on crutches. Or support their sling encased arms with a gentle hand. Waiting for their turn, for their particular trauma to be addressed. To be healed.
They smile at you. They can’t help it. You make people smile. In your pink wheelchair, with your pink hair bows. If they feel pity for you, it soon turns to joy.
You do that to people; I’ve noticed.
Which is good, because right now my stomach is churning. My heart is racing. You see, we’ve been in The Waiting Room before, you and I. And I did not expect to be here again.
That Department has moved, the receptionist said, noting my confusion. Go through those double doors and you’ll find it.
And so we sit here again, some ten years since the last time.
In The Waiting Room.
Your name is called out. You have a name. Everyone here has a name. Of course they do. It’s how the staff know who they are dealing with. It’s how they know who is next on their list to be cared for.
Last time you were here you did not have a name. Last time you were here you quickly became an it to those who spoke of you. Including me. Last time you were here you were not known.
I wonder, if I had given you your name when we last were here, if that would have made a difference?
They said they could deal with it last time you were here. When they found out you might have an extra chromosome.
Imagine if I’d told them your name. Imagine if I’d had the courage of my convictions to have named you YOU back then. I wish I had, but I admit… I was scared. I did not know you either.
Now we sit in that room and I wonder if it’s the same chair. The trolley bed is in the same position. It’s the same room I sat in over two years before you were even born, weeks after nearly losing my life and that of your unborn sister. A room that holds so much trauma for me and, presumably, countless others.
The doctor kneels at your feet. You look down at him from your wheelchair, smiling. Laughing.
He gently wraps bandages around your badly damaged ankles and feet. He speaks tenderly to you, telling you what he is doing. Casting moulds for the support you so desperately need. He says you can have colourful casts if you like. He calls you Sweetie. He also calls you by your name. He honours you. He knows you.
This is not the first time he has treated you. Nor will it be the last. He wants only to make your life better. He knows what you need. He knows because he has met you. He knows because he has cared for many people like you before.
He knows you.
Last time you were here a doctor stood over you, whilst I patted you nervously, clutching your photograph. Many photographs were being handed out to people that day and everyday. You looked a bit like a kidney bean…. I’ve kept it, you can see it one day if you like.
You would not remember. He stood over me, over us. Kindly, gently, yet devastatingly, his words brought trauma to us both. And, moments later in the room opposite which I can see from where we now sit, another kindly professional spoke trauma over us both and even death over you. I carried you, like all the other patients in The Waiting Room that day. I also carried the leaflet they handed me, that told me what they thought I might like to do – about you.
I have no ill feelings towards them now; sitting here. Those feelings have unexpectedly gone; I don’t need to hold onto them anymore.
Instead, I carry a sadness that the Doctors back then did not know what the Doctor who now kneels before you knows. I carry a sadness for every woman, every parent, who has sat anxiously in these rooms and experienced trauma; whatever decision they made, however they made it and whatever their outcome. So much fear, often but not always, of the unknown.
Fear causes stress and stress fractures.
Yet in this unexpected moment, my sadness is replaced by thankfulness. Fractures fuse as the healing process begins.
I am thankful for this room, for these other patients, for this Doctor who knows…who knows you. I am thankful that we have come to The Trauma Clinic today for it is a place not only of healing but of redemption.
Eighteen months ago or so, you will undoubtedly recall, hand-painted rainbows began appearing across the country of Italy, at the start of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Strung from balconies where Italian citizens resided, unable to leave their homes and now trapped in a place of fear and uncertainty. The banners were often emblazoned with the words “Andra tutto bene” which translates as “Everything will be ok.”
Some citizens began to sing from those same balconies to one another. Accordions struck up, Sopranos serenaded, Baritones bellowed. And, before long, it seemed like the whole of Italy was singing. As the New York Times put it, Italians had found “A Moment of Joy in this Moment of Anxiety”. Songs erupted from people who were clinging onto hope as well as learning to be thankful for the expertise of the medical profession that they were now so very dependent on. Something similar happened here in the UK with rainbows appearing all over as well as clapping and cheering for the NHS; though we never quite mastered the singing. That’s best left to the Italians – always.
A song, from the heart, is a precious thing indeed, and Italy will always have a very special place in my heart. Some of my family are Italian and have lived there all their lives. They too, draped a huge rainbow banner over their balcony, and sat behind it daily, looking down onto their fishing boats and nets from their centuries old home in the beautiful town of Sorrento in the Bay of Naples. A place so deeply loved by locals and tourists alike that it has a famous song of its ownTorna a Sorriento. Yet this beautiful place was now filled with fear and uncertainty. Hope was called for, fearful hearts needed a new song to sing. And as they sang, so hope spread, even inspite of their circumstances.
Ten years ago, my family GP was the first medical person to say anything positive about what life might be like with my baby who had been born and then diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. We’d just come home from two traumatic months in the hospital NICU and I was struggling to come to terms with her diagnosis. Our GP was the first person to give us hope that we would be OK. That we would be more than OK in fact. His words to me were so much more than medical and exactly what I needed to hear. He said that life with a child with Down’s syndrome would be an incredible journey and I would meet some amazing people. He did not sugar-coat or minimise the challenges we were facing; there was no need, we were already up to our necks in plenty of those, medically speaking. He simply sat on the end of my bed, metaphorically leaned across, and in one sentence, opened a new window onto a brighter view. One filled with a more colourful sky which, from that moment on, began to chase away its gloomy predecessor. A vista that slowly began to fill up with the possibilities of a life of love and of loving. His years of experience as a family Doctor told him that there was indeed still a life to be lived and loved. Hers, ours. He was not afraid to gently tell me so.
My GP has recently retired and so I took the opportunity to write to thank him and tell him how his words had made a life changing impact on me and my family. I have been told that he referenced my letter in his retirement speech, which has touched me no end. You see, somewhere over the years, the hope he gave me as a frightened and overwhelmed mum, fearful of what an unknown future might hold for my little girl with an extra chromosome and for our family, has evolved into thankfulness on my part. I felt it was important to say thank you for something so precious and transformative. For something better than any prescription, test or medical solution, helpful though those things may or may not be. I wanted him to know that I am forever thankful for his wisdom.
Wisdom – from the heart, not just a text book – is a precious thing indeed. A pearl of great price.
Facts are undeniable, but finding hope to live with them, beyond them and inspite of them is where a diagnosis can become a beginning not an ending. My sincere hope is that every parent who is fearful on getting a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome, as indeed I was, finds such a pearl. I hope they too will find continued support from those who will help them to prise it out of its shell and wear around their neck as their pride and joy.
Italians know a thing or two about life; about singing songs of hope, of love, of loss, of joy and of sorrow. Their language is rich and heavy with the beauty of these things.
And I think, though I’ve never enquired, that my GP may possibly be fluent in it.
Recently, my almost 12 year old asked me a question. Actually she asks me loads of questions. Most of her conversation starters begin with “ I’ve got a question”. This has been the case for a very long time. I’ve been told this can be a feature of her Autism; a kind of verbal tic even, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. I see no reason to medicalise or even analyse her every characteristic. And, whatever it is, I quite like it. It gives me a moment to prepare for whatever might come next. It’s rather charming too.
Her question was this:
Was it ok for her to still call me ‘Mummy”?
She is my firstborn. She has always called me Mummy. This is my name as far as she is concerned.
And she was concerned. She had presumably heard others at school refer to theirs as ‘Mum’. She was worried that she might be expected to make a change, to fit in with others, to appease them. To not stand out or appear babyish. And here is where her autism really does kick in. Changing my name…changing that familiar, constant, never previously questioned name was a step too far for her. Venturing into the Land of Unprecedented. A change that society seemed to want to force on her. I am her Mummy. She said.
And who am I to argue?
I am her Mummy. For many years, I thought I might never be anyone’s Mummy.
We live in an age where, increasingly, we are encouraged to identify as whoever we want to. This isn’t a blog post questioning or criticising that….far from it. If I could have identified as a Mummy when I was in my 30’s and held a baby in my arms, I would have done so – in a heartbeat. It was not in my control to do so. There was no child for a very long time to bestow that identity on me.
Eventually, after many years, M brought me that identity. I call it a privilege because it feels like one. Even now. Still. I will never get tired of hearing her call me Mummy. Or Mum, if she chooses to.
Recently, I’ve noticed a frustration creeping into the SEN/disability parenting world from parents who wish they weren’t continually referred to as ‘Mum’ by professionals in appointments or meetings. They want to be afforded the respect of being addressed by their actual name. I fully understand their reasons why, but I just don’t feel the same way for reasons I’ll try to explain. The word Mum or Mummy can often feel like a label. Slapped on carelessly at times. It can feel belittling to be in a room of professionals with all kinds of titles as well as letters after their names and be referred to as ‘Mum.‘ It’s sometimes as though before you’ve even entered the room or said a word, your opinion will not carry as much weight as theirs. You are just ‘Mum’ after all. I get it. I really do. I’ve felt that sense of inadequacy being bestowed upon me by those who believe they must know better. Thankfully only on rare occasions, but I have. But I’ve also had to recognise that, they do often know better than me on all kinds of levels. And, quite simply, being a ‘Mum’ to me is not belittling. It’s a title I love and cherish. A title that brings to the table as much as those with professional titles do. Often more so. The problem, I think, is not with the name or title – it’s with the understanding of who that name or title is.
Ultimately, this is just not a battle I am choosing to fight. I have no issue with others doing so, however. And so, although it has occasionally happened to me, and I’ve been labelled ‘Mum’ in a way that may not recognise what I bring, I’ve learnt to peel it off and reapply it as a badge of honour. A privilege. Undeserved. Something that I did not earn or study for; it was a gift out of the blue. But still mine to wear nonetheless, and a weighty one too.
I don’t think I will ever mind being called Mum. Or M’s Mummy, or Hazel’s Mummy. After years of heartache at not being one, why would I? I have many friends and acquaintances who would also give anything to have that name. Their own heartaches of baby-loss, losing a child or of infertility means that the name ‘Mum’ carries real pain and/or remains unattainable.
And, of my own two children, even after nine years, one of them has never called me Mummy. Not clearly, not properly. She is also Autistic but Non-Verbal. She sometimes forms a sound ‘Mmmmm’ when she sees me, or when she is poorly and needs me. That’s the closest she comes to using my name and it makes my heart sing when she does. So when others, even professionals, refer to me as Hazel’s Mummy, I have to admit to feeling nothing but pride. I can’t help it. It’s something I cannot ever take for granted. And I want her to hear my name used as often as possible. Who knows, perhaps one day she will say it back to me if she hears it spoken often enough.
If the role of being someone’s Mum came with the honour, respect and dignity it truly deserves in society (and not just on Mother’s Day) then perhaps other ‘Mums’ wouldn’t feel so belittled or put down. Perhaps others who find out they are going to be a Mum will feel supported and respected enough to continue their pregnancies instead of feeling that they have no other choice but to end them. Perhaps those ‘Mums’ who are told their unborn baby has Down syndrome will be honoured and respected by being offered all the help in the world to birth and care for their child. Instead they are often routinely steered in the opposite direction and told it’s for the best. Their role as a capable Mum called into question in those first few weeks and months of pregnancy and never even given a chance. Perhaps those who have suffered the pain of loss through miscarriage or losing a child in later years would be afforded the dignity and honour of being recognised as their Loved One’s Mum – always. And perhaps those who long to be a Mum but, for whatever reason have not been handed that title, would have their pain recognised and given all they need or want to help carry it.
Titled not labelled. Dignified not denigrated.
Mum. Mummy. Mom. Mama. Mam. Me.
Mum’s the word to be shouted from the rooftops, never silenced, never shamed.