School of hard knocks

Since Audrey started school last September I have had quite a few texts and calls relating to her falling at school. Sometimes she trips, but often than not she is knocked over by other children running or playing nearby.

Yesterday I had one of those calls. I had just calmed Rex from a grumpy car nap wake up and I was preparing lunch when the call came. The school nurse calmly explained there was nothing to worry about, but that Audrey had recently been in to see her, having fallen in the playground, onto her face. Cutting her lip. Hitting her tooth (which doesn’t seem loose, don’t worry). She’s fine now. She also got quite wet so could I bring a coat at pick up? Eek.

I did my bit. The equivalent of smiling and nodding but down the phone (“Mmm, ok, ok”). I hung up. And then I cried. I went through what I assume are cliched phases – upset (cry cry), angry (why wasn’t someone stood right by her?!), acceptance (but they said she was ok) and helplessness (imagining her so far away from my arms, hurt and crying).

I pulled myself back together and sat with Rex to watch Peter bloody Rabbit for the tenth time this week and eat lunch.

If you don’t know; it is torture to hear your child has been hurt. “Some older boys were running past and they knocked her…” Did they notice? Did they care? Did she scream? Sob? Ask for me? Did someone cuddle her? Did she bleed?

Audrey at school
Audrey at school

Yes, torture. I still can’t quite get over how long the school years are. How many more of these calls will I take?

Interestingly I also had a call from Audrey’s speech and language therapist (SALT), to discuss her progress ahead of her education, health and care plan. She expressed how Audrey could benefit from her 1:1 taking a step back to allow her to play with her peers. It made me see more clearly (because at that point I was stupidly wondering why her 1:1 wasn’t basically holding her hand, stood exactly next to her like a bodyguard to prevent her getting knocked over!). There are times to be involved and times to step back. Obviously she can’t really have someone protecting her at all times. Plus she does need to have a full life experience (bumps, bruises and all).

The SALT was full of good things to say about Audrey’s progress and abilities, which was a nice uplifting call to take after the horror injury call!

And when I went to collect Audrey (expecting a gaping wound in her lip), she was fine. A graze on her lip (barely noticeable), still full of beans and thrilled to see me, definitely not scarred for life in any sense.

Yet still I found myself picturing the moment over and over. As I was brushing my teeth that night, I imagined her getting knocked over and a full shudder ran through my body and my stomach flipped. I felt sick. My sweet fragile little girl. I now completely understand why my mother used to describe as as her “precious jewels” (we thought she was such an embarrassing loon).

Audrey drinks her juice from a straw
Audrey getting refreshed after dance class

And so, today was another dance class trial. One where I should drop her off (but they allow you to stay for the first session, so of course I stayed!). But I guess I have to take a step back and start allowing her to get on with things, in the same way I do dropping her off at school.

I watched her today, filled with pride as always. She was like Phoebe Bouffay “I’m totally doing it!” and that was awesome.

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Audrey Starts School!

Audrey holding a picture of me at primary school

I’ve just dropped off a piece of me in a classroom with lots of people I don’t know. The little lady has started reception at primary school.

My daughter is friendly, kind and gentle. She loves imaginative play and reading books. She likes routine. I have no doubt that she will enjoy school, I’m just not sure how much I’ll enjoy her being there!

Anyone who knows me that I will cry at TV programmes, songs that come on the radio and a fleeting thought about someone’s sad situation, so it was a huge surprise that I didn’t cry today dropping Audrey off at her first day of school.

Several factors helped – school drop off is not a romantic, sound-tracked moment.; it’s carnage! We went as a family, with a child in a buggy and one on the loose, we battled through a crowd of legs and shouting and hugging and hellos and goodbyes to get to her class. Also, Audrey was very excited. She managed to (almost) walk all the way there (major achievement) and she jumped, sang and hugged her way down the road, she was genuinely happy to be going to school. It’s tricky to feel the true emotion of a momentous occasion when you are in it. It’s actually easier for me to be tearful anticipating it or reflecting on it.

And so, here I am in a cafe. Ted and Rex are off shopping (typical boys!) and Audrey is in her school classroom, with her teachers.

Of course I can’t help but reflect on 5 years with her. 10 months of maternity leave of just us, followed by a mix of us and nursery, us bump and nursery, us Rex and nursery… and now Audrey has her own thing, she is a schoolgirl!

“They” say it goes in a blink of an eye. I don’t know if  I feel quite like that, but I do feel immensely proud of Audrey and how far we have come from tiny baby on oxygen to confident 5 year old.

As I analyse my feelings, I can see what is creeping in… I felt it during maternity leave with Rex. She had her nursery days and we went to groups but I was suddenly a different mum, I was seemingly a mum of one typical child but that was not my whole identity. She is a part of me, a part of me that I am truly proud of and it can feel very strange to be out and about without her. What a mix of emotions this brings and a new chapter for us all – I have handed in my notice at work and plan to work on freelance writing. I am very lucky to have a supportive husband allowing me to take this leap and it also means that I can be there to drop off and pick up Audrey from school.

Happy September and good luck to everyone in their “firsts”, I love autumn and I’m feeling so very happy that its crisp and sunny outside and the leaves will soon be crunchy under our feet. My favourite time of year.

Alike, But Different.

On Wednesday night I woke around 1am to find myself being sick on and off through until 8am. It goes without saying that Thursday was not a great day for me. Thankfully Ted worked from home and my children offered me plastic cups of “medicine” and gave me hugs and kisses (that I should have fought off due to my potential contagiousness!), they also whined a lot and ran around arguing. Being ill as a grown-up with kids is the worst. The best time to be ill is when you are a kid and a parent looks after you.

Brighton Pride 2018

Anyway, I felt a lot better on Friday and we had a good day with the kids (some top secret modelling, but will share more about that at some point!), we took them to the park in the afternoon and met a lady with a 4 year old son who has special needs. We got chatting and we found ourselves in a position we’ve been in before – struggling to empathise with someone who thinks you can. She sees another “special needs family” and shares her story, but we feel, well, like we occupy a different space; Audrey isn’t “severely” special needs, but she’s not typical either. She sits in a space in between the two. I’m not denying Audrey has special needs, she definitely does and you only have to spend time with other 4-5 year olds to know that she is “different”. However we often find ourselves chatting to someone who is offloading about their child (with some form of special needs) constantly waking in the night, struggling to communicate, challenging behaviour, interacting with other children (hitting, tantrums)… for the most part I can only really apply some of these challenges to Rex!

This lady said she was surprised we had chosen to have another child after our first had special needs! Ha! How we laughed about that one on the way home. All children are hard work and of course, children with special needs present a different set of challenges, but Audrey made us feel very comfortable about doing it all again. Rex, however, well and truly scuppered plans for any more kids!

That evening I was very much looking forward to a decent sleep (as even Thursday night I was restless). As discussed with the lady in the park, Audrey is a good sleeper, but Rex sometimes shouts in his sleep.

Around 2am the dreaded sound of Audrey retching reached my ears – I was out of bed like a shot. There she was, sat upright, sick in her bed and bright and chatty “Sorry Mummy” she said as I wiped up the sick. And after vomiting in the bucket I held for her, “Phew! That’s a lot of sick!” She said, brushing her hair back.

She literally couldn’t get any better. After returning to bed and several more leaps back out to her aid with the bucket, I decided it would make more sense for Audrey and I to sleep in the spare bedroom together. So I scooped her up and laid next to her in the double bed, bucket at the ready.

As soon as I laid in the dark with her, I felt around to find her face and gently stroke it. She did exactly the same and stroked my face. She whispered that we were in “Uncle Graeme’s bed” (because he stayed in our spare room for a week during his chemo this year). She has a snotty nose at the moment, so within minutes she was asleep but snoring like, well, like her Uncle Graeme. I realised that I was really going to struggle to sleep, but do you know what? I strangely didn’t care. I could smell her sicky breath, but I could also feel her warm body right next to me and I felt so lucky to be her mummy. To be her protector.

In the morning I was awoken by many things (Audrey’s feet kicking me, the light coming through the half-closed blind, Rex thrashing about in his cot), but it was magical to wake to the sound of Rex saying “I want Audrey back!”.

Person-First Language is Important

I’m writing this to elaborate on a quick post I did on Instagram explaining/reiterating (I’m sure I’ve said it before) that Audrey is Audrey first; a child with Down’s syndrome second. So she is never a “Down’s kid” she isn’t a “Down’s syndrome girl” she is a child who happens to have Down’s syndrome. My little Instagram rant stemmed from the following…

I arrived for the open evening at Audrey’s school on a sunny summer’s evening, listening to Desert Island Discs, feeling excited about my little girl’s future in mainstream school.

I joined a queue to buy school uniform, chatted to some mums I had met before and gleaned information from these pros (with kids already attending the school) on what to expect.

I sat down clutching the welcome pack with Audrey’s name and class on the front and by chance sat behind the mother of one of Audrey’s nursery friends – (I could see the name and class on her welcome pack) and I could see they were in the same class. Everything was falling into place.

The teachers spoke at the front of the assembly hall and took us through the basics; uniform, PTA, after school club, forest school (so on trend). And then we all got up and filed into our specific classrooms to mingle and meet our child’s future teacher.

For some strange reason, I was quite focused on meeting Audrey’s teacher, but the thought of her 1:1 had barely crossed my mind… at least I thought it hadn’t, but I realise now I had already pictured her – in her 20s, enthusiastic, dedicated to children with special needs, passionate about it, a Makaton pro, a bit quirky.

So I guess it was a surprise to meet the lady who was older and not physically the picture I had in my head. And then, as surprisingly as she’d appeared; she made a bad impression. I asked about her experience and she told me how she had been working with a “Down’s boy” at the school and then she’d been at a special school a few miles away which had “loads of Down’s kids”. Outside I was smiling and nodding, inside I was crushed. How could this be someone passionate about people with Down’s syndrome? She doesn’t even know how to speak to me without offending me! She doesn’t understand person-first language. How can this person be the chosen 1:1 for Audrey? It made no sense.

I was awkward and made some comments about regretting not preparing with questions and I moved to the queue to meet the teacher.

The 1:1 popped up again, asking me about Makaton signing and why Audrey’s nursery had corrected her (she showed me the sign, I corrected her too). Such a minor “hiccup” you might think, but at this point I was getting anxious inside, imagining Audrey bonding with a woman who was seemingly getting everything wrong.

The thing is, people get person-first language wrong all the time and most of the time it doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t like to be pedantic (ok, I kind of do) but hey, I was made that way… in the same way that a cafe might list “sandwich’s” for sale and I will despair (but not run in asking them to correct the laminated menu), I despair a little over someone saying “a Down’s kid” but rarely take the time to correct them.

However. This was meeting a professional in a school. Someone who has clearly worked with children with Down’s syndrome for years and someone who has been employed to spend a lot of time with my daughter. So in this scenario, I should have said something, but because awkward conversations are not my thing, I ranted at other mums, had a rough night’s sleep, ranted a bit more to friends the next day and finally sent an email to the Head of Inclusion at the school to explain what happened.

What really gave me the confidence to write to the school, was the support I had from mum friends (those with typical children), who agreed this language was not on. They made me feel like I wasn’t over reacting.

This all happened last week and having had some time to calm myself and reflect, I had a meeting at the school this morning and I’m pleased to say I feel reassured that this was an unfortunate mistake and that they (the school) are more than versed in the correct language and will be ensuring all the teaching assistant are reminded of the correct terminology.

It was also helpful to hear that the 1:1 had come to the open evening off her own back because was excited to meet me, because she is excited to be Audrey’s teaching assistant. I can step back now and know that she does care, she will learn from this and that this bad experience can help the school, parents and teaching assistants learn something moving forward.

In fact I’m already discussing with another mum from the T21 crew (who was my immediate “What would she have done?” thought when I was faced with the dodgy language) a way of using this experience to create a “going to school pack” that can help schools and families learn from this dodgy experience.

Hopefully no one is reading this wondering what all the fuss is about, but if you are, then please just know that words are important. Audrey is so very precious to me and I want her to have the best start at school as she can possibly have and this begins and ends with her being treated as an individual.

If I Could Go Back…

It’s Down Syndrome Awareness Month (predominantly in the US, but happy to embrace it as I always do), so what better time to direct you to a short film I had the pleasure of contributing to.

I have mentioned The Specials before (an online series that also aired on OWN in the US), they have been a fabulous, fun part of our journey with Down’s Syndrome.

I used to work for a company that sold documentaries internationally and we represented The Specials before I was pregnant with Audrey.

It was quite a moment for me, when, back at work visiting colleagues with my small baby, I bumped into Katy (producer of The Specials) and for the first time, I felt excited to tell someone that my baby had Down’s Syndrome! I knew that she would get it.

Anyway, the company I worked for went into liquidation, time passed, but I thankfully remained in touch with Katy because she’s just one of those lovely-type-people you stay in touch with.

She asked if we (my family and I) might be interested in being filmed for some content for The Specials website. They were interested in representing a different part of the Down’s Syndrome journey – the early part with a little one like Audrey.

Of course I said yes, I am always thrilled at the prospect of showing off Audrey and reaching people with our story – showing what life is like.

Katy started filming us the summer Audrey turned 2 and continued into the winter when I was heavily pregnant with Rex.

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a short film that came from some of that filming: a project called “If I Could Go Back…” that has given a voice to a variety of parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, explaining what those early days are like and what we’d like to say to ourselves if we could go back…

Click here to view on YouTube

It’s a perfect film to share during Down’s Syndrome Awareness Month and one that I hope will be useful to new mothers, fathers, grandparents… basically anyone who fears what it might be like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome in their life. What we thought “then” and what we know “now” = just wow. I could literally talk all day about what I thought it would be like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome and what it is actually like.

Audrey makes me so happy, so proud and she continues to surprise me every day with what she is learning and has achieved. So different to the fear in my heart that moment I first looked at her face.

More links to come no doubt, but for now, I hope you enjoy this one, it’s certainly emotive!

Passing the time

Time is a funny thing. If you have 10 minutes to get ready and leave the house it feels like a ridiculous rush, but 10 minutes waiting for a bus feels like forever.

I’ve been pondering the passing of time a little lately because of Audrey. It’s well known amongst those of us raising a child with Down Syndrome, that things take longer. Whether it’s growing (Audrey wears age 12-18 months, but she is almost 2) or learning (she’s still not mobile and only has a few words).

It’s funny how often with a child (of any kind) that small pockets of time feel like forever. Phases of teething or fussiness or not sleeping… Often these things last a few days or a week, but every time I’m in the thick of a new phase, I think it’s going to last forever! I literally have to keep reminding myself (by repeating a sort of mantra; “it’s only a phase” or “this too shall pass”!). Do I get my flair for the dramatic from my mother? Ooh she loves a bit of drama (even if she says she doesn’t). Who knows? But when we hit a bump in the road, I hit panic mode. Worrying she’ll never sleep through the night again or never eat a breadstick again or never self-settle for a nap etc. In reality, you might get 7 mornings of 5am starts, but then you might get another 7 of 6.30am-ers, who knows?

On the whole, we have a pretty good girl on our hands. One that does self-settle and does sleep through; 99% of the time. She’s very loving, easy-going and eats well. And although these little phases feel long, but realistically pass by quickly, Audrey just isn’t growing up very fast. So we also have the flip side of time passing very slooooowly.

This is magnified by her peers. The gap is wider than ever now that toddlers younger than Audrey have more words and can walk confidently. It’s all very well when we are at home with Audrey in our ‘bubble’; in our bubble she’s a genius. We cheer like crazies every time she gets a motor skill spot on, every time she attempts to stand (she’s pretty far from standing, but she is just starting to push up onto her feet if we hold her under her arms), we look at each other filled with pride when she says and signs ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. Audrey gives us many reasons to feel proud.

We have just been to stay with friends who have a daughter 3 months younger than Audrey and this made her slow progression all the more obvious. We stepped out of the bubble. I mean, I had Audrey out in my arms when this child was still growing in her mummy’s tummy and yet, here she is saying all our names, running to collect whatever colour ball she is told to… Even my husband admitted a “pang” and hey, it’s only natural to get those feelings, how can we not?

What I have realised is how my sadness has shifted since Audrey’s birth. It’s no longer “Why us? This is so unfair”, now it’s all about her. We were not unlucky to have a child with Down Syndrome, but Audrey is unlucky to have it affect her life in a negative way. Because it’s not all kisses and cuddles (ok, 90% of our day is I guess), but it’s a life faced with “disability”. Which is still a bit of a dirty word for us, but it’s true that she doesn’t have the same level of ability as her peers or even those younger than her and that sucks.

What I took away from our visit with our friends, was that Audrey and Ivy should have been running around together, playing games, holding hands, chattering away… But instead Audrey was bum-shuffling as best she could and Ivy was from time to time upsetting her with dangerous (loving) cuddles! She kept squishing her older friend who is much smaller than her. And yes, I felt a pang of jealousy that Audrey couldn’t do all these simple things her younger friend can, but I didn’t feel bad for us, I didn’t feel upset that we had been dealt a bad hand, I just thought how it sucked for Audrey. And the only way I could feel good about it was to think; one day they will be great friends. One day they will hold hands and run around together and Audrey will teach Ivy a little something about being different and being patient and hopefully we can all laugh about the “death cuddles” and Audrey can have a go at flooring Ivy with a cuddle of her own and we’ll all have a good chuckle at how time has finally flown and how grown up our kids are!