Poster girl

Part of sharing positive moments of our life is to ensure there is a balance to what people see when it comes to life with a child with Down’s syndrome. When society tells you to “screen” for Down’s syndrome and you love someone born with DS, you want to share your experience of that love to show it’s not a negative thing that needs eradicating.

It’s because of this that sometimes when life isn’t rosy and Audrey is being a pain in public, I feel huge pressure for her to be good. I want to prove people wrong, I want to show them our life is full of fun and happiness. That said, I’m also honest, so I aim to talk about and share the tough stuff too. Unfortunately life with kids is not entirely straight-forward.

Yesterday, I wanted to go for a run, so Ted did the bedtime stories. Rex was feeling particularly clingy and as I got ready to leave the house he was crying and screaming my name, Audrey however was perfectly calm and happy, “Goodbye Mummy!” she said cheerily as she settled into her bed. Meanwhile Rex was at the kiddy gate rattling it and turning red in the face. Yet he is my “typical” child and she has “special needs”!

The day before, at the park, we arrived at our car to return home. Stood just a couple of metres away from the car door Audrey refused to walk across the long grass. Rex was calmly standing by the car, waiting to get in. Audrey was refusing to move. I was negotiating (begging), but to no avail. As I made the decision to pick her up and force her into the car, a pregnant woman walked by. I kept my head down, got the kids in the car and got ready to leave, but really I wanted to turn to her and say “She’s normally lovely!”.

The fact is, I am always nervous around pregnant women when Audrey is with me. Suddenly she is the poster girl for Down’s syndrome. She is the sole representative – a make or break impression for someone making a decision about screening and termination.

It’s not just the “bad” behaviour that concerns me, sometimes when she is quiet or seemingly not engaged, I worry about people thinking she has nothing going on in her brain. I worry they will be judging her on conversational responses (or lack of) and think she is stupid. Yet if Rex was suddenly mute at a stranger’s question, I would dismiss him as shy and move on, I wouldn’t expect him to be judged solely on that interaction.

It would be nice to say we have nothing to “prove”. She is a multifaceted human being who can be happy and sad, easy-going and stubborn, good and naughty – but sometimes the perceptions of people with Down’s syndrome put them in a box of one or the other. They are either considered to be loving, cuddly and amenable… or unpredictable, hard to control and challenging – it’s rare to think of them as having the ability to be all those things and more. Or none of those things!

What we forget when we group people together (as if they were a different species to us) – is that within the similarities there are also many differences. And stereotypes sometimes fit, but sometimes don’t. Just as not every red head is feisty and not every American is loud – people with Down’s syndrome have stuff in common, but they are individual humans.

Audrey is more polite than your average kid. She’s better at sharing than any other kid I’ve met. She’s chatty and confident, she likes to laugh but she doesn’t like to see people get covered in gunge! She works really hard at physical challenges, but can sometimes lack confidence in that area. She’s a great eater, sits at the table like a dream but can be stubborn and wants to be fed by us sometimes! She doesn’t like lots of bubbles in her bath. She settles down at bedtime to sleep very happily.

And I can tell you about her “typical” brother Rex, he isn’t great at sharing, but is excellent at climbing and running. He can be shy, but once he warms up he’s great at making friends. He’s an extremely fussy eater and likes to eat with his fingers, whilst on the move. He doesn’t mind bubbles in the bath, but will help get rid of them for Audrey. He rarely wants to go to sleep at bedtime, he wants to keep playing… they both have my long eyelashes (which I got from my mother) and they both seem to have inherited my mother’s ability to chat!

The two of them have given me a very varied experience of motherhood just by being different kids with different personalities and the fact is, at this stage, Audrey’s Down’s syndrome plays a pretty small part in what makes her different to her brother.

Those of us with children who have Down’s syndrome may feel the pressure to be the model example of how it can all be ok, but we should also be allowed to show it’s not always ok – because that’s life with any child.

 

 

Party on

I mentioned on Instagram the other week about a clunky moment when a pediatrician asked if Audrey was being invited to birthday parties. I found it quite odd. Audrey has been going to birthday parties since birth. A friend made me realise this was the doctor’s way of measuring that Audrey is being included and has formed friendships at school.

Funnily enough, just recently we have had loads of birthday parties. Audrey loves a good party, however sometimes the bouncy castle is too busy for her. Sometimes the general ambiance is too loud for her. Sometimes she’s just not in the mood. But mostly she enjoys all that comes with sort of event; party music, dancing, party food, pass the parcel… and of course, the wonderful cake moment singing ‘Happy birthday’ – she does this with huge enthusiasm and joy. On your birthday, if Audrey is there, it’s like having your own personal cheerleader.

Last Saturday we went to one of those parties that just wasn’t her thing. We arrived and the hall was loud and chaotic with her school friends running around, making a lot of noise, but she was ok. It was such a pleasure to see her hugging her friends, holding hands, running around together, it was a great feeling watching her being part of the gang.

Then the entertainer arrived. Uh-oh. It started well, Audrey sat laughing along with her friends and I was sat back on a chair, thinking how well she was doing and how far we had come… when she started to look for me with her bottom lip protruding. She came to sit on my lap “Can we go home Mummy? I don’t like it, he’s scary, it’s too loud”. She asked to go to the toilet (a cunning way to leave the loud room) and she did do a wee (hurrah!), but we ended up waiting in the hallway and then the kitchen, because she was too upset by the noise in the main hall. Once the entertainer finished, there was a party tea (which she didn’t eat) and a brief moment with music where she ran around with her friends (and my goodness 5 year olds are raucous), but I was relieved and thought we’d see this party through… when the entertainer came back to do his closing set. So we left early.

Where we (society) have come so far is that Audrey was even invited. She is part of a mainstream school class and she is treated the same as her typical peers. Also, everyone is understanding. No one is asking “What’s wrong with her?” (because she doesn’t like the entertainer, but every other child does), people are not making us feel weird. It’s fine that she’s not feeling it and off we go.

One thing I know, Audrey will always be invited to birthday parties. Yes, the kids will start to cherry pick their favourite friends and everyone should have that right, but I am confident that my kind, gentle, fun little girl will be considered an asset to a party by lots of children.

We have another school friend’s party in February. I know it involves a big bouncy castle and maybe some soft play, I suspect it won’t be her thing, but we will go. Because we have to try. Audrey has been to the cinema, bowling, she has seen live bands, watched parades, been on a Ferris wheel – there are many things I’ve been concerned she might not like… but we tried anyway. Because sometimes she loves things that we might have been told she would hate. Knowing she has special needs means we are aware of some of the challenges she may have, but nothing can predict your child’s personality and their preferences, you just have to live your life and discover together, one party at a time!

Why I Still Love Christmas (having lost both parents)…

Christmas was once the most excruciatingly exciting time of year. From age 3 to 13ish it was the highlight of  life, from the build up (decorations going up, rifling through the wardrobe for presents, the BIG shop that included fizzy pop and chocolate) to that fateful night where the anticipation is just too much and you cannot sleep to that morning (eek I am sure we were up at 4am sometimes!) where the presents were ripped open and the day was pure joy and chaos.

We had big family Christmases, I think at their peak there was around 12 for dinner. My dad’s parents were not around (aside from his stepmother but she wasn’t with us Christmas Day), but my mother’s parents were close (Granddad was hilarious and a must-have for family games), I had three siblings, two old enough to have partners/kids, sometimes my uncle would join us with his wife, I think we had a great nan around too. We had one of those extendable tables and garden chairs with cushions were added into the mix.

I always had a mince pie for breakfast. We always played charades and various games in the evening. We always ate too much. I would have a Christmas Day outfit planned (a velvet dress generally, ooh I remember a year with ski pants and a roll neck!). My mother would embarrass me with her interest in flashing Christmas themed earrings and knitwear. My dad made me ‘snowball’ cocktails (don’t worry, mostly lemonade).

Sometime in the early nineties I accompanied mum to the local garden centre to finally update our hideous Christmas decorations. For years we had dragged those sparkly pink, purple, blue, silver… (you name it) foil garlands and lanterns (that hung from the centre of the room to each corner) down from the loft. We had a toilet-roll-holder-type-angel for the top of the tree. We revamped things that year and switched to green and red traditional stuff and ditched the tinsel. It was a big change back then.

It was in my late teens/early twenties that it really hit me that Christmas would never be the same again. I was no longer filled with that crazy level of excitement, our numbers had diminished a little, but most of all we were all grown up. Only a single nephew remained “young enough” for true Christmas excitement… for me, mum’s novelty stocking fillers became eye-rollerable rather than excellent (and she was an absolute stocking-filler-pro! Pre-internet we had lots of personalised items with our name or initials on, as well as very bizarre stuff like chocolate shaped like sardines in a tin, I LOVED my stocking in its heyday).

By the time I had met Ted and we tried that Christmas juggling you do when you are first a couple and want to spend Christmas together, but also do not want to leave your traditional family Christmas behind… I was ready to accept that Christmas had changed for good.

I think that made it easier for me to live with the fact that now, Christmas is very far away from that of my childhood. I have no parents, I have lost one sibling (and the connection to her two grown up children is weaker), My eldest brother is… well that’s difficult to describe, let’s just say he’s ‘a problem’ and my other brother battled cancer this time last year. I have one grandparent left, but she doesn’t know who I am and she is in a nursing home.

Yet none of this has ruined my enjoyment of this time of year. It has definitely affected it, you can’t escape the sadness loss brings, but that’s life. Naturally every emotional Christmas advert sets me off. Every Christmas song. I am either smiling or crying or both. But I’m a grown up now, it comes with the territory.

My mother was also a fan of Christmas. She liked to complain (in more recent years) about the stress and the effort, but she still had two Christmas tress and a crazy amount of decorations. She would still stuff the cupboard with nuts, chocolates and crisps even if only a few people were visiting, hey even if no one was visiting! Now I am in charge of creating the magic (hiding the presents not rifling through the wardrobe to find them!). Now I want to wear stupid Christmas jumpers and hats, now I see the fun in the tat.

And of course Audrey and Rex bring a whole new level to Christmas. We have their innocence and joy to surround us and their happy faces at what will be (in the scheme of things) quite simple presents. I took Audrey to an eye test last week and in the car she was singing along to Wham’s “Last Christmas” (she catches on to familiar tunes quite quickly and she’s definitely enthusiastic, if not in key), it was lovely.

The thing is, I like to think that everyone is in a better mood in December. So what’s not to like about that? A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted on Instagram about Kindly and the project they were running for people to write a letter for someone who is isolated at Christmas time. So I signed up immediately and within hours I had an email confirming I would be writing to a woman called Sheila (which was my mother’s name). I mean, obviously I was in tears but I was also so wonderfully uplifted by this tiny coincidence. That same day, I had stopped to donate to an old man collecting for the Youth Cancer Trust in our local Tesco and we had a very long chat. He was perplexed by the amount of people who completely ignored him saying “Good morning” and I told him about Audrey and how she loves to say hello to people but often they are just in their own world (or on their phone/listening to something on headphones). It’s part of life now to be zoned out and not in the moment with the other humans around you.

Which is why it is important to remember that Christmas is a time to connect with people. I had little wobble the other day when our ridiculous bumper pack of Audrey’s school pictures arrived and I thought; wow, we really don’t have that many people to give these to. But then I remembered that we do. We still have lots of family left and we have many friends who are “aunties” and “uncles” to our children. We have a wonderfully wide network and I am so grateful for that.

Every Christmas will be different, it may have felt like pure light as a kid and now it has darkness too, but I can handle that, because now my children are building their Christmas memories and they only see the light.

Merry Christmas one and all x

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.

Behind the squares

If you are reading this you probably know I share our life on Instagram and I also blog here. I am always open and honest, but there are many times that when I am enjoying “likes” and comments on an Instagram post about my beautiful children I am also watching them hit each other. Life is full of ups and downs, Instagram has it’s name for a reason; it’s tiny instances shared and you don’t always show the whole story in an instant.

I like to think that I share more reality than those monochrome “perfect” accounts filled with succulents and expensive candles.

However, right now, behind those squares of my smiling children, coffee shop visits and shiny new trainers: there is cancer. Again.

I myself cannot believe how often I have been “touched” (punched in the gut more like) by cancer. My father died of cancer in 2010. My father-in-law-to-be died from cancer in 2011. My sister died from cancer in 2012. My mother died from cancer in 2017. And now… my brother battles cancer in 2018.

Me and my big bro.

It always made me a bit uncomfortable, sharing too much of this sort of thing on social media, but this time I feel so utterly thrown by it, I want to acknowledge it. I want to make sure people are always aware what’s behind the squares.

Just before Christmas, my brother found out he had ‘operable’ cancer. So it was upsetting, but apparently easily sorted. I took him for the operation on 27th December. After that, you’d have hoped it was all onwards and upwards, but he had another niggling pain. So, (after the obligatory painkillers from the GP), there were more scans, mores tests and yes, the cancer had spread.

Today he is in hospital having his first round of chemo. Week on week it has been news that has uplifted us and punched us in that gut again. They can’t quite decide how bad this cancer is. I have continued my weeks on autopilot. Much like when my mum was diagnosed with cancer and when she died, I had to “go on” with an invisible dark cloud over my head.

And so I sit and sing “Wheels on the Bus”, I make small talk with other mums over tea and biscuits “How are you?”, “Fine, fine and you?” I placate squabbling children, make dental appointments, grill fish fingers and function as a normal human being whilst in the back of my mind I am thinking about my brother. Constantly. About how he is young (43), that he’s one of the best people I know and that he doesn’t deserve this. How the kids adore him, how he adores them and how I just can’t take anymore of this darkness. Pain, suffering, death, I’ve had enough.

Sometimes when the kids are resisting their coats or fighting over a plastic egg, I want to scream at them; “Uncle Graeme has cancer! That’s more important than this crap!” but of course I don’t.

It’s pretty crazy to think about all the people “functioning” right now. I mean, I was in TK Maxx at 6pm on Wednesday night buying pants, socks and a jumper for my brother (as he was unexpectedly kept in hospital after an appointment about his scans). As I queued up and subsequently paid, with all the standard niceties “Have a nice evening”, “You too”; I wanted to scream “My brother might be dying! I need to get these clothes to him in hospital!”. And as I walked in the rain from my car to his ward, crying because I just don’t want this to be happening, I actually wanted someone to ask me: “Why are you crying? Are you ok?”, which is odd considering my “Fine” stock response to friends.

I suddenly became very aware that each and every person you pass on the street might well be dealing with something. The harmless old “Cheer up love, it might never happen” feels like such an unbelievable over step of the mark, because stuff happens . We are all dealing with dark stuff, all of the time. Break ups, miscarriages, redundancies, illnesses, deaths, depression, you name it; someone is putting a brave face on over something.

I can only remain hopeful that all will turn out fine (how else can I go on?), but I guess I want to end on two cheesy words that are said a lot right now, but sum up how I think we can make the world a better place and as a reminder that you never know what someone is going through behind the squares/their smile/their ability to say “I’m fine” (when that is, in fact, bullocks);

BE KIND.

x