360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann The Voice 360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann

Each month, I scour online journals and news articles looking for inspiration for something to share in this blog. This month I did not have far to look for inspiration. One of the most wonderful aspects of being a speech and language therapist is that you get to meet the most amazing parents.  Week after week, we visit homes and get to intimately know families who are so dedicated to caring for their loved ones.   I am often in awe of them.  Dads do a great job too, but because we’ve just had Mother’s day, I am going to write this blog about being MUM.  It isn’t necessarily about communication per se, but it is about the people who we learn to communicate from and the difference they make in our lives.

On Mother’s day this year, all my “babies were back in the nest” for the weekend and I really enjoyed spending time with them.  One of the things that we did was to go for a walk in the woods together.  It was a beautiful sunny day and as we walked through the trees, my strapping men went on ahead.  They grabbed sticks and whacked the tree trunks as they ran along.  They scrambled up rocky outcrops and climbed in trees.  They found felled trees and had caber tossing competitions with each other and I heard myself say “be careful you might hurt someone”.   As I did I was transported back 10 years.  We used to walk in those woods regularly and I would often say “be careful you might hurt someone”. Walking the same path made me reflect on previous times and challenges.  

When my boys were younger life was extremely challenging!!!!  I had 4 children in 7 years and 3 of them were diagnosed with autism. Every day, was full of so many problems, it’s hard to know where to even begin to start to convey its challenges.  My boys had problems sleeping, both in getting to sleep and staying asleep.  It was rare for us to get an unbroken sleep.  A total of four hours’ sleep felt like winning the lottery.  From the second they got up to the second they were settled, each moment was full of dealing with tantrums, crises and problems.  I needed eyes in the back of my head.  One of my children had a thing about undressing and taking his nappy off.  He would do this any chance he got and would then wee and poo on the carpet and spread it everywhere.  After too many occasions to count of him doing this, we resorted to duct taping him into his nappy and clothes.  We tried to toilet train him unsuccessfully many times and until he was trained (at 5) this was a good solution.  Another one of my children had a thing about getting hold of cereal boxes and tipping them on the carpet to step in and crush.  He also loved to pour milk all over them too.  When I wasn’t looking he would try anyway he could to do this, despite the cereals being kept out of reach.   All of my ASD boys had super powers at escaping/overcoming child safety precautions.  They could remove socket covers within seconds, open stair gates, open locks and move furniture to use as a ladder.  Another one had a thing about blocking the sink and running the taps so that he could flood the bathroom (which happened almost every day).  If staying in the home was challenging venturing out was even more so.  I had runners, given half a chance they would all take off.  They also had an uncanny ability to escape from push chairs and get out of car seats/seat belts.  School/nursery/playgroup wasn’t always a source of respite for me either as most days one of my children would be sent home for the day for challenging behaviour.  Sometimes, I had not even left the school grounds when I would hear a staff member shouting “Mrs Mann”.  Sometimes I would be asked to stay with them.  So many things would make them anxious like rain, rain covers, the colour red (still on-going), the bin truck coming on the wrong day, Daddy being away for work, a friend visiting unexpectedly, an unknown cat being on the fence, other children in the playground, Mummy moving a toy car out of line, unexpected noises, a Thomas the tank engine video not working, or a teacher being off work sick.  Then there were the myriad of medical appointments that we constantly had to attend!!!!  I’ve barely scratched the surface of all of the challenges and I didn’t even mention  the constant worry about my children, what kind of future they would have and what a bad job I was doing of being a mother, because I was seldom patient in amidst all these challenges.

I recount this to you, not because I’m indulging in a pity fest and want you to feel sorry for me, but because as I walked through those woods the other week,  I reflected on how hard it had been but how far we had come.  As I consider what to write, I am struck by several things:

  1. I had huge challenges to face, challenges that were almost insurmountable for one person to face, yet I did.
  2. Many of my parenting experiences then were suffused with guilt about what kind of mother I was and whether I was doing a good enough job?  Now I know that I did the best I could, with the knowledge I had at the time.
  3. There were many days when I felt broken and defeated, and I can admit that openly now.  Admitting that something is hard, does not make you a failure, it makes you human.  

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I did an outstanding job, but I didn’t think it at the time. So how do we measure ourselves as a mother?  How do we define success?  

Baby Dove recently unveiled a billboard of the ‘Perfect Mother’ at Waterloo station (4th April 2017), before admitting it was a ploy to highlight the stress caused by striving to be one.  They surveyed mothers recently and found that 9/ 10 mums feel under pressure to be perfect.  Maria Lally Daily Telegraph columnist recently wrote “in a scene familiar with mums everywhere, I often try to take Instagram-worthy pictures of my two young daughters, aged three and six. And more often than not, this ends with one of them refusing to look at the camera, the other smiling inanely in a way they know I find annoying, and me huffily given up, wondering why I even try. But try I do, and always have. When they were babies I tried to breastfeed, I tried to make them good sleepers and I tried to wean them on organic vegetables. Now I try to juggle work with being there for them. I try to limit their screen time and sugar intake.  I try to teach them manners and I try to plan lovely family weekends, when I really want to stay home, catch up on chores, and read a good book with a hot coffee. And I try to do all of this with as much patience as I can muster on very little sleep. But hard as I try, I regularly fail. I often lose my patience and shout at the girls when they won’t put their shoes on before the school run, I give them the iPad if I need to squeeze in some work before bath time and I bribe them with sweets. Not all the time, but enough to make me feel guilty every day for falling short of the modern day holy grail that is ‘perfect parenting”.

Does that resonate with you?  It does with me and it makes me wonder why do we do this to ourselves?  I recently watched some video clips of celebrities admitting to epic parenting fails. One lady (an author of children’s books) admitted to forgetting it was World Book day the very next day (despite having to attend an event for it) and did not have a costume ready for her child. Another, told of the time when she took her daughter to school and sleep deprived, she kissed her daughter goodbye and turned to leave, only to reminded by the teacher that she had left her new born baby in the classroom.   These stories were refreshingly honest (and amusing). I’ve noticed that many women are just too hard on themselves. We expect ourselves to be superhuman parents and be PERFECT. Except there is no such thing as the perfect mother. Children come in all shapes and sizes and therefore, require different types of mothers.

The Duchess of Cambridge speaking recently at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists programme promoting mental health for parents and their infants said that:

parenthood is a huge challenge. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother. It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together.  Your fundamental identity changes overnight.  It is such a rewarding and wonderful experience; however, at times it is a huge challenge.  This can, at times lead to lack of confidence and feelings of ignorance. Many women suffer in silence, overwhelmed by negative feelings, but also afraid to admit to the struggles they are facing due to the fear or shame of what others might think if they ‘aren’t coping’. Some of this fear is about the pressure to be a perfect parent; pretending we’re all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it.  It’s right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains”.  

I agree with everything the Duchess of Cambridge said, but when you are caring for children with special needs t everything about her statement is exaggerated.  When you have a child you kind of expect that life will go a certain way, but then when your child has special needs it’s a game changer.  The emotions are more complex, the exhaustion, love, joy and worry are greater and your identity doubly changes. You’re not just someone’s parent but you become a parent walking a different path to most of your peers.   The demands are greater.  We often fall into the trap of thinking that if we just do more and work harder then we can make improvements and change things. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it isn’t.

I went to a home a few weeks ago and when I was taking a case history I asked for the details of other professionals involved with the child. In response, I was given a list of ten other health professionals involved. Ten!!!!   On the way home I reflected at how challenging that situation must be.  I imagined all the appointments involved, and the time it must take, as well as the day to day care involved. Then I thought about all of the other homes I visit and the similar lists that I am often given.  

Many of the Mums I see think that they are not doing a good job.  They see only their inadequacies, yet, I see their strength.  I am frequently in awe of them.  They are often filled with love and care and a willingness to do anything to help their child progress.  They provide tender care, seek for and follow the advice of professionals. You see homes, full of toys, special equipment, visual timetables, signs and symbols. You see mothers full of anxiety, worry and concern for their child. They spend hours researching and implementing special programmes. They are full of patience, unending love and hope. Is there frustration sometimes…yes……. a feeling of inadequacy …yes, do they make mistakes…yes, but it’s just about as near to perfect as you can get in my opinion.  The Baby Dove campaign states “we believe there are no perfect mums, just real ones”.

From our mothers we learn how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, what to say, where and when. We learn to love and be loved. They teach us to read; we learn social conventions from them and also how to play, to spell, to swim, to cook etc., but the most important thing we learn from our mother is our value as a human being. The most important job of a mother is to LOVE and I often see that in abundance! I see it reflected in the eyes of all of the mothers that I visit. I see it as I observe them look at their child with love and encouragement.  It is evident as they praise them. It is evident as they try to learn new skills and do things they never previously imagined to help them.  It is evident as they share their concerns for their child. It is evident as they sacrifice their time to do therapy with their child. So, I want to give a big shout out to all of the mothers that I know and see, who are doing a fabulous job. You are awesome and I am inspired by you. I am fairly sure that all of my colleagues at Integrated Treatment Services will join me in saying this too. You are doing a great job.

Just in closing here are some quotes that describe my journey as a mother and that I find inspiring:

“Sometimes the difficult things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.”

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the movement and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next”.

“Motherhood is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you would have.  It’s about understanding that he is exactly the person he is supposed to be and that, if you’re lucky, he just might be the teacher who turns you into the person you are supposed to be”. 

Celebrate who you are…a real mother and an extraordinary one at that.

Written by Alison Mann on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services