Don’t fight it

If there’s one thing I’m learning from being a parent, from being a special needs parent, from being a member of SWAN, from doing the Partners in Policymaking course … in fact from all the paths that life has sent me down since becoming a mother, it’s that sometimes you’ve just got to stop fighting and roll with it.

Since January I have been trying – and mostly failing – to get to a Monday morning 6am pilates class that I signed up for. And beating myself up each week for hitting the snooze button instead of jumping out of bed and out into the darkness. By the end of the term I have finally accepted that I am just never going to be one of those people who can get up an hour earlier than the rest of the household and kick-start their day productively. I’m always going to function better late at night than early in the morning. So I’ve decided to stop fighting it, and signed up for a much more manageable 10am Wednesday class instead.

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Star of the week for super-switching!

Since forever, we have been trying to teach Benjamin to communicate with a simple switch. A big, colourful button that he can push to activate a toy, or sound a noise – anything that means he plays an active part in what’s going on around him. The problem is he can’t really raise or lower his hands in a controlled way (yet), and he also cannot see his own hands so has little awareness of what they are doing. He is, however, now pretty awesome at moving his head from side to side. So his OT had the idea of moving the switch up to beside his head (Why didn’t we think of that before?). Working with what Benjamin can do, rather than frustrating everyone pushing on with something he can’t, means he is now making leaps and bounds in switching and will be able to work towards more complex switch-based communication.

For the first few months (years?) after Benjamin was born I couldn’t believe there was no obvious explanation for his needs. I spent hours googling combinations of symptoms, following up references, emailing the names of potential genetic mutations to his geneticist. I didn’t want to be the only parent who couldn’t answer the question “What condition does your child have?” with a simple phrase or a tick in a box. Now, of course, I know we are not the only ones, not by a long chalk! In fact, 6000 children are born each year in the UK with a Syndrome Without A Name. Now that we are members of SWAN UK – the charity that supports families of children with undiagnosed conditions – it matters less whether we ever find an answer or not, because we are surrounded by people who “get it” anyway.

Of course, there are still battles to be won and changes to be fought for. Having a disabled child is hard. Having a disabled child in the UK in the age of austerity means every ounce of support has to be contested. Having an undiagnosed child makes it harder to access the benefits system, harder to make sure Benjamin receives appropriate medical treatment, harder to get the support he needs to attend school safely, harder to arrange travel insurance, harder to access childcare and therefore to work, and so on … But all these battles are made easier because we have a tribe now. We have access to a UK-wide network of other parents who have been there before us, who have the answers to some of our questions, who can tell us which battles are worth fighting and which are just a waste of precious energy, who can provide a voice of reason in the middle of the night, and a much-needed boost when the struggles seem never-ending.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether I needed a support group. I railed against the idea of sharing my child’s medical details with an online community of people I had never met. I would fight my own battles; I didn’t need any help. Now I realise that it’s not all about the fighting. It’s about sharing the highs and the lows, having a laugh, making friends, sharing a love story. Like a pride of lions, SWAN parents work together, look after each other, and allow each other time to rest. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re #ROARsome. This Undiagnosed Children’s Day (Friday 26th April 2019), I’m proud to have a SWAN, happy to roll with his needs, and grateful to be surrounded by lions.

We found love … So don’t fight it … Life is a rollercoaster … Just gotta ride it (Ronan Keating, Life is a Roller Coaster)

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My own little pride of #ROARsome SWAN lions

#UCD2019 #ROARsome

You can join SWAN UK at https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/join/ and support them at https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/donate/. Please share this to help us to reach the thousands of families with undiagnosed children who haven’t yet heard of SWAN UK.

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Daring to dream

For the past couple of weeks, Benjamin has been in the habit of waking in the early hours of the morning, hot, agitated, dystonic, twitchy. I’ve tried everything I can think of to relieve his discomfort: chest physio, pain relief, muscle relaxants, suctioning, repositioning. I’ve checked his heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen saturations and temperature. I’ve changed his pad, cuddled him and stroked his hair, massaged his tummy and exercised his legs, we’ve listened to music and we’ve lain and watched his starlight projector together. I’ve had to be nurse, doctor, and therapist: diagnosing what’s wrong, making the right clinical decisions, and guessing what will work. Each time he falls back to sleep hours later, leaving me none the wiser.

I wrote once, towards the start of this journey, that whilst I knew my child would be disabled, I didn’t realise they would be sick. That seems so naïve now, for in many ways sickness has taken over our lives. Benjamin is on a dozen regular medications; he needs twice daily chest physio and antibiotic nebulisers; he’s fed a complex cocktail of chemical nutrients through a tube; his temperature and heart rate need regular monitoring; and managing his bowel movements is practically a full-time job! As we lurch from clinic appointment to therapy session to full-on critical care stay and back again, our lives are dominated by Benjamin’s health.

Does this mean we have succumbed to the dreaded ‘medical model’ of disability? Where the disabled are considered to have something ‘wrong’ with them – something to be cured, treated, isolated, stigmatised, or even locked away?

With some disabilities it’s relatively easy to see a dichotomy between the medical and the social, but with children like Benjamin – with complex medical needs on top of, and largely due to, their underlying neurological differences – it’s more difficult to make clear distinctions. Whilst outwardly championing the social model, I’ve slowly fallen into the trap of seeing my son more as a patient than as a child.

It’s abundantly clear in his day to day life. While we’ve always been flexible, even spontaneous, with the girls, Benjamin is pretty much always in bed at the same time, hooked up to his feed pump, whatever else is going on around him. When we go away anywhere, while his sisters are free to run off and explore the minute we arrive, I shunt Benjamin off immediately to start setting up his positioning systems and field hospital, making sure all the equipment and drugs are in place so that his routine can run as smoothly as at home. While the girls are encouraged to run in the wind and jump in the puddles, some days I daren’t take him out of the house at all if the weather is too hostile.

And, while that means Benjamin stays as healthy as possible, it also means he misses out. He’s slowly but surely becoming relegated to a second-class member of the family, strapped to his profiling bed, whilst the rest of us carry on the business of living in the next room. Yes, we do his morning chest physio and nebulisers at the kitchen table alongside the girls eating their breakfast – but one day soon the need for efficiency and to minimise time-consuming hoist transfers will probably necessitate getting him ready in his bedroom. Yes, this year we managed to get all three children into our bed to open their Christmas stockings together – but soon the time will come when we simply can’t get Benjamin safely upstairs. Yes, his little sister likes to climb onto his bed in the mornings as he’s getting ready for the day, but how long before she tires of playing with his teddies and chatting with the carer?

And when Benjamin misses out, we all miss out. When Benjamin is excluded from family life, we are no longer a family.

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This isn’t easy stuff to admit, not least because it makes the future look so bleak. If even I, his mum, am starting to relegate Benjamin to a patient rather than a son and a sibling, to a list of medical procedures rather than a child who needs to learn, grow, interact, love, and be loved, what hope is there for his future care providers after I am gone?

Thank goodness, then, for his school! His amazing teacher and support assistants treat Benjamin like any other child – he shares his news every morning; he studies the same topics as everybody else, in whatever way works best for him; he is able to choose toys to play with; he spends time with his friends; he gets homework; he is not allowed to shirk PE! Under their inspiration, Benjamin is thriving, growing, and a fully-participating member of his class.

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Class ceilidh, Benji-style

And thank goodness for Partners in Policymaking, the internationally-recognised course for disabled self-advocates and parents of disabled children. When I joined the course late last year, I was all fired up to work towards Partners’ aims of inclusion and social justice; of driving change at national and local levels through policy and practice. But I wasn’t expecting it to work change in me. However, just three sessions in, already its gentle yet powerful message is transforming my vision (if I even had one) of life for Benjamin and our family.

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Most importantly, Partners is giving me permission to dream. With a child like Benjamin it’s so tempting, and understandable, to live day by day, hour by hour. After all, we don’t know how long we will have him for so let’s make the most of every moment. Why waste time looking forward or back? And yet… what do we have to lose by assuming that Benjamin does have a future? We have everything to gain by thinking about what we want that future to look like and working towards it right now.

I am learning to dream that Benjamin will be happy, will be able to communicate his needs, desires and opinions, will have friends, and will be known in his community. I want to identify his particular gifts and skills, and uncover his true character. He should be able spend time with his friends outside of school – just like his sisters do. Why shouldn’t he join Beavers or an after-school sports club, or do ballet?

I am starting to dream of a realistic plan for his long-term care that doesn’t compromise on Benjamin’s enjoyment of life and involvement with the community. I want us to spend time together as a family – for my children to be children, together; for the girls to be sisters, not carers; and for Benjamin to be a brother, not a burden, now and in the long term.

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I dream that we are able to be spontaneous, not constrained by Benjamin’s care needs. I want us to be able to make the most of the beautiful part of the world in which we live. We should be able to spend time together in the garden, to pop down to the harbour for an al fresco dinner at the pizza van, to play on the beach, to go on holiday.

In fact I have a list of – inspiring and desirable, but feasible and achievable – dreams nearly two pages long! But above all I dream that we can live an ordinary life.

It actually starts in those early hours of the morning, barefoot in my pyjamas, when the rest of the family are asleep. When it’s just Benjamin and I, and I am no longer torn between too many tasks, I realise that, first and foremost, he’s my child. When the hustle and bustle and the schedule and routine are stripped away and I’m just a mother responding to her little boy’s call. His need to be held, comforted, and listened to, just like any other child.

And, as I engage with him, I find a potential explanation for why Benjamin has been so upset recently. He has two wobbly teeth! A disconcerting and painful feeling for anyone, let alone a child as unprepared as Benji. I hadn’t been looking out for this, because the medical professionals had told us his small and under-developed skull would likely result in slower-than-average jaw and tooth development. But at just five years old, a good year earlier than his elder sister, he’s going to lose his first baby teeth already. My little boy really is growing up. He’s got a future to grow into, a future to dream for. Now I need to go out and make it happen.

More than carers

Last week we said goodbye to someone we will all – Benjamin especially – miss like crazy. But it didn’t start out that way.

I’m a proud person – I don’t like asking for help (my husband will tell you that’s an understatement).

I’m a private person – I don’t like having other people in my house. Especially not when I’m in my oldest pyjamas, haven’t cleaned my teeth, and last night’s empty wine bottles are still sitting on the counter.

I’m a helicopter mum – I don’t trust anyone else near my kids.

And I’m a perfectionist – I like everything done ‘just so’ (the aforementioned husband has long since given up loading the dishwasher).

So the thought of having strangers coming into our house first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening wasn’t comfortable. At all. But these people aren’t strangers any more.

I’m not talking about our professionals, wonderful though they are – the physios, the OTs, the community nurses, the visiting teachers, who pop in for an hour once a fortnight, into the pre-tidied sitting room, do their particular specialist task with Benjamin, write up their notes and get back to the office.

I’m talking about the agency and the private carers, who get up at stupid o’clock to cycle through the pouring rain while I’m still sleeping; who change dirty pads and sometimes dirty bedlinen, and wash bottoms, and brush hair, and dress Benjamin’s stiff little arms and legs; who take the trouble and the time to learn tube-feeding, and chest physio even though we are their only client that needs it; who bring birthday presents that cost more than they get paid to be here; who wash things up when I’m not looking and help the girls on with their coats when we’re getting late for school; who text me when Benji’s in hospital because they really care how he is; who raise money for us in their spare time; who become friends that I care about, and helpers that I could not be without.

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Love my birthday elephant (at least I think it’s an elephant? It’s got tusks. And stripy legs. Could it be a raccoon? But that nose… an aadvark?). Anyway, I love it.

There’s Cameron, just eighteen years old and the best-dressed young man I have ever met, who arrives on the dot at 7.15 to make sure Benjamin is turned out equally perfectly each morning, turns a blind eye to the girls hurling cereal around the kitchen, and keeps me up to date with the East Lothian gossip.

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Thank goodness Cameron did my hair this morning

There’s Amanda, who whispers sweet nothings to Benji as she takes off her own shoes and socks and rolls up her trousers to shower him. He literally purrs as she washes his hair; you can see his whole body relax in her presence. She’s the kindest and most selfless person I know, and I can’t believe we are lucky enough to have her in our lives.

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There are others too, Christine, who always made Benji’s bed up neater than in a hotel before she could leave, and Julie, who cycled through rain, wind and snow to get to us and still always asked how I was each morning, and Susan, who would do the ironing if she had any of her hour left over.

And then there’s Tracy, who we sadly said goodbye to after being with us from day one; who was way more competent than me at every aspect of Benji’s care from washing and dressing to feeding and medications. She drove all the way from the Borders to put Benji to bed while we bickered over our spaghetti bolognaise. Every time the doorbell rings, Caitlin jumps up hopefully shouting “It’s TRACY!” She will be sadly missed and I hope we keep in touch.

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Did you say Tracy was coming?!

I have no idea why these people do what they do. They work unsociable hours, deal with all manner of bodily fluids (at least in this house), are generally ignored while the rest of us rush around getting our own selves ready for the day or eating our dinner, and are paid peanuts (if they are paid at all: if we cancel with even a few moments notice, even if they are already on their way to our house, for instance if Benjamin goes into hospital suddenly, the agency carers are paid nothing).

Swallowing my pride and baring our struggles to a social worker to get our eight hours care a week was one of the best things I ever did for our family. We have all got completely used to having people in the house (perhaps too used to it; I gave Amanda a bit of a shock by stripping down to my underwear to put my clothes in the washing machine the other day), that without them the evenings seem quiet, and the mornings, well the mornings are just chaos. Having people help with Benjamin at the critically busy times of day allows all our children to get the care and attention they deserve. It means we sometimes even get to school on time. It’s brought us new friends and a new perspective on our local community. And it’s a good incentive to buy some new pyjamas.

End of an era

My eldest daughter, Jackie, nuzzled her way up and latched on to my breast whilst I was still in the recovery room after her caesarean birth over six years ago, and I’ve been physically nourishing my children ever since. In fact, I’ve been either pregnant or breastfeeding (or both) for longer than I was in High School. From the start of my first pregnancy, I was always keen to breastfeed if I could – I knew it was more convenient, cheaper, and healthier for myself and my babies; but I had no idea what a physical and emotional pathway it would take me on, or how long that journey would last.

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First time for us both

Jackie weaned naturally from the breast when she was eighteen months old, and I was six months pregnant with her brother. Benjamin was a little harder to get started, but he fed slowly on drips of expressed colostrum from a syringe; then, thanks to the amazing guidance of the nursery nurses on the labour ward, graduated to both breast and bottle. He surpassed all expectations in his ability to feed and gain weight, and we left the labour ward five days after he was born. By the time his gastrostomy was eventually fitted, I was already pregnant with his baby sister.

Caitlin was a greedy little thing from the start. She fed for eight hours solid in the delivery room, while I was still attached to a syntocin drip and waiting for a bed in the labour ward. As a baby she would regularly drink more milk than her little stomach could handle – with inevitable consequences. By the time she started nursery at nearly a year old, she was able to go eight hours without milk, but morning, evening and night (and during the day on non-nursery days) she would still ask for ‘beebee,’ or just clamber up and pull down my top. She can feed lying, sitting, kneeling, standing up; whilst I am sleeping, cooking, tube-feeding Benjy, or reading a story to Jackie. It’s the easiest way to lull her to sleep, and the nicest way to comfort her when she is upset.

Caitlin is two and a half years old. I’ve breastfed her for more than the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum time, and longer than 99.5% of UK mums. I’m starting to get tired of spending my evenings sitting in a darkened room feeding her to sleep, of not being available to my other children when they need me, of only wearing saggy old bras, stretchy tops and quick-access cardis. I know she doesn’t need the nourishment any more – she has a huge appetite for solids! Hopefully, she’s old enough to understand a little. She talks in long sentences, is ready to abandon her cot for a big girl bed, and almost ready to toilet train. So, after a few days of explaining, “Beebee’s going to run out soon. Beebee’s nearly empty,” our breastfeeding journey also has come to an end.

To be honest, she’s taken it much better than I have. A couple of nights of cuddles with Daddy (I’m so lucky to have a hands-on, supportive partner) and Caitlin has gone to sleep with remarkably little distress. She still comes asking when she’s tired or upset, but after a quick reminder that, “Beebee’s all gone now,” she can easily be distracted with a toy or something yummier to eat.

To be honest, I was devastated. There were doubts. There were tears. I was terrified that my little girl would think I was rejecting her, would be utterly confused by the change, would hate me. I was worried about how I will now fulfil my role as a mother. I was lonely as I sat downstairs waiting for Daddy to finish putting her to bed. I was sad that one of the main things my body was built for, it will never need to do again.

And the pain – oh my goodness – pain worse than when my milk came in as a new mum! I had hoped that Caitlin really wasn’t taking very much milk any more, and there wouldn’t be much of an adjustment to make. When my engorged breasts showed me how much milk I was making, I felt even more awful for taking it away from her.

Ten days on and we’re both doing better. My boobs are starting to settle down, even if I can’t lie on my front just yet. Caitlin will allow either me or Daddy to put her to sleep with very little fuss. She still comes into our bed for cuddles in the night, but it’s no more than cuddles (I’m still keeping my top on just in case!), and long may they continue. It still breaks my heart when she occasionally asks for milk, when she’s upset or just taken a tumble. It takes all my strength not to say “Oh go on then, what harm could it do?” But if Caitlin can be strong, then so must I.

Maybe in the longer term this will actually enable me to be a better mother? I’ll be less stressed because I’ll have more time for work and play. I’ll feel less guilty because I can do my share of the chores in the evening instead of playing on my phone behind Caitlin’s back while my husband does the laundry and makes packed lunches for tomorrow. (Yes, I know breastfeeding is an important job too, but sometimes it’s been hard for me to feel that).

Maybe I can find time to get fit in the evenings. Maybe I can stop eating biscuits all the time (I’ll have to stop eating biscuits all the time now I’m not burning 500 calories a day making milk!). Maybe my husband and I can spend our evenings together sometimes. Maybe we can even leave the children with a sitter and have a night out. Maybe I can go out with my girlfriends, or to the committee meetings that always seem to be scheduled for feeding time. Maybe I can dawdle home from my pilates class instead of rushing to be back for the end of bath-time.

Maybe I can be more available for all my children. On the second night of our weaning experiment I was able to camp out in the garden with Jackie – just for fun! If Benjamin is awake in the night, from now on I’ll be able to go and lie with him for as long as he needs me, rather than just popping his projector lights on and leaving him to his own thoughts. With two adults now able to meet the needs of all three of our children, we have more flexibility. Maybe this is the right thing for all of us.

I’m so lucky to have had only good experiences with breastfeeding, to have been physically able to feed for so long, and to have been supported by my family and community to do so. I was never one to keep it under wraps – my children wanted to feed anywhere and everywhere, and wouldn’t tolerate being hidden away under a scarf or muslin. During my first few weeks I was sitting by the checkout in Sainsbury’s breastfeeding Jackie, and an older lady came up to me, not to complain, but to tell me how “lovely it was to see”. When in hospital with Benjamin, the nurses always let me bend the rules and bring Caitlin onto the ward too – they would even sneak me cups of tea and pieces of toast to keep me going. The only problems I’ve encountered have been my feeding children’s biting, tweaking, pulling, hitting, and twanging…

I’m proud of what my body has done over the last seven years, and immensely grateful that it was able to. I’m amazed at how my outlook has changed through being a first-time mother, then mother of a child with complex needs, then mum of three, and a breastfeeding mother to all of them.

Because it has been so easy, so comforting, and so special, breastfeeding has become part of my identity; almost a crutch. Pregnancy and breastfeeding made me feel like a real woman. Now, I have to find a new way to feel like that. Now, I have to mother my children by my words and actions alone. Now, I have to see if I really have what it takes, and that’s scary. With big changes coming up – Benjamin will be starting school, and I’ll be going back to work in a couple of weeks – I’m no longer quite sure what kind of mother I am or who I will become. I guess I’ll start by dawdling home from that pilates class and shopping for some lacy bras.

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Brave, bruised, and better for it

With apologies for the spoiler, I can hardly believe it went without a hitch.

Back in the depths of winter, when Benjamin’s health appeared relatively stable, we rashly booked ourselves a summer holiday, more than two hours drive from our local hospital. Twelve hours drive and sixteen hours ferry away from our local hospital. Abroad! During May and June, as he deteriorated, it looked as if we would have to cut our losses and claim on the travel insurance. But, with almost three consecutive weeks of reasonable health under our belt, I nervously started to pack, whilst simultaneously trying to keep everything low-key and last-minute to avoid getting anyone’s hopes up.

Mostly, that is, the hopes of my six-year-old who’s learning French at school and was desperate to show it off: “I can do all the shopping, Mummy, you can just relax.” Because that’s all you do on holiday, right? Shopping and relaxing. My own hopes weren’t really that high to begin with, what with the twelve hours of driving, six of them on the wrong side of the road, the horrendous thought of a sixteen-hour crossing of the North Sea, the likely infestation of mosquitoes since we were camping right by a lake, the high chance of sunstroke, frostbite, drowning, or lightning strike, and the lack of an en suite toilet.

It’s hard work preparing and packing to take a family of five on holiday. By the time I’d arranged passports, warning triangle, vehicle clean-air certification, breathalysers, head-lamp stickers, GB sticker, maps, travel sickness pills, first aid kit, two weeks supplies of milk, containers, giving sets, bile bags, medications, nappies, wet wipes, incontinence pads, nebuliser, suction machine, feed pump, spare feed pump, sats machine, thermometer, electrical adaptors, clothes for everyone, toys for everyone, bedtime stories, surprise activities to keep everyone amused on the journey, snacks, directions to every hospital between here and Le Mans, a French translation of Benjamin’s medical notes, insect repellent, sun cream, blankets, waterproofs, swimwear, and cuddly toys, I was seriously wondering if it was really all worth it.

It was so worth it.

For me, there was a lot riding on this. Following three years of in-out hospital admissions, disrupting the lifestyle and opportunities of Benjamin’s sisters, this was my first chance to prove that we can give them a semblance of a normal life. To answer the detractors who said we should abort Benjamin for the sake of the rest of the family. And those who said we’d never make it work with three children. To show that we can all – including Benjamin – have fun times and a decent quality of life. To show that our little family works, plays, and stays together. I was determined to make it work.

My aspirations were given a massive boost by the wonderful staff of the P&O Hull-Zeebrugge overnight ferry. All we had to do was pop our hazard-lights on, and we were directed to a parking space right by the lift, and met by a lovely lady who took charge of Benjamin, leaving us enough hands to manage the girls and the luggage. The same lady seemed to be on hand throughout the entire voyage, always keeping a friendly eye out to make sure we were staying safe and having fun.

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“Nice bed, Mummy, but where’s the boat?”

Our club-class cabin was amazing! A cold beer from the minibar helped my husband get over his initial panic that we had only three beds (I quickly pulled down the upper bunks that had been stowed against the wall, and the girls just as quickly clambered up and got into their pyjamas, so exciting was the prospect of a bunk at sea). Once we’d coaxed the girls back into their clothes we risked the terrifying prospect that is taking a wayward toddler out on deck, and watched the delights of Hull receding into the evening sun with a G&T before heading down for our all-you-can-eat buffet dinner (which in Jackie’s case consisted of rice, chips, naan bread, poppadum, a bread roll and a scoop of mashed potato – with ketchup, of course – just in case they don’t have carbs in France).

A full days’ drive down the motorway later (with copious stops for coffee, picnics, toilet trips and ice cream) and we arrived at Lac de Sillé, a forest campsite that somehow managed to be both on top of a hill and next to a beautiful lake. With the occasional exception (like our tent being on a wooden platform up some wooden steps, making it somewhat difficult to wheel Benjamin into it), the campsite setup also made life very easy. There were real beds, decent toilets and showers, a fridge, a pastry delivery every morning, a pizza van every evening, draft beer, and plenty of fun atmosphere thanks to the World Cup!

I’d love to say I’d planned it ‘just so,’ but it was pure luck that made it the perfect holiday for everyone. The site was so safe – and car-free – that the girls could have a real taste of freedom, pottering around the woods, building dens, playing tag in and out of the trees. Generally they played really nicely together, and even found novelty in helping with the washing up. They both got to stay up late enjoying the poolside World Cup parties, and as a consequence we mostly got a lie-in in the mornings.

Since we were in the right country at the right time, it would have been churlish to refuse my husband a day out at the Tour de France. And I got to visit local markets, photograph butterflies, and drink cheap wine to my heart’s content. Best of all, the lakeside ‘resort,’ about a mile’s walk away through the forest, had pedalos, ponies, pancakes, a little train and, for Benjy, a beach wheelchair! So many opportunities to spend ‘quality time’ with one another – in and out of the water. But most of the time, Jackie turned out to be right, was spent shopping. Particularly as the local supermarket contained possibly the most exciting invention of the century – an orange-squeezing, juice-making machine!

Of course there were moments of confusion – and not just involving the mythical motorway exit for the Le Mans by-pass. Caitlin had been so excited about going on a ferry – but once we were on board, the ferry was so big she couldn’t comprehend it and spent the entire journey asking plaintively “But where’s the boat?” There was the morning I got up last and emerged blearily to be informed excitedly, “We’re going to make bunting!” I somehow misheard. “You’re going to make pancakes?” Fortunately we had the ingredients for both bunting and pancakes. Win-win.

And of course it was hard to relax completely. What if Benjamin gets ill? Do we know how to call an ambulance, and how long would one take to come? Can we speak enough French to explain his condition and what he needs? What if some vital piece of equipment goes wrong, or we run out of milk or medications? It wasn’t until we were on the boat home that I really believed we might make it without a medical disaster.

And of course it was hard work. Constantly lifting a 25 kg boy and his 25 kg buggy in and out of the car, the tent, the back-breakingly low camp-bed, and the floor took its toll. Working through his morning and evening routines every day made me realise how much of the weight our wonderful carers take off back home. Remembering all his medications and equipment every time we went out, and working out how to use them away from our familiar set-up and in 30-degree heat, was mentally exhausting. It made me realise this is probably the last time we’ll be able to holiday like this – by next summer Benjamin will just be too heavy to manage without some concessions to accessibility. But, we are so lucky to have had such freedom for so long.

I was pushed way out of my comfort zone in many ways: keeping Benjamin safe in unfamiliar situations; speaking up to make my children’s needs understood – in French; driving a big car on the wrong side of the road; letting routines slip; letting things get dirty; using those hole-in-the-floor toilets! I learned that trying to economise on space by sharing a single tube of toothpaste is self-defeating. I learned that a car packed to the roof with milk and syringes on the way there = a car with plenty of space for nice French wine on the way home!

There was no infestation of mosquitoes. Nobody got (too) sunburnt, drowned, or was struck by lightning even in the dramatic thunderstorms we experienced for the first three days. It’s true there was no en suite toilet (at least, not until we got back on the ferry). But, we were blessed with totally awesome weather so we never had to traipse across the campsite in the rain. I know everywhere has had awesome weather this year, but still it felt like Someone was watching over us. When asked “Would you do it again then?” my answer has generally been, “Of course not, we’ve had all our luck now, something is bound to go wrong next time!” But maybe, maybe even if something does go wrong, I think we might just survive…

Fake it ’til you make it

Someone once told me that, however bad you’re feeling, simply smiling will make you feel happier. It’s to do with the physical action of moving your face muscles triggering neural pathways involved in emotion. Or something. I don’t know whether it’s scientifically proven, anecdotal, or just bullshit.

Anyway, I wonder if the same can be said of looking like you’re in control? Coping. On top of things. If I behave every day – on the school run, at work, in all Benjamin’s appointments, when I’m changing shitty nappies, when I’m frantically suctioning his airway until he can breathe – as if this is all a walk in the park, then is it? If I keep putting one foot in front of the other and holding one tiny person by each hand instead of rolling on the floor and screaming like a toddler am I doing just fine? Or am I just kidding myself? Am I actually kidding anyone else?

I sure want to look like I’m coping. I want to be smart, svelte, smiling and on time, with matching socks and freshly brushed children like everyone else. Why? Because I’m proud (too proud). I’m not about to prove right those I overheard saying, “I don’t know how she’ll cope with three children so close together.” I’m not about to live up to their prediction that, “The eldest will be neglected.” I will bust a gut to show them that I am not only coping with my three children but that all of them are completely loved, cared for, listened to, engaged with, taught, and nurtured.

And because, actually, coping has always been something that gives me a little buzz. At school I loved to be the responsible one – the pupil the teachers could trust to run errands not just reliably but well. I like being the colleague that people can call upon to take on an extra task and know that it will be done excellently and on time. The more things I volunteer for, the more I can kid myself that I am useful, my life is meaningful and valuable, and that I am in control of what I do rather than simply responding to each demand as it arises.

And, because I have to. If I don’t keep on top of the childrens’ calendar and my work commitments and the shopping and the laundry and feeding the guinea pigs and mowing the lawn and making sure the church magazine is out on time who’s going to do it?

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See, they get new shoes. She’d only gone up three sizes…

Yes, we are very lucky to have a ‘village’ that would do their best to step in in a crisis (and we probably wouldn’t have to cook for a month!) and yes, we have a social worker and six hours agency care a week, and yes, we can afford to pay for some day-care for the girls when we need it, but in the end the buck stops with me to organise and coordinate everything – to carry the ‘mental load.’ With school and nursery and reading practice and homework and swimming and music and ballet and a house and a car and all Benjamin’s appointments and prescriptions and equipment and a little bit of campaigning and a little bit of work and everybody outgrowing their shoes all the time, there are just so many balls to drop!

Are they starting to fall? How long have I got before people realise it’s all a façade? Where the professionals once said, “You’ve done so well with Benjamin!” Will they start realising that I should do so much more? Where friends once said, “You’re always on top of things!” Will they start noticing that my to-do list is so long things are dropping off the bottom? That the girls have been promised new curtains since I got my sewing machine, the Christmas before last… That I told a colleague I’d write a ‘topical’ paper two summers ago… Do my family notice that I’m less patient, my sense of humour has shrunk, I drink more wine, and we’re always out of salt and vinegar crisps?

Now that two out of the three children are mobile and talking but only one of them has any sense of danger or ability to understand reason, I am seriously outnumbered. Not to mention the fact that none of them sleep through the night… When I’m home alone with them I’m a nervous wreck: planning, imagining worst case scenarios, trying to second guess which one will need me next, how to keep the other two happy at the same time, and when it’s safe to go for a pee. And out of the house is worse.

Some weeks I feel like I’ve embarrassed myself, let everyone down, like I can’t do this at all; others I feel I have totally got this. Bizarrely, the latter is usually when things are busiest, Benjamin is poorliest, and I am most overstretched. It’s when we’re whiling away a sunny afternoon at the park because we don’t have to be anywhere particular that things seem to go properly tits-up. Perhaps I really do thrive under pressure? Or do I only realise what a car-crash my life is when I have time to think? And am I the only one? Is everyone else doing better? Or are they too just winging it, firefighting one crisis after another and relying on chocolate and a good mascara to face the world? Are we all swans, swimming serenly past one another as we paddle frantically under the surface to stay afloat? And if I keep faking being in control will it one day actually come true?

Captain Endurance and the Imperturbable Girls

I have to admit, I’m not really up on my superheroes. I understand things have moved on a bit from Thundercats (I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe because it was on ITV and therefore infra dig). I’m painfully aware of the PJ Masks, thanks to my six-year-old and YouTube, but the whole Marvel Empire is largely a mystery to me.

However, I really don’t feel I’m missing out because I have daily contact with at least three superheroes of the absolute superest kind: my children.

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Leader of the gang, Benjamin, is ‘Captain Endurance’ because the number of unpleasant, frustrating, and downright tedious things he puts up with (and, often, sleeps through) without any fuss whatsoever is frankly astonishing.

He’s coped with four-hour seizures that were exhausting just to witness, not to mention the drugs needed to stop them – enough to put a horse to sleep. He’s undergone multiple surgeries under general anaesthetic. He tolerates being physically restrained for MRI scans, and multiple attempts to get a cannula into his veins at every hospital admission. Every few months a radiologist sticks a wire into his stomach and intestines, pulls out his feeding tube, and pushes a new one back in – a process that can take anything from ten minutes to four hours and generally makes Benjamin feel pretty sore and sick for a couple of days, not mention that the radiology suite requires a deep-clean afterwards to get the bile out of all the equipment.

Benjamin doesn’t complain at the worst pain of all – the application and subsequent removal of dressings each time his permanent IV port (he really is half-boy half-robot) is accessed, and that of the hyoscine patches that go behind his ear to reduce his dribbling. He is subjected to an unpleasant round of beating, shaking and squeezing going under the name of ‘chest physio’ twice daily (or more, if his little sister takes it upon herself to emulate the procedure).

At intervals throughout the day (up to half-hourly depending on how poorly he is), a catheter is forced down his nose and into his throat to suck out all the gunk that accumulates there – a procedure that must at the very least be uncomfortable if not distressing, yet Benjamin puts up with it; sometimes he even sleeps through it!

He’s on medications that can make you drowsy, medications that make you agitated, medications that taste horrible, smell horrible and drip all over his trousers. He’s fed nasty-smelling milk into his jejunum (the first part of the intestine) and is nil by mouth so he never experiences the sensation of food on his tongue or the satisfaction of a full stomach. From his vantage point in the kitchen he spends hours every day watching the rest of the family cook and eat meals, smelling curries bubbling, cakes baking, fish suppers fresh from the chippy, without ever getting to taste them himself. Yet he never seems to get frustrated or complain. Remarkably, neither do his wonderful carers who also arrive at tea-time yet aren’t allowed to partake.

However, this is preferable to what went before – months of being fed into his stomach only for the milk to reflux up his oesophagus and down into his lungs causing chronic chest problems. It’s also preferable to what went before that – a constant barrage of bottles and breasts trying to force milk of any kind into his undernourished little body, not being allowed to sleep for more than three hours at a timebefore another feed was due.

Then there’s the hours of waiting at out-patient appointments. There’s being weighed and measured and having the details of your bowel movements discussed in excruciating detail by your parents and a team of consultants and medical students. There’s sleeping constrained by a system of wedges that forces you to lie in a straight line no matter how much you want to curl up cosily in a ball. There’s never having shoes that fit, because by the time they’ve arrived from the Orthotics people you’ve inevitably grown out of them. There’s never having glasses that fit, because, well, no-one seems to be able to make glasses that fit you.

I think the thing that would frustrate me the most – although Benjamin bears it with beautiful grace – is never having control over even the minutiae of his own life. He is poked and prodded when he wants to sleep, and put to bed when he is not sleepy. He is constantly climbed on by his sisters, forced to watch their choice of programme on TV. He is cared for by carers he had no say in choosing (although he clearly loves them to bits), sent to respite when it suits the rest of the family, and generally surrounded by people with whom he can rarely communicate his desires. As yet, he shows no sign of annoyance at all the things he has to go through, no sign of frustration at the things he cannot do. I don’t know whether to wish for him to grow and develop to the point that he does get frustrated, or to want him to stay forever in a state of more-or-less blissful ignorance. And, since Benjamin’s condition has no overarching diagnosis and therefore no prognosis, I have no idea which scenario is more likely.

So yes, Benjamin is super-patient, super-tolerant, super-uncomplaining. He is Captain Endurance. He’s also super-amazing! Before he was born, it was predicted that he wouldn’t survive birth: he not only survived, he needed nothing more than a little rub to get him going, he registered the same APGAR score as his sisters, he spent zero time in the neonatal unit, and was discharged from hospital five days after he was born. It was predicted he would never be able to breastfeed and would need an NG-tube from day one: this superhero breastfed like a trooper until the age of 17 months. It was predicted he would be blind and would never recognise his family: Benjamin sees, recognises, tracks and smiles at the faces of people he knows and loves. Our little man works so, so hard to achieve every tiny milestone, superhero-style.

And is this a surprise? No, because Benjamin comes from a family of superheroes; just look at his sisters, ‘The Imperturbable Girls’! Among his little sister’s first words were ‘syringe’ and ‘suction.’ At the age of two, she can conduct a pretty rigorous round of chest physio when Benjy is least expecting it. At six, his elder sister can look after the little one when I need to look after Benjy; she fetches nappies and muslins, passes me the right size of suction catheter, and knows how to dial 999. Both accept uncomplainingly that they never get to travel further than Granny’s house, that sometimes we can’t go places that have too many steps or no suitable toilet; that we have strangers in our house every evening, that most school holidays will involve at least one long boring day playing on the iPad in A&E.

They put up with all of this because they don’t know anything different. Neither of them can remember a time before Benjamin. Neither of them has seen enough of other children’s home-lives to know that ours is unusual. They don’t know anything different – yet. Unlike Benjamin, they will definitely come to a point when they realise they are missing out. When they start to count the differences between their lives and their friends. Already, although they sleep through the ambulances arriving in the night, they remember for months the mornings that Benjamin wasn’t there when they woke up.

Having a ‘SWAN’ (Syndromes Without a Name; a child with a condition of unknown cause) for a brother will make this harder, as there is no easy explanation for any of us to fall back on. I can’t tell Benjamin’s sisters why he is like he is, and they can’t explain to their friends either. They live in a world of uncertainty because I can’t tell them what will happen tomorrow, next year, or in ten years’ time, for Benjamin or for them. So, imperturbable, yes; unaffected, no, and increasingly no as they get older.

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My superheroes in their super-mobile (and a half naked doll for some reason)

In many ways, caring for Benjamin is easy: it’s all practical stuff. I can lift him, bathe him, feed him, medicate him, clear his airways and time his seizures. I can call an ambulance when I know I’ve done all I can. All I can do for my girls is to try to provide them with the support they need when they might need it: their school teachers are aware, they are on the waiting list for our heavily-oversubscribed young carers’ group, I try to let them know they can talk to me about anything and I will do my best to make things right. Perhaps the best way I can help them is to build on their superhero abilities by making their superhero status super-cool! They are part of the SWAN club! They get to join SWAN days out, share SWAN balloons, wear funky hoodies in groovy colours, and meet other SWAN siblings with similar superpowers. And I know – along with their SWAN pals, they will grow up to be super-accepting, super-inclusive, super-tolerant, super-gentle, super-strong, and with a super sense of fairness and justice. True superheroes.

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As to Benjy, how will he grow up? Will he continue to push the boundaries of what is possible? Will he become a ‘SWAN graduate’ with a firm diagnosis? Will he join the ranks of SWAN angels gone far too soon but held forever in our hearts? Whatever happens, he’ll always be a superhero to us.

Friday 27 April is Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2018. Support the Superheroes: Text SWAN18 £3 (or any amount up to £10) to 70070. #UCDsuperhero