1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.

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The Sarah Fitzgerald Guide to Raising Toddlers

I would like to reiterate that prior to having my beautiful daughter, I knew nothing about children. I didn’t know anything about pregnancy, childbirth (I now think this worked to my advantage) or caring for a newborn. In fact some evenings, when I tell my husband that I’m working or ‘studying’, my mind wanders and I somehow end up on Google looking up ridiculous things such as ‘normal three year old development’ and ‘how to encourage your toddler to read’. Yep, I’m a little crazy, but Ali didn’t come with a manual and I don’t always know what I’m doing. Do ye?

The best teacher, of course, has been Ali herself. Of course, it’s my job to teach her right from wrong and how to be a sensible, well-rounded person, but she has also taught me so much about the world around me and how to best respond to her needs. I’m not sure if any of the following skills can be applied beyond the privacy of our house, but for those of you with kids that are three or younger, you may/may not find the following advice useful:

*The following is copyright of yours truly and cannot be found on any internet site*

  • You will suddenly find yourself unashamedly fascinated by your child’s toileting behaviour. Pervy? A little, but unfortunately necessary. If you are lax it may result in a disgusting accident that I imagine my childless friends would have nightmares about. For parents of toddlers, it’s just another day at the office. My daughter won’t let me into the bathroom until she has done her business, but the conversation between her, and I standing patiently outside the door, usually goes like this:
    Me: What are you doing, wee or poo?
    Her: Wee
    Me: Did you wipe your bum?
    Her: I’m already dry.
    Me: WIPE YOUR BUM. I’m coming in to help.
    Her: Don’t look at my bum.

On a related note, the luxury of privacy is not afforded to me when I need to go for a piss.

Me: Can you wait outside please?
Her: Mummy, I love you.
Me: I know. I’ll be out in a sec.
Her: Wee or poo? Oh I hear a wee, good girl mummy!

On another related note, sniffing a stain to ascertain if it’s chocolate or poo. Without reservation.

  • Toddlers are particular. Sometimes Ali gets a notion that she can only drink out of a pink cup. She has to have a special pink teddy going to bed. And if you tell them to eat three more bites, they will only eat three more bites.
  • Toddlers don’t understand ‘Mummy’s tired/sore/too lazy to play with you’. Not only do they want you to play with them, they want you to become fully involved in their imaginative play. Now don’t get me wrong, kids are kids, but there is something degrading and plain wrong with crawling on your hands and knees around the garden and mewing like a cat/barking like a dog. What, don’t tell me I’m the only one that does that? Ye haven’t lived!
  • Young children tend to imitate what they see and hear. I was getting a little frustrated the other day and said to Ali, ‘Right, let’s swap places. I’m Ali, you’re mummy.’ Excited by this new game, Ali readily agreed. When ‘mummy’ asked ‘Ali’ to eat her dinner, I said ‘no, don’t like it,’ and pushed away the plate, and  ‘mummy’ responded by saying ‘right. No Jumping Jacks and no playschool any more’ and I just thought to myself,  ‘wow, I am so annoying.’
  • It’s against every rule in the book, but occasionally you will have to resort to bribery. Recently, I promised Ali a few Buttons when she ate all her dinner, and by God, the second the last morsel crossed her lips, she instantly asked for the Buttons. Sometimes, Ali can be disappointed. For example, just tonight I was encouraging her to put on her own PJs and hearing my hubby come into the house, I said, ‘I have a surprise for you’. she put her pyjamas on faster than lightening and her daddy came in, delighted to have made it home for bedtime. Ali looked at him and said ‘where’s the surprise?’ to which John Paul replied ‘I am the surprise’. Thinking we were joking, Ali smiled and said, ‘No, really.’ I felt the love. I know JP did too.
  • Toddlers/young children can be a little economical with the truth. A few months ago, I caught Ali drawing on the floor behind the couch in the sitting room. I of course hit the roof, but Ali said, ‘no mummy, it wasn’t me, it was my friend’. (Ali was holding the marker in question in her hand at the time, and her friend wasn’t in the house, at all). She also told an elaborate lie one evening about a cat who broke into the house and stole her good flowery jacket and carried it off to his family. Damn you, neighbour’s cat and your jacket-stealing tendencies.
  • Toddlers can also be very sensitive. Around the time of my mother’s anniversary, I was a bit teary and Ali discovered me crying in the kitchen. ‘Mummy, what’s wrong?’ she asked. ‘I miss my mummy’ I explained. ‘Oh, here’s a big hug and a magic kiss, and now you feel all better.’ Little hug. Silence. ‘Mummy, are you okay now?’ ‘Yes hon’. ‘Great, you’re Elsa, I’m Anna’. (on a bad day, I’m Olaf the snowman).

Ultimately, raising a toddler has been one of my most interesting and insightful experiences to date, and while I may not always get it right, we all have fun learning through our mistakes. And Alison has tremendous fun testing the boundaries. Well, they say kids learn when they’re enjoying themselves, right?

Alison has not only taught me how to be her mummy, but also how to be a better person. I’ve become more patient, more understanding, gentler (to Alison, anyway. JP may beg to differ). Most importantly of all, she gives me great hugs and superb writing material, so thanks hon. Love you! xxx

The scourge of the ‘Mummy Wars’

It is the greatest privilege in the world to be a mummy, though there are days when I ponder why God (the higher power I believe in) would allow such a fickle, clueless woman such as myself to have children. I’ve said before that prior to having my daughter Alison, I did not have the slightest clue what raising children involved. My hesitancy to have children was directly related to my complete lack of knowledge of what was involved. I was certain that it was hard work; I had many a friend bemoan to me about how they had become social pariahs since having children.

I knew also that there would be sacrifices when having children. I was told that I would always be broke because the cost of nappies and formula is ridiculous. Children also tend to outgrow their clothes and shoes quickly. Then there’s the cost of childcare, school and, eventually, college. I mean, why bother? All the little brats seem to do is sap all of your financial resources!

If I was totally unprepared for the role of care-giver, then nothing could have prepared me for the phenomenon of the judgemental mother and the power that other mothers had to make me feel shit. Some say that there is no right way to parent, there are no rules. This is a lie: there are too many rules and the goalposts are constantly shifting. You can’t do right for doing wrong when you are a mummy.

The question mummies seem to get wound up about the most is whether or not they should be out working. Because women are choosing to delay having children until their careers are established, many are reluctant to leave the workplace when junior arrives. It wasn’t too long ago in Ireland that women had to leave their jobs once they get married. Now, despite having the option of staying at work, many mothers struggle with the guilt of missing out on precious moments with their children. This tug-of-war is compounded by the ridiculous cost of childcare, which leads many to question whether they are doing the right thing.

Alas, are mothers ever doing the right thing? Why do we, as mothers, judge each other so harshly? Is it mainly to validate our own choices? And unless these choices are adversely harming our children, why do we feel the need to justify them?

It seems that you can’t win in the mum world. If you are a working mum, you are judged as being selfish, farming your children out to be minded by other people while you pursue your career. If you’re a stay-at-home mum, you should have time to keep your house spick-and-span, your children spotless and a nutritious meal cooked from scratch every evening. If you wear comfortable clothes, such as trackies, you obviously don’t give a shit about your appearance. But if you decide to dress up, or ‘do’ your hair and makeup, you have too much time on your hands, time that could be otherwise invested in raising your children.

A campaign was launched in the US in late 2013 called ‘End the Mommy Wars’, which encourages mothers to be proud of their own parenting choices and not to judge the choices of other mothers. As part of the campaign, mothers were photographed holding placards such as ‘I breastfeed’, ‘I formula-feed’, ‘I work outside the home’, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom’. These women are trying to remind us that each mother has their own value system, and try to do what is best for their children based on this belief system. None of these choices are ‘wrong’ but they are intensely personal. The campaign aims to deconstruct the ridiculously high standards mothers set for themselves and others and instead to support each other and to understand that our way of parenting isn’t the only way.

Pressure on mothers is both external and internal. Every day, we are bombarded by images of the glamorous mother in the media; the mother who has time to get her hair and nails done; the mother who juggles five bags of shopping and two smallies with her mobile phone; the mother who runs her own business in between baking organic cookies with her kids. Let me tell you that the stay-at-home mum in her trackies who is constantly wiping puke out her hair and spends the day cleaning after a mini hurricane and hoping to God that the brown smudge on her jeans is chocolate and not poo (again) is equally as deserving of our respect.  Other mothers are increasingly yardsticks for us to measure ourselves against, and invariably we either don’t meet the invisible, ambiguous standards, or we feel superior to others, as if others’ shoddy parenting somehow justifies the choices we make for our own children.

I often wonder how strong this tug-of-war was between mothers in the ‘eighties. My mother isn’t around to regale me with such tales, but I’ve read accounts on the Internet and from this I’ve devised an unrealistic utopian lifestyle: mummies from the same neighbourhood befriending each other and inviting each other for coffee; in the absence of work, mothers needed to meet each other to stay sane. I remember my mum exercising her intellect with our neighbour Patricia, over Scrabble and cups of coffee. I remember Alice and Maureen popping in for coffee or wine, depending on what time of the day it was (although sometimes the time of day didn’t really matter !). Mum’s not here to answer my questions but I wonder did she feel the pressure I and other of my generation feel now. (Anyone who would care to admit that they’re of mum’s generation are welcome to discuss this in the comments section).

As a child, I remember us three girls wandering the streets of our estate on our bikes, sometimes till 10pm on a summer’s night, with no mobile phones to let the folks know that we were okay. And yet, despite our mum not being a helicopter parent, we kids turned out okay. I’m not sure I’d have the confidence to let Alison have the same kind of freedom. Every day it seems a child is abducted or goes missing. God forbid, if a child were to be abducted, who is at fault? Do we sympathise with parents, or judge them for their carelessness? I know I would probably judge, so what does that say about me?

I have spent three years of my life trying to be perceived as a capable and worthy mother for my little girl. I went on television to talk about how acutely aware I was of how people judged me for being a disabled mother, because I was worried that people would think that my daughter would be deprived in some way. But deep down, I don’t think I was trying to prove anything to anybody other than Alison. She’s the only person who will ever be able to say whether or not I am a good enough mummy for her. At the end of the day, every mother wants to do the best by their child and hell, it’s difficult enough pandering to the every need of your children without constantly wondering what the woman across the street thinks.

Enough.

I may not be the perfect mummy, but I will always strive to be the best I can be. I know this applies to every single mummy I know.

(Psst, you, yes you, well done. You’re doing a great job. Let’s hold each other up instead of tearing each other down).

[S1]

Creating a positive body image for our toddler daughters

What do our children see when they look in the mirror? How can we as parents ensure that they like what they see?

Anorexia and bulimia, disorders which are most associated with teenagers, are now being diagnosed in children as young as five. Therefore, it is crucial that we as parents encourage our children to love themselves and to define themselves by who they are and not how they look.

 

Being a parent in twenty-first century Ireland seems to be so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago. The media has become much more influential, with young children being exposed to thousands of advertisements relating to body image. However, it is all too easy to use the media as a scapegoat for the rise in eating disorders in young children. If we as parents want our children to develop a positive body image, we must ensure our children know how to love themselves.

My three year old daughter has been defined by her weight and her appearance from the moment she was born. At birth, Alison was 8lbs 4oz, ‘a fine weight’, and her skin was blemish- and eczema free. In the absence of a personality, this is how she was described. From about six months onwards, a phenomenon that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to as ‘The Mirror Stage’, Alison began to associate her reflection with herself. Henceforth, her appearance became an important part of her identity. She has been told by many people, including us her parents, that she is beautiful. Consequently, when Alison stands in front of the mirror, she likes what she sees.

Furthermore, Alison’s obsession with Disney princesses, especially the heroines of Frozen, Elsa and Anna, has greatly moulded her perception of what defines beauty. When she twirls around in Elsa’s trademark dress, her imagination allows her to become Elsa, Queen of Arrandale with flawless skin, perfectly groomed hair and ridiculously petite physique. Disney is renowned for their formulaic composition of the stereotypical princess, and despite the rise of feminism, Disney princesses continue to equate beauty with being painfully thin and blemish free.

Although USA Today reported in September 2013 that it is the mother who has the biggest influence over their daughters’ body image, responsibility for the development of positive body images lies with both parents. According to an article by Margarita Tartakovsky entitled ‘Dads, Daughters and Body Image’, daughters who have healthy relationships with their fathers ‘tend to be more self-reliant, self-confident […] and less likely to develop eating disorders’. One advantage of having mothers in the workplace is that fathers are spending more one-on-one time with their children. Tartakovsky recommends that fathers use this time to play with their young children, thus boosting their self-esteem, as well as teaching them to question the unrealistic body images presented to them by the media.

As a mother, my priority is to raise a daughter who is rounded, and who learns to love herself as a person, not just in terms of her appearance.  Sadly, not every mother shares my view. ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a toddler beauty pageant show in the US, in which pushy mothers shamelessly dress up their daughters in over-the-top costumes, apply makeup and fake tan and train them to compete with other toddlers for a prize. Psychologist  Dr Allan Schwartz has criticised the show, saying that such shows ‘reinforce negative female body issues that result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia [among children].’ In addition, these pageants serve to sexualise our toddlers, which is unacceptable, argues Schwartz.

Thankfully, it seems that Ireland is not ready for toddler beauty pageants. Voicing her opinion in response to the cancellation of toddler beauty pageants in Belfast and Cork earlier this year, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald agrees that the sanctity of childhood needs to be protected by the State. In March 2014, the Seanad unanimously passed a motion to ban all child beauty pageants in Ireland. Included in this motion was an appreciation of ‘the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture’ as well as a belief ‘that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation’. While Ireland may not be ready to embrace the absurdity that is the toddler beauty pageant, it cannot be denied that we have become a society obsessed by external beauty, and if we fail to challenge this,  we run the risk of our children developing eating disorders in later life.

Ultimately, our children are not princes and princesses. They are unique individuals, who need to be allowed to explore who they are, both inside and out. Here’s how we as parents can promote the development of a positive body image, according to Margarita Tartakovsky and Elizabeth Ward, who is a dietician in the US:

  • Be a good role model: refrain from saying things such as ‘I need to lose weight’ in front of your toddlers, and do not openly obsess about your toddler’s weight
  • Encourage a healthy diet;
  • Limit the amount of screen time. Discuss advertisements’ and programmes’ treatment of body image openly and honestly, and point out unrealistic portrayals of body image;
  • Teach your child that everyone is unique, including in their appearance;
  • Spend time playing with your child, which will boost their self-esteem. Exercise releases endorphins which promotes happiness.
  • Focus on other attributes and talents other than appearance.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 23 February – 1 March 2015. For more information on eating disorders in children, visit www.bodywhys.ie.

Happy birthday, dear Ali!

My daughter and my proudest achievement, Alison, turned three years old at 11.52am today. It feels weird to be typing that sentence for several reasons. Firstly because up until I had Alison, I was on a mission to prove that I  was severely allergic to small children. I mean, they were cute and all, but I would have bawked at the idea of changing nappies or mopping up vomit. I can’t face cleaning my own. Secondly, because three years of my daughter’s life have passed by so quickly, and although I am delighted to be rid of the nightmares that were colic and reflux (aka, the Spawn of the Exorcist), I know that all I have now are memories, good and bad. Thirdly, because I want to freeze her time right now. I want to always remember her as she is, right now.

Alison Mary is now three. We named her Alison after one of mum’s favourite singers, Alison Krauss, because mum had died in 2009 and I didn’t particularly want to call her Una, plus we liked the name. Depending on what mood we’re in, we call her Alison or Ali. Alison is freakishly tall, and there’s no doubt that she will be taller than me by the time she’s nine. Her hair is grand when it’s washed but turns into a  mat of knots within 48 hours. Cue detangler spray and a lot of cursing from whichever parent has pulled the short straw  to comb out said mat.

Ali is intelligent. Well, I think so, so it must be true. She said ‘hi’ at eight weeks, and could count to five at sixteen months. She knows most nursery rhymes, and she also knows that she can get around daddy easier than mummy. She can count to ten in Irish now, thanks to playschool. She can spell ‘Tesco’, and knows daddy works there. I don’t know much about kids but I do think this is amazing.

Alison is currently a ‘Frozen’ fanatic, and her note-perfect rendition of ‘Let it Go’, complete with actions is highly entertaining. She loves singing and dancing, although I find the bum-wiggling a little disturbing. She also loves costumes (we have a future actress on our hands, perhaps?) , and would be equally happy dressing up as Elsa or Bob the Builder. Ever the diva, Alison loves being rescued from burning buildings (aka overturned toy boxes); the trouble is once you rescue her once, you have to rescue her ten thousand times.  Sigh.

I could describe what it is about Ali that I love so much until I’ve bored myself, but instead I’ll let the following anecdotes give you a better insight into her world.

1. Ali accidently walked in on her daddy while he was using the loo the other day. Next time she went to the toilet, she pulled down her pants and stood beside the toilet.

2. Ali loves sucking her thumb. And the more you tell her not to, the more she does it.

3. Ali doesn’t go to sleep at night until she prays for every single person she knows. Including someone called cucumber. We have no sodding idea who that is. When we ask her, she just smiles. I’m always a little nervous at this point, waiting for somebody to hop out of the wardrobe.

  1. Ali loves teddy bear picnics, at which she is always the guest of honour. She probably sees a picnic fit for a queen; what I see is a pile of toys. ‘Surprise!’ she yells, delighted with herself.
  2. Ali is fascinated with eyebrows and their texture. She loves rubbing eyebrows, and if she rubs your eyebrows, it means she likes you!

I could go on, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that Ali is very much her own person, and each day I fall more helplessly in love with her. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be her mum. She is so loving, patient (of me), understanding and kind that I sometimes wonder who is the mummy, her or me? Honestly, I think I need her more than she needs me.

So, happy birthday to a truly remarkable child and the best daughter any mother could possibly dream of. I promise to love you and be thankful for you every day, because

Baby, now that I’ve found you, I won’t let you go,

I’ve built my word around you, I need you so,

Baby even though,

You don’t need me, you don’t need me, oh no. (Alison Krauss)

Thank you for bringing so much happiness into all of our lives xxxx

Facing my demons

It’s amazing what we as human beings are prepared to do to ourselves in order to avoid facing our feelings. It may be throwing ourselves into our work, in order to make every minute so busy with activity that we haven’t a moment to contemplate anything else, or it could be self-medication with whatever drink, drugs or substance we can lay our hands on. However, there comes a point where we can no longer do this and the only way to eradicate the demons that mercilessly control our lives is to face them and disempower them. And this is exactly what I am about to do.

Almost a year ago, my husband and I took part in a documentary ‘Somebody to Love’, which explored the challenges facing people with disabilities in finding love and forming romantic and sexual relationships. Partaking in that documentary was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. The intimate nature of the recording and production meant that there was nowhere to hide from our feelings. We were in our own home,  our own environment, laying our private lives bare for Irish viewers to dissect.

Watching the documentary back, I can see myself trying to stifle my husband’s words, trying to stop him from saying something ‘stupid’ or ‘dangerous’. By ‘stupid’ and ‘dangerous’, I mean the truth or, more specifically, our truth. Our truth is that we felt frightened and alone. We felt that we constantly had to prove ourselves, that we  knew what we were doing, when in fact we did not have a clue. We’d never cared for a newborn before, and we were terrified, but we couldn’t let it show. In short, we were denied the right to be first time  parents: to cremate the bottle, to hold the baby upside down, to make mistakes.(By the way, I am neither condoning nor encouraging this behaviour. Please read the instruction manual that comes with your child).

One of the worst moments of my life was the day my husband and I were supposed to take Alison from the hospital, It was a Monday, and I was recovering marvellously from my section. I was feeding Alison well, and she was thriving. I was even walking a little using a walker, having had to use a wheelchair for the last three weeks of the pregnancy. However, I felt emotional and like shit; my section scar was sore, I was missing my own mother like crazy, and it felt like fluid was leaking from every bodily orifice. And this was the moment that the  head midwife, ward manager or whoever she was told me that they had ‘concerns’ about my ability to take care of my daughter. My heart broke. In that moment, it felt like Alison had died. I rang my husband and told him to take  Ali with him and leave me behind, because it was me, not him, that they had the problem with. Reading it now, it seems like the rants of a crazy person, but in that moment, it made sense. After numerous phone calls to social workers, public health nurses and Offaly CIL, we were allowed home, on the condition that a Public Health Nurse could come to our home every day and monitor our ‘progress’.

Nearly three years have passed , and now one of my best friends, who also has Cerebral Palsy, is excited about welcoming her new arrival in January. But after witnessing what  we contended with, she is starting to worry about how she will be perceived after the birth of her c child.. She will be a mother, not just an object of care, and it’s vital that she is enabled, without fear of judgement, to care for her child, It makes me furious to think that she, that we, have to think this way about the most precious event in any mother’s life, when children are being neglected by their parents every day.

and so I would urge her: If you by gross misfortune have to contend with these obstacles and attitudes, please have the courage to speak out.  This is only the second time I have done so, but I feel so much better. Only through our honesty can we truly help others and deconstruct the negative attitudes that have the power to destroy us.

Making my own identity

There are many things in life that shape our identity. These can be ordinary things, such as where we grow up, the education we receive and the careers we choose, or extraordinary events beyond our control, such as having a disability or illness. All of these things may define who we are, but they should not determine what we are capable of.

I have a disability which in Ireland, seems to mean that I am perceived to be an object of care. Living with Cerebral Palsy has meant that over the years, I have had to allow many medical experts into my personal space, patiently enduring their prodding and poking, their testing my muscle tones in their relentless quest to determine my abilities and disabilities.

Never in a million years did these so-called ‘experts’ expect to be lost for words when I announced that I was pregnant in June 2011. Firstly, they were intrigued and made it clear that they intended to use my pregnancy and Caesarean section as some sort of case study. Secondly, they were baffled (there are seemingly few parents with disabilities in Ireland) at how somebody, who would be traditionally perceived to be an object of care, could in turn fulfil the physical and emotional demands of a small baby.

I am a stubborn and single-minded woman, and throughout my pregnancy I arranged meetings with Primary Care Support Workers, physio- and Occupational Therapists, and even the Public Health Nurse, whose initial expectations of our parenting abilities were depressingly low. However, by the time the big day arrived on the 9th February 2012, I was confident that at least these professionals were on our side.

After my daughter Alison was born, however, it did not feel as if we were all working together. Instead, it felt like the time my husband and I had spent appeasing the ‘professionals’ had been wasted. There was concerns that I would pose a safety risk to my daughter, without substantial grounds for this. On the day that my beautiful daughter and I were meant to be discharged from hospital, I was told that the hospital would need to be satisfied that there was enough practical support at home to help me with Alison, and insinuated that I would not be allowed home until they were satisfied. They recommended the use of a wheelchair and a cloth sling for transporting Alison around the house, and I had to buy this sling before they would discharge me from hospital. Incidentally, I have never used the sling, choosing instead to push Alison around the house in a sturdy buggy. I have never let her fall.

If someone were to ask me how I define myself, I would answer an aspiring journalist, a devoted wife and a dedicated mother. However, having Alison in m y life has transformed how I perceive myself as a person. Watching her grow into a beautiful, intelligent and opinionated young lady has made me realise that a person’s identity cannot truly be defined by her appearance or by her disabilities, but instead by a willingness to continuously challenge the stereotypes forced upon them by society and to live one’s life in spite of the perceptions of others.