This post is dedicated to parents who put aside their dreams, have taken the knocks and wake up every day to pour faith, hope and love into the world. I see you.
October marks Mental Health Day, Cerebral Palsy Day and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) month (this is for people who use other ways of communication than talking because they have limited or no functional speech or are non-speaking). This month is also Down Syndrome Awareness, Breast Cancer Month and many more awareness days.
The first three awareness topics are a big part of the fabric of my life.
The dream I hoped would become my reality
When Savannah was seven years old (she was already diagnosed with cerebral palsy but was not yet diagnosed as autistic), I was hailed as somewhat of a “SuperHero” mum. I learnt how to help Savannah to communicate. As a toddler, she could make three sounds which we understood to have specific meanings. She also used some signs and gestures to communicate specific needs. Now mind you this was all-pre-social media and with no access to the internet, so everything learnt was from therapists and good old fashioned intuition.
From there we used special software to teach Savannah to use pictures to communicate. Then she began saying some words, then some phrases and now prefers to communicate mostly by speaking. She is still not always easily understood and uses various methods to make herself understood.
Because of this feat in teaching Savannah to communicate, I had a career in that sector. I loved learning and teaching and training people who needed to use AAC, their families, schools, and other professionals.
Like many mothers before me and no doubt even now, I learnt on the job so to speak, and concurrently immersed myself in helping others. I knew what helplessness felt like, and I loved that eventually, I was able to help my child. How could I possibly not help anyone else’
Letting go of the dream
One day I was sitting in a training about a communication strategy, and everyone in the room was so enamoured with the technique. I was too, except I felt equally ill watching the videos. In all the videos, the person who everything depended on to implement was usually the primary caregiver and most times that was the mother. For years, I was everything to Savannah while also filling all the other roles I had. The best description was:
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”J.R.R Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Rings.
The question I was trying to avoid went off like alarm sirens in my head: When will they (anyone who was bold enough to think they should speak on this point) stop telling us as mothers and fathers that we need to care for ourselves while we do the Superhuman task of staying employed while being available as a nurse, teacher, therapist, parent, cheerleader, cook, bather, cleaner, and friend to our child? While the scope of the needs within each of these titles kept changing.
I also knew without a doubt that being a “Super” anything meant very little when one can’t meet all the needs that a person with a disability has. Those needs don’t diminish over time. They became bigger needs like suitable housing, a suitable vehicle, access to services for adults, long drives to specialists, the ability to keep doing the same thing over and over for years and the strength to keep fighting for access and inclusion.
The skills I acquired in a specialist field, became a source of pain because the fact is that only a degree would have made a real difference to me. It did not matter how much experience I had or what force of passion drove my acquisition of that skill. Earning that degree would come at a huge cost in many ways, and with so little of myself left to spread, I had to let that dream go.
I felt I had let Savannah down. I gave myself to something that was not going to help me care for her well enough for the long run. I felt stupid for not pursuing a career in a sector with more options to increase my earning potential. I failed my family. I stopped trusting myself.
Dreaming a new dream
There is a line in a song:
“The very thing I love is killing me and I can’t conquer it”.Monster under my bed song by Eminen and Rihanna
I used to sing that all the time because I loved my daughter. I loved what I did for a living. But I also knew it was never going to be sustainable to keep going in a field where the academic qualification mattered. Now I am here, forty-three years old, with a wealth of knowledge and experience that I can’t be credited for.
So I dreamed a new dream. I am incredibly blessed to have a paid job. It has little to do with my dream job so, in my own time, I still serve other families and professionals when I have the capacity to do so. I don’t know everything, but I know some things that make a valuable difference to others. My life has more flexibility and allows me to take better care of my family.
Have I found my dream life?
Yes and No. In the Book of Philippians Paul writes, “I know how to be content whatever the circumstances”. There are parts of my life now that I jump out of bed for and there are parts that I have to drag myself to do because it is the only option before me. I know the value of grit and grace.
In this country, access to support, skills, and empowering parents to be the best they can be to their children and to do that in a way that gives dignity to both the parents and the child is few and far between.
When it does exist, it is usually because a parent is making it happen for themselves and others. Far too often something has got to give. Usually, it is the parent’s mental health. Usually, no one notices until it is too late, and a life-changing event happens. A chronic or terminal illness, addiction, divorce, depression, or even worse abuse and even suicide. I have seen so many families fall apart, and I know that it has only by grace I have not yet fallen too far down the rabbit hole.
This October we have many issues on the calendar to be aware of. Mental Health is always a top priority for me. When we don’t have easy and low-cost access to support for parents and especially for those of us who have to be long-term caregivers, it is a feat to build and maintain the life we want. It all begins and ends with how realistic we are of how much a person can cope with, acknowledging that not everyone has the same capacity and that we should not be penalised for that. I sincerely hope that this post will in the least inspire you to:
- Make spaces for parents who are trying desperately to find some meaning in their child’s diagnosis and are doing that by giving of themselves. Provide opportunity and friendship. Both are needed in equal amounts.
- Remind yourself of when your child was a baby, and how hard those early days were. Now imagine doing that for the rest of your life while pursuing a career. That is long term caregiving. Give those caregivers a little grace.
- When a parent changes course and tries something new at thirty years old, forty years old, fifty even sixty, it doesn’t mean they have failed. It only shows that they are willing to keep trying to add value to their lives, their family and maybe in some way even to the world. Be supportive.
- Lastly, there is no such thing as fair in life. So when a parent doing double duty needs extra leave or gets that promotion, it’s not unfair. It is life, and sadly if life was fair, there would be more help for parents who are long-term caregivers.
- Please be kind. It costs nothing.
Finally, to the mama bears who I have the privilege of being a pillar to, Khalil Gibran said
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
I am holding space for you as other women have held for me. You are not alone. In your own way, by your own standards, you can begin again and dream a new dream. It may surprise you and be a little more delightful than the ones you dreamed of before.
For Professional Help, please call
- Lifeline: 0861 322 322
- South African Depression and Anxiety Group: 0800 567 567
- or contact a counselling service in your area.
Desirae has three children: Savannah (25 years), Talisa (19years) and Eli Michael (13 years). Savannah was born when Desirae was eighteen years old and she was a single mother for a time before marrying Michael. Savannah is autistic and is a person with cerebral palsy. Michael and Desirae care for Savannah as she cannot live independently. Desirae worked as an Assistive Technology Advisor in the disability sector, served in the autism community, and is now employed in the child safety sector. She writes for the purpose of sharing different perspectives and to encourage a thinking line around being kinder and more considerate of other people’s experiences in the areas of parenting, childhood trauma and disability. She writes because she knows that Faith, Hope and Love abide.