The Juggler

It is a difficult balancing act for any working mother, to juggle taking care of children as well as focusing on the demands of a job, whatever the job might be. There is a need to find reliable childcare, that is affordable, and then there are the implications when either the carer or child should fall ill, which could result in last minute changes of arrangements, flexibility or time off work. I always envied those families who had willing grandparents close by who could step into the breach in an emergency, or better still, be part of the regular childcare solution.

However if you add into that difficult mix, having at least one child with special needs, then those demands become magnified : the child might be more susceptible to illness or complications of their condition, such as recovery time from seizures. Additionally they will  potentially have endless appointments to attend during the weekdays and during the day : appointments with doctors, consultants, physiotherapists, podiatrists, orthotics, occupational therapists and social workers. Then they might also be unwell enough to have prolonged hospital stays too. All of this will take its toll on any compassionate leave or holiday entitlement that might be available, and so it might be necessary to take time off without pay, depending upon the employer.

I consider myself to be very fortunate as I have worked for the same family firm for almost thirty years now. I started my current job straight from university and in the 8 years I was there , before Joshua arrived, I worked full time and covered many business miles each year. I took 8 months maternity leave and then I returned to work for three days a week initially, and then it increased to 4 days a week once he went to school. I am lucky as  when travelling I can work unusual hours and I am able to bank that time as lieu time, and then I can use it against time off for Joshua’s appointments and school events, so that it evens itself out. I am also lucky in that our company has always closed down over the festive season, so there is never any issue about being asked to cover during that Christmas school holiday.

So the flexibility that I have at work, enables me to be a working mother who can still attend harvest festival and open mornings and of course I have maintained my Fridays off, which are invaluable for school coffee mornings, daycare visits, appointments when possible and for extended weekends at respite time. But I am well aware that not all SEN parents are as fortunate with their employers or their jobs. I know that many of the parents from school are not in employment any more, they used to work, but it became too difficult to manage alongside the demands of parenting. That situation is not necessarily their choice, but their employer could not offer them the flexibility that they needed to go into work late if necessary or to take time off during the day, so everyone is missing out as these parents have a lot of skills to offer the workplace. It also helps the SEN parent to have another outlook on life, to integrate more with society and to find something that is more predictable than raising a child with special needs. My job enables me to be something other than ” Joshua’s mum”, something that is just for me.

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Working Mother

Today is a big day in my work life as I am having the first meeting with a new client. I won a 3 year contract back in April and today is the day that we finally kick the project off. Mum knew that I was bidding for the job, had been shortlisted and I was able to give her the news that I had been successful, while she was in hospital and she had been delighted for me and she had told me that she was proud of my success.  This was the presentation when I had described our company as Wonder Woman when I was asked which super hero we were. I was relieved that they took their time during May and early June to sort out the contract, as I knew that I would want a project to throw myself into after Mum’s funeral, so the timing has been just right from my personal perspective.

They saw professional, ‘best behaviour’ me when I presented to them months ago and all our dealings so far have been pretty formal, via a procurement portal. While of course I will remain professional this afternoon, my dilemma is how much of my real personality and priorities do I reveal on our first meeting? I am already taking them cake, so they will know that I am a baker today. I had mentioned my baking at the end of the presentation but I had not taken any with me as I did not want it to be construed as a bribe! They had joked that my  homemade shortbread might have clinched the contract.

I have a number of special clients who have become friends over the years of working together, there are two that I email who have left their business, but have kept in touch – they follow my blog, we exchange Christmas cards and we meet up when we can. They know all about our ups and downs with Joshua and they have sent sympathy cards and even a hydrangea plant, when Mum died. But I worked with these two ladies for several years before we exchanged news about our private lives and it was an exchange, I learned about their families at the same time that they heard about Joshua. Our meetings, when they were still clients, were always prefaced by a half hour or so, catch up on home news.

I wonder how long it will be before I share about Joshua with this new client? He is not generally in my opening statement, but sooner or later he tends to crop up in my conversations. New clients need to understand that he will always be my number one priority, so I may have to occasionally cancel meetings if he is unwell or I may become temporarily unavailable should he undergo a hospital stay for instance, but I will keep them informed and I will have a deputy at work too, to replace me if necessary. On one project last October, I had to leave a job early because Joshua was taken into hospital by ambulance after seizures and that German client did not hesitate to allow me to leave in a hurry once I received that frightening phone call, they could not have been kinder.

Joshua has been a non-negotiable factor in my working life for the last 18 years and my clients accept that, so I am lucky in that regard, as my priorities will never change.

Life Goes On

Having had the long weekend, both my sister and I decided to return to work yesterday. I was greeted with some surprise, with people asking ‘what are you doing here?’, as I was expected to be off work for sometime and was expected to be tied up in funeral arrangements. However, due to the Bank Holiday, we do not yet have Mum’s Death Certificate so we are unable to register her death and progress with her funeral. We were expecting a telephone call from the Bereavement service yesterday but as it had not come by 4.30 pm, I called them and was told to chase the Coroner myself from 9 am today. So given that we will need later in the week off work, it made sense to us to go into our offices and to face concerned colleagues. I had left my desk last week in a state of chaos and I wanted to go in, to tie up any loose ends and to contact certain clients.

As it is May half term holidays, Yorkshire Grandma arrived to take Joshua out for the day. I was giving him his Weetabix in bed when she arrived, and he gave her an excited grin and an enthusiastic wave, so he was pleased to see her. I left her getting him dressed and discussing her plans for the day with him and I was confident that he was in safe hands. So I drove to the office – which only takes 5 minutes across town – and took a deep breath as I walked in, feeling that nothing was the same as it had been last week when I was there, as Mum was no longer around. I was immediately given two big hugs and I warned my colleagues not to be ” too nice to me” or else I might begin to cry, and never stop. So after a brief explanation of the events of  the end of last week, I made myself a cup of tea and headed upstairs to my office, where emails needed my attention in my inbox. So I got stuck in and time flew by, as I knew that it would once I was distracted. The Chairman of this small family business came to see me and offer me his sympathy and his advice from the perspective of someone being of Mum’s age. All day I felt surrounded by support and nobody questioned my need to leave work at 3 pm. I am still finding that I am overwhelmingly tired between 3 pm and 4 pm, and I started to feel faint and rather nauseous then, so I chose to come home.

So although I did not stay for a full day, I still consider that I returned to work and that I achieved what I needed to do; and now ,having faced everyone, it will not be so daunting next time I return to work. Although you want, and expect,  the world to stop, it is true that for everyone else, life goes on and there is some comfort to be gained from doing familiar tasks and activities. I know that Mum was proud of what I achieved at work – she told me so recently –  and so she would want me to try to get back there, to pick up where I left off.

Back to school, back to books….

Joshua heads back to school today after 2.5 weeks off , so we will see how he takes to the new routine – well the old routine, back again. He has been sleeping in late this holiday, well around 9 am, so getting up at 7.30 might prove challenging for him this morning. He has had many lazy mornings, when he has pottered around in his pyjamas, before getting up, whereas this morning it will be back to breakfast in bed, dressed, teeth cleaned and out of the door to the taxi. I have no doubt that he will be pleased to see everyone again at school as he has been on great form this holiday and I am hoping that they might even hear some of his old words back again too He will wave madly until his hand drops off no doubt,when he is reunited with both classmates and staff and I hope that he has a good time.

So this marks the beginning of the summer term and with the bank holiday Monday in May coming up shortly, he will be back on half term holiday before we know it, I think it is just four weeks away, before he is on leave again and then we hurtle downhill from there, to the long summer off. It is always a challenge to juggle childcare during that long holiday as I will take a fortnight off in August and we have the long August weekend, but other wise I rely heavily on Yorkshire Grandma. We may be able to use Joshua’s new respite provision to cover some more days, but ideally I would like to use that for my husband and I to have some time together, not simply to enable us to work, but I am sure that we will work something out.

With my Mum being ill and in hospital for the last two weeks, and work commitments, I do not feel as though I have seen enough of Joshua during these Easter holidays. Yorkshire Grandma very kindly held the fort during the first week , enabling me to drop everything and go where I was needed most.  I know that Joshua loves me, he gives me such a welcome home. I went back to the hospital yesterday afternoon and so did not get home until 9 pm, when my husband had just got him into bed. He heard me return however and he jumped out of bed twice to see me and I took him back to bed , staying briefly for a cuddle the second time. He awoke again around 12.30 , waking me and back to bed he went, but I am pretty sure that he was checking that I was still really there. I am pleased that we all three enjoyed the Easter weekend together, that was really special.

Wonder Woman!

I did not see Joshua awake yesterday at all ; he was asleep when I left to go to work at 8.30 – Yorkshire Grandma said that he slept in until 10.15!! – and he was in bed when I got home ,late. I had a big day at work as I had a four hour drive to a potential new client , where we have been shortlisted as one of three, to bid for a 3 year contract. I was preparing for it last week, amid the unexpected nature of hospital visits, but managed to get my presentation prepared as I had some useful thinking time on the motorway.

I was the first of the three bidders to present to a panel of three and it was quite a formal process when I was timed and I had to speak for up to 40 minutes, with no interruptions from the panel. I am comfortable with formal presentations like that, but I prefer them to ask questions as we go along so that it is more like a conversation, rather than me giving a speech. After my presentation there were some more marked questions and then some additional questions , which they wanted to know the answers to, rather than being  a formal assessment process.

One of those questions threw me briefly as one man asked me ‘if your company was a super hero, what super hero would you be?’!  Now if Joshua had been a ‘normal’ child, I would have been more aware of modern super heroes, but as they do not interest him, I have never seen any of the Marvel films. So I had to dredge my memory for a superhero from my childhood, which  took some dredging I can tell you. I came up with Wonder Woman, which I used to watch and enjoy as a girl. I explained that market research is an industry dominated by women and that we would only have to spin around, and we would resolve their problems. He said that he liked my response but it was the best that I could do under pressure and with no notice or time to research, and I was simply relieved to be able to identify one!

There are lots of super heroes in my life, people who do amazing jobs and appear to have magical powers, and I thought about them on my long drive home. I do not know how well I did but I felt as though I would not have done anything differently if I had to go through it again, so that should be good enough. We may or may not be a good fit with that company, but I was honest about where we are and what we could offer them. This was definitely a day when my work-self took to the fore, being Joshua’s mum and Mum’s daughter, took a back seat for the day. I would not like everyday to be like yesterday, but every once in a while it feels good to dress smartly and to show off about what you can do and have done in the past.

Walk in Our Shoes

Having a child with special needs , puts additional pressure on any family as I have explained many times before. Many marriages do not survive the pressure, as the demands that that child place on its parents increase over time rather than decreasing, as is the case with most children. Everybody knows and understands that babies need 100% care – they require feeding ,changing and dressing but it is the normal expectation that from toddlers, they will start to feed themselves, become toilet trained and start to be able to dress themselves, so that they become less dependent on their parents for care as they develop more independence skills. But in many SEN cases, those self help skills do not develop and Joshua, for example, even at 18 still needs that same care that he needed when he was a baby.

It is expected in a family, that the children will start to contribute more to the household as they get older and that once they reach high school age,  that they will spend less time with their parents as friendships start to take on a bigger role in their lives. They will start to  want to stay out overnight with friends or to go on holiday with them as they move further away from their parental influence and ultimately, they will want to move out of the family home and set up in their own space. But our offspring tend to remain dependent, even as adults, which is why respite is so important; it gives parents time to themselves. to re-charge their batteries and to restore the balance of the family, which is usually skewed towards the needs of the SEN child. But it also gives the child or young adult, time away from his parents, where he can mix with his peers and engage in activities that he might not access within his family. I am certain that the fact that we have had monthly respite weekends ,apart from each other, for ten years now is one of the main factors that has kept our family together as Joshua has grown older, and arguably, more demanding.

Along the way, families have to make many sacrifices when putting the needs of their child first. Those could be relatively small sacrifices,  such as missing out on social events as there is a lack of suitable babysitters or limiting choices of family holiday to resorts or accommodation that suits the needs of the child . But more life-changing sacrifices are also made in the interests of the whole family, such as career moves. My husband and I have not been prevented from having jobs, alongside Joshua,  but we have both turned down career advancing opportunities because they would not have been viable while looking after him at home. In my experience, at least one of us has had to have flexibility at work to be able to attend the numerous daytime meetings and appointments or to be able to respond to the emergency calls from school or nursery to either fetch him home or to meet him at hospital, which has limited the scope for roles that involve a lot of travel.

I heard yesterday of a family whose son is struggling at present : getting ready for school and the journey to school has become overwhelming for him and he is resisting it daily with his Mum and even by calling on assistance from extended family, it is still proving to be a real struggle. She has fought a hard battle everyday before 9 am and often on very little sleep. Her husband, she told me yesterday, has handed in his notice to be able to support his son and wife better, as what they have been coping with on a  daily basis is untenable for any of them. He had no flexibility in his work and so the burden always fell to his wife. I am relieved for her and their son that he has made this decision, but beyond families who know this situation, who would truly understand the strain that working families are under and the choices that have to be made.

Given the number of appointments that have to be juggled and the full time chasing and complaining that has to happen in order to get what is needed, it is rare in my experience to find families where both parents manage to work, certainly full time. I use my Fridays-off for appointments where I can and for chasing calls and emailing. When that is not possible, I am very fortunate that I have some flexibility over my hours to enable me to juggle them to accommodate Joshua’s commitments, but I would have struggled over the last 18 years if I worked Monday to Friday , 9am to 5 pm. I am also permitted to make personal calls during my working day, as often the services that I have to chase, work the same hours as I do. But for those who are not blessed with that flexibility, a life on benefits may be their only choice.

Everybody realises that when they choose to have a baby, they will be making some personal sacrifices in the future. But please spare a thought for the challenging lives that many parents of children with special needs are facing behind the closed doors of their home. Most will not complain about it spontaneously as it is everyday life to them, but as you get to know them better, you begin to learn about the struggles that many are facing on a daily basis. So if they have become bolshy or weepy, or seem to be disorganised , are always late or forgetful, cut them some slack , as they may be dealing with untold horrors at home.

The Juggler

My husband is working overseas this week, where he is 9 hours ahead of us – so I spoke to him on my way to work, and he was heading to bed and last night, we spoke as I was going to bed, and he was just getting up. I am very grateful for mobile phone technology that enables us to speak, as though he is just down the road, even though he is half way around the world. He will be home again on Friday and so he is not away for long and with the support of Yorkshire Grandma, we have a plan for managing work and Joshua between us this week.

In order to manage work while parenting a young man with special needs, takes both support and a flexible employer in my opinion. If Joshua did not have not have any difficulties, now that he is 18, he would not need anyone at home to greet him from school, to make him his evening meal and to stay with him while his mum took his puppy to Dog Obedience Class. But that is not the world that we live in, even now he is an adult, Joshua is not safe to be left in the house alone at all : he might have a seizure and fall over, he may trip on the stairs, he could leave the house and wander out onto the road. He pulls his own socks off or trousers down and then his own clothing becomes a trip hazard. Joshua would unwittingly touch a hot kettle or hob and burn himself. He has no sense of danger at all and is unable to keep himself safe and as such, cannot be left to his own devices at any time. So even nipping out to the shop, when I have forgotten something, is not an option without taking Joshua too, which he would not appreciate once he is home from school as it is very hard to tempt him back into his boots and into the car in the evening.

Joshua is not able to occupy himself, so although he has DVDs and movies that he likes to watch when he comes home from school, he is reliant on someone else to set them up for him. His attentions span is not what it was for such distractions, so last night when I got  home from work , I found the ipad playing Shrek on the floor in the snug, his Show blaring away in his den and yet he was upstairs with Yorkshire Grandma, lounging on his bed enjoying a Bruce Springsteen DVD! He leapt up to greet me and he then ignored all of his media options as Mum was home!

Normally after Joshua’s taxi has picked him up in the morning, to take him to school, only then do I have my breakfast and I have 20 minutes to myself, before I need to leave for work. But this week, with my First Aid course, I am having to be more organised so that I can leave the house the same time as him in order to get to my course on time. But today is the last day of the course, and my assessment day, so we will have managed this military operation to get out on time for three days. But next week we have a new challenge, as Yorkshire Grandma is on holiday and so I will need to meet him after school, or make alternative plans for the day that I am working away from home. I am not very good at planning ahead, I tend to only work out one week at a time but I am getting better at juggling, while trying to keep as many balls in the air as I can.