Article – Into the Shadows

Monday, oh Monday. Most people dread Mondays, or at least dislike them, which is in itself a worrying insight into the nature of our society. For me, at this present stage of my life, my first thought on waking (and realising it is actually time to get up) on a Monday is “oh”. It’s a mental sigh. It’s the instant knowledge that a multi-layered battle awaits, that despite my own feelings of dread and fatigue, I should put on my positive pants and get my children up and ready for school. I know before they’ve even woken that they don’t want to. They’re usually clinging onto sleep or at least the comfort of the duvet, possibly even of me. How easy it would be – and has been – to say “yep, they’re tired, I’m tired, let’s just close our eyes again”. Sometimes, if I can find a reason to justify it, even tenuously, then I do. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but the mental load, the stress, the fatigue, that accompanies trying day after day to get one or both children agreeable to go to school is just indescribable.

The Covid pandemic has been a godsend for families like ours. That first lockdown, when no one knew what to do or what was going on, when the streets were silent and people actually stayed home, was both terrifying and joyous. The pressure was lifted, just like that. No more excuses, no more phone calls or emails or texts via whatever medium having to apologise again for cancelling this or that. Then again at Christmas, hoping beyond hope for an eleventh-hour reprieve that the Government would u-turn and say schools needed to shut again after all. The disappointment that it seemed they wouldn’t, followed by the immense wave of relief on what for many – not us thankfully – was the first day of term, that actually, yes, they would. I felt safe, not because I was worried about covid, though of course I was, but because it meant we could hide again; we could return to the shadows instead of being out for public scrutiny, and I wouldn’t have to face that morning battle again just yet.

When you have a so-called ‘SEND child’ – rather an over-used and non-descriptive term, focusing as it does on their poorly-defined ‘Special EDUCATIONAL Needs and Disabilities’ – every aspect of your life becomes public property. First off, you’re accused of being a rubbish parent. If you express concern about your child’s needs or behaviours, chances are you’ll be blamed for them. This is quite possibly because they are “fine in school” or nursery or wherever and their outbursts or separation anxiety or disruptive behaviour is your fault. In some cases it probably is, and often it may be exacerbated by parents simply not knowing what to do for the best and trying and trying again to follow the rule book that everyone always says doesn’t exist, but social norms quite clearly confirm does. So you get referred to Parenting Classes, or a support group, or get assigned a key worker, or possibly just get tutted at when you bring your child into school late again and not in their school uniform, if you can get them in at all. You’re a bad parent: you can’t get up early enough to get your children ready. Why don’t you just get them to bed earlier? What sort of bedtime routine do you have? Why don’t you prepare everything the night before? Have you thought about setting the clock a few minutes fast? Ha, yes, smile and inwardly wonder what happened to make you such a useless wreck of a human and what gave them the right to question it.

I digress. I do that a lot, sorry. It comes from having lots and lots of pent-up thoughts and feelings and not quite formulated ideas. It comes from constantly operating in panic-mode, always being reactive rather than proactive and always just getting by, surviving. It’s ok: well-meaning people (including ourselves) tell us that that’s all we need to do for now; just get through each day. Be kind to ourselves. Ok yeah, I get it. But I’ve been ‘just getting through’ each day for many, many days now; weeks, months, years. I am no longer entirely sure what it is to not live like that, but I know that that’s not living. It feels like I am a shadow person, not fully there, just a silhouette of a person making all the same moves as me.

It’s ok though, because tomorrow will be better. Or next week. Definitely next term. We just need a break and then we’ll be recharged; everyone’s tired and struggling at the end of term, right? So why are the terms so long then? Why do we all perpetuate this system that everyone struggles with? Only I think some people struggle more than others, and if that happens to be you or yours, well hello, be prepared to open your lives up for all to poke about at. Not married? Separated? Other parent not involved/disagrees with you? You need consistency. Yes yes, we know it’s hard but you’ve just got to keep trying. Or maybe flexibility and innovation are the key. Don’t you know? They’re your children, you need to know what works for them. Oh no, you can’t possibly know what’s in their best interests but we do because we’re professionals and we tried this once with another child and it worked for them… Or maybe they left. Anyway we can’t do that yet because we have a process to follow, or it’s in our policy, or it’s not.

Anyway, Covid. Every time I do a lateral flow test, or actually feel really rubbish so do a PCR test, I hope it’s positive. That’s crazy isn’t it? But I bet I’m not the only one. Initially it was because, if I felt unwell, I hoped this was it, this was my Covid and this was as bad as it was going to get. That was back in the early days when we all thought maybe you’d only get it once. Now, it’s because if I get a positive test it means I have to isolate. I have to shut myself and my children away again, and slip back into the shadows out of sight.  It means I have an excuse not to have to keep trying, to keep the pretence up. But hey, so far I’ve fought and won against a few unpleasant viruses but none of them, thankfully really, have been Covid. It’s not right though is it?

This morning my littlest one was due to go on her first school trip, to her first pantomime. She’d discussed the arrangements with her teacher last week and we light-heartedly went through them again yesterday. This morning we had the usual Monday – actually everyday – resistance. I took a chance and reminded her that today was panto day and that would be such fun! Let’s make sure to get dressed properly and get to school on time. No. Really, no. Tears, no. Her sister wasn’t helping. I knew I was onto a loser but persisted and eventually started to lose my temper in sheer frustration. I’d paid for her ticket. I’d offered to come along as a parent-helper but had been politely declined. I knew that this would be all the children would be talking about, their first shared school-trip-panto experience and it would be great and I didn’t want my baby to miss out. I just wanted my fearless, resilient, warrior-child back to embrace this new experience and excitedly tell me all about it when she came out of school later. No. I held her firmly, facing me, careful not to actually lose my temper but something spilling out in my voice nonetheless. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sternly, exasperated. Then the tears really came, with the heart-breaking “it’s scary!” wailed at me between them. Oh my lord, what was I doing? My fearless 5-year-old broke down in my grasp and I pulled her to me to hug her. “Ok”, I said, “ok”.

The other one has reverted to being anti-school. Every day she asks me why she has to go to school and why she can’t be home educated again. I’ve given up replying now. It’s like that awful whack-a-mole game: she names a worry or an event that upset her, I address it, and then another will pop up. It’s the whole thing she can’t tolerate, not just the individual moles. We’re back where we were where we might not be able to name what it is, might not even know the day before that we won’t be able to face it the next day, but deep down I know. I hate it. Even a few weeks ago we had some good days where we could more or less just get up and ready and go. They were joyous. They still required my full effort but I remember almost skipping and smiling as I dropped each child off at school and even got cheery “well done”s from my littlest one’s Head Teacher. Ah yes, those naïve days when I thought I might have cracked it, when the honeymoon period of the new academic year and for my older one, new school, lulled me into a false sense of security that I could make plans, that I could finally start to transition from the reactive to the proactive, that I could stop being that poor woman needy of meetings and interventions. I was able to stand with other grown-ups collecting their children at the end of the day at my littlest one’s school, and even see them in the mornings if we made it in on time. Conversations. Friendships. Normality. Oh happy days. Well, some of them anyway, for a moment.

Gradually it slipped away again. It might have been a bad day here or there, for one or the other or both. Then I realised I was cancelling things again, or apologising for being late again, or going and getting my cappuccino and crying my eyes out in Starbucks car park again. The new course I’d started and paid lots for began to slip further out of my reach. My housework, let alone the decluttering and decorating, reverted to survival mode. Things were rinsed out and grabbed back out of the laundry basket. Things were lost, or hidden. The shame returned and I dreaded anyone needing to come to my house. And so, the ever-decreasing circles began to spiral out of control again: the tiredness, the inability to get things done, the chaos, the mental clutter, the depression, the tiredness… Only now I needed to reach out for help again because I was frightened what was going to happen if I didn’t. I got a hug and encouraging words of how well we were doing and hard it must be. Jesus. Don’t patronise me, help me. Help me to get back on track again so I can be that strong parent and not the self-fulfilling prophecy of the not-coping Mum, the one they knew I was all along.

This morning I made a decision to withdraw my children from school again, to home educate. I’ve resisted it as in all honesty, I wanted the childcare that school offers as well as the access to people, resources, and experiences that my girls would get through school. I wanted some freedom to find me again be more than a shadow person again. I want to show my girls that I am more than this and that they can be more than this. I wanted the system to either work, or to kick in with the back-up system before we got to this point. It hasn’t done either. I reached the point again, as I did 4 years ago, where I may as well cut out the middle man and just have my children at home anyway, but at least know that that’s where we’re at, and plan accordingly. Only this time I don’t want to return to the shadows. I want us to still be there, to be planned and provided for like everyone else. I want the professionals to step up and find a way to make education not just accessible to my babies, but for them to thrive with it. I want to be a useful member of society again, instead of constantly feeling like a failure. I know now that it’s not just me, it’s not just my children; we’re not the first nor will we be the last. Something needs to change for us, and change NOW, so that we can go on and make change happen for others. Is that really too much to ask?

By Pauline Delaney

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