It all started with a simple compliment that was probably given without too much thought, almost a throw-away comment, but the words, planned or not, had a profound effect months ago and still do. I had walked M and G to school after a particularly difficult night with M, following on from a couple of really tough days and I was tired and emotional as I left the school grounds. Passing their Head at the gates, I gave a small smile, a nod of my head and a quick reply to his question about how M was feeling. His next words stopped me in my tracks and even now continue to resonate in my memory, especially when things are feeling a little more challenging or tiring than normal:
“I just wanted to say that I admire your constant smile and upbeat attitude about everything. Your positivity is reflected in the way both children deal with whatever’s thrown at them in the classroom and in life.”
My garbled response was a variation of my stock answer:
“What else can I do, but smile? If I didn’t I might end up crying, but that won’t help M or G or me; and it won’t change the way things are…” (I shrugged) “…besides, if I don’t smile and get on with things, who else will? That’s my job as Mum.”
“That might be true. but I know a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to smile about it. They’d feel hard done by and resentful of the hand they’ve been dealt, their response would be focussed on complaining – that simply isn’t you or the children.”
I don’t know if the exhaustion of a failed food trial and a bad night’s sleep had made me more sensitive to the world around me, but his words had an impact that I felt resonating deep in my soul and gave a lightness to my step that certainly hadn’t been there 10 minutes earlier. All the way home, with unexpected tears in my eyes, I pondered what he had said to me. After all, am I really that unusual in my response? I don’t feel particularly unique in my attitude and, believe me, I can certainly have a moan with the best of them. I suddenly had reason to reflect on how I present our situation to the outside world and why I smile, even at the most difficult of times.
I smile because, despite everything – the difficult pregnancy, the premature birth, the EGID diagnosis and the decision to tube-feed – I have a lot to celebrate. I have 2 amazing, beautiful, cheeky, intelligent children, my children with super powers, who astound me regularly with their unexpected insights into the world and make me smile. Whilst I might not be able to say truthfully that they are both “happy and healthy”, the wish of every new parent as they await the arrival of their latest addition, they are growing into young people I am proud to say are mine and fascinating individuals in their own right. They might have their struggles to manage, but they are here with me and every day with them is one more opportunity to cuddle, to kiss and to share their lives. As a family we have a lot of fun and there’s always a reason to have a giggle, laugh out loud and just smile together, even at the darkest moments.
Of course the truth is that, in many ways, my smile is also much, much more than a reflection of the joy I feel when spending time with my nearest and dearest. It is also my most effective disguise. If you look hard enough, there will be times when you might notice that the smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes or that my smile is perhaps a little bittersweet. Those are the days when it’s been hard to fight the urge to crawl back under the covers and pull the duvet over my head. The days when getting up, getting dressed and just being is a massive success. The days when it’s been hard work to put one foot in front of the other and not just get started, but keep going too.
And I’m not alone. Out there in the real world are a huge number of parents who are facing the same struggles, fighting similar battles and often surviving a reality that is far harder than the one we face each day. I have been privileged to meet and get to know some of these superhero parents through our shared experiences and I see that same positive and undeniably brave approach to life reflected in each and every one of them. They are often the parents who just a tiny bit more weary at the school gates, a little more contemplative at the end of each day and a lot more determined to make the most of every moment they have because they know just how precious those minutes are. They will be the ones who will shrug off your questions about their well-being and turn the focus firmly back to you and yours. Not because they don’t want to answer, but because they know that if their emotional floodgates are opened, it will cause a tidal wave that will engulf them and make keeping their heads above water just a smidgen harder to do. And they will be the parents that tell you they don’t consider themselves particularly special or outstanding or unique because this is their life, they know they can’t change it or their children and nor would they want to. M might end up being the cause of many more grey hairs than I’m ever going to admit to, but I wouldn’t have him any other way; he wouldn’t be him any other way; and those parents’ love for their children transcends the unexpected difficulties they’ve been presented with.
I want to finish with a beautiful thought that a friend shared on FB when we were reflecting on this thought-provoking blog post and our own life experiences as special needs parents:
“That’s the thing…we weren’t given these special children because we are special, they make us that way with how amazing they are.”