Category Archives: Parenting

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

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Battle of the Birthday cakes

December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.

Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.

The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.

Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.

When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.

Supporting local business

As Christmas fast approaches, we are all in that mode of frantically searching high and low for the perfect presents for our loved ones, or, at very least, the best price for whatever it is they want. My two are complete opposites when it comes to writing their Christmas wish lists: M knows exactly what he wants, be it the latest computer console and games (PS4 and Fortnite), musical instrument (electric bass guitar plus amp) or the slightly more random Tempur mattress (just don’t ask). Whilst these all come with a significant price tag and the ongoing conversation about having any one of them as a joint Christmas/birthday present, at least we know what to look for, although I’m not convinced he’d be that happy if all he got was a new mattress!

G, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. For the last couple of years, her list has been small and fairly inexpensive, which is great from a financial perspective, but far more challenging given she’ll be turning 15 just 2 weeks before Christmas and various family members want suggestions for both occasions. Having given the best idea to my Mum, I’m not quite sure what Santa will find to leave in her stocking this year, but hopefully with some hard work, heavy head-scratching and even brainstorming, we’ll get there in the end.

One of things that I love to support is local business whenever possible and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have spotted the memes on social media asking folks to consider buying from small, local businesses at this time of year to find something truly unique when it comes to gifts. We’ve been doing our bit to support our local business community for at least 10 years and love discovering new opportunities to do so along the way. We started with buying our weekly groceries from our local food co-op, who source local meats, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, baked goods and even ready meals and deliver to our door. They work very much in the same way as some of the bigger names in this market, but with all the added benefits of locally grown and produced seasonal products, thus reducing our carbon footprint as much as possible. Our nearest big city has an active fruit and vegetable market too and so they can also offer the more “exotic” items, such as bananas, which means we’re not heading to a big chain supermarket for just a handful of groceries too often.

Over the last 15 months, we’ve been supporting another local enterprise and one which is bringing great health benefits to us all. A local farm has converted one of its unused buildings into an environmentally friendly swimming pool, using water from its own bore-hole and heated by burning grass grown on the farm. It has a limited occupancy due its size and so rents the pool out on a private basis to small groups, who can book a regular time slot to spend there swimming. Every Tuesday evening at 8.30pm, our family can usually be found eagerly splashing into the pool, ready and raring to go for 30 minutes swimming time. It is conveniently close to us – just 10 minutes from home by car -, impeccably kept and we have developed a passing acquaintance with the 2 groups, 1 family and 1 a group of friends, who swim in the slots before us. We are allowed access to the spacious changing rooms for the 15 mins before and after our slot and despite my fears that M and G would dawdle, they both manage to get themselves showered, changed, dressed and ready to go by 9.15pm at the latest.

Even better, not only does this local farm provide this fantastic facility which has seen M’s confidence in his swimming skills soar whilst G, but we are also able to buy fresh eggs from the farm door on an honesty box system and their Christmas offerings include beef and turkey. I have long said that we have the best of all worlds where we live, being just 8 miles from the centre of a vibrant city with amazing theatres, music venues and sports stadiums, but having a cottage on the edge of farmland and being able to see fields and green spaces for miles. The children have grown up with a dairy farm just across the road and are accustomed to seeing cows or sheep in the field next door whilst they’re bouncing on the trampoline in our “paddock”. I love being able to access so many things so easily, even the coastline is just 20 minutes away, and truly appreciate and understand just how lucky we are. Supporting the small, local businesses that are trying to survive and thrive in challenging times is just one way we can help our local community continue to grow for years to come…and hopefully will help me source some great presents for G in time for December!

Birthday Wishes

Turns out that October 15 is a popular day for birthdays. Old school friends, work colleagues and even M’s adored Godmother, but we’re celebrating a special day a lot closer to home. Cue Friday night celebratory meals, Saturday evening at the theatre and a Sunday afternoon spent baking a batch of M-friendly Chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes all to mark this occasion.

So, what more needs to be said other than Happy Birthday to our favourite husband and Dad!

Grief

We’re almost at the end of term and not just that, but also the end of the school year. As I said in my last blog post, it’s been a time of reflection about M’s health and his first year at secondary school as well as an opportunity to draw breath before we head into the chaos of a busy summer and swiftly followed by the start of G’s GCSE studies. Following the challenging start to 2018, when both Mike and M came down with a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu, life continued to be incredibly difficult and the saddest of circumstances meant that my birthday, M’s birthday and the 5th anniversary of this blog passed quietly and with far less recognition than would normally be the case. I’ve sat down so many times to try and find the words that could even begin to explain my extended absence from my blog, but it felt for the longest time as if my creative well had run dry and only now am I beginning to emerge from the other side of a deep, dark hole.

Just a couple of days before my birthday, I received a message to say that my Uncle had been taken ill and rushed overnight to ITU. There was no question of my next move when I received that news and fortunately Mike was working from home that day, which allowed me to get home, pack a bag and drive to South Wales to stay with my Aunt for as long as I needed to be there. We were both extremely lucky to be working for understanding employers, which enabled us to adjust our working arrangements and commitments to accommodate the needs of all concerned, most especially G and M. Whilst this sudden downturn in health came as something of a shock, we had actually visited them both the previous weekend when my Uncle was first admitted to their local A&E with a stubborn chest infection that refused to go away. It wasn’t quite the visit we had had in mind, but now we are all so glad that we had the opportunity to spend a little time with him, laughing, sharing news from work and school and that the children could create memories that will stay with them for a lifetime. There are hopefully no regrets that they didn’t have time to come to say a final goodbye as they had that precious time with him before he was taken so ill.

Sadly, despite all our hopes and prayers, there was no coming back from the sepsis that had taken hold so unexpectedly and just a few days later I sat by his bedside with my Aunt, his sister and other niece as he passed away. He was just 63 and had been fighting MS, T2D and other health complications over the last 20 years, but this last battle was just too much for him to win. Mike continued to hold the fort at home, whilst I did all that I could to support my family in both places. The children have grieved in vastly different ways, just as we adults have experienced and dealt with our grief in our own ways and there have been no easy answers or quick-fix solutions in helping them cope with this, their first real experience of death.

My Uncle was, in many ways, a step-in Granddad for both G and M as my Dad passed away 14 years ago this year; and they both had a very close relationship with him. G has grieved quietly, keeping much to herself, whilst M has shed many more tears and been more open in showing his loss. Never was this so clear than on the day of the funeral itself, when G’s only wobble came as the hearse pulled up outside the house and we took our places in the cars. I was travelling with the women of the family, whilst G and M were both due to be travelling with Mike. It was at that point that G’s eyes filled with tears and we walked hand-in-hand to the car, allowing her some time to look at the flowers with the coffin before she travelled on to the crematorium.

In complete contrast, M was happy to travel with Mike and G, but as soon as we all arrived and it was time to go into the service, the tears started coursing down his cheeks and didn’t let up until long after the service had ended. The days since the funeral have had their ups and downs as you’d expect. In recent days, we’ve been able to talk openly about why their beloved Uncle was taken ill and died and they’ve had the confidence to ask us challenging questions, fully expecting us to be honest in our replies. I never really thought twice about whether they would attend the funeral or not, though we did give them the opportunity to say no if they really didn’t want to go, but they both wanted to have the chance to say their goodbyes and I’m glad that they did.

Devastatingly, this was the start of a tragic 6-week period for Mike and me. Just 2 days after my Uncle’s funeral, we found out that a close friend who we have known since Mike first met her over 20 years ago in Canada had passed away suddenly. She had emigrated to less than 20 miles away from us here in the UK with her family a few years ago and Mike and she regularly chatted on the phone. Jenn had turned 42 at the start of February, just 8 months older than Mike and a year older than me, and her 2 children are more or less the same age as G and M. Her sudden death hit us both hard and left us reflecting on just how fragile life can be.

Not long after we heard the devastating news about Jenn, Mike voiced out loud that one thought that had been playing in the background for us both – who would be the third? His throwaway comment was that he hoped a celebrity death would count and there have certainly been enough of those over recent months to more than count as our third. Unbelievably however, it seemed destined that we would be hit by a third death much closer to home and on Maundy Thursday one of my cousins got in touch to tell me that my 99 year-old Gran had passed away quietly at home that evening. Whilst we weren’t expecting this news then, she had lived a long and full life with 5 children including my Dad, 10 grandchildren, more great-grandchildren than I’m confident to count and even the odd great-great-grandchild. I spoke to my Uncle the day after, who was able to share with me that she passed quickly and peacefully at home in her chair.

It comes as no real surprise that death was a topic of conversation that peppered our Easter holidays as both G and M expressed their thoughts, questions and feelings about it and as we all dealt with our grief as best we could. The children were not as affected by their Great-Gran’s death as they were by that of their Great-Uncle as she hasn’t been more that a name at the bottom of a birthday or Christmas card for a few years. They understood that, whilst they didn’t feel particularly sad, I was and gave hugs and kisses whenever they thought I needed them. Helping our children to cope with death and grief both in the immediate, but also as it revisits at the least expected times has been an incredible parenting challenge. Death is sadly very much a part of life that has to be faced and I hope that we have given G and M the life skills to deal with their grief and to empathise with others struggling with it.

Reflections of an appointment

I started writing this blog post 12 months ago and had put it to one side then because I wasn’t sure that the time was right to share all that was going on with M’s care at that point, particularly when it came to expressing my hesitation about whether the decisions being made were the right ones or not. Today we find ourselves in an even more emotionally charged situation and are becoming increasingly vexed with the marked lack of progress made over the last year. I revisited this original blog post tonight and decided that it now feels right to express that turmoil and the frustration in dealing with a medical team that appear to have lost their impetus to engage with us and with M. Those words written in italics are about our current experience.

There’s been lots going on over the last 6 months as many of my blog posts about our mini adventures have shown, but the one area I haven’t yet shared is the journey we’ve been exploring with our local consultant as I briefly mentioned last November. The decision to move almost all of M’s care from GOSH to our local hospital has not been an easy one to make, but for many reasons we have concluded that it is possibly the best one for now. Having a complete MDT (Multi-Disciplinary Team) close at hand to discuss all the challenges of M’s health has been invaluable and experiencing first-hand their willingness to see him at the drop of a hat over a 6-week period, where we’ve had 2 “emergency” appointments and 1 planned one, has been a relief, especially when you consider the problems we’ve had with them in the past.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it? An almost perfect solution to meeting the complex and on-going medical needs of M; and yet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that we’ve had our ups and downs with some of their suggestions and have not yet found ourselves moving on and making progress from the starting point we had 12 months ago. The overall opinion held is that M’s ongoing problems are not really related to his EGID diagnosis or the numerous foods we have previously identified as being unsafe, but rather a physical problem that is massively affected by psychological influences that are still to be fully explored and identified. We don’t disagree that there absolutely has to be a psychological element to M’s health: how can any child live through the experiences of his first 12 years and not be impacted in that way? But it also feels as if they’re throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water and ignoring all of M’s physical symptoms from birth to 5, a time when it was impossible for him to have developed any fears of new foods or associations that certain foods would cause certain health problems.

It’s been challenging for us to adjust our thinking and look to embrace their suggestions of how to move things forward for M. Experience is constantly nagging at the back of my consciousness, gently reminding me that so many times I have been proved to know my son far better than the doctors treating him; but Mike and I have both worked hard to be positive about their new ideas because ultimately we want what is best for M and what will improve his quality of life beyond his, and our, wildest expectations.

In August 2017, my thoughts stopped there. I wanted so desperately to believe that things were going to change, to improve for M and it was, I think, a conscious decision to not air my hesitations and doubts because I was afraid to unwittingly jinx the improvements we were hoping would come about. However, nearly a year on and things have not changed at all. I now have a child who has struggled his way through the first year of secondary school and has lost the spark that makes him him. M no longer sees a positive in being treated at our local hospital and just wants to return to the care of GOSH, which is the last place he can actively relate to seeing any major changes to his day-to-day living. He has gained a couple of extra foods, but we are only at 9 (chicken, rice, cucumber, apple, pear, parsnips, bacon, onion and banana) and not the 20 that his consultant expected when we met him at the start of June.

At that appointment, the entire MDT acknowledged that M is not the child they knew 12 months ago and commented on his lost enthusiasm for choosing new foods to trial. I have tried so hard to explain to them that I am certain that M is not thinking his body into failing those challenges, but none of us really knows that for sure. The truth is that there are some foods that cause an unquestionable reaction and with others it’s difficult to judge if they’re causing an issue, or if it’s simply a case that we’re not really giving his body time to rest and recover between each trial. I’ll be honest, we’ve decided to relax the rules a lot at key times because it’s becoming increasingly evident that M needs the emotional boost that occasionally being able to eat more “normally” gives him. However, every decision to eat something we wouldn’t usually allow brings with it a set of consequences that are difficult for us all and not just for M to process.

I don’t know where we’re heading or what the next few months hold for M. The one thing we’re all agreed on is that we can’t keep living the current status quo because every day like this destroys another small part of the confidence we have in his medical team and buries his spark even deeper.