Outsider to Insider: Rethinking mothering support

Image of Marjorie walking with her young son  Image of Marjorie cuddling her young son while seated in her wheelchair 

This week I had the great privilege of attending a lecture given by Dr Marjorie Aunos. Marjorie is both a colleague and friend, from the West Montreal Readaptation Centre in Canada. She has made a huge contribution to what we know about people with intellectual disability (ID) who are parents, and is a world expert in the field of parenting with ID.

In January 2012, on her way to work, Marjorie's car slipped on black ice into the path of an oncoming truck. In a quarter of a second she became a paraplegic. And her life changed.

There were skills to learn, and skills to relearn. There were long weeks in a hospital bed as her body recovered. One of Marjorie's greatest concerns was, "How will I care for my son?"

Women with disabilities are vulnerable for a number of reasons. Mothers with disabilities are even more so. Support services for people with disabilities are typically ill-equipped to deal with the complexities brought about by parenting.

Children don't always follow the rules. They are unpredictable. What meets their needs one minute, might create a meltdown in the next. Marjorie's son was 16 months old when she had her accident. She is, by choice, a single mother.

Women with disabilities and significant mental illness are significantly more likely to have their children removed from their care. Very often this is not because of evidence of abuse or maltreatment, but because child protection services can't believe that a woman with a disability can provide good enough care for her child.

When a woman with disabilities is also a mother, questions are often raised. For example, how can a mother properly supervise an active toddler from a wheelchair? Or, how will she recognise what her child needs if she has an intellectual disability? But the answers, rather than seeking solutions, are often couched in prejudice and assumptions about what she is unable to do.

For Marjorie, this meant weeks lying in a hospital bed, watching the door and waiting for a child protection worker to walk through it. She had all her answers prepared. She was ready to fight for her ability to mother her child.

I was deeply struck she drew on my own research to describe her experience. In 2012, with Prof Llewellyn, I published an article describing research into the experiences of women with intellectual disabilities who had their children involuntarily removed from their care. I have since been involved in some research about the experiences of mothers with significant mental illness who have had their children removed.

The women who shared their experiences with me faced significant socio-economic disadvantage and some struggled to provide everything they wanted to provide for their children. All loved their children deeply and wanted the best for them. None doubted themselves as mother of their children. When an authority took their children from them they suffered paralysing grief and loss.

Before her parenting was even questioned, Marjorie described her fear that an external agency would deem her an unfit parent and take her child from her care. How could she prove her parenting competence from her hospital bed? The imbalance of power between mother and decision maker was never more stark to her.

Context and support play a huge part in how we all care for our children, and manage our daily lives. Few of us are islands, nor should we be treated as such. Very often it is women who are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of others in their households, particularly when it comes to children. And very often, it is the support of those around us, who enable us to do the daily juggle.

Marjorie is a fantastic mother to her son, now 6 years old. He was never taken from her. She mothers as the rest of us do: with support from those around her, including, at times, professional services.

At Dinner on the Table we think there's a better way to support women made vulnerable by disability. Women should never be asked how they will care for their children alone. We're creating a cost effective way of meeting the needs of women, as well as the needs of those they are responsible for. And, you know what? We're meeting your needs too.

And that changes the disability services game.

Other articles:

When someone else does the cooking

Setting sun outside a restaurantThere is deep joy, I am convinced, in someone else cooking dinner for you. Someone else takes care of the shopping, the preparation, and, most importantly in my opinion, the dreaded washing up.

For Christmas we were given a voucher to a lovely local restaurant. The senior recipe tester and I quickly took the chance to have dinner on our own. But, given that there was money remaining on the voucher, we thought we would have a second intimate dinner. This time for five.

And so last weekend we set out for an evening of relaxation, good food and good conversation.

We had sat at the table for perhaps a minute and a half before the first drink went over. The junior recipe tester who spilled it is such a master at such feats that he now tends to either, try and hide the fact that he's had a spillage, or comment immediately upon the magnitude of spillage in an attempt to reduce the richter scale of exasperation that surely follows.

In this instance he commented immediately on magnitude. Not that much, in his considered opinion. However, given that we were in a restaurant and the drink was special, and filled with ice, he had to make a second admission: his "not very" wet shirt, chair, table and floor were freezing cold. He required assistance.

Assistance was delivered through gritted teeth, but determined not to ruin the evening, we took some deep breaths. Thankfully, at that point the meal arrived.

One soggy junior began to assert that there was a problem. The slow roasted, falling apart, meat sitting on his plate was "too crunchy". We politely suggested he was being ridiculous. No, he insisted, it was crunchy. And, what was more, his teeth were not strong enough to chew it.

I imagine one day we'll encounter this problem again. One day, 40 years from now, the senior recipe tester will sit opposite me at a restaurant. We will hope that the denture glue is steadfast. And I will gaze into his eyes and say, "My teeth are not strong enough to chew this..." 

Parenting thesis: Chapter One

Black and white image of a baby asleepWhen I commenced my parenting thesis, nine and a half years ago, I had not considered that it would take quite so long to hand it in. I had not banked on the required reading list being quite so long, nor the minimum skill set being quite so extensive. This graduation, of course, does not mark the end of the parenting journey. Merely, it signifies the end of the chapter entitled, "child-at-home-during-the-day-several-days-of-the-week".

At the completion of a thesis it is requisite that a paper be published from the work. Now that the junior recipe testers are all at school during the prescribed hours, save those times we are running late due to a flat bike tyre, lost car keys or a tantrum about whether or not sunscreen should be applied and by whom, I feel it incumbent upon me to write.

Parenting is oft described as one of life's most fulfilling pursuits. Although there is some conjecture amongst scholars, those critiquing this standpoint are often found to have no offspring of their own. Supporters of the notion of parenting fulfilment are quick to counter that critics should at least be grateful that their parents wanted to try it. Lest they would not have been born.

The early years, considered the time between birth and when the last child starts formal education, are generally considered stressful. Learning potential is heightened as well adjusted, sensible adults come to terms with the vagaries of newborn, toddler and child behaviour. Classes, taken prior to the birth of a first child, are a curious human endeavour, producing adults who feel accomplished at parenting but without any understanding of what the task of caring for an offspring actually entails.

Along with my fellow graduates of 2018, all of them titans of learning, the following minimum competency standards have been achieved.

Shoes are rarely found on the feet of junior recipe testers, particularly in those precious minutes before you need to get out the door. An hour before leaving home, said shoes will be on the appropriate feet. A minute before, not so much. Multiple strategies for dealing with lost shoes, including hopping, are both learned and rehearsed.

For the breastfeeding mother, the advent of an infant's teeth is a significant test of faith. The losing of teeth, however, may set forth a series of events that has to be witnessed to be believed. At this point one is expected to add an additional role to one's repetoire - that of tooth fairy - without any additional duties allowance. Any role performance issues are treated extremely seriously.

The teaching of tucking in a school shirt requires swift mastery concurrent with the starting of school. In most cases it involves at least four hands, belonging to up to three individuals, pushing slightly too long shirt tails into a slightly too loose waistband. Proficiency is achieved when the task can be accomplished while running along the footpath, undistracted by the sound of a bell ringing in the distance.

The graduation ceremony was held on Monday 5th February. The bell rang, the lines were drawn, the bags were placed on the appropriate hooks. The tissues were fetched and the long walk back to the car, my hands empty, began. 

Time to write chapter two.

The balance back to real life

People swimming at the beach under a blue, lightly clouded skyWe talk a lot about work-life balance, and about the daily juggling act. But until this week it hadn't previously occurred to me how much of a balancing act getting back to real life was.

We had a lovely school holiday, enjoying some much needed time out and an extended period with family and friends at my favourite beach in all the earth. The junior recipe testers learned to body surf, caught and released prawns, swam with fish, some more or less walking on water to get away from the fishes "creepy eyes" and rattled through our very first earthquakes (that's a story for another day).

And then the first day of school rolled around. And we were back to real life.

The daily life tasks that you are required to balance are dependent entirely upon your socio-cultural status: where you live in the world, how old you are, your gender, and your role. If you are a junior recipe tester, this means your mornings may be preoccupied with getting dressed, eating breakfast, making your bed. Routinely, it will mean you need to invest significant time finding your shoes.

If you are an actuary, your mornings may include negotiating commuter traffic, checking market reports and doing hard sums. In both cases this will look completely different if you happen to live in Australia, in Austria or in Angola.

And so the morning, in our corner of Sydney, began.

One junior appeared in the kitchen in a pair of socks. And nothing else. She had neither noticed the breeze, nor that she had missed a few significant steps in the daily task set before her. When prompted she disappeared again.

Shrieking down the hall quickly followed. A second junior was going into meltdown. The first had gotten distracted again and was now sitting on the second's bed. The second indignantly pointed out that his sibling was sitting on his bed, "With a bare bottom!!"

With the daily goal of dressing finally sorted, we commenced goal two: eating breakfast. The youngest of our juniors promptly, and predictably, dropped part of his breakfast on the floor. "It's alright," he bellowed, immediately hopping off his stool in a desperate attempt to ward off the usual berating, "I'll just brush it off. With my toenails."

In a few days time, this particular junior will commence formal education. The senior recipe tester and I have great hopes for his progress. Principally, that pedagogical instruction will assist him in comprehending certain anatomical truths, namely, the difference between his fingernails and his toenails.

If the accomplishment of daily life tasks in and around the rigours of formal education is getting tricky already, may I suggest, this week's menu?

Merry Christmas

'Tis the season to be jolly... busy and harassed

Trumpeter statue

'Tis the season to be jolly. But mostly, jolly busy. And harassed.

We seem to have presentation days and Christmas concerts coming out our ears. Occasionally they proceed from other parts of us too. Last week was the all important band performance evening. Our very first one.

As luck would have it (and it usually does), the concert was on the same night as swimming lessons. This was entirely predictable, but added another layer of complication to the logistics of getting everyone in the right place at the right time. But because we have shelled out the national debt so the juniors can learn to swim, heaven and earth is regularly rearranged so we don't miss a lesson.

Mobilising three junior recipe testers to an event and coming home again has its challenges. None of these challenges are ever mentioned in antenatal classes. But leaving home for multiple events before returning to the nest often requires the diplomacy and skill to make the UN weep. This was the state of play just to get us out the door:

Because there would be no time for the eating of a meal at a table, dinner boxes suitable for consumption in the back seat of a car, in a car seat, with a fork, had to be constructed and packed. Check.

One junior required full band uniform. Check.

Two juniors required swimming gear. Check.

The band uniform was too hot to wear in the tropical environment of the swimming centre. That junior required an alternate set of clothes. Check.

The band uniform then had to come off the body and go in a bag. Check.

The swimming gear was completely inappropriate for a band soiree. Those juniors required an alternate set of clothes. Check.

These alternate outfits had to go into a bag. Check.

One outfit per bag - the juniors can no longer share a change room at swimming. Check.

Including undies. Check.

Both types. Check.

The band junior's shoes were a wreck and had to be polished. The owner of said disgraceful shoes was sent outside to polish them. Check.

Shoes shined and equipment put away. Check.

Black blobs discovered on kitchen floor. Large lump of shoe polish discovered on the sole of the newly shined shoe. Request for shoes to be taken off immediately, if not sooner, issued. Check.

Remain calm, don't get shrill. Check.

Boot polish cleaned off kitchen floor. Check.

Carpet inspected for more boot polish. Check.

Junior, with shoes now in his hand, sent out to the front lawn to wipe his shoes on the grass. Check.

Race out the door on heels of that junior to ensure he didn't wipe his shoes in the cat vomit on said front lawn. Check.

We don't have a cat. Check.

Mental note to self that when I find the offending animal who threw up on our front lawn and waltzed off, I will commit grievous bodily... Check.

Remain calm. Don't get shrill. Check.

Frog march three juniors to the car. Check.

Seat belts on. Check.

Reverse out of the driveway. Don't forget to close the garage door. Check.

Make it to the end of the street. Check.

Listen patiently when a junior mentions he has forgotten his trumpet. Check.

Point out that it will be quite challenging to play in a band without an instrument. Check.

Pull the car over to the side of the road. Check.

Remain calm. Don't get shrill...

Our packaging war on waste

Sheep looking down at camera

Like many of you, after the ABC's #waronwaste campaign and TV show we were horrified. We thought we knew something about responsible disposal of rubbish, but the problems that rubbish is causing were far worse than we imagined. And so we started thinking...

We've already told you about our partnership with The Hills School to compost all our veggie scraps from the kitchen. But we got to thinking about all our other processes. Next up: our packaging.

It's true that styrofoam boxes can be recycled. But making more and more styrofoam is not good for the environment. We were delivering in styrofoam boxes and we figured that had to change.

Enter Woolcool. Woolcool is an environmentally responsible insulation. It can insulate a cardboard box. A cardboard box that can be easily recycled. A cardboard box that can hold all your dinners. AND it outperforms styrofoam for keeping your dinners cold.

Woolcool is, somewhat unsurprisingly, made of sheep's wool. Wool is a sustainable and highly effective insulator (just think of all those sheep in the paddocks in the middle of summer... they're fine!)

We were ecstatic to find an environmentally friendly way of keeping your dinners cold on their way to you. Many of you will have already received your dinners in our new boxes, but for the uninitiated, here's how it works:

  • Your dinners will arrive in a cardboard box, lined with Woolcool liners and icepacks.
  • The cardboard box can be flattened and recycled. You may also choose to make a billy-cart out of it.
  • The plastic coverings on the woollen liners can be removed and placed in the plastic bag recycling bins at your local supermarket.
  • The woollen liners themselves can be put in your compost bin. They also make excellent pet bedding... but not for your goldfish.
  • The plastic pouches and bags that your dinners are sealed in can be washed and dried and also placed in supermarket plastic recycling bins. Arguments about which of your junior recipe testers is going to put the plastic bags into the bin this time may be adjudicated at your own discretion.
  • The icepacks are excellent for picnic-ing and keeping things cold. When you don't want to use them anymore, pierce the plastic bag and squeeze the non-toxic gel down the sink. The bag goes into the supermarket bag recycling. This has the added benefit of facilitating another argument in front of the bag bin.
Woolcool insulationWe're working hard to expand our social impact from our support of people with disabilities to our environmental footprint. Do get in touch and let us know what you think!