I was a school gate pariah.
The school gates are an oft discussed hotspot, the epicenter of parental rivalry and maternal bravado. Needless to say, my experiences at the school gate of our pre-prep in leafy Hampstead were dreadful. Although my son, when he started full time school at age four, had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and dyspraxia, I was a distressed mother who had been searching for answers since my son's infancy. He had poor fine motor skills, delayed receptive language and, most worryingly, was prone to frequent crying fits, tantrums and various displays of defiant behaviour.
Back to the school gates. Each afternoon at 3:15, a cluster of pilates-sculpted moms would gather by the school stairwell (a crashing sea of Birkin bags and faux-pauvre boho chic) to greet each other effusively, discuss play dates, trips to Zermatt and after-school French lessons. Their voices would invariably shrink to a stage whisper as they eyed me with equal amounts of disdain and pity. "Did you hear...", "Then he climbed under the table...", "How can she manage?" ...All I heard were snippets of verbal jigsaw puzzle gossip, but they were enough to fill in the gaps and certainly enough to deflate me and leave me in emotional tatters.
For two years I tried to make a go at mainstream schooling, but even our decision to hire a full-time learning support assistant didn't help. Our son could not cope in this environment and we were finally told to look for another school. As I would later come to realize, this was the beginning of a new and important chapter in our lives, the start of an admittedly bumpy journey of healing and growth, fraught with pain, pitfalls and missteps but with a clear and exhilarating forward trajectory.
The act of enrolling our son in a special school was ultimately empowering. It forced us to face our unique situation head on and begin the quest for answers, for treatment and for comfort. Our son's learning support assistant, as is often the case, had been merely a "bandage". What our situation required was special needs antibiotics!
This is also the moment when I discovered an alternate reality -- the reality of the welcoming and loving school gates of our son's new special school.
Suddenly, I was meeting other women who, like me, were struggling to understand terms like "developmental delay", "sensory integration dysfunction" and "language processing disorder". The mothers I met at Chelsea Group of Children, my son's new quirky and wonderfully nurturing special needs school, were intelligent, witty and emotionally raw. I discovered that I did not need to hide. I did not need to feel I had to defend myself or my son... we were not alone.
These gorgeous, strong women are still my dear friends. We are not only mothers, we are warriors -- forced to fight for our children, to often question the medical community and seek alternate therapies. These therapies have involved brushing, cranial sacro-somato-emotional treatment, head tapping, dosing up on probiotics and fish oil, music therapy, NLP, CBT, ABA, OT and the occasional flower remedy. We have tried anything and everything with one goal in mind: to make our children whole. Some of these alternative therapies have proven useless, but many have been astonishingly effective. Our morning coffees became symposia for the exchange of ideas, along with buckets of tears, hugs and encouragement.
My Chelsea Group of Children friends and I call ourselves the baboons because, as my pal Jenny pointed out, baboons who maintain closer bonds with fellow female members of their tribe are proven to live longer than those with less stable relationships. We still meet up for lunch every six weeks. It has been ten years now since the five of us special needs mothers first met, and our boys are all still in special education. And yet, what incredible progress each and every one of them has made! We cry less now, laugh more and are able occasionally even to indulge in the kind of shallow chatter that other mothers can make without feeling that the worries of the world are resting on our shoulders. I could not have made it thorough the last decade without the love and support of my fellow baboons.
My mother, when I had two small children, used to fly to London every five weeks to help out, explaining in her trademark caustic tone that "every mother needs a wife". Let me take her assertion one step further, and propose that every special needs mother needs a "floor friend". A floor friend is someone whom you can call when the pressure becomes so overwhelming that you find yourself prostrate on the floor, either in tears or hyperventilating -- at an emotional impasse and unable to cope.
My "floor friend" is Becky. She has been blessed with two normal children, but I love her anyway. Becky is always there for me. On numerous occasions throughout our friendship, she has made emergency house calls, scooping me up off of our limestone floor with kind words and gentle encouragement when it all has become too much for me. I will always be thankful for her incredible empathy and riotous sense of humour, both of which have seen me through some very dark moments. We mothers of special needs children cannot behave proudly. We need to be able to call out for help and must be able to rely on a handful of devoted friends.
Thank you, baboons, for your support and affection. Thank you, Becky Floor Friend, for your strong grip and relentless devotion. My final advice to all special needs mothers out there--embrace your child's quirkiness, smile straight back into the judging eyes of the "enemies at the gate", and find yourself a nurturing school where your child will feel good about himself. Normality is highly overrated!