Facing my fears: Thinking about school

Facing my fears: Thinking about school

Sometimes things just seem to fall into place and what we were once afraid of doesn’t turn out to be so serious after all. It’s a bit like waking up in the morning after an all-consuming fear has hijacked your night, only to discover that the worry isn’t quite so mountainous in the morning light.

I might be thinking ahead a bit, but the idea of my eldest daughter starting school for the first time next year scares the hell out of me and, in all honesty, it’s not just because she’s missing a hand. I’m sure that I would feel the entirely the same no matter how many hands she had. However, there’s no denying that your child having a visible difference can magnify or exacerbate these totally normal worries.

Not only is my summer baby heading off to school mere weeks after she turns four next year, meaning that her baby sister and I will miss her horribly during the brightest hours of the day, watching her walk into school for the first time will be akin to watching her walk out into that big wide world.

The world is full of wonders, adventures and beautiful moments, but it is also full of unkind words, fear and upset. Sadly I know all to well that if I even think about trying to protect her from the bad then I would be robbing her of much of the good as well. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make the prospect any less daunting!

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Venturing out into the world

I’ve been known to be a bit hyper vigilant from time to time when I’m out and about with Hero, sometimes this has been a misplaced awareness and on other occasions my caution has been bang on the money. Sometimes kids have stared, or grabbed at her little hand in order to get a better look. Sometimes they’ve asked blunt questions and I’ve had to step in as she wasn’t old enough to stand up for herself. I’ve often worried about whether I’m responding the right way or modelling the right reaction to her, but wondering if I’m doing it right is less frightening than the idea that I won’t be there to do it at all.

Living in a beautiful bubble

To my overprotective mind, sending her out into the world is leaving her open to the influences of others. She lives right now in a bubble of friends and family who all love her very much and who don’t even notice her hand. Her hand isn’t ‘a thing’ at the moment and the irrational side of me wishes it would never be a thing. Opening her up to the opinions of others means accepting the possibility that someone might hurt her. I know that these are fears that many, if not all, parents share when it comes to their little one’s growing independence. We all want our children to be happy, to be liked, to be accepted.

I know all too well that I can’t stop any hurtful things from ever happening to her, even if I did hover over her like a helicopter (which, for the record, I don’t), but the idea that someone could and might make a comment about her hand – about the one thing she has no control whatsoever – makes my heart plummet.

With the view of allaying my fears (Hero’s not worried at all of course – she doesn’t even know what school is yet and naturally, she would love to go if she did) we decided to visit our local school last month. She currently attends a wonderful nursery in the town where her dad and I work. She loves it there, but she’s not with children who will be in her catchment area when the inevitable happens and she starts school in 2020. So as things stood, starting school would not only mean a change of venue and a change of friends, it would mean meeting a whole new community of people to whom her hand might have been a surprise.  To my mind, the idea of starting school with an entirely new cohort was going to make my worries for her worse and possibly her own experience more of a challenge.

So off we trundled to our local primary to tour the school and also to visit the preschool that sits alongside it.  The vast majority of the preschool children go on to attend the primary– so for us that meant that Hero would be making friends with her future classmates; children who are currently too young to care that she might have a difference. If she could start school with friends who already knew her, then I felt it would be half as scary for both of us!

Fabulously unfazed

As part of our tour of the school, we wove our way between the flock of chickens and the duck with the wonky wing that roam the playground and made our way into the reception and year one classroom. The children stopped to look at the newcomers to the room and as we crossed the floor to the door on the other side I felt a bit like a goldfish in a bowl. One little boy in particular stared at Hero at she passed. He kept staring, turning his head in comic slow motion to follow her progress across the room. I had that little bristling feeling, like an angry bird puffing up my metaphorical feathers and getting ready to square my shoulders. Just before we reached the door, this little boy stepped forward, crouched down and patted Hero on the head.

“Well you’re super cute, aren’t you?” he said, beaming at her before skipping back to his table.

I couldn’t help but grin. I’m not sure I’ve met many cuter kids than that lad! He was so brim-full of welcome and delight at the small person who was even smaller than himself, totally unfazed by any differences.

Right before we left the room I spotted one little girl with a vibrant pink brace on her left leg and there was another with a colourful headband holding her cochlear implants in place. So Hero was far from being the only one with a visible difference. Those children and that little lad were welcome reminders that personality shines out far more than any physical difference.

The things they don’t see

A little later on our tour and Hero was hanging out in a tent with another little girl who already attended the preschool.

“Look at that!” the little girl said to the nursery manager.

“Yes, that’s the new girl,” the manager replied.

“But she…” The little girl frowned and looked intently at Hero, clearly puzzled. My feathers started puffing up again.  It’s almost impossible not to feel a little on edge when these conversations happen; inevitably all those kind sentences and snappy one-liners that you came up with at home immediately abandon you.

“But look…. but…” the girl was having trouble articulating the problem she was having with Hero. Even the nursery manager was looking a bit unsure now.

And then she at last burst out; “But she’s got short hair! I’m a girl and I’ve got long hair and so does Sarah!”

And there it was again, another little one – in the school we were thinking of sending our daughters to – who just didn’t see Hero’s limb difference. They didn’t see odd, they didn’t see unusual. They saw cute and they saw style choices that have little consequence.

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All I need to know

When I got home that evening, Hero’s dad asked how the tour had gone. He asked if we’d talked about her hand at all and it was only then that I realised – it hadn’t come up in conversation once. Somehow I had always imagined needing to explain it to her teachers or discussing how we’d like it handled. Yet when the time came I hadn’t needed to ask any questions, I hadn’t needed to bring it up at all. The response and reaction from the children in the school and the nursery were enough to tell me all I needed to know about that place.

And just like that, my worries about Hero starting school suddenly came out into the daylight and found they weren’t as big as they’d been pretending. After one tour, where Hero asked to be left behind while her sister and I went home, I had gone from fearing the oncoming march of time to actually looking forward to it.

Now when I think of school I think of the excitement she’ll feel going into the classroom for the first time, running out to play and meeting her new teacher and friends. I think of how darn cute she’s going to look in her school uniform and of all the wonderful things she’ll learn while she’s away. I no longer seem to fear the unknown assailant who might cast a flippant comment her way. Sure, it might still happen. But somehow, I just can’t see it happening at that school, in that community. Not the one with the duck with a wonky wing waddling about the playground and greeting the children as they come in.

 

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In leaps and bounds, life finds a way

In leaps and bounds, life finds a way

It’s difficult now to think back to those days of worry and fear we went through during my pregnancy. It’s getting pretty difficult to worry overly about Hero at all. While she’s had some weight gain struggles and has slid down on that dreaded chart, about which we’ve fretted endlessly, in every other way she’s absolutely thriving. Over the past month or so she’s transforming before our eyes into a bright, bubbly and engaged baby who is clearly  a very capable little girl. Almost every day she takes yet another of my worries and knocks it out of the park.

At the beginning of the month she completed her first term of swimming lessons. She’s never more relaxed than when she’s in the pool and as the term progressed she’s developed the use of her lucky fin more and more each lesson. When she first began the Aquatots Duckling course, at four months old, she refused to use her little arm in the pool, clamping it to her side instead. With some gentle coaxing from myself and her wonderful teacher, she has learned to use it just as much as the other. Now when we splash up and down the pool she’s stretching out with her right hand just as much as her left. She doesn’t use it to splash the water yet, choosing to make waves with her left, but it’s only a matter of time.

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A Duckling Graduate

Then there are the toys. Watching her play it’s been painfully obvious all along that, contrary to what many people said, she does know that something is missing. We’ve watched her reach out with it, only to fall short. We’ve watched her try to clasp things in her little hand only to hit thin air. But we’ve also watched her learn what she can do. She’s started hooking toys over her little hand, she’s grasping things in her left and exploring it with her right.

The introduction of the sippy cup into our daily routine was yet another cause for concern. I spent goodness knows how long in the shop picking up and examining the many (many!) sippy cups they have on offer. Which ones would be easiest for her to hold? Which could be grasped one handed? Which was light enough for her to lift?

And you know what? Surprise, surprise, I needn’t have bothered at all. By her third attempt at the sippy cup she was picking it up in her left hand and hooking the other handle over her right, holding it and lifting it as if nothing was amiss.

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The Sippy Cup Master

I realise now that when people said to me “she won’t even know it’s missing”, what they really meant was: she’ll find a way. Each and every day she finds yet another way.

My favourite quote from my favourite film is, “life finds a way”, courtesy of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. I love it so much that the line became part of the artwork on our wedding day: Love finds a way. Now here’s my daughter, showing me every single day that in every single way life really does find a way. Despite all my anxiety and all my fears, she couldn’t be more perfect, more bright and in possession of a prouder mother.

The lucky fin, the stitch and the wardrobe

The lucky fin, the stitch and the wardrobe

Our lucky fin baby is 11 weeks today. Where on earth has that time gone? I can’t actually remember what I filled it with. She’s already babbling away incessantly and putting those building blocks in place ready to roll over, if only she could get her lucky fin out of the way. Despite all these amazing changes she’s undergone in such a short (yet infinite) amount of time, I can’t quite remember when the snuggly newborn ceased to be and the bright-eyed and energetic infant took her place.

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She’s already displaying her mother’s tendency towards chronic indecisiveness, however. She cannot work out which is better, to suck on her lucky fin, or to suck on her left thumb. I have to confess, as a recovering thumb-sucker myself, I was hoping that she’d never notice that tempting little digit. Not only because I often had blisters on the top of my thumb where I would rest it permanently on my lower teeth, but also because I fear she’d not be able to do much else while sucking it with her right hand missing. It looks as though I’ll simultaneously win and lose in that department as, throughout the day, she switches from one to the other and back again depending on which is the most accessible.

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At such a young age, accessibility isn’t something I’d given much thought to, particularly in regards to her clothing. I know in the future that things such as shoelaces, buttons and zips may prove to be tricky customers for her, but surely baby grows don’t need any adaptations, she isn’t going to be dressing herself in them after all. Plus, wouldn’t I want to use them again for baby Number 2? Yet as the weather starts to get a bit cooler and her sleeves are getting a bit thicker, just rolling them back has become more of an issue. With a big wad of material around her wrist she couldn’t manoeuvre her little hand in order to get it into her mouth, resulting in tears and frustration.

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The dreaded roll-back

And so I dug out my sewing kit and resigned myself to adapting just the essentials of her wardrobe. It took a fair few failed attempts, a few 1970s-style flared sleeves, before I worked out how to taper them in at the wrist and not make it look as though a child had done it. Without a hand to stop the material falling over her digits, she needed the sleeve to fit snuggly around her little arm to stop it swamping her or providing a nice little trap to get her arm caught in.

Yet it was only after I’d dressed her in her first adapted baby grow that I realised how right it felt. How I should have done this weeks ago. Each stitch felt like another tiny piece of the acceptance puzzle falling into place. Each stitch meant that she finally had clothes that were entirely her own. Her clothes no longer belonged to some imaginary sibling that didn’t even exist yet. I have been telling her since birth that she is perfect the way she is. Therefore, if she is so perfect, why should she wear clothes that don’t even fit, clothes that swamp her little arm and hide it from view, or prevent her from using it in every way she can?

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Following on from this epiphany there’s no stopping me now. After initially planning to just adapt a select few of her generic babygrows, every single item has now fallen prey to my sewing kit. From the designer dresses bought for her by family, to the dinosaur jumpers and baby grows I force her into each day. Everything she owns is going to be hers entirely and fully. Unexpectedly, a result of finally making these changes is that her little hand feels all the less obvious for it. Every time I dressed her, the ritual of rolling back the sleeve drew attention to her difference. So now, with no daily wardrobe adaptations to make, I don’t see that my baby girl is different in any way. When I look at her now, rocking her very own wardrobe, I see no difference. I see a whole and a beautiful young lady wearing clothes that are entirely her own.

This is my Lucky Fin baby. She is a perfect fit for this world. Now her clothes are as perfect a fit for her as she is for the world. Maybe, some day down the line, instead of handing her clothes down to a sibling, she’ll be handing them on to the next newest member of the Lucky Fin community who shares a diffability similar to her own.

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