Lynne Hester from Cambridge, UK, is visually impaired. Here she writes about her experience of coming through a relationship breakdown as a disabled parent.
On a Wednesday evening in July 2001, I left home with my daughter aged two, and my son aged six. Two women police officers drove us to a relative’s house about 40 kilometres away. I had no hesitation about my decision. It was definitely the right thing to do.
After five weeks of moving between friends’ houses, coping with court appearances and moments of great anxiety, we moved back into our own home – just the three of us.
Keeping strong became harder week by week. Friends and professionals were concerned about how I was coping. There was an undercurrent of ‘would it not be better to stay with this man, given all the difficulties arising from my disability?’ Their anxiety about how I would cope as a disabled parent seemed to override their belief that we had a right to live without fear and abuse.
Work colleagues cleaned up the house before we moved back, and tried to deflect attention from the gaps where furniture had been by filling them with balloons. My son was distraught when he saw that some of the things he loved were missing.
A week after our return home, my guide dog came back to me, and this was a great moment for the children as well. His crazy Labrador antics put a smile on everyone’s face, and he was very much part of our family unit.
Walking a tightrope
For two years, a series of professionals was involved with us as a family. Some were there to assist with my son’s behaviour and distress; some were brought in after the children’s father questioned my parenting abilities.
I was walking a tightrope between pushing for the assistance I knew I should be entitled to as a disabled parent, and being seen as unable to look after the children. I took in a student who was learning English and used her rent money to pay for support in the house. It was a nightmare, and I was tired and irritable most of the time.
My children’s nursery and school were always there to support us in times of crisis. One evening, the head teacher came to my house, made a meal for us and then put my children to bed. It is this dedication to children and their families which makes assessing schools by exam results alone seem a bit flaky and irrelevant.
Like many parents today, I have no family around the corner or friends with time on their hands. My friends have their own children and, in most cases, challenging jobs, although they all did bits and pieces to help out whenever they could.
Six years later, we are a thriving family unit. We moved out of the old house last year and left its memories behind. A major struggle has been trying to deal with services and systems which operate with a certain stereotyped view of disabled people.
I hope those who came into contact with us as a family learned that people just do not fit into boxes. Sadly, the professionals themselves felt frustrated by the inflexibility of support systems and processes.
Before, during and after my separation and divorce, I continued to work part time. It seemed, however, that if I had given up work, I would have had more assistance. I am not sure why. Whether you go to work or stay at home, as a disabled parent, there are still tasks you are unable to do without assistance.
In my case, the continual forms, letters and junk mail, the dirty rug or the broken glass not seen by me were tasks I needed help with. Having said that, working and being a lone disabled parent is tough. I have had a couple of times when I have been so stressed and exhausted that I have been unable to work for a month or more.
What kept me going to work was that it ensured I had adult conversations every day, that I had a coffee break without worrying about the dirty kitchen floor and I held on to some of my work skills.
My son struggled for the first few years after my separation from his father. His behaviour was challenging and worrying at times. I sought help from the school and the general practitioner.
Last year, he started secondary school and I was concerned about how the change would be for him. Both his father and I were keen for him to choose the school. He is not sporty and hates crowds of people, so it concerned us that he chose the largest school in the city, well known for its sporting focus.
However, he loves it and is thriving in his new independence.
What does he do for me? Well, he helps me find my way around our cable TV system and basic computer glitches, and assists with reading things when no-one else is around. He always remembers my birthday. He has incredible artistic ability, reads and soaks up facts like a sponge, and would watch The Simpsons 24 hours a day if I let him!
My daughter reads at a level well above her age. Even I doubted whether my children would manage without me looking over their shoulder and correcting their reading and writing. Encouragement and listening to children is often the only support they need to learn.
Earlier this year, my daughter was busy writing and I asked her what she was doing. She told me she was writing a speech to tell her class why they should vote for her to be their member on the school council. She has a laugh which comes from deep within her body, and never fails to get everyone else joining in. However, when I turn up late to pick her up from school, boy does she tell me off!
What keeps me going?
All my life I wanted children, and I have two amazing ones. Knowing friends who have been unable to have children, and a friend whose baby died, the exhaustion of being a lone disabled mother is a small price to pay.