Changing the narrative – it’s what politicians do. It’s what psychotherapists try to help us to do. It’s what leaders do. It’s what we need to do if we are ever to learn from our lives. To change the narrative is to change the story – the events can remain the same, but the story (the meaning we give to the events, and the way that we frame them) can be changed.
But I may have jumped in at the deep end with that explanation, so let me give you an example.
Way back when, I used to be an au pair in London. My first position was a live-in post looking after two sisters aged 6 and 9. Their mum had died three years previously, and the family was still grieving in so many ways. A lot of what I did there looks an awful lot like the mothering that I do now. Except my main discipline tool was stories. I told them stories to get them out of bed, and help them o to sleep. Stories to explore the things that were bothering them, stories to reward good behaviour. Stories to spark their own imaginations and pass the time. My second post finished a month early because I did too good a job, helping a little boy adjust to the arrival of his little sister. I also helped him overcome several behavioural problems, and planted a dream for the future in his heart. (It’s probably been squelched by now, but never mind.)
So when Little Person was born, I was fairly confident I knew what I was about. Caring for a newborn was terrifying, carrying for a baby only slightly less so, and by the time Little Person got to be a toddler, I was looking forward to life as a parent.
I have written before of the struggles that come with parenting a Little Person with special needs. I have had to work so hard to remind myself that I am not a bad mother, even though all the things …
Because the truth is, looking from the outside, it looks like I’m a bad mother. A child who does not respond when you talk to her, who has tantrums and meltdowns for the stupidest reasons, but behaves perfectly well at school (except for the bit where she won’t answer questions). It has to be the mother, doesn’t it?
Of course, you and I know autism presents differently in boys to girls. I know that Little Person doesn’t use language the way everybody else on the planet does. But knowing these things is only part of the story.
Because for years, my mind would go back to those three children in London, where I made a real difference to their lives in a really short period of time. To the way that the stories I told would reach into their hearts and help them grow. I have never told Little Person a story out of my head the way I told those three children (and the hundreds of children I dealt with in South Africa). The closest I came was the one about the Tooth Fairy couldn’t fly because it was too windy. (That was the whole story. Literally.) And so my narrative of being a mother has always held these two experiences up as comparisons. And I have always fought against a feeling of disappointment and failure. Because, having done so much then, what I do now feels so small, and difficult and like I’m doing it all wrong. I’ve always used stories, and now there are none.
Except there are. They’re just visual.
That’s how changing the narrative works. The fact is I did have a fairly typical experience of what it’s like to be a mother with the two girls in London. I got to make a difference to a little boy by taking time with him and getting him to tell me things. And the experience of raising Little Person is different to that because Little Person is different to that.
There’s a saying: Comparison is the thief of joy. (Theodore Roosevelt )
Rather than taking my current life and saying it demonstrates that I lack skills, and why can’t I be more like I was back then (which is effectively what I’ve been doing, although it’s not cool to admit), I should see that my previous life honed my skills for what I am doing right now. I was good at it then, I’m good at it now – it’s just the results look different.
And after I realised this, I took Little Person with me to go buy Christmas presents. It turned into Little Person’s Christmas Shopping Adventure. Before we went in, she looked up at the clouds.
“There’s an aeroplane with a bird underneath it. Can you see it?”
I saw a triangular wedge jutting out the top of one side of the cloud – like an aeroplane tail.
“Yes, I see it.” I nodded.
She’d told me a story in her own way. And going around the store looking for presents for people (“Can we buy Oupa a drink, to help with his cough? What’s that drink Oupa likes?” “Beer?” “Yes, we can get him beer.” Oupa, you’re not getting beer.) I learned what she thought of people. We even got a present for the cat.
Together, we told the story of what this Christmas is going to be like.
Of course I tell Little Person stories. Just because they don’t have little woodland creatures in them, doesn’t mean they’re not creative stories.
My previous experiences in London gave me a taste of what life as a “normal mother” (if there is such a thing, might have been like. But instead, I have a life that’s full of song and dance and painting pictures, of hugs that squeeze the breathe out of me, of stopping to feel the wind on my face.
Comparison is the thief of joy, I tell myself, as I slowly retell my motherhood story in my head.
I am still a good mother.
I am still a good mother.
I have always been a brave mother.