3 kids under 9 was never going to be easy, especially with twins. I was always destined to be one of those dads with a thousand-yard stare due to exhaustion and a triumvirate of small people shouting up at me like hungry birds in a nest, and needing intravenous coffee to support me through the day.
Four years of it, I should have been an old hand at the plate spinning it requires. I am, by different times of the week a dad, a social worker, a rugby coach, a taxi service. Oh, and I have peacekeeping and mediation tactics of Kofi Annan, without which there is every chance that Itchy and Scratchy (Jake, 8 and Ethan 4) would succeed in inflicting grievous harm on each other.
Nowhere in my self identity is there a label of ‘carer’. I’m just a dad, and being a dad involves a lot of roles, caring being one but it’s no more a catch all definition than ‘feeder’ (although the line of thought that connects to involving zoos, wild animals and feeding times is perhaps accurate). But ‘carer’? Well, I used to work in residential care and looking back it was a lot of caring for, but it was paid. It was a job. The title of carer makes me think ‘paid employment’. People paid to care.
As a dad it’s just part of the package. When Jake was born and I was nappy changing, feeding, bathing him, dressing him, carrying him around and suchlike was I a carer? No, I was a dad doing what a parent should do. With Isaac we nappy change, feed – through a PEG-, bath, dress him, carry him around. Why the difference?
Society says babies are cared for in a certain way, and that chronologically, and developmentally they get bigger, walk about, start to talk, acquire skills and bobs-your-uncle-fannies-your-aunt they need less care. It’s normal.
But with a 4 year old with disabilities, it’s becoming a bit abnormal is societies eyes. See, Ethan as a twin brother is doing the things people expect, no nappies, starting to dress himself (albeit it looks like he has coated himself in glue and dived into a linen basket) and talking. My word is he talking. He can breathe through his ears.
So, when does this ‘carer’ tag get applied? I have, as i’ve said in other blogs, had a rough few months where depression has hit me and left me a bit empty – during which i’ve had a few trips to my GP. A year or so ago, I went in explaining I was running on automatic, so, so exhausted and lacking a lot of drive or interest in what I used to like doing. I explained about Isaac and the demands Isaac’s situation (NOT Isaac, he isn’t the cause, it’s the situation not him as a little boy) creates. Simply put, each boy should be 33% of my ‘dadness’ and 33% of my wife’s ‘mumness’ but the sum doesn’t work when one little boy needs more than his 33%, 24 hour 1-2-1 care in effect. The GP gave me low dose Anti-Depressants, and told me that they may make me better and suggested CBT. I attended, but when you’re given a list of things that people can find stressful in life like this one and it contains nothing about ‘having a child with complex disabilities’, nothing about providing 24 hour care and nothing about how it may affect his brothers I realised I lacked a bit of trust in the process.
A few weeks ago, I went back with similar feelings. Increases of medication, and, having read around GP primary care support I asked about carer support either attached to the practice, or locally. I’d had a bit of a ‘road to damascus’ moment and realised that realising that i’m a ‘carer’ is now part of who I am. I realised that the first thought in the heads of my wife and I on any given day is Isaac and his needs, and that we are caring to a level where it’s an issue to be recognised, that it will go on for the rest of our lives, and that I (I can’t speak on behalf of my wife from an emotional health perspective) needed some help. I was told flatly ‘no we don’t have anything’, no carers liaison worker, no nothing. Advised to call social services. Will I? Probably not. I’m a social worker ; thresholds for support for a family that ‘copes’ (i.e not accessing current Social Services home care or benefits) I strongly suspect sit above where we’re at nowadays in my local area. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality of how overstretched services are.
It’s a bit frustrating because I think unfortunately I’ve been seen as a bloke who has had episodes of depression by the GP, and on a surface level that’s correct. What is frustrating is that, whilst I can’t predict my future mental health, there’s every chance that unless some change is effected then there’s every likelihood that I’ll continue to be a bloke who goes back to the GP every few months with episodes of depression. That change will need to come from me, I know that, but it’s about the support to help it happen that frustrates. If my GP had listened a bit harder to my words they may have heard my true voice that whilst I sit there in the consultations room self deprecating about my inability to get any drive going, what i’m perhaps saying is that ‘look i’m a carer, I’m waving a white flag here, help me’. The situation around lack of support outside the surgery may have been the same but that’s a secondary point; identifying the real issue is the main one. Someone I’m close to described me as being an onion, lots of layers and whilst I knew what they meant the very fact that the last time i’d heard that analogy was of an overweight, bald ogre in ‘Shrek’ was…….
accurate clearly nothing like me.
Us guys are a nightmare, I know that. My mates may ask ‘hows Isaac’ when we’re sat taking the p*ss out of each other over a brew and my ‘he’s fine, thanks, pretty stable at the moment and no hospital trips this month so far’ is a veneer. They know it but I know that what they’re really asking is how I am, but as blokes we don’t necessarily do the ‘I’m sinking’ answer. We brush off, we cope. Stiff upper lip. As one of my old rugby coaches said to us several times over my teens ‘don’t show them you’re hurt, run back in line, or else they’ll know they’ve hurt you and they’ll just run at you all day’. Show weakness? No. So what chance has a GP got of me, or an elderly gentleman from a stoic generation who is caring for his wife who has alzheimer’s disease, coming into a room with an oppressive power dynamic and telling someone who is essentially a stranger about what is REALLY going on in our heads?
There’s a need for better early identification of carers, I am talking from a male perspective and it’s an acute need I think. All health care professionals and social care professionals, and society as a whole (ok, that’s utopia but go with me on this) need to reach in to grab the tightly folded arms of blokes bottling up the stress and strain that caring presents. My thoughts on how to do it are a different blog for another day, but like a lot of solutions there’s no smoke and mirrors – it’s just about starting to think from another perspective, trying, and talking.
I’ve not half rambled on, so much so that my skinny cappuccino is a memory. Now, the admission of having had a skinny cappuccino would have gone really well with that old rugby coach of mine…