Long, long ago, before I was 'Special Needs Mum', I had a great career as a television journalist and news reader. I loved it - the job, the lifestyle, the image, everything. My last job was reading the bulletins that went out on NBC/CNBC Europe - I was famous in Sarajevo, for God's sake! (UK, not so much!) I may have gone much further if I had stuck with it.
So what happened? Why would I give all that up? The answer, my friends, came in the form of two very demanding sons, born close together and from whom I could not be parted.
I read the other day in the Sunday Times magazine about Natasha Kaplinsky combining motherhood with her high-flying career and not getting much sleep, despite the inevitable nanny/helper. Her career was much more high-flying than my own when I had a baby, but I could have gone down that route, getting a nanny who would help take the strain while I continued gracing the TV screens of far-flung places in Europe and receiving sticky fan mail written in green ink.
My baby however, was not, in retrospect, what you'd call average. He could hold his head up almost from birth. He would lie there awake at the most unkind hour of the night, his blue eyes glinting in the reflected streetlight from outside our Clapham flat. He didn't sleep through the night for eight months. When he cried, it was loud enough to wake the dead. He crawled early and walked at 9 1/2 months; he was always on the go. We thought he might actually be an alien.
He hated being bathed, dressed, put in his pushchair, changed, put down. He liked being fed and being entertained. As inexperienced parents we thought that perhaps this is what all babies were like. Early trips to the baby gym convinced us otherwise. There was nothing ordinary about him; he was super-bright and hyperactive and it was clear to my husband and I that we could not leave him in the care of anyone else. This meant I could not go back to work immediately.
By the time he was ten months old, I was expecting our second child so again, going back to work was unfeasible.
Our second son was born with a clicky hip, needing a splint and extra care. From the time he was six weeks old, our eldest would walk by him and smack him on the head. Every time. By now, our twenty month old could do jigsaws meant for five year olds and make complicated duplo models. We were convinced he was a genius!
When our youngest began to have Reflex Anoxic Seizures just after a year old (see www.stars.org.uk for help with this condition) it was clear again that a return to work was not on the cards. He could have up to three seizures in one day, usually triggered by his brother being mean to him.
I began to do voluntary work for the charity STARS, using my journalistic knowledge to help with their newsletters and press releases. This turned into helping them with a big heart rhythm campaign (see www.aaaw.org.uk) and then on to learning about how to update their web site.
Over the years this has developed into my own business at www.tirraoro.com. I work from home because now that both my boys have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and we know how they need to be helped, I couldn't leave them in after school care or regular holiday play schemes.
Too many years have passed now for me to go back to where I was in TV and I'm too old and have too many responsibilities to compete with the young, thrusting twenty-somethings who can work all the hours they're asked to for not-too-great amounts of money. I'm not sure it would be as much fun either, as in the seat-of-the-pants days when I worked for the newly-created Meridian TV or with mad Croats and Australians in WTN's foreign TV News Agency, although maybe that's just the rose-tinted memory glasses.
I read with interest all the furious stay-at-home vs working mother debates and how one is better than the other or not, but for me, the debate is much more complicated than that. I do what web-sites, PR & design work I can from home for small businesses and charities; I've written two, as yet, unpublished novels; I've passed an OU course in Social Science and I've successfully researched and secured two statements of special needs for my sons. And then there's this blog, designed to help and entertain others like me.
I feel guilty for not bringing in as much money as I could if I worked full-time and sometimes I feel a little regretful at leaving a career I loved, especially when I see people I know still doing it. But I take comfort from knowing that if I had left my children to go back to my career, it would have been almost impossible to spot that they had complex and underlying special needs, nor done as much as I have to get them the help they need. Life is stressful enough as it is; with a full-time job as well, I would have been booking my stay in The Priory.
I know there are mothers of children with SEN who do work full time and their children have not missed out, but personally, I would have found it very difficult to do both, at the level I wanted without a nanny, which I also didn't want. Having a job like I had meant working shifts, long hours, being called in when a big news event broke and not being able to say no without it dentingyour career prospects. I loved my job so much I would have found it impossible to give as much to both it and to my children without something going pear-shaped. If someone reading this does both those things with autistic children and without considerable support, then hats off to you, I'd love to know how you do it so I can write about you with admiration!
But I'm sure I am not alone. How much talent is going to waste because mothers cannot return to the hours they used to do or find a job that will give them the flexibility they need to use their talents to the full? Maybe I should start a website for people like me who are good at what they do but can only work a few hours a day. If there is already one out there - let me know!