When Life Gives You Lemons is my blog series profiling some of the incredible people I have met during my journey. People who, like me, have faced adversity but refuse to be defined by it.
Next up is Debs Aspland.
I first met Debs very briefly in 2012 when we both attended the Britmums Brilliance in Blogging Awards. We bumped into each other again a couple of years later when were invited to meet with and give feedback to the Minister of State for Children and Families. However it was over drinks on the Southbank that I really got to know Debs and recognise her for the kindred spirit and fellow warrior she is. She definitely shares my rebellious streak and I couldn't wait to ask her to be the subject of an interview for my When Life Gives You Lemons series.
Tell me about how life has given you lemons?
I am mum to three children, a 13 year old and 12 year old twins. That was always going to present a challenge. My eldest son was only 14 months old when the twins arrived. When you then add into the mix hydropcephalus, Autism, Retinopathy of Prematurity stage V, speech, language and communication needs, dyslexia, dyspraxia and anxiety - well, life became a whole bowl of lemons.
Having three children with a variety of SEND, living 300 miles from my family and 80 miles from my in-laws, made for a very challenging few years. I couldn't return to employment and suddenly not only was I a mum to three children with SEND trying to work out which way was up but we had no money. We went from having that thing known as a "disposable" income to having to living off beans on toast and asking family for money to buy Christmas presents for the kids.
And so how have you made lemonade?
I wanted to be more than just a "parent carer", I wanted an identity. I knew if I sat at home, I would fall apart slowly. I initially helped set up a local group, then I moved on to establishing our county's Parent Forum, then I eventually co-founded Bringing Us Together with a fellow mum - a national Community Interest Company. We work together to help families stay informed, inspired and involved.
I am also currently involved in hosting a Festival in Kent - Festability - where people with disabilities are not just welcomed but are truly included. A festival with quiet zones, a changing places suite, more disabled loos and staff on hand to help parents and carers when they need to get food or go to the loo themselves.
I also trained as a Life Coach and Leadership Mentor and I am now offer coaching to individuals and businesses. My background is sales, marketing and business development so I am loving this role as the people I work with are often not related to SEND at all.
What have you discovered about yourself that you didn't know before?
I have totally re-evaluated my values. What I thought was important is now irrelevant. Before the children, I worked on Kensington High Street, only drank in the latest wine bars, had a busy social life (that work intruded into), I travelled extensively and Mac make up was essential - at all times. I now work from my sofa, rarely go out for a drink, I have very little social life, I own a caravan in Dymchurch and make up only goes on when I am leaving the house.
In hindsight is there anything you would do differently?
I wish I had been less angry at the beginning. I was in such a bad place, so worried about everything I was reading or experiencing, that I was an angry mum. This made for many enemies in the system and it didn't help me mentally either. I still don't suffer fools gladly and woe betide any practitioner who tries to give me the wrong information, but I now accept that the system (and the funding of the system) is not fit for purpose - for any child with SEND, not just my children.
What would you consider to be your biggest strength(s) ?
My ability to bounce back. I have had days and weeks where even getting out of bed has seemed beyond me but I have learned different strategies to help me. My ability to understand what the law actually means in practice. Being able to understand what should be happening, rather than accepting what is happening when it's wrong, has helped me immensely. My husband - he is my total rock and makes it possible for me to do all that I do.
What has been the best advice you have been given?
Two pieces of advice have made the biggest difference:
1) You are not Superwoman. Superwoman is a fictional character who doesn't have children
2) Stop taking things so personally - it's not about you.
How do you want to be remembered?
As someone who made life a bit better for at least one other parent carer.
What advice would you give other people when life gives them lemons?
Find some coping strategies. Even if this is just sitting in Tesco car park with a coffee for an hour (that was my go to place in the first few years) or writing down all the anger and pain somewhere no one else will see it. Try lots of things and find the ones that work for you.
Festability, the fully inclusive music festival, will take place in Kent on 12 May 2018. You can buy tickets here.