“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow”. This quote by Mary Anne Radmacher is one that mum, wife and blogger, Claire Withnall, holds close to her heart.
Why? Since her brain haemorrhage in August 2013, Claire has been striving for a ‘semblance of normality’, which just so happens to be the name of her Facebook blog. Here, Headway Essex catch up with Claire to talk about parenting with a brain injury.
Five and a half years ago busy mum, Claire, had a stroke at the age of 29. It was the result of a large brain haemorrhage caused by an Arteriovenous Malformation; a condition she was unknowingly born with.
It has been a long and difficult journey for Claire and her young family, but she is determined not to let her illness define her.
“I am now happily unemployable. I liked being at home anyway. It's just the boredom I find really difficult. I walk with a walker and I have really bad double vision. This is made a lot better by a coloured contact lens, but that means I can only see out of my left eye. I also really struggle with verbal communication. I can say what I think, but I can't think or speak as quickly as I used too, and I sound really different. Also, my memory isn’t the same; where as it used to be very good, I now forget things.” Claire explains.
“Going back to how things were before, is important. For me, normality is being a mum and wife” says Claire, who has a busy life looking after her two children aged 7 and 9.
“Of course, things can’t quite be the same; that’s why it’s a semblance. My life is similar to what it was before, but not exactly as it was.” adds Claire.
But the analogy of ‘putting one foot in front of the other’ has stayed with Claire from when she was in the hospital to now.
Having previously enjoyed a career as a real estate solicitor for a top City law-firm before deciding to leave law behind to focus on being a mum, Claire puts a lot of her determination down to the life-choices she made before her injury.
“I push forward because I know I have to. I’ve always pushed myself to achieve and now is no different. But you must be kind to yourself and recognise that some days will be harder than others” she says.
In being kind to herself and her family, Claire and her husband have been creative in solving everyday problems. “My life now is basically identifying practical problems then deciding how to best resolve them!”, which she’s happy to share with others through her blog.
Visiting Claire, it’s clear to see that she’s made good use of technology. As we were speaking, Alexa promptly announced it was time for her to do her 2,000 treadmill steps for the day!
“I could write a book about how to have and use a smart home properly” recalls Claire. Crucially, it has helped give her back her independence and greatly assists her in her role as mum.
In the morning, Alexa prompts Claire’s children four times to start getting ready. It even mimics Claire’s brilliant sense of humour. “It’s a very efficient routine and at 8.33am on the dot, the children are ready to leave for school!” adds Claire.
7am it says ‘good morning’
7.10am it says ‘Please get dressed, brush your hair, make your beds, open the curtains and put your bottle in the bathroom’
7.20am ‘Dressed, hair, bed, curtains and bottle? Please put mummy in a good mood’
7.35am (downstairs in the lounge)’Dressed, hair, bed, curtains and bottle done? If any not done, go back and do it please’
7.45am (downstairs in the kitchen) ’Mummy is not your slave. Dressed, hair, bed, curtains and bottle done?’
8.10am (downstairs in the playroom) ‘Its 8.10am time to get ready for school or do violin practice’
8.20am (downstairs in the kitchen - moving towards the front door) ‘Its 8.20am. Time to get ready for school. have you done your violin practice?’
8.33am (downstairs in the lounge - next to the front door) ‘Its 8.33am. Shoes on, coat on, get bags including lunch if necessary. Look for Nana or Granny’
Claire has always been great at planning activities for her children. But she recalls preparing materials for activities such as her writing routine charts whilst she visited the Headway Centre once a week for a break “It’s really important. It makes life easier and the children know what is expected of them. Now, I use Alexa to make sure we’re all on task.”
Before introducing smart technology into their lives, Claire relied on her husband to get dinner. Now, she dictates what she wants to buy to a virtual shopping list that is linked to his mobile phone. She’s first to admit that it’s not without its flaws though! “My husband once got confused asking why, when we don’t own a dog, is dog food on the list? Alexa had confused jam with champ!” she laughs.
Alexa has other benefits too. As Claire walks in her front door she can ask Alexa to put on the lights, lamp and TV. “I don’t have to get out of bed to turn the hall lights on or off, which is amazing. And if the children are watching the TV and not responding to me, I can simply instruct Alexa to turn it off!”
It also works as an intercom. “I hate starting my day raising my voice and so having two-way intercom is absolutely necessary. Before this, I used walkie talkies because I do not have a very loud voice and I need the children to hear me when they are upstairs.”
Claire also makes good use of the dictation skills she used as a solicitor. She uses voice notes on WhatsApp and the audio facility on messenger because it's so much quicker. “I used to hate how I sounded so wouldn't have done this. I wouldn't have even made basic phone calls in case I wasn't coherent to the other person. But now it doesn’t bother me.”
It’s not all about technology though. Claire is a very creative and being ill has not stopped her from being inventive. It’s quite the opposite.
“Since my brain haemorrhage, I haven’t been able to return to work, but I have always seen the time at home with my children as a gift; even more so since I became ill.
I hate being bored and so I spend a lot of time coming up with educational activities for my children. Many of these activities are not just useful for disabled parents, but anyone who cares for children.”
Claire talks about using clipboards, as an example. She’s uses them to keep her children engaged with their environment. When they go for a walk, the children will often have their clipboards with them.
“I provide different activity sheets for them to complete. They tick-off things they have seen or now that they are older, I include questions, or I ask them to write-down facts. Giving them added responsibility also helps their behaviour; it keeps them focused and engaged. For any parent, it’s a huge help.”
Claire also makes full use of ‘busy bags’; clear zipped coloured pouches where her children can bring a couple of activities with them on a trip out. “There is a different activity in every pencil case so there is still an element of choice. What I like is you can change the activities as your children grow”, says Claire.
“The whole not-looking clinical thing is very important to me. So, with a lot of research, my husband and I came up with solutions to make the house practical but not like a hospital. We wanted it to feel like our family-home.”
The kitchen has been carefully adapted to make it easier for Claire to access cooking items and she wouldn’t be without her coffee machine.
Whilst some of the changes were practical, others have been heart-felt. “We even added the house number of our old address to our children’s summer house; a nod to our previous home!” she says.
Claire also has her own space; her therapy room; her sanctuary and home to her treadmill where she completes her daily steps, whilst watching TV.
Talking about physiotherapy, Claire adds “My stubborn streak has been very useful.
Without it, having to re-learn to walk using a frame wouldn't have happened because it has taken constant persistence (I am not there yet!) and endless patience.
I don't let what happened to me define everything (any more than it has too). I am still me and I know I can still be stubborn. It’s what made me become a lawyer and a good mummy.
At the end of the day I want to do, and more importantly feel like I can do, all the things other people can and not be prevented by the logistics.
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