Recently, I keep having flashbacks of being a community speech and language therapist. The memories are of some very specific parents: those whom we feared a little bit. I think every caseload has them – the parents whose children you resort to drawing straws for and whom everybody avoids ringing. More often than not it would be me ending up with them on my caseload. That was a little bit because I’m a glutton for punishment, a little bit because I’m magnetised towards a challenge and quite a lot because I admired them and even then knew that I shouldn’t avoid them because in another world, I would be them. Not all of my colleagues were so keen though and there were certainly parents who gained notoriety within the department for being demanding or difficult to please.
I knew, even then, before I’d had my children and before I had become one myself, that nobody becomes an Expert Parent for the pure fun of it. Nobody sets out to rattle people’s cages and make demands and make themselves heard and fight for stuff just for kicks. People are forced into these positions by services which don’t meet the needs of their children and by having children who are different and need different things. That in itself is a tricky and unenviable position, before you find yourself pushed to the bottom of clinician’s to do lists.
I suppose I felt I owed it to these parents to shake myself off, put my big girl knickers on and bring them my A game. Yes, sometimes they were difficult. Sometimes they asked me hard questions or tried to pin me down to providing things the NHS couldn’t really justify. Sometimes I needed a little lie down after I’d seen them or an extra chocolate biscuit but generally, I didn’t regret taking on those cases. If anything, those parents made me a better therapist. They made me think harder and consider more angles and give even more than usual. I would far rather work with a keen parent, who would support care plans etc., than with an apathetic parent who didn’t really want to be there and hadn’t really bought in to the whole speech and language therapy thing.
However, I am not an angel and I’m sure there were times I went back to the office and had a little rant about what Mrs Whatever Her Name had done or said now. I know my colleagues did that too and no matter what anybody says in public, I think it’s natural that that kind of letting off of steam happens and I’m certain it does happen in clinical and educational and medical teams up and down the country.
I suspect the reason I keep thinking of these parents at the moment is because the realisation is dawning that I have become one of them and there are probably people discussing what a nightmare I am in an office nearby as we speak.
I think it hit me last week, during our horrendous meeting with the Educational Psychologist (see Conversations ). I realised that in a competition of who knows most about the needs of adopted children (well, my adopted child anyway) I could have left him for dead. It was a hands down defeat. Not that I wanted it to be a competition or to have to assert my knowledge in any way but the more defensive and wild he became with his points, the more I found myself standing my ground and refusing to accept his ignorance. I could see the fear in his eyes and him shrivelling away into his shell in front of me.
Having been on the other side of the fence, I do fully understand how it feels to receive that type of onslaught. I have been grilled in tribunals and sat in meetings where I’ve said the opposite of what people want to hear. I have stood in front of a room of experienced adopters and wondered what on earth I could possibly teach them that they didn’t already know. None of us have all the answers and it can be uncomfortable to be faced with someone more knowledgeable than ourselves, especially when we are in the position of ‘expert’.
It’s never fun to be in that situation but the crucial thing is our handling of it. I’m finding that professionals tend to fall into one of two camps when faced with an Expert Parent – those who are comfortable with admitting they don’t know things and are prepared to go away and find out, and those who grow defensive. The ones who grow defensive are no help whatsoever. I find they tend to want to discredit you and give opposing views just to save face.
Although I have to accept that as a parent I do come with quite a bit of knowledge now, I certainly don’t want to come across as conceited or combative or difficult. Most of the time, I think I conceal the majority of my knowledge and try to allow professionals we meet to do their job without interruption. Our experiences with the Speech and Language Therapy Service were reassuring in that way – I was a pain in the backside and I did complain but as soon as we had a therapist who wasn’t frightened or defensive, things went fabulously. I knew she knew her stuff and that if she didn’t, she would admit it before going away to find out, so I felt completely reassured. I didn’t need to come over all Expert Parent with her. Equally, I have rarely, if ever, shown school the full extent of my knowledge or readiness to fight.
However, our experiences with the EP last week would suggest that when faced with a professional who talks bollocks I can no longer rein myself in. I am careful not to be rude or aggressive but I did ask hard questions and I didn’t accept his answers and I did make the poor man sweat.
I couldn’t help myself. It seems there is a certain standard that I expect (as Expert Parents in the past have rightly expected of me) and I can’t tolerate a standard that isn’t good enough. There are many reasons for it – my oft spoken line ‘if I don’t stand up for my child, who will?’ Also, if I, as a professional person with a brilliant support network don’t have the balls to call out professionals who aren’t good enough, who will? As I said last week, our children deserve the best services, not the worst. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I know what would be fun today, lets antagonise an EP’, because no one does and in reality it isn’t an enjoyable experience. I was furious for most of the afternoon afterwards and only relaxed when the SENCO caught me at home time to say they wouldn’t accept the inappropriate standard of the EP either and would pay for a private assessment for us. I was really touched and reassured that they cared enough to do that.
The following day I had a migraine because I had become so tense during and after the meeting. There isn’t anything enjoyable about being an Expert Parent. It is a compulsion based on having a child who needs you to be one.
As much as I have purposefully armed myself with knowledge and am prepared to fight if necessary, I do worry about how I’m perceived when I unleash my inner Expert Parent. I have the same insecurities and basic desire to be liked as anybody else. I do worry that people will think I’m a knob. I worry that the teachers sit in the staffroom discussing what a pain I am and how much they hope Little Bear doesn’t end up in their class, like we used to when Expert Parents got referred for Speech and Language Therapy. I worry they see me as overly outspoken, too big for my boots or just plain annoying.
This morning I had to check some SEN paperwork for Little Bear’s teacher. I queried one part because I was worried how it would appear to a funding panel. “I knew you would,” the teacher said. He was laughing but my reputation already comes before me.
Part of me genuinely worries about how I’m perceived because having good relationships with people is important to me. I want to get on well with teachers and other professionals. I am not someone who has ever been a fan of having enemies. However, another part of me tries to listen to my husband, whose attitude is ‘who cares?’ We do what we do because we have to and because our children are our priority. If people can’t handle it, that’s their problem.
There is a certain kinship about being an Expert Parent – we understand the routes that have been taken, the difficult meetings, the dredging up of energy we don’t have to face another battle. We understand so many things about each other without even having to explain it. It’s so important we stick together. It should never be a competition about whose life is hardest – it should be a network of mutual admiration and understanding.
I have a close friend who is just making the first difficult steps into seeking a diagnosis for her son. She is encountering professionals who won’t listen to her, despite her having turned this situation over every which way in her mind for several years and her being an Occupational Therapist. She’s struggling with having her worries aired for other professionals to hear and with fearing people won’t see what she sees. It can feel very vulnerable being an Expert Parent, especially as there is so much scepticism from teachers and other professionals over whether you really do have the knowledge you’re pretty sure you have. It is unfortunately through these vulnerable moments and the judgement we face that we become even more confident as Expert Parents.
I know that we are feared up and down the land by professionals of every type because we make working days harder and take up more time. It is the system that has bred us this way; the services that have nurtured us; the unprofessional comments and decisions that have fuelled us. We don’t want to be Expert Parents any more than you want us to be. If you work hard, do your job properly and are prepared to meet children’s needs adequately, you have nothing to fear. We’re lovely, actually. But woe betide he or she who stands between us and our children’s needs being met. They will experience the full force of our Expert Parent fury, knowledge and willingness to call you out.
And the ground shalt quake.