Recently, I dropped my daughter Saoirse at school. Before we left the house, she had been untangling a display of clay planets of our solar system.  I’d taken an interest and helped her untangle it, as I vaguely remembered her telling me she had been working on it.  As she got out of the car at the school gate, I said to her “good luck with your planets presentation today.”  She looked at me a little bit disappointed and answered, “Mum, that was last week, I did tell you.”  

It may be drastic to say I was crushed, but I was.  It was one of those moments where you feel like the worst Mum in the world, because my mind obviously hadn’t been present when my body was and I worry that happens too often these days.

I was talking to my good friend about this kind of thing recently.  She is a marketeer and knows all of the cool, trendy terms of the moment to sum up my lack of presence.  Apparently, this is now referred to as ’Mental Load’.  

It is one of those genius phrases that sums it up perfectly.  It is generally the Mum’s/Women of the family as opposed to the Dad’s/Men that experience Mental Load.  I certainly don’t mean to sound sexist, but more women tend to be the parent that tunes into the things that contribute to mental load, I think men are generally just oblivious to it.  

If I were to say to Mick, do you know what day, time and location Taylor’s party is on at, he would more than likely say “Who’s Taylor?” rather than given me any information I actually needed.  

The typical changes in direction my brain takes hourly whilst trying to manage Mental Load.

Mental load is usually comprised of the minute, yet key, details of situations and appointments of all varieties, dental, optical, developmental of any kind.  Including, but in not way limited to:

  • The finer detail such as location, time, allergies, special clothing requirements of every party your child is ever invited to, (and the grudges held for the ones they weren’t).  
  • Knowing what is the present ‘de jour’ to buy for yet another birthday celebration, that will appeal to both the child and their parent, neither flashy nor stingy, environmentally sustainable, non gender specific and most importantly not a re-gift, IF the original gifter is at the party.
  • Who you can car share with to and from the play/art/sport/animal centre that is, for some obscure reason, 40 miles away (googling the closest Penneys/Primark to see if you can fit a quick trip whilst waiting for the party to be over, as it’s too far to travel back home. This is in fact why going to a children’s party can be so expensive).
  • Knowing the quickest route, to get from dance class -to- youth club -to- scouts every Tuesday evening, taking into account traffic diversions and train time tables, if passing a level crossing. I have to admit to sometimes realising I’m going in totally the wrong direction and having to keep my panic under control as I say “it’s fine love, we’ll make it, teacher doesn’t mind if you’re a bit late” through gritted teeth.  
  • Advance planning of confirmations, communions, day trips and breaks away, right down to the size of bag you will need and what is the price difference between sun cream bought in Aldi or bought at the airport.  
  • Researching the cost, location and effectiveness of shampoo bars to reduce purchases of single-use plastic, making sure we are making a meaningful contribution to the efforts to reduce harmful waste in our seas. I really do have to make some effort in this whole climate change business as I genuinely am concerned, and simply liking/sharing posts by Greta Thunburg isn’t really enough.
  • Remembering what kit – PE, swimming, sewing, baking needs to be packed in the school bag for tomorrow (hoping that the usual day hasn’t been changed due to bad weather).
  • Ensuring the appropriate form for the school tour/photographs/music lessons/book club is signed and dated and the correct money is sent in, so the school secretary doesn’t have to find change of a fifty euro note (although I don’t have many of those in my purse).
  • Making sure that you also have coin change for credit union, raffle tickets, swim lockers etc.  This is no mean feat nowadays as we are moving towards a cashless society and Dad’s pockets and Mum’s purses are no longer sagging from the weight of coins of every denomination.

For me personally, it also involves, remembering the name and birthday of everyone I have ever met.  It’s control thing, every other element of my life can be going to the wall and one of my children may not have gotten lunch in their school bag that day.  But, as long as some random in-law, who I’m not particularly keen on anyway, got their birthday card on time, then, all is fine in my world.  I AM IN CONTROL!

Last year I experienced another epic parenting fail, when I forgot to put together the calendars of lovely photographs of my little darlings from throughout the year.  They are always a lovely present for the Grandparents and because the sellers have a 3 for 2 offer, we keep the third one it saves me a tenner on buying a calendar.   

To celebrate the bright side of forgetting to do them , I invested in one of those ‘Family Planner’ calendars, where everyone has their own column for their appointments.  Is it sad that, I am very excited, that you can also now buy a diary version too?   

When I was a child, I always understood family planning to be, what you did to stop you having more children than you wanted, ‘the pill’ and other methods.  So I have decided these calendars are quite aptly named, because I take one look at the ridiculous amount of stuff we have to do each month with our children and it’s the best contraceptive ever!

When you are a special needs parent, mental load is somewhat enhanced.  Not only do you have the every-day appointments and clubs to remember, you have to make sure you’re on top of all of the other appointments, that genuinely could negatively impact your child’s development if you don’t attend – no pressure!  

Speech and Language, Independent Living Skills, Individual Education Plan Reviews, Occupational Therapy.  The list is endless, and as one support ends, another one starts.  Occasionally there is a week in-between to allow you to draw breath.  It feels a bit like trying to make it to a connecting flight in a foreign country where you have no idea what the airport signs mean.  

Depending on the individual needs of child with special needs, they may need medication.  This is often frowned upon by parents not in this situation, but some times it is simply just necessary. Because no amount of essential oils, yoga techniques or sensory diets are going to make a significant enough difference to the life of your child.

My attitude to those who do wish to judge, is that they are welcome to come and live my life for a week and we’ll see if their judgement (and sanity) changes by the end of that week!

My son takes four different types of medication every day to keep his anxiety/temper under control and help his focus/concentration at school and he ensure he gets a reasonable night’s sleep, which often eludes people with Autism (and their parents). 

When you are given a new medication CAMHS*, will give you a two-page information sheet about it, which gives you the phonetic pronunciation of the medication to avoid you making a total show of yourself in the chemist.  Then there is always a brand name variation and the dosage, which of course are all totally different.  My son takes 100mg of one medication and 2mg of another, so I really don’t want to get those mixed up, as let’s just say the consequences could be ‘interesting’, I like to keep him calm, not comatose!

I really don’t mean to engage in a game of parenting top trumps here.  But I do think it is fair to say, that parents to a child with special needs have the right to change the term to ‘Mental Shitload!’ The struggle is real!

A Special Needs Parent suffering from ‘Mental Shitload’

*CAMHS – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

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