“You must be mum.”
Four words that put you nicely in a box and out of the way, even when you are present in a meeting. That introduction says so much – you know you are simply there to be tolerated, to tick off a requirement and that you are expected to sit in the box marked ‘mum’ and ‘behave’.
For a disclaimer, please the last paragraph, but in the meantime, how do you respond? “I am Peters’s mum, My name is Phillipa – and you are?” is the one I used last time around.
I don’t know any parent that doesn’t hate this approach at times. It can feel dehumanising and I think it sometimes serves a powerful purpose for the rest of the people in the room. It can be used to state very clearly the hierarchy of those present. Everyone else is a human, a person with a name and everything….. They have a profession, an identity as an individual and a role outside of the home. You don’t. You are ‘mum’ and if you are anything else as well, then that could be a problem so they may make sure you are just the generic ‘mum’.
I have been to many meetings in school that were called with a purpose of putting me in a box, nailing the lid shut and taping over any ventilation holes. Meetings that were allegedly to ‘chat about my concerns,’ but that in reality were designed as an ambush, with as many as 7 education staff drafted in from school and ‘County’ who were available ‘at the last minute’ to make me stop telling them all about Peter’s difficulties.
I was incredibly naive and the penny didn’t drop until Peter was in a mental health hospital with apparent symptoms of ‘school related trauma’ at age 9. Until then I resolutely believed that they wanted to understand, but just couldn’t…
After Peter’s admission, the really big meetings started. Peter had had no additional support in school until now, but now he was in hospital a long way from home, and the Consultant Team had said that he needed a specialist residential school and couldn’t be discharged home until one was found…. implied and implicit, of course, is ‘until one is funded‘.
Oh dear, maybe they should have listened before, you know, when ‘mum’ was trying to explain the problems. Anyway, I digress.
So back to the big meetings. I learned that they were done twice, firstly, one with all the professionals would be held, and then they would be held again, with all the same people, but with the rehearsed ‘party line’ to be shared with ‘mum’. Exhausted and in a state of disbelief I rocked up at the Local Authority (LA) offices for my first experience of one of these. I was on my own, as usual, and faced professionals from health (1 helpful person), social care (3 people) and education (4 people). The clinical psychologist and I were having a conversation when the others arrived and settled themselves – and this was when the penny dropped…. those from social care and education thought I was a colleague – I looked like one of them and they assumed I was.
I saw the shock on their faces when they realised I was ‘mum’ and THEN I realised. All the time that we are put in a box marked ‘not one of us’ they are immune to any fear that one day it might happen to them. Written all over their faces, if you look closely, is “It can’t happen to me because ‘those mums are different’.”
I had come to this meeting at the LA offices dressed as I would have done for any big meeting at work. Not ‘interview smart’ you understand, but ‘board meeting smart’. And I looked like I could be one of them. The look on their faces as they realised that someone like them was ‘mum’ was priceless. Yes, people, it could happen to you, your children, your family members, too.
At this meeting, the way I dressed was an accident. I only dressed that way to help me to feel confident and assertive. From then on I did it on purpose and enjoyed the fallout. My favourite was at another LA run meeting…
At this one there were some Heavy Duty LA staff there to persuade me that Peter didn’t really need what the hospital team said he did. There was also the clinical psychologist, the outreach mental health nurse, and an outreach mental health support worker. The latter was fabulous and was dressed for her job – which was to quickly build rapport with distressed young people. She wore a denim jacket, had blue nail polish and a very casual friendly look. She looked different to everyone else who was dressed more formally (especially me!!). We all sat down, the LA boss looked the support worker straight in the face and said: “You must be ‘mum'”.
I would pay a lot of money for the CCTV of that moment. Overall it is a meeting that I remember and giggle. The LA manager spouted “We have many children with the profile of Peter in day school” “Really” I replied, “Then there will be lots who have required admission to a Tier 4 inpatient unit age 9.” And then I went around the room and asked each one to tell me, in their entire career, how many children they had cared for that required this level of support……. As you can imagine there weren’t many. I have a hunch that the CAMHS professionals in the room quite enjoyed this part of the meeting. Later the Social Worker was insisting (because of her manager) that I should have support from an Early Help professional that knew nothing about ASD and I replied “It’s like swapping the psychiatrist for a dermatologist” I said, “I have nothing against dermatologists but we don’t need one”. The nurses later told me they had to force themselves to write some notes to stop themselves from laughing at the look on the SEN Manager’s face. Sadly I missed it.
So here is the disclaimer. Firstly, in a medical emergency ‘mum’ is just fine. Secondly, I recognise that not everyone that has fallen into the habit of using the shortcut ‘mum’ from ‘Peter’s mum’ uses it to wield control, but please can you just say “You must be Peter’s mum” and even better, add “sorry I can’t recall your name”….
To the remainder, please remember that one day our roles may be reversed. Rest assured that I will never treat you the way you have treated me, I couldn’t, but others might. The organisational culture that you are fostering and enabling now will still be there unless to start to make changes.
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