Learning to be tomato

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I am blessed to have a beautiful house. It has bedrooms,  a kitchen, a bathroom and a family room. It has walls and a roof and doors. I pretty much get to choose who enters my house and I can choose to close the curtains and blinds and doors and have privacy whenever I wish.

Yet in so many other ways my life is open to all, in full view and often seems like my every move is on show. In so many ways I live in a glass house.

When my children were young babies one of them was not gaining weight as fast as they should have been. We were scheduled to have a home visit every single week by a public health visitor for the first year of my twins life. An entire year of having someone see your children at home every week. Some visits lasted up to an hour. The only concern was my daughter’s weight yet our home had to be opened for unexpected visits at all times. That was the start of one wall of my house turning to glass.

By the time my twins were 18 months we had our first referral to community paediatricians. This put us ‘in the system’ and started more home visits by speech therapists, learning support staff and nurses who all entered my house regularly. I felt like I was on show having to keep my house fit for visitors at any time while trying to raise two very young children. A second wall of my house seemed to quickly be changing to glass for everyone to watch how we were living, playing and raising our children, all because they were not reaching milestones as everyone else felt they should.

Eventually the children began nursery and we were expected to attend courses about parenting and autism and attend regular meetings with the nurseries. As wonderful as it was to learn it also opened my family up to more people, and every interaction with our children had to have a purpose and a goal and we were even videoed several times in our own home. Sometimes it really felt like we were animals being watched in a zoo by all the professionals. A third wall of my house had now changed from brick to glass. As more people saw into our lives it got hot at times and stressful. It felt like there was such a lack of shade and privacy at times.

Three glass walls are hard to handle but while one remains brick and the roof remains covered there was still time to be alone. That is until the children started school. In order for their needs to be fully met we had to enter the new arena of school support. This meant multiagency meetings, school meetings, parents nights, school diaries and homework. Right before our eyes the last of our walls changed from brick to glass and our every move seemed controlled by our children’s difficulties.

Now we are in the realm of requiring more support. As the children have grown and their needs increased things like respite, befriending and budgets are now being banded around. Where you aware of how much of your life requires to be put on the line in order to access these things? There is no ‘sign here’ and we will give you it. Assessments are thorough, long winded and often extremely personal. You have to become vulnerable, lay yourself on the line and be scrutinised constantly. You have hoops to jump through and boxes to tick. In doing so the roof of my house, my only privacy and shade left, suddenly became made of glass too.

So my beautiful house has changed from bricks and mortar to a hot, cramped and open-to-all glass house. In order to help and support my children so much of my life and privacy has had to be sacrificed.

So how do we support them through this when our house has constant professionals visiting and calling and we have so many forms to complete? How do I enable them to have a childhood free from stress and invasion when so many people are involved in their care? How do I cope living in a glass house due to my children being disabled?

We are learning to be tomatoes!

We need the support of schools, nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, speech therapists and others besides in order to fully support our children. That means opening up our home, our lifestyle and our ways to many people. So we are going to use this to our advantage.

Tomatoes thrive in a glass house. While everyone watches on they grow, mature and become ripe due to the intense heat and pressure of living in that environment. Tomatoes are sweet, balanced and healthy despite being subjected to intense heat. They are versatile and popular.

Glass house living when you are raising children who have challenges is difficult, but by becoming tomatoes we can use our unusual circumstances to refresh others in many ways from soups, drinks, sandwiches or even tomato ketchup!

Sometimes I feel cut up or squashed but however you look at it I am blessed.

I am blessed to live in a beautiful house even if at times it seems like it is made of glass instead of bricks.

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He is there

imageCompanies often have silent partners. Many businesses and charities do too. It is a highly successful strategy that brings stability, maturity, and grounding to an organisation.

Yet people are quick to judge when it seems a marriage has the same balance.

Sometimes I go to meetings for my children on my own. I send emails on my own and answer and make phone calls mostly on my own.

But that does not mean I am truly on my own. You may not see him, but my ‘silent partner’ is there. My children have a father. I have a husband.

And there is a reason why he is more ‘behind the scenes’ than some people would like.

Everyone copes differently. That does not mean that any one way is right. And we all have different strengths.

I find social situations quite enjoyable. My ‘silent partner’ does not.
Meetings rarely make me nervous or intimidated. My soul mate finds them heavy, frustrating and stressful.
I find talking openly about my children’s difficulties fairly straightforward. Communication is one of my strong points. My husband finds this difficult and draining.
I quite enjoy form filling. For my partner this is like sticking pins in himself.
I find multi-tasking comes as second nature. For my lover this is confusing and he would much rather finish one task before moving onto the next. Interruptions like unexpected phone calls, cancelled meetings and children’s illness cause him to become anxious and flustered.
It is second nature to me to put the ‘right’ jumper on the right child, make sure the food is not touching on the plate, and do up the buttons on their coat in the ‘right’ order. But the stress of ensuring things are ‘just right’ for our autistic twins can become overwhelming for my husband. The slight change of detail can throw either one of our children into a screaming meltdown that lasts all night, so his fears are both real and understandable.
Homework is a mystery for my partner. He struggled though school and finds modern ways of doing things confusing.
Dealing with a screaming child who can not speak limits my partners patience. And I totally understand that. I am far from perfect and my patience runs thin at times too.

It doesn’t help that both our children have complex needs. They both thrive on routine and have rigid ways of doing things. They are more relaxed when the same person does the same thing everyday. They need the same words used, the same voice, the same physical touch and way of doing things. So they both cling to mum as if their life depended on it. In many ways it does.

But they know, just as much as I do, that dad is still there. He may seem in the background. But he is there.image

Some of you will be saying right now that my ‘silent partner’ is just a typical man. Some may be annoyed he is leaving more to me. Some of you may even wonder if he understands it all. A few may even feel he doesn’t care.

Let me tell you something: He cares. He loves. And he sees. He is very much here.

But there is something I feel people should know about this very important ‘silent partner’ in my life: My husband has neurofibromatosis type 1. The exact same genetic tumour producing condition our son has.

Some of his struggles are due to his upbringing, his personality, his age, or his lack of support in school. But some of it is because he has NF1. That affects his way of thinking, his behaviour, and his personality. It is part of him. It makes him less confident, means he struggles more with some academic things and he may seem less social. It is all too easy to judge his ‘silence’ as lack of caring or interest. That could not be further from the truth. I never knew he had NF when I married him. But even if I had it would not have affected my love for him.

Sometimes the most amazing support comes from someone just silently holding you, listening as you pour out your heart. Often that silent partner is the one with the wisdom, insight and calmness to hold it all together. Sometimes the most powerful thing anyone can do is just be there.

He has neurofibromatosis. He isn’t as ‘in your face’ as I am. He isn’t as known to all the professionals dealing with our children as I am. He doesn’t write in the home school diary, or read the bedtime story.

But he does something very important. For me. And for his children.

He is there.

And we all love him.

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Missing the bigger picture

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‘How will that impact on his sister?’, I asked at yet another meeting.
‘We are here to talk about Isaac’, was the reply.
This is the reality of life with more than one child.
In my case both my children have additional support needs, but even if my daughter was ‘typical’ developing she should still be considered when it comes to matters of her brother. The impact on her is just as big, and at times even bigger, than on her brother.
It is all too easy to say, for example, that we have to let one scream, harm himself and cry for hours on end as he tries to push boundaries and test limits. But how does that affect his sister? Or us? Would professionals be able to hear a sibling, or their own child, someone they love dearly, cry in distress for hours and not be effected?

I wish therapists would stop missing the bigger picture.

‘Sorry, we are not able to increase the allocation of supplies despite medical support.’
Another disappointing call updating us on an ongoing challenge we have been having.
People in an office, looking at limited facts on a screen, making a decision based on only the details of that one child with no thought to how this will affect an entire family, and beyond. My son is a number to them. To me he is a precious individual who deserves dignity, respect and to have his basic needs met.

I wish services would stop missing the bigger picture.

A recent visit to a medical practitioner with my children left me with some ‘projects’ to work on over the summer. The only problem is that both children have ‘projects’ that, while increasing their development and skills and helping their medical conditions, they will also both require huge amounts of time and support from me. I also need to be very mindful of the fact summer should be a time of fun, and making memories, and that my children will grow all too quickly. It is very easy for doctors and nurses to suggest health care plans, or developmental milestones to try to achieve, or even to give timetables to implement programmes of therapies. I smile, and leave with yet more literature while thinking all the time, ‘what about my other child?’. My time is not exclusive to one child, even if their needs would call for this, and I also have a house to run and a husband who needs me too. Seven weeks might seem a huge chunk of time to medical trained professionals but it can pass in the blink of an eye when I take into consideration hospital appointments, days out, quality time and household duties.

I wish professionals would stop missing the bigger picture.

End of term is bringing some challenges too, not least the fact my twins attend different schools with very different calendars of activities. The pressure to attend two different sports days, end of term assemblies and prize givings, services and summer fairs can seen rather overwhelming. How do you choose when dates clash? How do you fit in homework, or juggle after school activities with the extra needs that having a disabled child brings. A few times recently I have sent my daughter to school without her reading book, or her packed lunch, or her PE kit. And when school calls I am expected to leave everything to get these things to her, even in the midst of caring duties to her brother. Sometimes I am miles away in meetings, driving or simply changing a nappy. Each school sees one child. And they forget the family is much bigger than that one child.

I wish schools would stop missing the bigger picture.

It is easy for us all to see one thing in isolation: a child crying, a struggling mum, someone sitting alone in a cafe looking out the window. It is all too easy to hear noise from the house next door and come to the wrong conclusion, or berate someone for not keeping their garden tidy when the weather seems nice. Without realising we can be quick to judge or form an opinion, even when we have no knowledge of the background, or circumstances of someone else.

I have lost count the amount of comments I have had on my children because they ‘look fine’ or because they won’t reply to them or give eye contact. People are very quick to comment on the fact my children still use a dummy for bed, or wear nappies or carry a comfort cloth around. There is more going on than you think.

Let’s not be guilty of missing the bigger picture.

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Because a disabled child is a disabled family…

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Firstly, I want to stress that I am blessed. But secondly I also want to say that I still struggle.

I struggle with everyday things like taking my children out, buying food when we need it, cooking a meal, juggling hospital appointments with picking up children from school and nursery, dealing with the piles of paperwork and phone calls that have to be made whist functioning on just a few hours sleep, and trying to give both my children the time and attention they need.

My children are both disabled and therefore my entire family is disabled. That may seem a strange thing to say so let me explain what I mean.

This week my children have had some time off again for a holiday weekend. Like parents around the world I want to spend time with my children and enjoy them while they are young. The weather was not in our favour one afternoon so I thought I would do some basic baking with them. They are both 5. One is at school and the other nursery. How hard can it possibly be to make some chocolate crispy cakes?

Nothing is easy when you have a disabled child. My daughter was super excited about baking. My son could see it was something to do with food when the cereal packet came out the cupboard but that was all he understood. I explained the process to them using photographs (google is my friend) and we filled a mixing bowl with some cereal. And then everything went rather crazy after that! Because his sister had poured cereal into a mixing bowl and not a cereal bowl; because she wasn’t sitting at the table to eat breakfast like he expected from seeing the cereal out; because he had no idea what we were doing. So he lashed out. He screamed, bit himself, banged his head on the floor and threw everything about he could get his hands on. What should have been an enjoyable family activity was now becoming yet another casualty of my sons disability. Once again his disability was spilling into the entire family. My daughter could not continue baking, I could no longer give her attention or help and my son was seriously struggling. In the end Naomi made the quickest crispy cakes ever and Isaac sat and ate a bowl of cereal with some chocolate drops in. I made the mistake of trying to drop some melted chocolate in for him. Never again! The photo shows a smiling girl with a cake. But you just don’t know what else went on that day just to achieve that. One disabled child not coping and the entire family struggles.

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Then there was a 9am appointment for one of the children. That is quite common for us. Appointments in general are so common it is rare to have a day without one. But certain times make negotiating the logistics of family life a real challenge. How do you get one to an appointment and back to school 13 miles away and the other to nursery a mile in the opposite direction at the same time? Any family having to juggle hospital, clinic and therapy appointments with other siblings, work commitments and family life knows this dilemma. The disability of one child has a huge knock on effect on the others children and the parents. So often parents of disabled children are unable to continue working because the level of commitment needed to attend these things impacts on working life so much. A disabled child becomes a disabled family.

Then there’s the places you just can’t go to because your child is disabled. Yes more and more places are wheelchair accessible but that doesn’t make them autism accessible, or suitable to take an ill child or a child prone to seizures or public outbursts. Or even make them safe for a child with developmental delays or the ability to escape within seconds. As my children grow the list of places I can take them both to gets smaller. Holidays make that worse as everywhere is busy, noisy and unpredictable. Taking them to the local grocery store just to pick up basics takes military planning, praying the one (yes you read that right just one) disabled trolley is available, the music isn’t too loud, the layout has not been changed and the checkouts are not too long. I can’t just tell my children to follow me, or hold their hands or ask them to help. Picking up a pint of milk is as hard as an army assault course when 9 months pregnant! It is exhausting. One disabled child is all it takes for an entire family to be affected.

Emotionally disability affects everyone too. Parents worrying about test results, operations, high temperatures, infections, the next therapy sessions, the fight for the right services, the concerns about the future. Brothers and sisters torn between wanting time with their parents to support them whilst realising that far more attention has to be on their sibling. Children often becoming young carers long before they should have any real responsibility. Young ears hearing things that no child should have to hear simply because there was no child care to go to and so once again they had to ‘tag along’. Children seeing adults cry and not knowing how to cope with this weight. Brothers and sisters coping with their toys and valued possessions being destroyed by a sibling who never seems to get told off, or who doesn’t seem to care. Children afraid to tell their parents they are being bullied because they don’t want to add to the already heavy burden that their parents are coping with, or worried about asking for money for a school trip because they know money is tight, or even struggling with feelings of resentment towards all the attention the disabled sibling seems to get. That balance is often impossible for parents of disabled children to get right. Whilst one child might be registered disabled, emotionally everyone in the family is disabled too.

One child wakes up screaming and often the whole family gets little sleep. One child is sick at the dinner table or throws the meal across the room and no-one gets to enjoy a meal. One child refuses to go to school or wear the uniform, every child is late as a result. It is a ripple effect.

We need to support disabled children. We need to continue to spread awareness of disability in all it’s forms and continue to invest in services, therapies and medical equipment. But we also need to remember the parents and the brothers and sisters too who live disability on a daily basis. They might look fine but remember…a disabled child is in fact a disabled family. And they ALL need our prayers and support. Thank you!

This is home

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They say home is where the heart is. Home is the one place you should be relaxed, loved, accepted and free to be yourself.
It is where children should be free to play, relax, unwind, receive physical and emotional nourishment, be safe and be able to have fun. Where goofing around, laughing, tickling, cuddles, love and forgiveness should flow freely. A place where growing up and making mistakes is accepted both for children and adults. The one place where you can truly be yourself without judgement.
Yet so often my home is filled with screaming, tantrums, shouting, stress and tension. And sometimes the reason for this disharmony is because home is no longer becoming the place it should be, for my children or for me. The one place that should be free of judgement and pressure is becoming encroached upon by outside influences. In our case well meaning professionals.
Now before I go any further, please give me a minute to explain. I am the mum who writes daily in my children’s home/school diaries, I am on school committees, I attend every meeting about my children, I am continually fighting to get their needs met, and I spend many hours working with them both to help them achieve all they can be. I am a huge believer in working with the professionals and continuing where possible the work they are doing at home. My son has laminated photos all over the kitchen cupboards to help him communicate, my daughter has social stories read to her daily, I read books to them, sing to them and play with them both all the time. But there comes a time when I have to say that ‘this is home’ and we just chill watching a dvd or play tickle monster or just watch my son as he looks out the window watching the rain. Because as much as my children need therapy, and support and training, they also need to be able to be themselves and relax and be allowed to just be children. And home is the one place they should be allowed to do that more than anywhere.
So right now I am clashing with the professionals dealing with my daughter. Because for the first time I am not implementing the same strategies as her team of professionals are. This happens to also have been the first time her ‘team’ have discussed such strategies without us, as parents, having been invited. That could be another blog all to itself! But that outrage aside, the sheer intensity and stress of the current programme for Naomi is such that I have had to say ‘enough is enough’ and just let the nursery carry out the plan there alone. I know this will affect her development, her confidence and the whole continuity of the aims of the plan but I can not, and will not, allow anything that happens to one of my family affect the entire family in such a way as to cause my home to no longer feel like home for everyone.
You see, while I want to move my children on and support them all I can, I must balance the needs of one child with the needs of the entire family. And I need to remember that this is home, not school, or nursery, or a treatment centre or a training course.
Home should not be about constantly meeting targets, or analysing everything that is said and done, or recording every sound, or completing educational objectives. Home is fun, relaxing, and being yourself. My children should not be so stressed at home that they cry every time you look at them.
When I had a bad fall down stairs four months ago and required weekly physiotherapy I scheduled every appointment around my children’s school and nursery times. And I did the exercises as and when I could. Life did not stop at 4pm daily while mum does her 30 minutes of ham string exercises. Because the reality of home life is not like that. You don’t get a ticket at home, wait until your name is called and then have your half hour of therapy 1-1. It has to be worked around household chores, caring for children, hospital appointments, paying bills and phone calls. This is home.
So what is this intense strategy we are not doing? Well the professionals involved in my daughters care have decided to start an intense toilet training regime with her. She will no longer be wearing nappies at nursery and will be taken to the toilet every twenty minutes regardless what she is doing. Today that meant she was taken from a game she was playing with other children after much encouragement to join in, only to come back from the toilet trip to find the game had finished and she had lost. She was then taken during snack and therefore missed out on a drink (how ironic when this could have aided their toiletting plan!), and many other times that she can’t remember as her stress levels had escalated so much. In fact her stress became so high she had a fall in nursery and banged her cheek on the corner of a table. And you know what, never once did she manage anything in the toilet but she still had an accident. And she came home from nursery distraught.

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I am supposed to be taking her every 20 minutes at home too. And nappies are only supposed to be for bedtime. And on top of this we are supposed to record on a daily chart when she is wet, or has a bowel movement, or if anything happens on the toilet. Every twenty minutes from waking to sleep. But I just can’t do it.
Naomi’s twin brother has severe and complex needs. He has seizures, is non verbal, requires support at all times and is also in nappies. I need to cook, clean, eat, attend appointments with my children, leave the house, and play with my children. And I need to keep my marriage going in all this too.
My daughter isn’t coping with the intensity. My son is not understanding mum always seeing to his sister every twenty minutes and not being there when he needs me, my husband is stressed trying to cook, clean and continue life around 20 minute clock alarms and none of us are happy. Home is no longer a place of safety, or fun, or laughter. And going out is a nightmare.
So to everyone’s relief the pull ups are back on. Toilet trips are worked around everyday life and if she isn’t ready, then so what.
This week it was toiletting, a few months ago it was my physio, the year before that we had to record every morsel my daughter ate for the dietician, and next year it could be homework from school shifting the balance.
Whatever it is, the value of home life will always stay strong with me. Home is where we should all be able to be ourselves, be loved and learn through play. Without stress, pressure or targets to meet. Without alarms ringing to call us to the next thing, or without filling in forms every 20 minutes or having to record everything your child eats or says.
It’s getting the balance really. School is school. Hospital is hospital. But here…well here is where you kick off your shoes, wear your pyjamas when you want, cover the living room in train sets, watch dvd’s of lift doors opening and closing as much as you want, make mistakes, be forgiven and be loved whatever.
This is home.

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The most beautiful girl in the world

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Have you ever had a stranger do something so incredibly awesome it just makes you want to cry? I have. And it happened just this week. I pray the kindness and power of what the stranger did for me and my 4-year-old daughter impacts you the way it has impacted me. Some people make a mark on others lives that can never ever be erased.

We had went out as a family to a local place to eat. Everyday events like this have their challenges for every family but more so for mine due to the complexity of my sons needs and the fact we need to balance his needs with that of Naomi’s and somehow all need to get some chance of eating at least part of our meal. We could have chosen anywhere to eat but that night we opted for the local carvery. No waiting to get orders taken, the kids can see what they want on their plates and we can attempt to eat together without the usual demands for nuggets and fries.

Naomi is a challenge to feed in such places as her diet is so restricted and no-one wants a battle or tantrums in public. But a little mashed potato, a few selected vegetables and a little gravy got her picking at her dinner while quietly colouring in. Isaac had his usual loaded plate and was firing handfuls of food into his mouth like a child who had never seen a dinner before. I promise you they are twins but you would never believe it to see them eat!

However, even with food, Isaac’s attention span can only last a limited time and he was soon clambering over dad with food all over his face and fingers, wanting off to run around. A knowing look and wink of the eye was my signal that I was willing to take the strain tonight. To Isaac’s flapping, smiling delight he was getting mum. He brought a smile to my face even though I was missing out on a hot and delicious dinner yet again. But then I glanced at Naomi and my heart sank. Eyes bunched up with tears ready to explode at any minute, and a tender voice so timidly saying through her beautiful blue eyes ‘I want you to stay mummy’. Oh. This isn’t fair. They both need me so differently. And whatever I do one of them is about to protest publicly. I really must get that cardboard cut out of myself done. It’s the only way I can think of being in two places at once. And tonight I so want to be with both my babies.

I chose Isaac but prayed my daughter would know she wasn’t being rejected. I kissed her cheek quickly as Isaac vanished out of sight. ‘Come find mummy baby when you have finished your dinner.’ Oh Lord, this little girl is going through so much. She shouldn’t have to live like this. No wonder she has such tangible confidence issues and low self-esteem. No wonder she never wants to let mummy out of her sight. It must feel to her like she is second best, her wants and needs don’t matter, mummy prefers her brother. None of this is true but how do you balance the high needs of one child physically and communicationally with the high needs of the other socially and emotionally? Who is going to help the siblings of children with high needs? How can I let her know she is beautiful, clever, wanted and loved when my actions tell her I am walking away to see to the needs of her brother? Dad reassured her and encouraged her but it just wasn’t enough.

So my eyes were on my son but my heart was with my daughter. And God was about to use a stranger to impart a truth into her little life that would go deep into her inmost being.

As Isaac ran up and down in a little garden outside a group of strangers watched on as they drank and ate and talked. You could hardly ignore Isaac’s wild flapping, whooping noises and funny walk. But one young couple were watching him with smiling faces and pleasant eyes. And then little Naomi appeared and held my hand in the warm sunshine as we stood side by side watching her energetic brother. The smiling strangers asked if it was her brother to which she smiled and nodded. They invited us closer and handed her two coins, one for her and one for her brother. So very very kind of them. And without prompting Naomi said thank you.

We exchanged a brief conversation that her brother had special needs and that the children were twins. The lady reached into her handbag and fished for something. I hoped it wasn’t more money. She found what she was searching for and beckoned Naomi nearer. Looking my precious daughter in the eye she spoke lovingly and tenderly to her as she asked her a question.

“Would you like to see a picture of the most beautiful girl in the world?”

A whispered “yes”

To which the stranger opened a little love heart make up mirror and showed Naomi her reflection. To see my daughter smile and touch her reflection as she realised this stranger was talking about her was incredibly touching.

“You are so beautiful. Inside and out”
“Every time you look inside here remember you are special”

The words of a stranger. But exactly the words of God as well. Not to mention the exact words she needed to hear that day.

The lady gave her the mirror to keep and Naomi has barely let it go since.

I thanked the lady and her partner for the coins, the gift and the joy they had brought to my heart. But how do you truly thank a stranger for saying exactly what your 4-year-old needed to hear? I thank God once again for putting people across our path in exactly the right timing. And I thank God that the next time we go out it is mummy who will be staying with Naomi too.

I believe we all need to hear this message too. We can all feel left out at times, or second best or not loved. And every one of us needs to know that we are beautiful inside and out. We are special. And Naomi now loves to tell me “Mummy I am the most beautiful girl in the world”. Yes, baby girl, you are indeed.

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