PARENTS

Feeling Unwelcome At Playgroup

05/12/2014 12:54 | Updated 20 May 2015

Group Of Toddlers Painting While Their Carer Tidies

My amazing son, who I'll call J, is three, and was diagnosed soon after birth with a relatively rare genetic condition. We don't yet know how it will affect him as he grows older, but so far he has battled an array of medical problems. One thing's for sure, our little family's life will never be 'normal'...

I walk through the children's centre car park with J holding my hand. "If we don't like it..." he says...

''We'll go home," I say.

A sweet-looking mother with a baby ahead of me holds the door open and we follow her. But she's here for something else and we are waved away towards a distant room.

I can hear raucous singing from behind doors. We walk in and on seeing the small group of slightly unusual looking children I know we're in the right place - the play and support group for children with special needs, here in our new city.

I've left baby M with a babysitter and organised J's day around getting here for this one session even though it's unfathomably held at 1.30pm - a time when young children nap or rest after lunch - and only for an hour, which means a lot of tight planning.

When I emailed the organiser, a parent called Jane, to say it sounded great and to ask if they ever run this group at any other times, she wrote:

'Sarah,

It is what it is. We are lucky to have this at all.

Jane'

I don't reply. I don't think Jane and I are going to get on. If I was organising this group, I'd make it at a better time and for longer. I wouldn't let disabled children be sidelined into getting the inconvenient 1.30 slot at the children's centre when no-one else wants to go.

An unsmiling woman thrusts a clipboard into my hand. 'Can you fill this in,' she says, sounding bored. I write down our names.

There's hardly anyone here, actually. Four children of varying ages who look very sweet. And three mothers (I assume), two of whom drink their coffee and blankly stare into space like zombies, not meeting my eyes. The other mother looks friendly, but I can't talk to her because she's listening to the man singing to the children.

J doesn't want to listen to the man so we sit on the floor and he finds some trains and cars. The man's song seems never-ending. Twenty minutes later he's still singing the same thing. He's not bad but I think 'Shut up'.

No one speaks to anyone else apart from a little girl who comes and brings J a plastic phone.

J is bored. "I don't like it,' he says. "Go home."

"Yes, let's go," I say.

I feel sour and angry. All I can think of is The Challenge Group in London - a place for families with children who have disabilities. There, every new person who visits is warmly welcomed and included, and even given a bunch of flowers.

Friendly, engaged volunteers play with the children and offer everyone homemade cakes. There's a happy, loving, family-like atmosphere. My dad was so touched when he visited that he wept afterwards and said it was a model of what a caring society should do.

The woman with the clipboard comes over to me finally and asks if I have registered at the children's centre. I ask if she is Jane. She says, "No, I'm Sharon. I work at the children's centre. Jane doesn't come to these."

I ask her what sort of support group this is and why we're being ignored, and the embarrassment of my anger makes me start crying. I tell Sharon about the Challenge Group and Jane's rude email and how sad I feel that our new city doesn't have a nice group for disabled children and their parents. I suddenly feel bereft.

She explains that the other parents in the room don't know one another and that hardly anyone comes along to these groups (quelle surprise, given the time slots. No wonder these groups lose their funding).

She adds that it's half term but in term time this group meets monthly at a better time - in the morning - and more people come, and they do speak to one another.

Apparently in term time Jane does bother to turn up. I say I will give it a try. But her email was so unwelcoming that I don't hold out much hope. I might have to start my own branch of The Challenge Group.

I apologise to Sharon for losing it. She's kind and gives us a tour of the children's centre; says she can offer any information we may need. The whole time we're talking, J is saying "Let's go home right now." He and I are completely in tune.

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