“I’m so sorry we’re late, the baby had an unexpected nap.” If you ever hear me say this, assume it’s a lie. If we’re late for anything – and, as we are as a family habitually late for everything: playdates; medical appointments; and every morning without fail, nursery – it’s rarely the fault of my younger son.
It’s me who’s the wildcard. Whenever we’re due to go anywhere, you can bet that I’ll lose my keys. Or get lost en route. Or get the day entirely wrong.
It’s completely possible for me to get stuck in a loop of needing something from another room, then forgetting what it is as soon as I walk in there, and the loop can last anything up to three hours. Sometimes just the sheer knowledge I’m likely to make everyone late again is enough to make us late. I get overwhelmed with shame and guilt, and have to stare at a wall for 45 minutes to calm down.
I say “the baby had an unexpected nap” because it’s easier than saying: “I have ADHD, and I can’t yet manage myself, never mind manage my family.”
ADHD is a developmental disorder of the brain that impairs the processes governing a person’s executive function – in the UK, it registers as a disability. My ADHD makes me forgetful, impulsive, easily distracted, and I cannot organise my way out of a paper bag. I also experience wild swings of emotion, tend to daydream, and am a fidget.
In short, I am the opposite of everything I’ve been brought up to believe makes a good mum. A good mum is kind, firm, and capable – and is the gateway to the family calendar. I don’t even know where my family calendar is.
Raising a young family is joyful, but also involves sleep deprivation and the stress of managing constantly moving small parts. Add ADHD into the mix and every day can feel like a giant chaotic pile-on, and an exercise in failure.
I am always the late, stressed, sweaty one at any sort of children’s event – and more often than not I’ve forgotten a nappy, wipes, or a snack, and have to beg spares of the other (better, I think) mums. Sometimes I fantasise about finding the calmest, most stylish, together-seeming mum in the room, and offering her money if she’d come home and fix my life for me.
We have missed entire terms of expensive baby swimming lessons, purely because I mixed up the day – not just once, but for weeks on end. After I had failed to turn up for my kids’ vaccinations three times in a row, the GP sent me a concerned letter about the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement.
The smallest things can overwhelm me – my kids shouting at me in the morning before my coffee has kicked in, for instance. I’m lucky that both of them breastfed on demand, and dictated their own sleep schedules, as I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to devise or stick to one myself.
“Taking ADHD medication for the first time was like putting glasses on after a lifetime of not knowing I was myopic.”
In truth, I’ve felt like I am failing since the minute I became a mother. I was only diagnosed with ADHD last year – at the age of 42 – when I collapsed under the weight of trying to manage parenting, a freelance career and half a household. My kids were doing okay, but having essentially forgotten to submit any work invoices, I was sailing perilously close to bankruptcy, while the house was buried in piles of dirty laundry.
As late in life as I received it, I found my diagnosis life-changing.
Taking ADHD medication for the first time was like putting glasses on after a lifetime of not knowing I was myopic. My mood lifted. The chatter in my brain – which I’d always assumed was anxiety, but I’m now learning might be “internalised hyperactivity” – quietened down. My thoughts laid themselves out one-by-one in front of me, like number blocks. I think I might have cried.
Understanding that my scattiness, faddiness, inability to sit still, tendency to get lost, habit of interrupting people, short-lived obsessions, wildly varying academic results, and total failure to “adult” on so many levels was down to a medical condition – and not, as I privately decided early on in life, personality flaws that proved I was a pretty worthless person – was revelatory.
Post-diagnosis, life is starting to improve. I have a cleaner, a part-time admin person (through the government’s Access to Work scheme), and a coach who’s helping me build realistic, ADHD-friendly strategies for my work and family life.
The legacy of a lifetime of undiagnosed ADHD can actually be more destructive than the ADHD symptoms themselves. I’ve spent my life berating myself about not “being better”, because those are the messages I internalised from my own family, teachers, managers and previous boyfriends, who thought my lack of focus was a choice, and not a disability.
And it’s hard to get out of the habit of disliking myself. I find myself getting angry because I’m not “bossing ADHD now that I’m diagnosed” (even though that was just a year ago, and I’ve only been on a working dose of medication for a month or so). These are old, destructive patterns. Self-forgiveness is probably the most helpful skill I’m learning. After all, I wouldn’t yell at someone else with a disability to “just try harder”, so why is it acceptable to do it to myself?
I’m still not as good a mum as I’d like – but then, who is? I still get overwhelmed in the morning before the meds kick in. My husband and I try to split household responsibilities according to our strengths, but we still fight about tasks I’ve left undone, or bills I’ve left unpaid. And we’re still late all the time.
What I’m learning is that none of this makes me a bad mum. My kids are happy, loved, fed and played with.
They’re also more likely than other children to have ADHD themselves, because it’s a genetic condition. One of my main responsibilities as a parent is to teach them what I’m learning about self-acceptance and self-care. Which is why at least 70% of my ADHD strategies involve planning in early nights with a book, nights out with friends, and – crucially – not torturing myself for being late.
If that means laying the blame at the feet of my younger son’s fictitious napping, so be it.