Wheelie inspirational: Cerebral palsy is no bar to being a mum for Sarah
Throughout her life Fermanagh woman Sarah Griffiths hasn't let cerebral palsy stand in her way. Now the proud mum of two is helping empower others and challenge young and old to celebrate those with physical challenges or differences. Jenny Lee finds out more
BORN premature and deprived of oxygen at birth, resulting in cerebral palsy, Sarah Griffith's family were told she might not live and that she would never walk or talk. However, throughout her life the Fermanagh woman has drawn upon her inner strength to prove the critics wrong.
"I defied the odds from the outset and fought to do everything I was told I couldn’t and in some cases shouldn’t do," says the 37-year-old, who has gone on to graduate from university in Interactive Multimedia Design, pass her driving test, travel and do – so far – two skydives.
Although having fought against using a wheelchair during her childhood and teenage years, after graduating and living independently she relented to using it on a daily basis.
Sarah met her husband Danny in 2008; they married in 2013 and, like many couples, discussed starting a family.
"I never worried that my disability would prevent me from becoming a parent because I knew there was no medical reason it would," says Sarah.
Despite being labelled high risk, the only impact Sarah's pregnancy had on her was that as her bump grew it made her less mobile and more reliant on her wheelchair.
"The biggest challenge I found was getting healthcare professionals to see me as a mum first, wheelchair user second and to trust that I knew my own body and it’s limitations," says Sarah, who first time round was gripped by fear and self-doubt.
"Having previously lost a baby, I was purely focused on bringing my son into the world alive and well. I gave little or no consideration to the labour and birth process and completely handed everything over to healthcare professionals. I surrendered completely to their advice – or, in some cases, lack of it – and felt I had no option but to go along with c-section delivery. That said it was still a good experience and I used mindfulness techniques to stay calm and centred."
It was just after her son Dexter was born that Sarah started her blog, Wheelie Momma Diaries. Initially meant as a personal diary, within a week her posts had attracted thousands of followers.
"I began getting messages from strangers worldwide saying either that they dreamt of becoming a parent but hadn’t dared to believe it might be possible until they read my story, or from other disabled mums some with three or four kids who confirmed for me that everything I knew in my heart was true and possible."
Being a new mum with cerebral palsy wasn't without it's challenges, of course, but ones that her family fully researched and embraced.
"I was able to lift Dexter from his cot by myself thanks to the ingenious design of a custom-made cot by local charity Remap NI and we also devised a simple but brilliant changing table where I can easily fit my wheelchair in the middle and the top is exactly the right height."
Sarah advices parents-to-be with disabilities to connect with similar families to see what equipment is available or what can be designed to make day-to-day care easier.
"Having this in place straight away will take away the worry or stress from these early weeks and leave you free to be fully present with your new baby and, crucially, hands on with all aspects of care."
After Dexter was born Sarah also qualified as a GentleBirth antenatal instructor. GentleBirth, which uses coaching and a downloadable app, combines brain science, birth science and technology to empower positive birth through preparation, as well as giving the birthing partner a more active role.
When she became pregnant for a second time Sarah had a very different experience.
"I trusted myself, my body and my baby and felt completely empowered to make decisions. I had a very easy pregnancy and planned for a non-assisted delivery using all my Gentlebirth knowledge and tools.
"My strong-willed daughter, however, had other ideas and was not ready to co operate so although she was born by c-section it was very different circumstances to two years earlier because it was my choice entirely and I remained in complete control throughout. So much so that my daughter was born at 10:10am on Wednesday and I was home in my own kitchen for lunch on Thursday."
Juggling a baby and toddler is difficult for everyone – so how did Sarah manage?
"Having two little explorers in the house can be physically challenging. Interestingly though, they both seem to save their most adventurous displays for when their dad is close by.
"When they are alone with me they seem to know just how far they can push things and not go past that point. It seems that rather than having me as a mother being a restriction as I first feared, it has made both my kids more perspective and intuitive, they can very quickly read a situation and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
"There are times when I wish I could play certain games with them or had more strength to lift them both at the same time like their dad can but then I remember, dad doesn’t get the sleepy, milky cuddles. We all have our special roles."
As well as caring for three-year-old Dexter and 14 month old Daisy, Sarah also works full-time in BT as a social media ambassador and complaint handler and has just launched her own empowerment coaching programme, Mastery in Motion. Delivered online, it is designed to help people master themselves in all aspects of life, whether that is a happier relationship with themselves or another or a magical birth experience.
She has also recently had her first book published. The idea for My Mum Is A Superhero began when Sarah was first pregnant and worried that, as her son got older, would he embarrassed by her or be picked on because of her? Unable to find a book that illustrated their family dynamic, she put pen to paper herself.
"With the book My Mum Is A Superhero I want my own kids and others worldwide to look at people with physical challenges or differences and celebrate rather than pity or avoid them.
"Furthermore this book is an invitation to parents and children with any physical disability to see beyond any perceived barriers to their own potential and in doing so create the life they dream of."
Sarah will be sharing her experience of pregnancy and birth as a mum in a wheelchair and her journey through fear to freedom at the NI Positive Birth Conference in Belfast's Riddel Hall on Friday September 27.
The conference is open to anyone interested in positive birth including expectant parents, new parents, health professionals and voluntary groups. Other speakers include legendary French obstetrician and childbirth specialist Michel Odent, Mark Harris (Birthing4 Blokes) and Dr Niamh McCabe, Consultant Obstetrician. Tickets from Positivebirthconference.co.uk.
:: My Mum Is A Superhero is available to buy from Sarah's website Wheeliemomma.co.uk or Amazon worldwide.