A dragon’s back

by Zena Shapter


Sunlight dapples the floorboards beside me, allows me a distraction from writing this. Other mums need to know. But in my telling, I’ll have to admit that for my son’s first four years, I went against my instincts, let friends and family persuade me that he was ‘normal’, that “all kids do that”.

I wanted to believe them. Sitting on the kitchen floor, cradling my knees and rocking, I wanted to believe them. It was my expectations, my parenting, our isolation from family far away – anything but him. How could a three-year-old be depressed?

Sure, I was exhausted. At a birthday party, my sister-in-law asked if I was okay and tears welled in my eyes. She rubbed my arm and the tears streamed down. Perhaps my stress was rubbing off on my little boy, just like the family counsellor had suggested?

My husband and I did what we could to take the pressure off, stopped working two jobs, focused on him. But nothing changed.

So began a year of delving deeper with the psychologist, adjusting our parenting. My son would always be depressed, we were told, it was just a matter of degree. If he didn’t like hugs, or respond to words of affection, we’d just have to live with that. All we could do was provide a stable environment for him, talk gently but act firmly, keep rules simple, reserve 1:1 time for him and teach him about emotions.

Scanning the list an early childhood nurse had given me when he’d turned two, of what ‘trying’ behaviours could be expected of ‘normal’ toddlers, he was still displaying them incessantly, every second of every day. Was he jealous of his little sister? Perhaps it was the amount we’d moved around when he was young? Our unit was small, was he bored?

I took the kids out twice a day to keep him busy. But when his Thomas trains wouldn’t line up in an exact straight line, he’d scream. If he didn’t get the right colour cup and plate, he’d throw them on the floor. He’d always been an active baby, off the other side of the park, beach or room while the other babies sat to look at toys. But now he was four… off to school in a year… and if I corrected his letter ‘g’ he’d rip the paper away. Quietly my gut whispered, “surely it shouldn’t be this hard?”.

That winter, my son and I both developed respiratory problems. I saw an Ear/Nose/Throat specialist (ENT), discovered I was allergic to dust mites. With identical symptoms, my son was probably the same, they said. Come summer I improved, but my son was still coughing. Doctors suggested asthma, hayfever and colds. I wondered if saliva was dripping down his throat at night, making him cough each morning. He did tend to sleep on his back a lot.

Finally, one bright doctor looked in his mouth. “Does he snore then?” the doctor asked.
“Yes.” I nodded. “The whole place shakes with it.”
“Ah, then maybe he has sleep apnea? His tonsils are the biggest I’ve ever seen.”

He sent my son for an x-ray of his adenoids, the lymph tissue behind the nose, found them almost twice the normal size. They were preventing oxygen from reaching his little brain at night. When I got home, I googled ‘sleep apnea’, a severe form of sleep disordered breathing that can lead to death, and was amazed to read the symptoms: depression, moodiness, irritability; hyperactivity, lack of attention; aggressive behaviour; snoring, mouth breathing; daytime tiredness; bedwetting; poor weight gain… My son ticked every box.

So why, oh why, had no one mentioned sleep apnea before? None of the other doctors we’d seen had suggested it, none of the psychologists or counsellors even mentioned it. It hadn’t been in any of the parenting books, on any parenting website.

Monitoring my son, I found he held his breath at night, sometimes for 15 seconds. He ate with his mouth open, noisily. He was slim and constantly hungry, but couldn’t eat steak, chops or anything chewy. He was moody and irritable – no wonder, if he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep his whole life!

When we saw our ENT specialist, he said my son’s large adenoids and tonsils were also preventing his Eustachian tubes from draining, so he couldn’t hear properly. Always suspicious of his hearing, we’d taken him for four hearing tests over four years. But they’d all reported his hearing as normal.

“Ahhh,” said our ENT specialist, “but each pass was borderline.” Only no one had told us that. “Look, his ear drums are orange. They should be grey…”

There was so much fluid in his ears, he must have been having repeated middle ear infections.

“He needs grommets, immediately. Otherwise his ear drums will burst.”

Two operations later, his tonsils and adenoids also removed, and my son runs to me from the school playground for a hug. His best subject is maths, and he can happily sit for an hour drawing every scale on a dragon’s back.

“I love you, Mummy,” he says when I kiss him goodnight.

The sunlight fades from the floorboards beside me as a cloud passes over, and I imagine another mum sitting on the floor of her kitchen, rocking herself forward and back.

Opening a new document, I start to write.


© Zena Shapter

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem