To celebrate Father’s Day, four men share their experiences on the trials and tribulations of parenting while living with an SCI.
Written by Martin Heng
As someone who has just sustained a life-changing traumatic spinal cord injury, the focus is often on the trauma you are undergoing. But of course, the trauma is shared by so many other people, especially your immediate family. If you’re a father, there’s a tremendous impact on all aspects of family life and huge adjustments to be made by everyone, including the children, no matter how young. In this article, to commemorate Father’s Day, Trevor Robinson a member of the Forward Membership Panel, and I will share our experiences around these adjustments. But we will also hear from Jason Ellery and Joel Sardi, whom both decided to start a family after their accident.
At the time of Trevor’s accident, Trevor was a father of four sons ranging in age from 23 to 14, his eldest living with a severe developmental disability. At the time of my accident, my children were thirteen, nine and seven. As Trevor succinctly puts it, “Family adjustments were considerable, physically, emotionally and socially.” But we have both been so lucky to have experienced the incredible resilience of children. “Despite my diminished capabilities,” says Trevor, “my sons adapted magnificently, making me a very proud dad.” I couldn’t agree more! In the short and the long term, it’s not just your role as a father that changes, but also your children’s role as children.
The changes that take place within the family dynamic can even lead to role reversal. “At times,” admits Trevor, “life gets me down. During these times, I’ve discovered that my sons have taken on the father: encouraging, sanguine advice and comfort. I couldn’t be prouder of them during these tough emotional times.”
My children were all somewhat younger. Still, they also stepped up. As he got older, my son progressively took on traditionally male tasks (“dad’s jobs”) around the house that required physical strength. In the meantime, my daughters got used to doing little jobs for me, such as filling my water bottle or helping me put my coat on.
“As I’ve learnt about my SCI,” says Trevor, “My family has joined me on this path of constant discovery.” And the same can be said of the lessons we’ve learned through living with SCI: patience, forbearance, adaptability, and empathy are all virtues that our children have also gained.
Trevor and my children were old enough to remember us as able-bodied fathers who were physically active and engaged. Only a year before my accident, my wife and I took our children – then aged eleven, seven and five – on an eight-week overland trip through Borneo. We frequently went on bike rides as a family with my youngest daughter in a child seat. I also did half the Round the Bay in a Day (about 100 km) with my then 12-year-old son. As Trevor says, “My boys were at a stage of life when dads typically bond with their sons, sharing experiences like camping, sport or other physical activities.” This is true the world over, but particularly so in Australia. One primary reason Australia punches above its weight in sport is the time, energy and commitment parents put into playing with and supporting their kids in sports and activities. It’s undeniably hard coming to terms with the fact that you’re never again going on bike rides, playing backyard cricket or throwing a Frisbee with your children. It’s naive to think that your children don’t also mourn that loss.
Inevitably, your partner’s role also changes after you sustain a spinal cord injury, including the role they play as a parent. And here, too, it’s remarkable – but perhaps not uncommon – how similar Trevor’s experience is to mine. “During the early period after my accident,” admits Trevor, “my wife had to assume the role of dad partially. Her stoicism during this time was awe-inspiring. Father’s Day is as much a celebration of her role as a surrogate dad as it is for me as a genetic dad.”
How lucky we are that we have partners who were not only willing but also able to take on this role. When I spent two months at Project Walk in California, my wife took our children on an outback road trip to Uluru, and while I was on another overseas trip, she took them on an overland trip to the Daintree from Melbourne. She also took them on the classic seven-day Overland hike in Tasmania when they got older.
I’ve also been lucky that all my children attended a very active Scouts troop and engaged in many outdoor, camping and boating activities. As other parents became leaders and helped out on camps or working bees, I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t contributing – something many fathers living with SCI must lament. So when the role of treasurer became vacant, I jumped at the chance to perform an indispensable role that could be done using just my phone and computer. Like Trevor says, “For dads with an SCI, focus on what you can achieve with your kids, and ignore the rest.”
Jason and Joel are younger fathers with much younger children who know their dads only as wheelchair users. There’s been no trauma or difficult transition, so both have enjoyed just being dads. Like all prospective fathers, Joel “was excited, nervous, anxious and worried about what sort of dad I was going to be,” which immediately gave way to feelings of “immense pride and a sense of true purpose” as soon as his first daughter was born. Which dad hasn’t felt like this?
Trevor remarked on the “developing notion” of fatherhood, where fathers have a deeper emotional connection with their children, which Trevor sees epitomised by his sons as they have become fathers.
Jason loves “seeing the kids happily playing together or joining in with their silly games”. Joel is even more effusive. “Driving home from work, turning into the driveway and seeing Esme in the window smiling, waving and watching her scream with excitement to see me! As I get through the door, she kisses my leg or my hand, whatever she can reach. My wife passes me Luna. I kiss her soft, chubby cheeks and hear about my girls’ activities.” He says, “There will always be physical limitations. Still, emotionally there are none – that has been the biggest lesson for me. Being able to listen to my kids, to watch them and show them affection goes a long way for these little ones!”
All four of us know how handy – and rewarding – it can be to have a lap for young children to sit on when they get tired. As Joel says, “I can soothe them better in my chair than my wife!”
It can also be a lot of fun: my girls still laugh about standing on my casters and clinging to the back of my chair as I went top speed, while for Trevor, taking his grandkids for rides is one of his favourite activities.
And there are so many things you can do that don’t require physical effort: bedtime stories, board games, helping with homework, movie nights or just kisses and cuddles. There’s also the more serious side of parenting, which Trevor sums up as “passing on manners, sage advice and values”, as well as being a good role model. While we may not always be able to partake in physical activities, there are plenty of ways in which we can be great fathers.