Continuing in the spirit of International Women’s Day, My Family Our Needs got the chance to chat with double Paralympic Champion, Libby Clegg.
Libby, is not only a gold-medal winning athlete, Dancing on Ice star and holder of an MBE, she is also a young mum. Today on Mothering Sunday, Libby talks to us about her experience of motherhood, and offers advice to other partially sighted mums and mums-to-be.
Q: Hi Libby! Thank you very much for joining me. We’ve just had International Women’s Day and I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be here today with someone who captures the essence of the day so brilliantly, that being inspiring other women.
A: Ahh don’t be daft, I’m just a normal person!
Q: I’m obviously keen to discuss your fantastic sporting achievements, but we’re turning our attention today towards motherhood and I know you’re keen to offer some advice to other partially sighted mothers. First of all, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your little boy?
A: My little boy Edward is nearly two, he’s two in April in fact. I’m going to be honest; I can’t believe how quickly it’s all happened. Especially when thinking back to the beginning of lockdown when he couldn’t even stand up, let alone walk or anything. Now he’s running around and climbing on the sofas so he’s turning into a right little monster to be honest! Since Christmas I think I’ve watched Shrek about eight or nine hundred times which is definitely not an exaggeration! He’s doing really well and is a nice kid generally. Most of the time he’s pretty easy apart from when he has temper tantrums. He’s got this crazy curly hair as well which definitely adds to his personality.
Q: I suppose it’s been quite a unique experience for Mothers to see their children develop and grow in an environment such as lockdown that you could have never predicted?
A: Yeah, it’s been pretty strange to be honest. Especially at the beginning of lockdown last year which I can’t believe is almost a year ago now. Back then, Edward was starting to play with different toys and transfer over to other things and develop more. But we couldn’t access those things and even trying to order stuff online was a bit of nightmare. Some of the things we needed just weren’t really available, so it was quite difficult. It’s not as if Edward was even ready to paint or draw or anything like that as he was still lying on the floor most of the time. I’m a massive charity shop goer and they weren’t open either, I also love getting stuff off Facebook too, but everyone was really cautious. That all took a little bit of getting used to, but I managed to keep him in nursery the majority of lockdown just purely based on his social development. I think it’s really important so that’s been really good and has definitely been a bit of a life saver for me. Honestly, I have so much respect for full time mums, I do not know how they do it, it’s intense!
I actually made the decision to have a baby and a family despite being in the middle of my career. I still felt like it was something that I really wanted to do, and I didn’t feel like I should put it on the back burner just for sport. Dan and I both have genetic eye conditions, both hereditary. It’s very unlikely that Edward will get my condition, but he’s got a 50% chance of inheriting Dan’s so it was quite a big decision but Dan and I both look at it that we both have very fulfilling lives and we both have a lot to offer as parents, regardless of whether we have a child that can see very well or not.
It’s been a great experience and I think initially I was nervous about the usual things that all parents worry about. But eventually I became pretty chilled out about having a baby before people started asking me things like ‘are you going to get extra help in’ or ‘do you need someone to come and help you look after him’ and it made me really question whether I was actually competent as a parent or even as a person to deal with parenthood. I kind of looked at it from the perspective that I am actually a very capable person, very independent, I problem solve on a daily basis overcoming different challenges. There’s also been lots of other people, especially blind mums, that do a fantastic job and are absolutely incredible mothers. I thought then there’s no reason why I can’t, but I initially felt a bit nervous about the usual things like would I know if they weren’t feeling very well, what if they had chocolate on their face or snot hanging off their nose, all these things were what I was worrying about when he was really little. But now he’s a bit bigger, my worry is about being in a park and losing him because he doesn’t really fully understand that I can’t see very well at all, so he doesn’t know that he needs to stay close to me and things like that. It’s just about finding ways around that and being able to give him a bit of space to develop, learn and make mistakes without hanging on to him just for my security. There are little things that I’ve done to try and help monitor where he is but he’s quite good and he talks to me quite a lot which is helpful. It’s challenge after challenge but even now he really likes me reading books to him. I have to try and memorise the books before I read them to him so I’m not trying to look at the page without him being able to see it. It’s all about just trying to keep up with him really!
Q: Leading on from that and you’ve touched upon this already, but did you always want to be a mother, and did you ever question your desire to be a mother because of your sight loss?
A: I always wanted to be a mum. I didn’t know when it was going to happen or if it was going to happen, I just knew that I wanted it. Obviously being in elite sport, it’s not really the done thing. A lot of athletes don’t have kids until after their career is over so in that sense, I wasn’t 100% sure. I was never worried about being a blind mum, I kind of felt like it was other people worrying for me rather than myself. Even some of my sister’s friends have said ‘does she have someone come and check on him’ and it’s just like no, I am a capable person and I think I’m more independent than most able-bodied people. But it’s more other people perceptions of myself than actually what I felt at the time.
Q: I was doing some reading before we sat down to speak and came across the horrible story about the experience you had on the tube when you were pregnant, which is completely unacceptable. Did people around you take action in that situation, how did they respond, and have you ever experienced anything like that before becoming pregnant?
A: I’ve experienced it a little bit before being pregnant. I live in Loughborough and there’s a very high Asian population here. I’ve found that a lot of Asian people don’t particularly like dogs, it’s a cultural thing and that doesn’t matter where they’re from in Asia, it tends to be a very broad thing. I’ve had Chinese people run away from me down the street away from me because they’re scared of my guide dog. I’ve always been aware of being cautious of other people’s feelings and opinions, but obviously I need to get around at the end of the day so I’m never rude to anybody or anything, but in that situation you mentioned I just felt so disappointed that culturally, there used to be chivalry and I know there’s a lot about women’s rights and being treated equally but I think ultimately it comes down to having good manners and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman. Being heavily pregnant and evidently having a sight impairment, I think I was about eight months at the time and this gentleman kept asking me if I was okay and he was the only person that tried to help me. I was just really disappointed, but I didn’t want to make a fuss. There were women who were sat in the disabled seats and they just didn’t care. It just made me really sad because we should be supporting people. Thankfully, I’m a very strong woman so for the hour train journey I stood the whole way.
Q: Are you in touch with other mothers who are having similar experiences to you and how do they compare?
A: I met this lady called Hatel at another event I did and she’s sort of the only other blind Mum I’ve had any contact with. She’s told me that when she was pregnant with her second child that somebody verbally abused her on the train and said that she was just breeding to get more benefits and that taxpayers were having to pay for it. She had a job and everything and was actually on her way to work at the time, so this was obviously ridiculous. Some people are just horrible people, but she’s been really helpful giving me other advice about being a mum and talking about buggies, generally getting around and different little bits and pieces that can help me manage things a bit more easily. Some of the stuff she’s told me was just total common sense though which has helped me to try things differently and get jobs done more quickly.
Q: You’re fiercely independent as we already know, but you mentioned you had welcomed some additional support. How did this help you?
A: I joined a Facebook group called ‘Blind Mums Connect’ which was helpful as other mums were posting questions about all sorts of random things, some more relevant than others, but it was just nice finding a kind of community because it’s not that I’m not involved in the Paralympic world where I have friends with other disabilities, but they’re not necessarily visually impaired. There are just some things that sighted people don’t understand about what I go through on a daily basis so it’s great having the opportunity to talk to other mums about things that they might do differently using little tricks. That was really helpful, but my family have been really supportive despite living far away. For me, getting back into training was helpful and I’ve had friends around me that have lent a hand. My sighted friends have even told me about nipple creams and all sorts to help me get by! It’s great just having people around you like that who have had kids as well to give advice and just to let you know that you’re doing alright. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t see or not, everyone’s got the same anxieties around the same things. No one knows what they’re doing!
Q: In terms of advice that you’ve learned from other mums, what advice would you offer other women with sight loss that might be concerned about motherhood or worried that they may not be able to fully support their child?
A: I think to be honest, really just having confidence in themselves. I think one of the great things about having a visual impairment is that you learn to problem solve and overcome challenges literally in everyday life all the time. Not that having a child is another challenge, even though it is kind of, it’s just something that you will learn to adapt to. There will be things that you find really difficult and there’s other things that you won’t find so hard. That’s unfortunately just what life is like anyway, but you just have to believe in yourself. I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to be able to do it, but I have – I’m no better than anybody else. I’m just a normal person like the rest of us at the end of the day.
Q: We touched upon earlier about reading and I read myself a little bit about the innovative ways you enjoy reading time with Edward. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
A: He really likes the book ‘Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy’. I think it’s because it’s got dogs in it to be honest as he quite likes dogs. I put my headphones on, and I watch it on YouTube as an audiobook which means I can hear when a page is being turned. I find that really useful knowing that I can read to Edward as best as possible without having to bring the book to close to my face so that he can’t see it. Some other books I’ve just memorised as I’ve read them that many times, but that’s probably been one of the biggest challenges. Reading is obviously so important for children. I listen to audiobooks, but I didn’t want to force that on Edward. It’s important that he’s reading books and things like that, when’s he’s a bit older I’m sure that will be something that he’ll want to do. Dan was telling me about something that they did with a book last year where they got a QR code which linked to an app that allowed you to read along on your phone. I think it’s so good to have something like that as it just makes things so much easier being able to know exactly where you are in the story and when to turn the page and things like that.
Q: How have conversations and awareness around sight loss changed during your lifetime?
A: I feel like the London Paralympics in 2012 was the moment when talking about disability in this country became much more open in general. Prior to that, I felt like people saw disability in a very negative way. It was something wrong with you and I do think there are so many other amazing advocates for sight loss out there, but because I’m in sport, it’s something that I relate to more. It’s just the fact that after the Paralympics in London, I just felt like people saw disability in a much more positive light and people felt like they could ask questions more. Even though I know Channel 4 can be a bit controversial sometimes, I feel like when you’re talking about disability you do need to break down those barriers by having a bit of a laugh about it and sharing funny experiences. You do look like a bit of numpty sometimes with some of the stuff that happens, but I think it’s become a lot easier for people to ask those questions and I think being different is more acceptable now. It’s cool to be different and people are embracing that a lot more, especially using social media to share different experiences. I think it’s been really positive for the general public to have an idea of what your life can be like on a daily basis. I think there’s different role models now too, it’s not just your usuals. There are lots of options out there if you’re not into sport, you could be into fashion and make up or media, there’s different musicians too. There’s certainly so many different avenues you can go down with people that you can aspire to be like as a blind person now.
Q: Leading on from that, what more do you think needs to be done to further raise awareness of positivity surrounding sight loss. Do you have any aspirations for this?
A: It’s really difficult, especially for someone like myself as I don’t really look blind. It’s very difficult to explain to the general public that I can’t see very well and give them an idea of what that feels like when I just look like them. So I think a little bit more education needs to take place about what my circumstances look like and for me the only way that this can happen is through the media, predominantly television because that’s what people are watching most. It’s a difficult one but I think it’s getting there and it’s just about people having an open mind really.
Q: This has been wonderful! Thank you so much for answering my questions. How will you be spending Mother’s Day?
A: I’m doing an Instagram Live fitness class on Sunday morning so feel free to join. I’m hoping I get a cup of tea and a bit of toast in bed, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen! I’ve obviously sent some flowers off to my Mum, I remembered! She lives about four and a half hours away, so I had to get in there early. Normally I’m last minute on a Saturday night trying to flowers for the next day!