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A Parent Perspective: Let's Talk About Feelings

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Denial in the face of challenge only delays results. When we overcome our fear and the stigma we put on the truth, that’s when progress begins…

Mike Gatopoulos a man, stands beside a barrel in a hoody at the counter of his coffee shop, seventh coffee in brantford
Mike Gatopoulos is a Lansdowne parent, a Family Support Network volunteer, and a Centre board member.

Mike Gatopoulos has been visiting Lansdowne Children’s Centre with regularity for nearly ten years. His young son Jack was born with Williams syndrome, a developmental condition that occurs when someone is missing a small piece of chromosome 7. It’s not a condition he inherited from his parents, and not something you could easily point to a cause. It’s a twist of fate that starts a change in a family’s journey.

Seeing Jack enter through the doors at Lansdowne is an experience. He is highly social, quick to offer hugs and tell you he “loves you,” even if you just met. His nickname with front desk staff is ‘the Mayor’ because of his confidence and ownership of the space. And why not? Lansdowne is a safe space for Jack, a place he’s been visiting since he was a toddler to receive occupational therapy and physiotherapy to help with muscle development and coordination.

“I remember when Jack first started at Lansdowne, I pushed back against the label of him being special needs. I was saying he just needs a little help swallowing his food, he’s just spitting it out after he chews it. It’s not a big deal. He’s sitting late and he’s not crawling yet, but it’s not a big deal. He’s not talking, but he’ll catch up, he’ll be fine… etc.”

Mike credits Jack’s mom for her strength and pushing the referral process to get Jack into Lansdowne. The self-referral for swallowing issues propelled their intake experience, a “blur” to Mike this many years later.

“I do remember that Jack’s HITs team coordinator, Sandi, came out to our house. We talked about what the process was going to be like and answered a lot of questions. When you have a kid who needs additional help suddenly there’s information coming at you from everywhere. I can say that Lansdowne was incredibly thorough. Some of the questions they asked and things they did were things that would never have crossed our minds. They were very involved with Jack right away. It was nice, it was comforting to feel like we had somebody in our corner.”

A young family still making discoveries as new parents, Mike shared how his early denial was wiped from reality. It was about six months after Jack started services at Lansdowne when the family was confronted with his Williams syndrome diagnosis. This wasn’t a case of catching up on missed milestones. Jack’s genetic condition meant he would need assistance for much of his life.

It was kind of the world came crashing down. There was definitely a grief process, because all the thoughts and dreams of your kid’s life and all the amazing things they’re going to do – some of those things are gone. And that’s a lot to deal with as a parent.”

Once special needs become part of your child’s identity, your eyes open wider to inequity. Opportunities for participation and access to activities become far more elusive. As Mike put it, Jack is already missing a part of his seventh chromosome, why should he have to miss out on camps and teams and other kid experiences too? It’s just not fair.

Outside of recreation, there are many other tasks that once seemed routine but now become far more complicated. Simple things other families might take for granted, like a trip to the dentist.

“Jack needed dental surgery. Bad teeth is a symptom often associated with Williams syndrome. What’s terrifying about that is another symptom of Williams, the risk of sudden death associated with the use of anesthesia. So instead of a short trip to the dentist to check for cavities, Jack had to wait months to eventually get into Sick Kids for a life-risking treatment.”

Mike was brutally honest about the emotional impact on he and his family. On top of the anxiety of the unknown new parenting challenges that that he would face, there were feelings of fear, grief, and self-loathing for thinking himself selfish for worrying about how becoming a parent of a child with special needs would impact his future and his family’s future.

There’s a lot of guilt that comes with thinking, what about my retirement? Is my kid going to live with me now for the rest of my life? What does that make my life look like? There’s a lot of shame for having those thoughts…There’s a lot to unpack, a lot of stuff as a parent you keep inside because you don’t want to share those feelings. You don’t want to be that person who gets labelled as a ‘Bad Person’ because I thought these natural, grieving type things.”

At Lansdowne Mike found support for his family and opportunity to talk openly about the feelings he, and they, were experiencing. They were welcomed into a community that shares the same challenges, realizing that tens of thousands of parents have already walked the same path. There’s comfort in knowing you are not alone.

“That experience was a big part in why I joined the Family Support Network. Knowing that there are other parents, going through the same denial and facing the same stigmas. I really wanted to join the FSN to be an outlet for other people having those same feelings and be able to talk about it in a safe space. We’re all allowed to feel bad in our way, and that’s okay. It’s part of the grieving process.”