Kate E. Reynolds

  • Mergirl

    The Minister opened the paper, read its contents then, smiling, said to my daughter,

    “What lovely writing you have.”

    Francesca stared resolutely into his eyes.

    “May God bless you.”

    He said, gesticulating and passing onto the next worshipper. It was the end of the service. Puzzlement passed over my daughter's face before she stomped out of church.

    For a child of eight, Francesca could move quickly; with a sense of purpose, she could outpace even my ex-nurse's walk. I found myself running with my son in a buggy to catch her.

    “Call himself a Vicar! What happened to performing miracles?”

    I was the one who was puzzled this time. She answered my quizzical look with,

    “The letter I wrote to him. Why didn't he do anything?”

    Francesca was outraged. It took some time to calm her and squeeze from her that the note had contained her dearest wish, the only thing she wanted in the world. And that was? To be a mermaid.

    From being a very young girl, my daughter had been fascinated with everything 'Mer' starting with the inevitable 'Little Mermaid' movies (both, innumerable times, often back to back). From that she progressed to obsessively playing the associated computer game, rising rapidly through the different levels and demonstrating a competitive streak I hadn't known before – even if it were only with herself. She had the most extraordinary eye for detail and would describe a person from one grey head hair down to a slightly misshapen toenail. She could also explain the exact mermaid tail she wanted, including the precise aquamarine shade and the size of its scales.

    Francesca had poor motor and hand-eye coordination due to dyspraxia and didn't ride a bicycle until the age of ten. Her efforts at sports were dismal – even comical – as she trotted towards even the tiniest of hurdles, stepped over them with difficulty and took time to recover after each one. My daughter was the child no-one wanted on their team – she was always last and reluctantly taken on, with a sigh or protest.

    Her lack of sporting prowess wasn't what prevented Francesca from making friendships, though. She simply seemed unable to create any closeness with other kids. There was always some kind of drama of seemingly nebulous origin. Francesca herself was unable to pinpoint the difficulty, just a vehement feeling that another child – usually another girl – was categorically 'wrong' in one behaviour or another towards her. She verbalised these events in unequivocal terms, often with such great distress that I would ask the school with regularity for support.

    Those friendships Francesca did manage to make, initially, were with older children who would protect her against what she perceived as hostile peers. My daughter has a July birthday, so is one of the younger kids in her school year, so it was easy to believe that older girls found her irritating or easy to attack verbally. The school instigated a misguided and humiliating process of asking at each break, if anyone in the class would play with Francesca; the palpable reticence of anyone to take on this task is something that my daughter recalled for me recently, at the age of 13. Often, she would wander around the playground alone making up more elaborate mermaid fantasies which she acted out, despite laughter from other children. Eventually, she started playing with much younger kids whose games Francesca would organise and adjudicate. Although this wasn't ideal in terms of her self-development, I felt the weight of the 'friendship problem' was lifted, if only temporarily.

    Throughout her early schooling, I had been told my daughter had dyslexia. Eventually I moved her to another regular school, which had a good reputation for working with children with special educational needs. Her academic performance improved. However, the friendship problems persisted. Francesca’s world of 'Mer' became a great source of concern to me and comfort to her. She was bound up in 'acting out' various episodes from her other world in the sitting room and became quickly angry, if I dared to interrupt. She talked about leaving us behind and escaping into a mer-world. It was about this time that she tackled the church Minister to enlist his help in transforming her into a mermaid.

    The new school witnessed Francesca's flight into other imaginary worlds. Being a kid who had shown no aptitude for sports, she suddenly announced that she was in training for the Beijing Olympics. She also claimed to have bumped into the Queen at an ice-skating rink. Aside from ridicule, I received calls from concerned parents and my sister who 'felt I should know' what my child was purporting to be doing with her life. Her response when I confronted her – despite my being tentative and calm – was intense anger. This snowballed into informing me that no-one was to be trusted after they'd broken her confidence. I tried to present a different side of worried, supportive people trying to help her, but this was soundly rejected.

    Christmas that year was also difficult. Many of my daughter's peers already knew the 'secret' of Santa Claus. However, she continued to thrive off the notion that Father Christmas flew around the earth, delivering parcels to good children. As Christmas approached, she took great pride in the good deeds she'd done, while berating other children for their misdeeds, informing them that 'Santa would know'. I realised I needed to tell her the reality. My hand was forced when she stamped into the house after school one day, demanding that I confirm she had been right to tell her classmates who – can you believe this, mum – didn't believe there was a Santa Claus. They say truth hurts; it did. Her anger was wild and unstoppable. That I and all her family could've 'lied' to her throughout childhood simply was unbelievable to her. My whole being as her mother was in doubt. To Francesca the 'Santa Claus story' was a conspiracy by wicked parents – a conspiracy that stretched across the earth. We used it to tell children to do good things, while we were lying – yes, lying – to our own children. She hesitated.

    “Next you'll be telling me the... the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist!”

    The fallout from the truth was immense and something that no other parent I'd met had experienced. Francesca had no ability to accept that there were any areas of grey in the world; as parents we were deceptive towards weaker people, our own offspring.

    It wasn't until I started to write about autism that I recognised that my daughter had Asperger syndrome. Incredible attention to minutia, a perception of the world in ‘black and white’ terms and deep-seated anger as response to situations were all signs. But the greatest clue was her exclusive and intense fascination with the Mer-world which soothed her.

    Francesca finally was diagnosed this year, giving me a far better ability to help her manage life and its challenges. We’re no longer in darkness, trying to work out why she finds the world so difficult. Diagnosis is a key; it unlocks your understanding of your child and their understanding of themselves. And the Minister can rest easy – Francesca’s happy not being a Mergirl now!

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Kate E Reynolds - blogging

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