This month, our That Mama Delphine Watson, mama to Rio aged 11 and Tia aged 8 and co-founder of The Children’s Media Network and the reaching you foundation shares her family’s inspiring story and a humbling and honest account of raising a child with special needs. We talk to Delphine about overcoming life’s hardships, successfully balancing work and family and her love of running, travel and the great outdoors.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?
My name is Delphine, I dream about being a gypsy (the classic, old style, traditional ones!) and I often escape to fantasy world, in my mind – my escapism from reality. I have two children: our angel Rio, who’s 11 years old with severe special needs (a rare chromosome disorder called 1q44 deletion de novo syndrome) and our Little Wolf Tia, who’s eight going on 15.
My husband, Nick, and I have lived in Dubai for 16 years. We worked in the health and fitness industry for a while and opened the first personal training centre back in 2003. I worked on the business development of the company, as well as training local Emirati ladies at their homes, who could not attend a mixed training gym. Two years ago, life coincidences and synchronicities led us to create a new child-oriented media management company called Children’s Media Network (CMN), which we set up with our partner Jeff Price.
We currently operate a new radio station in Dubai – Pearl. It’s the first radio station in the Middle East devoted to children and parents, broadcasted in English, with an Arabic Flavour. You can listen to Pearl on 102FM. I’m the Company Scribbler, so I cover the business development side of the company and literature.
Another project that Nick and I have created and that we’re very passionate about is our foundation reaching you, founded in 2006. Our mission is to bring awareness of children with special needs to the community of the United Arab Emirates, and encourage integration. We’ve created many activities and events to promote health and fitness for children with special needs, including free personal training for children and adults with special needs, a sponsored Mount Kinabalu climb to raise money for Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre and our annual Party in the Park – a free community awareness day which has been granted patronage by HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice- President and Prime Minister of UAE, Ruler of Dubai.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?
When I was pregnant with Rio, my first child, I was still personal training full time and had a plan in place to work around both the centre and my child. Reality was somewhat different. After Rio was born, we still didn’t know he was disabled and grand opening of our personal training centre was delayed. This is when I first learnt quickly – do not get hooked up on life plans, being adaptable and willing to “change’ is the key!
When Rio reached 6 months, he had his first seizure… life as we knew it changed. He had many seizures and we were referred back to the UK to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, to see a pediatric neurologist and other tests. It was then we were told that Rio had special needs, and he would immediately need pediatric specialised physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech/communication therapy and that he would most probably never be independent and need full time care for the rest of his days.
At this stage, 11 years ago, we had no idea if these pediatric therapies were available in Dubai. Luckily, we did find them and it soon became apparent that my time now had to be committed purely to Rio, to his needs and his development. I worked from home while being Rio’s therapist and care giver; to be completely honest, it was a very tough, lonely time, but I did survive and became a stronger woman because of it. After lots and lots of searching, I managed to find a fabulous lady (who is still with our family to this day) and trained her how to take care of Rio’s needs, which also gave me the confidence to go back to helping our then company with personal training.
With my second child, Tia, life was already very organised and structured because of everything we had been through with Rio and how he needed life to be, to function. Everything fit into place pretty easily – I worked from home in the day to look after her, and eventually personal trained while around her sleeps in the day and at night when she went to bed. They were long days!
Now that we have a change in career and are focusing on Pearl, I can do my Company Scribbler work from home. I find I am much more productive working on my own, I think I must be too much of an empath, as being in an environment around other people (like in an office) I get easily distracted and concerned by other stuff going on and easily get pulled into people’s emotions (like I said – I would make a wonderful hermit). So I have been very lucky to have a choice “where” I work from, I can organise my work time around my children’s schedule.
How do you balance work and motherhood?
I am very lucky to be able to choose where I work from, so I can organise my working hours around my children’s schedule. I can still do all the mummy roles that I do not want to miss out on (for my sake and for my children’s sake), which is great. I know I’m very fortunate to be in this situation, but the downfall is that I then tend to work a lot at night. I’ve gotten used to that now, after many years of doing it, which in turn also means that I am missing out on much needed “me” time. I haven’t quite got the balance right, but I’m working on it!
How do you save time? What are your organisational tips and tricks?
I’m not convinced that my husband believes that I am organised – but he is overly OCD. I always get things done and done well. Time management is vital for me. With my motherly duties, I have my schedule firmly fixed in my diary, then for my work duties I have lists of jobs that need doing, in order of priorities and with deadlines (I cannot miss deadlines!), that is updated daily (and seems never ending). As I mentioned earlier, I always have to be open and adaptable to change, especially last minute unexpected changes – they always happen!
For example, I’m replying to your questions with Rio to my left holding my left hand to his cheek whilst he sucks his thumb and snuggles into me (his usual position), Tia is lying over my feet reading her books, the laptop is on my lap and I am typing with just my right hand. I wouldn’t sacrifice a snuggle with my angel and Little Wolf, but I had work to do – you learn to be adaptable!
Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Dubai?
I am very aware that I have not got things totally right myself yet, but I don’t believe there is a ‘one fit formula for all’ that works. In any case, I’ll speak from my own experience.
Firstly, I would say, do not be too hard on yourself, just do your best, follow your instincts. The trouble, I think, is that we as women (especially as mothers) have too many expectations set upon us by society about what makes a ‘good’ mother or businesswoman, etc. Expectations are very different to dreams and passions… dreams and passions, I am all for that, follow those! I believe that a happy mother makes for a happy child, even if you are doing things differently!
You don’t have to be Wonder Woman either – you don’t have to do everything completely alone, it is not classed as failure if you need help! So, if someone offers you help (be it with your children, school lifts, work wise, contacts, etc) take it! Never be ashamed to ask for help. Do get advice from many sources, make networking connections etc, but always listen to your instincts first.
With all this scary talk of ‘failure’, never be frightened of ‘failing’, we need to fail at projects to learn and improve – the most successful people and entrepreneurs have all failed, several times, before they became a success. If you never have a go at your dreams and passions out of fear of failure, then it is almost guaranteed that you will always have regrets, regrets lead to resentment – that is not good!
Most importantly: find balance. I think we all need help with this one, but it really should be the priority in my opinion.
Favourite activity with your kids in Dubai?
I love taking my children swimming; both my children love water – it’s liberating for both of them. Little Wolf just wildly dances around in the wind, collects shells, makes fairy sand castles and plays with her surfboard in the small waves. My angel, he sits where the water from the waves breaks on the beach, and gets trapped in this hypnotic state, a world that no one else can enter. It’s as if he’s meditating to the horizon; he goes in for a quick swim in the sea, then comes back to his position and continues. I wish I knew goes through his mind at times like this, it seems very beautiful. He is one with nature, magical to witness.
Also, my time out is running, to refresh my mind (as well as other exercise). My husband recently competed in the Dubai International Triathlon – which is a Half Ironman distance, but he took Rio along on the whole journey (swam dragging him in a kayak for the 1.9km, cycled the 90km with Rio in a special seat in a specialised adapted bike, and, ran the 21km with Rio in a disability running push chair). So I enjoy going for runs outside with Rio in the disability running push chair – he LOVES it, Tia often joins us too and run/walks beside us or goes on her bike next to us.
My husband and I used to camp a lot in the desert, especially in the Empty Quarters. After Rio and his disabilities, especially with his seizure, we never felt comfortable doing it again… I think it may be time that we readdress this, and make camping one of favourite activities to do with our children in Dubai!
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot?
To be honest, travelling with Rio is very stressful for him and then in return very stressful for us as a family… we tend not to travel that much. This causes me much heart ache, as I LOVE travelling (the gypsy fantasy dream in me), I spent most of my youth travelling with my parents and backpacked around the world when I was in my early 20s… I always dreamed that when I had children I would take them on amazing adventures around the world (I still dream, but seems more alive in fantasy world than in reality). I feel bad for Tia, as I feel she’s losing out on those experiences.
Now that Rio is older, I’m determined to make it happen! Rio loves horse riding (although he needs assistance) – maybe we could go on a pony trek in Mongolia? I have always dreamed of doing the Inca Trail with my children … Where there is a will there is a way, as they say! This would make an interesting documentary!
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Make quality time for each other! I think this is an area that most couples with children are very guilty of not doing and loose track very easily.
Especially in a situation like ours, when you have a child with special needs whom you know will be living with you until one of you passes away and will need full time care and help… believe me it does cause major stress on a relationship. I think the statistics are that 85% of marriages with a child with special needs ends in divorce. We aim not to be part of those statistics. It is especially hard when you work with each other as well. To be honest though, we know nothing different now. Through the ups and downs you always learn by them, hopefully these lessons makes things stronger, as you learn other strategies!
Earlier this year, Nick, my husband, had a health scare. The doctors found a 6cm tumour growing in his colon and had to have surgery, etc … the implications and thoughts that went with that experience were terrifying. I am not ready to be a widow, single mother of 2, one of which has special needs. That was a real wake up call for us all; life is too short, we need to appreciate each other more. It is not a case that I cannot cope on my own, I know I am strong enough to deal with that, it is the fact that I do not want to be, and we still have far too much to do together yet!
So yes, make quality time for each other – if you can make that time, then it really does not matter what you do in that time, just make it quality.
Favourite date-night restaurants?
Before children, I used to be all about fine dining and that was our thing. Now after everything we’ve been through, my priorities have changed. I would be very happy to just have that quality time alone with my husband, sit on the beach or a mountain top, watch a sunset and have a picnic – with the rule of talking about anything except children and work!
This wouldn’t be very fair though, as Nick still loves his fine dining, so in this case to answer the question, we enjoy Alta Badia in Emirates Towers… it has many memories for us, especially when it used to be Vu’s restaurant, back in the days.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
You know, I have never really received that much parenting advice! Some people have said, “trust your motherly instincts” – this has always worked for me.
Actually as a mother of a child with special needs, there can be a constant fear for the future, another mother of an older child with special needs once said to me, “Oh, don’t go there, you will have a breakdown. Just live today, get through today and appreciate today, that is all you can do.” Very true, but easier said than done!
I always wanted to get advice from my own brilliant mum – I was so lucky to have her as my mum. But unfortunately before I had children, we got a phone call one day in Dubai and found out my 49 year old mum had pancreatic cancer and only two weeks to live! Nick and I flew back to collect my mum from hospital to take her back to the family home and she died two weeks later. It has been devastating that my mum has not been around to meet my children, she would have been a fabulous grandmother. Selfishly, I feel deprived as I’ve really truly needed her help at times. It has been a very lonely, scary journey without her help and support. I really wished I had been given some parenting advice from her … that would have been the best advice ever!
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Never do what you think or believe you are expected to do. Do what your instincts tell you to do, do what makes you a happy mummy as a happy mummy equals a happy baby! Motherly instincts, when you listen to them, are very, very strong. Trust them.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Making more time for me. I know that sounds very selfish, but I fail big time at this and this is a vital part of being a good mum! I must learn by this.
I do wish I were better at being more patient. I wish I were better at creating more time in the day – what a fabulous super power to have! Sometimes I genuinely wish I were better at being a female role model for my daughter. I think sometimes I should make effort with my appearance for her, but to be honest, I am tired, drained and my priorities have changed.
My most humbling mama moment was…
A few years ago my non-verbal angel, Rio, attempted to try to say “I love you mummy.” He was trying so hard, it was very emotional. We had taught him how to sign it (using Makaton sign language), which he had been doing for a while, but to see and hear him try to say it, knowing how hard it was for him, was something else. I wish I knew what his voice sounds like. It was such a beautiful, humbling moment.
With my Little Wolf, I’m constantly guilty that her life has been affected by having a brother with special needs. A few weeks ago she said to me, “Mummy, I think all children should have a brother with special needs, as they are so much kinder and nicer than other brothers and sisters.” It was humbling to see life so simply.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
Snuggles with my tribe. I would stop anything for that.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking…
Is Rio having a seizure? What time is it? If we die before Rio, who will look after him? Bills. The usual stresses that come with being part of your own family-run business…
I always feel saner after…
Vodka or a glass of red wine! An evening out with my friends helps too. I don’t do it often, but when I do, I feel I have escaped reality and feel like a human, a woman again!
I wish I had more time for…
Sleep… sleep is very important to me and it has always been my survival technique since I was a child, but I feel like I have not slept properly for 12 years. I miss travelling and I wish I had more time for me – sometimes it’s very easy to lose track of yourself and you need that reminder.
Bedtime is always smoother when…
When everyone in the family is happy. I’m a big believer in Sleep Talk too, so that really helps!
Even when my children have families of their own, I’ll still…
Heartbreaking question, as Rio will never be able to have his own family. If we both survive, there’ll be a strong possibility that he’ll be a 40 year old child and I’ll be a 70 year old woman, still having to change his nappy, shower him, shave him, carry him if he has a seizure, feed him, etc… that is my reality. So when he is older, I will still be doing what I’m doing for him now.
As for Tia, I’ve already told her when she/if she chooses to get married and have children, she will always be my baby. I’ll still snuggle her and sing her favourite songs to her whilst stroking her forehead when she is upset or scared by something… I will still do that!
My favourite moment of the day is…
It may sound pathetic, but I love bath time with my children. It’s a real bonding time for us, discussing the day, thoughts and feelings. We make it a ‘Gratitude Bath’ as well, where we all voice one thing that we are grateful for that day. Ok, my son Rio, cannot talk with his disabilities, but he is still deeply involved in this.
The beautiful pictures of Delphine, Rio and Tia were taken by the very lovely and super talented Stephanie Hamilton of Nektar