Candace Reading was confronted with the fact that her son, Finlay, had achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism, 38 weeks into her pregnancy. Although the struggles of Finlay’s condition have threatened her marriage and uprooted the career in luxury fashion she spent years working towards, Reading believes it has led her to her true self and purpose.
Every mother wants to be their child’s hero. Reading, aged 42, is trying to be everyone’s. Now editor of Tower Hamlets Mums, a website and membership scheme for local families that also raises awareness about services for children, Reading is doing her bit to pave the way for a fair and equal society.
Following the birth of her son, now aged four, Reading struggled to reconcile her career with being a mother, and the world of fashion proved less than accommodating.
While Finlay awaited surgery on his skull, Reading slimly avoided a redundancy without payout, and just a week after was faced with working a two person job, despite requesting part time hours.
The juggling act that often ensues after becoming a mother was in full swing, but instead of testing her balance, Reading tried to carve out a life that comfortably allowed for parenting and a career.
‘I think if I stayed in fashion I would’ve had to travel quite a lot and there’s an expectation that you have to work quite late into the night. Even though I’m still doing that now I can pick my son up and do a lot from home’.
We meet in her apartment overlooking the Regents Canal with panoramic views across Mile End Park, and Canary Wharf beyond. An assortment of Finlay’s toys surround her feet, his artwork covers the walls, and a set of electronic drums take pride of place in the centre of the sitting room floor. The hallmark of a family.
The birth of her son altered Reading’s life course beyond her career, uncovering a part of her personality that had fallen by the wayside. Concern over bills, the excitement and freedom of trips to Lake Como, and the now seemingly superficial vocation of ‘making rich people look fabulous’, had left little room or time in her life to consider the injustices of the world.
The impulse to change society for the better began to look like it belonged to her idealistic teenage years, rather than the serious world of adulthood. But having Finlay shifted her perspective.
‘I was on public transport on the way to work and trying to make it work even though I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do that two person job. It was a hard decision to make when you’ve spent your whole life building a career in one thing.
‘But then I just got a lump in my throat and I was just like, “I wanna do something that helps people”‘
Having had no experience or prior knowledge of disability issues, Reading admits that ‘with a great deal of guilt, I didn’t think about it’. Somewhat balancing this out, however, Reading goes on to recognise her ability to now ‘understand both sides’, with the shoe having been on the other foot.
‘It was just like this journey basically. It just opened my mind to so many different children and people who have different ways of learning, different ways of living, and kind of how ill-equipped the world is for people who don’t fit in a box,’ she says.
Working on Tower Hamlets Mums began as a convenient choice for Reading as it offered her more time to be with her four year old child. It also fit well with her passion for early years and supporting struggling families, and Tower Hamlets Mums became a vehicle for local campaigns.
Over the years, Reading has played a crucial part in the fight against cuts to services that many local families rely on. Most recently, Tower Hamlets Mums became involved in campaigning against proposed cuts to the Support for Learning Service and Educational Health Care Plans. Reading helped raise awareness of cuts to Tower Hamlet’s Children centres run by Sure Start, a once nation-wide programme to help decrease parental isolation and to support families in early years.
While the campaigns helped raise awareness, the nurseries were in the end closed as per the Executive Mayor’s decision. Reading, however, is a beacon of hope throughout it all.
‘The last SEND meeting was fantastic, just getting all these parents with children with Special Educational Needs together was great. I think that can really build the momentum of where we need to go from here’, she enthuses, recalling a recent meeting with parents, councillors and SEND professionals regarding the recent proposal to reduce funding for Education Health and Care Plans and the Support for Learning Service that currently supports 8,000 children in the borough.
Reading’s own mother struggled with mental health. To this day she has a closer relationship with her father, albeit long distance given her Canadian origins.
Watching her older sister struggle with the aftermath of being parented by a mentally ill mother led Reading to recognise the importance of supporting families in the early stages, igniting her passion to use the privilege she now enjoys in life to help those who are less fortunate.
Through her work at Tower Hamlets Mums, Reading has discovered that her heart lies in using policy and advocacy to ‘help society progress’.
‘Not everyone can afford a maternity nurse, not everyone has a set up so they work from home. There are so many people, so many families, struggling to get by. Their children have additional needs, I don’t know how they cope, I really don’t’, she trails off.
Owed partially to historic gender imbalances of care-giving, initially she became an expert on her son’s condition – similar to many other mothers of children with disabilities. The burden of all the specialist appointments, in her experience, often falls on women.
With a lack of familial support network, Reading’s own marriage nearly buckled under the strain of a challenging introduction to parenthood.
‘We kind of lent on each other and it nearly broke us to be honest. We’ve been through counselling and you know it’s funny, we thought we were being really awful with each other and they just looked at us and they were just like, you guys have been under so much pressure, both of you just need to cut each other slack and just be very aware of how intense it’s been’, she laughs in the comfort of hindsight.
Throughout her childhood, Reading felt like an outsider as a result of attending numerous schools. Conscious of Finlay feeling the same and being aware of his differences, Reading has worked in conjunction with her son’s school to make adaptations and to ensure his ability to access his learning environment is as unhindered as possible.
Having adapted to understanding Finlay’s needs, Reading sees the beauty in raising a child and is progressive even in her mothering. ‘I want to really be there for him and understand him’, she says, recalling the times in her childhood when she had experienced bullying.
Perhaps not evident at the time, but when connecting the dots across her life canvas, it seems almost biblical that Reading has ended up fighting for a world where those who are different, as she herself has sometimes felt, have an equal footing.
Children ‘can teach you things, sometimes you don’t realise how much you can learn from them’, says Reading, with a realisation that having Finlay has helped her to find her own purpose in life.
As she gets him ready for his first day of school, Finlay’s future stretches out ahead of him full of potential, and shines a little brighter for others too, thanks to his mother.
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