Side by Side with Tara Leniston

My name is Tara Leniston and I’m 39 years old. I was an actress and I was the first female Westerner that Jackie Chan ever signed on to his agency. I went on to do films with him and landed my first big movie Meet me in Miami when I was 23. I was back in Ireland doing a TV show when I met Andrew and fell pregnant unexpectedly.

Being in Ireland, being 26 years old, and being unmarried, I felt there was a lot of judgement. They were very dismissive of me. When Dylan was born and I was trying to breastfeed, they kind of like shoved him onto my boob and were just like, “well, just make him feed.” I remember feeling really vulnerable. And there was no care or love. My mum was in New Zealand and my family were in England and it was really hard. And then you have this baby and you’re like, “okay, here we go.”

I didn’t know what I was doing and the pressure to be this perfect mother was just…overwhelming. The other thing I thought is when he was handed to me, everyone said, “oh, you feel this amazing rush of love.” I was a bit like, “oh my God, um, hi, I’m your mom. I love you.” But I didn’t feel this massive rush of love that I was told that you feel when you first hold your baby. I was kind of like shell-shocked and then went home with this new baby that I had to care for with no instruction booklet.

As the next couple of weeks or months went on, I adored him. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But I think the first thing was, you know, the expectation of being this earth mother and this wave and rush of love that I was going to feel and it didn’t come straight away, not for me anyway. And it took me a few months to get over the birth and to get used to my new body, the new normal, always having this child with me, and obviously I quickly fell in love with him. At the age of two, Dylan was diagnosed with autism. I started to notice it about 18 months as the contact started to go and he stopped responding to his name.

I went on to have Luca when I was 30 and Naia Rose when I was 34. Having babies spaced out really worked for me, as I found I had time to spend individually with all of them. I’ve also experienced different kinds of births. Naia rose was a C-section. Luca was a natural birth with no pain relief and with Dylan I had an epidural. So I’ve kind of done them all. And each recovery was different.

I live in Sandbanks with my three kids and our dog, Rosie Pups. After Dylan was diagnosed with autism I gave up working as an actress and devoted my time to finding out how I could help him. In the 12 years since his diagnosis, I have studied all forms of speech therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy, natural therapies, and nutrition.

I wrote a book, which was published two years ago now, called Coming Home to Autism and I have a YouTube channel under the same name. I have since set up a mentoring program for parents of autistic children and also for people who are newly diagnosed themselves. It’s about giving them power back – about not viewing autism as a negative thing.

HOW DID IT FEEL AS A MOTHER WHEN DYLAN WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM?

When Dylan got diagnosed, I felt like someone had sucker punched me in the stomach. I just remember everything going quiet around me and this woman’s mouth was moving. And I was like, “what, what do you mean?” And you know, the way they say, “we think your son’s on the social spectrum disorder. It’s autism.” You just don’t know what that means. Like, you want everything to be okay with your child and when it’s not, and you hear those words, and they can’t say when he will walk or when he’ll talk or when he’ll do anything and as a mother, all I wanted to do was protect him.

So I went through a wave of emotions. I felt sick. And then I just cried for a few days. And then I just looked at him and realized that he was still my son, no matter what, he wasn’t sick. He just thought a different way. And then I just became really strong. Like I became like a big mom warrior bear and was like, “right, I’m gonna do everything I can to help you. There is nothing that’s gonna stop me.” Hence why I gave up acting and then trained in anything and everything that Dylan needed from speech therapy, to occupational therapy, to dietician, everything.

IT CAN BE A THERAPIST, IT CAN BE A WEBSITE, IT CAN BE A FRIEND OR FAMILY MEMBER, OR ALL THE ABOVE, WHO AND WHAT HELPS YOU DEAL WITH THE DIAGNOSIS AND GETS YOU THROUGH EVERYDAY LIFE?

In terms of anyone that helped me, I mean, nobody really, because it’s such a personal journey that no matter how lovely and supportive my family and friends were, they could never understand. So I did feel very alone in this. Obviously, Andrew dealt with it in his own way. But I’ll tell you what did help me through the diagnosis was remembering that Dylan was not sick, that this is my child and that it is just a different way of thinking. And I think getting strong in that and knowing that myself and Dylan are in it together helped me.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST BLESSING AND LIFE LESSON FROM THIS?

I think the biggest blessing is: everything you’re given in life is made to make you go on a path. I was in a very soulless, selfish career before this and now I’m managing to help so many other families. And that brings me so much joy in being able to help other people on this journey that can be very isolating, as I found. That’s the biggest blessing, is that I’m now able to help other people.

Also, the life lesson is probably no matter how bad things are, things always get better. I always say after the storm is always the sun.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ANYONE GOING THROUGH A SIMILAR SITUATION?

The advice I’d give with anything is: be gentle and be easy on yourself. And like I said, I guess the life lesson is no matter how bad things are, they will get better. It’s just like the sea, it ebbs and flows and you have to ride the storm to get the calm.

HOW HAS MOTHERHOOD CHANGED YOU AS A PERSON?

Do you know…I think motherhood has changed me as a person to actually love myself more. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I was always really harsh on myself, being in the acting industry. As you know, it’s really tough, and you’re really harsh on yourself. I was really harsh on my body. I was really harsh on everything. I pushed myself really hard. And now, seeing myself through my children’s eyes…like they love me so unconditionally. And it’s such a powerful thing because, especially having a daughter, I don’t want her to grow up with the same insecurities that I had about how I looked or my body or whatever.

And when my boys tell me, “oh, Mommy, you’re the most beautiful person in the world and we love your face, Mommy.” And when Luca was away at camp, he came home and I said, “what did you miss the most?” And he goes, “I missed your face, Mommy.” And I was like, “God, I really need to start loving myself a bit more because I’m so harsh on myself.” I always say, “my skin’s not great. Or my hair doesn’t look great today.” Kids don’t see that. They don’t see what clothes you’re wearing. They don’t care if you’re carrying a bit of extra weight. They care that you were there. So I think in terms of motherhood, it’s made me want to try and love myself a bit more.

HOW HAS MOTHERHOOD AFFECTED RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR HUSBAND, FAMILY, FRIENDS AND IMPORTANTLY YOURSELF?

I think having children tests any relationship, because you change so much as people that it’s no longer about yourself anymore. It’s about your children and putting someone else’s needs first. I think in terms of relationships, it’s important to carve out time with each other and to respect the fact that as moms, we do change as people. We’re still the same old people inside, but there are aspects that do change and that’s just how it is.

With family, I got closer to mine because of it, especially when my brother just had a baby recently. With friends, you notice that some friends just kind of fade away into the background and other friendships get stronger. And then you also meet new friends as well, who also have children with similar interests.

HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR OWN MUM AND DAD HAVE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU PARENT?

I think your parents definitely influence the way you parent, whether it be you learn from their mistakes or gain from their good parts. My parents were amazing growing up: both very positive. I think their attitude of ‘it doesn’t matter what happens, it will get better, get back up again’ helped me. They said, “no matter how many times you get knocked down, stand back up again.” That has helped me a lot. And also, you know, just don’t sweat, the small stuff.

DO YOU HAVE ANY INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES OR POEMS TO SHARE ABOUT MOTHERHOOD?

I always say that my children are little beings. I think if I would say one thing to a mom or a dad it’s: you can help guide your child through life, but you don’t own them. I don’t own these people. I walk side by side with them in life and I will try and guide them and steer them in the right direction. But at the end of the day, they are their own little people and I love them for who they are and their personalities are all very different.

Even the way I discipline them is different, because they’re unique. They’re unique to themselves. And I think some parents believe they own their children and therefore they have a right to dictate to them what they can and cannot do with their life, especially as adults. And it’s like, no, I am gifted with being your mama. And I’m gifted with being able to walk beside you in life. But I walk beside them. I don’t walk behind them. I don’t walk in front of them. And as soon as I can’t carry them in my arms, I hope they’ll walk beside me forever – that they’ll choose to walk beside me anyway. And if they did run away, I’d probably find them anyway. I’d run after them <laughs>.

What products could… TARA LENISTON not parent without?

I think it would have to be the Ergobaby carrier. I literally use that thing even now with Naia and she’s four. Because sometimes her little legs can’t walk that fast. So I put her in that. I also couldn’t live without the eco-friendly wet wipes. And for Dylan, autistic kids, I probably couldn’t go without the iPad, not gonna lie <laughs>

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