Family

Jenny-May Clarkson's fears for her boys

The much-loved presenter opens up about the deeply personal health matter affecting her family.

By Alice O'Connell

It was news that knocked Jenny-May Clarkson for six. Despite being in a bit of a sleepless haze lately, the TVNZ 1 sports presenter had been enjoying a whirlwind few years in which she realised a number of dreams she'd almost given up on.

Finding her true love, marrying him and then quickly becoming a mother to twin boys happened in quick succession – and all whilst her career flourished.

But life threw her family a curveball a few months ago when Jenny-May (43) and her husband Dean (42) found themselves in a specialist's room being told their son Atawhai had a serious health complication.

For a few months prior, their sons Atawhai and Te Manahau – who are now rambunctious but delightful 20-month-olds – came out in rashes that just wouldn't go away. Their doctor felt it was time to investigate further and organised for them to see a specialist.

But still, straight-shooting Jenny-May wasn't feeling concerned in the slightest.

Atawhai (left) and Te Manahau are still keeping Jenny-May and Dean on their toes!
Atawhai (left) and Te Manahau are still keeping Jenny-May and Dean on their toes!

"I thought, 'Well, I'm fine, Dean's fine,' so I had no inkling at all that my boys would have anything wrong with them."

The specialist organised a series of tests, but first went through a checklist with the family. He thought he could see what might be causing the problem.

"He said, 'Look, it's probably dust mites. You've moved into a new home that's a bit older – that could be it,'" she recalls. As the couple told the Weekly earlier this year, the family made a lifestyle move to a home in a more rural setting outside of Auckland.

Of their two boys, it was Atawhai who was the most affected by the mystery rashes, so he was taken for blood tests and a traumatic prick test on his back for allergies. But when the results came back, they were a shock to everyone in the family. "We sat down in the specialist's office and he told us Atawhai has a severe allergy to eggs and peanuts.

The couple's twins made their debut in the May 23, 2016 issue of the *Weekly*.
The couple's twins made their debut in the May 23, 2016 issue of the Weekly.

To be honest, I didn't hear too much after that. I just looked at him like, 'I beg your pardon?' I was completely stunned."
As far as allergies go, Atawhai's are very serious; he's on the highest end of the scale of severity. It means he must always have an epipen – an auto-injector of adrenaline – with him, which will likely save his life if he comes in contact with egg or peanuts.

"I walked out of the office completely stunned – I had no idea this would be the outcome. I rang my mum to let her know and I was quite upset. I wasn't crying, I think I was just in shock. And then we realised of course, we had to get Te Manahau tested."

Jenny-May and Dean have a new-found respect for families who have children facing health problems. "We can't help but think of the other children who have it far worse," says Dean, shaking his head.

"Just what we had to go through was traumatic enough, but there are families who have far bigger problems than ours."

Dean says simply getting the first blood and prick tests was upsetting, particularly for Atawhai. However, there were more tests to come for both him and his brother.

"That first blood test, I didn't have a good feeling about the person who did it and we should have trusted our gut. They pulled out the strap like they was taking my blood, not a baby's, while another nurse held down his arm.

"I had to physically hold Atawhai down while he was losing it – I'm not a small guy, but it was taking a lot of strength. I felt terrible. I'm the bad guy now," he says quietly.

"Oh, it was awful," says Jenny-May, who sat with Te Manahau in the doctor's reception room while it was happening. "Because you know what you're sending them into and beforehand you try to prepare them, but..." she shakes her head.

Dean adds, "At the end of the day, it's painful but you know you're doing it to keep them alive. That's what really matters."

Te Manahau's test showed he was also allergic to eggs and nuts, but not as severely as Atawhai. Both the twins are also allergic to dust mites, and each have eczema and asthma.

It's a story Jenny-May has hesitated sharing. She's been frank about her life and its challenges in the pages of the Weekly, but she wasn't sure about this particular chapter.

"It's a deeply personal one and I really struggled with telling it because it's the boys' experience, not mine," she says. "I don't want them looking back and saying, 'Mum, why did you have to tell that story?!' But if it can educate one person about allergies, then it's worth it."

Jenny-May says she'd love to see people have a bit more of an open mind and have a little more understanding of how serious food allergies can be. But most of all, she'd like more people to show kindness and compassion to other children and their parents who could be tackling some big issues beneath the surface.

"If reading this stops someone from being that judgy-judgy person who goes, 'Oh, there's nothing wrong with that child – he's just a fussy eater!' Then great. Or stop those people who say, 'Oh, your mum fusses all over you!' Actually, no, we're just trying to keep our kids alive."

It's been a hard road, says Jenny-May, who adds she spent some time blaming herself.

"You look back and go, 'Okay, I ate this and that – maybe I shouldn't have.' The people at Allergy New Zealand say not to blame yourself – that you're nothing to do with it – but you do still hold on to some guilt. It's hard not to."

She says she's learning to find a balance in which she can remain calm, but still ensure her kids are safe. "You do worry constantly," she confides.

"But I also don't want to be too over the top – if we're calm, they will be too. Of course, I don't want to minimise what they have because it's serious, but it's about keeping cool and saying, 'Okay, we've got this. This is just how the Clarksons roll now.'

"But it's still a struggle as a parent to say, 'Off you go, have a good time!' You're only able to just hope everything will be okay because they're too young to tell people, 'Hey, I can't eat that', or ask, 'Does this have any trace of egg or nuts in it?'"

The family has already had a couple of scares. At their home a few weeks ago, where Dean was having a shared lunch with his te reo class, he spotted Atawhai over his shoulder holding a muffin in his hand.

Jenny-May recalls, "I'm not a baker, so it took me a second – I wouldn't have a clue what goes into a muffin! We were both quite panicked, asking everyone what was in it and whether he'd put it in his mouth. Thankfully, he hadn't."

There's a hope the boys may both grow out of the allergies, but for now, Jenny-May worries about what the future could look like if they're not that lucky.

"You hear those stories of kids with allergies who don't get invited to the party because it all becomes too difficult," she says.

"I mean, I understand that. It's stressful enough having other kids at your home, but then to have a child there who needs
an epipen with them – and if something happens they're your responsibility – that's a lot. "But as their mum, if your child is the poor guy who doesn't get to go to anyone's birthday party because they're a hassle,
it's tough. You look at what that might be like for them as they get older."

Interjects Dean, "And hey, who wouldn't want the Clarkson twins at their party, ripping it up?"

Te Manahau
Te Manahau

Laughs Jenny-May, "Yeah, that's actually more likely to be the real reason the Clarkson twins aren't getting invited anywhere – it's because they can literally tear the place up!"

The twins are both remarkably happy kids, despite not getting a lot of sleep. Their eczema means they're often awake in the night, which also means it's been a long while since Jenny-May and Dean have had a full night's rest.

While they learn to manage the boys' conditions, the pair catch sleep where they can.

For Jenny-May, it means the team at TVNZ are well used to her finding a couch to nap on for 15 minutes while she also juggles her other roles in sport, and filming another season of Whanau Living. And she's loved seeing Dean have some more time for himself lately since enrolling the kids in Te Kohanga Reo, and working on his counselling business and
a te reo Maori course.

"It's filling his soul and I've seen changes in him, seeing him be more fulfilled. I've had my escapes from the boys, getting to go to work. And I make no bones about that. It's hard bringing up children – having twins is hard. I get to go to work and yes, I'm tired, but I don't have to stay calm while a kid has a tantrum for no reason."

The couple are still trying to find a good balance in between work, raising the boys, and co-parenting Dean's girls Libby-Jane (13) and Leah (10). One thing they say has been particularly hard is finding time for each other.

They had a brief glimpse of it a couple of months ago when they went to the wedding of a close friend in Australia.

"Man, just walking through that airport together was like, 'Whoa! It's just us! This is amazing!'" laughs Jenny-May. "There was a moment when it was just the two of us dancing at the wedding and it might have only been two minutes, but wow, I loved that."

Smiles Dean, "It's something I'd love to do more of – see my beautiful wife! Maybe we should do a proper honeymoon?"

Jenny-May still laughs about their official honeymoon. That year, 2015, had been huge. She'd met Dean by chance in February, he'd proposed 11 days later and they married in October, just a few weeks after she'd discovered she was pregnant and carrying twins.

"Yeah, so being pregnant on your honeymoon makes it interesting," she giggles.

"We went to Melbourne and my idea was to do some shopping. Except, obviously, I couldn't fit into anything – my feet wouldn't even get into my shoes! So I just slept at the hotel."

"Yep," laughs Dean, "and she kept saying, 'You can go out, babe! Go enjoy yourself!' And I had to say, 'But darling,
it's our honeymoon – I'm not going anywhere by myself!'"

Now they're looking at what they can do to ensure they get time to focus on one another – and they have a family holiday coming up to look forward to. But they know whatever life throws at them, they can handle it. Says Jenny-May,

"We're a team. And we'll get through it all, whatever it is, together."

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