Her twins Penelope and Leo, who are seven, and their four-year-old sister Felicity are autistic so their milestones are hard fought, long awaited and mightily celebrated.
Covid restrictions meant she and her 47 year old TV star husband Paddy became their children’s therapists, teachers and only playmates.
It has been tough, but now she cherishes the beautiful breakthrough moments.
Christine says: “Seeing the children do anything new makes us feel like we’ve won the lottery and want to do cartwheels.
“They played in snow for the first time. They were always scared of the snow. But this year we got out there and eventually they were rolling around in it. I tried not to make too much of a fuss because I knew if I did they might stop. I watched the video back and thought, ‘wow this is amazing’.”
Loose Woman and Real Housewives of Cheshire star Christine, 33, never pretends parenting is a breeze. Cut off from school and thrown out of routine, Penelope, Leo and Felicity regressed.
“Lockdown was really difficult at first. It’s been an uphill struggle.
“The children were getting a lot of support at school but that all stopped. Suddenly we had to become therapists for them and it wasn’t going too well.”
Mealtimes became a major stress point. The children did not eat solid foods until they were four and have since stuck to a limited intake.
“We have spent so many years trying to get the children to eat foods all the other children were eating,” says Christine. “They just prefer quite dry food, beige food. It’ll be chips, chicken nuggets, fish fingers and one of my daughters will have pizza. The more I learned about autism the more I understood that this was a sensory thing, part of a medical children and not fussy or spoiled children.
“At the start of lockdown we felt we couldn’t get any food in them at all. Gradually, we tried to introduce new food as much as we could. We encouraged the children to sit with us together at the table as a family of five which is something we didn’t really do before the pandemic because we were so busy. Now having conversations over the table is something we really enjoy. It’s just taken time to become quality time.
“Trying new foods is always a big deal for the kids. So when they do, we sit back, say nothing and watch them, nudging each other and thinking, ‘oh my god they’ve eaten!’”.
It’s common for autistic children to have speech and language problems and at the start of lockdown, Christine’s youngest child developed a stutter.
“Felicity’s speech wasn’t at the level of other four years olds’ speech but it was pretty good – she could talk, hold a conversation and it was quite clear.
“The stutter came out the blue and was quite severe – it was every other word. We think it was all down to anxiety, the changes, and because she wasn’t socialising and seeing the other children at nursery.
“She’s been to speech and language therapy a couple of times and her stutter has pretty much gone now. It was just another little hurdle we had to get over. But she’s done it.
“And because autistic children can be non verbal, I thank God every day that my children can speak – even when they argue with each other, at least they can speak. We waited four years to hear them say, ‘mummy’. And when they did it was the best sound in the world.”
Former Miss Liverpool Christine met Paddy, who’s 14 years her senior, when she was 19 and his TV career was in its fledgling stage.
The pair, who married in 2011, hoped to start a family right away. But a decade of anorexia in her teens and polycystic ovaries affected Christine’s fertility. Four years of monthly heartbreak ended when a scan showed two heartbeats.
By then Take Me Our host Paddy was in high demand and returned to work when their twins were only four days old. Christine at first believed their sensitivity to noise and tip-toe walking were just cute quirks but did not realise they were signs of autism.
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Leo and Penelope were diagnosed aged three-and-a-half. By the time Felicity was six months old, she started tensing her body – known as ‘stimming’ when autistic children get excited – and Christine predicted her diagnosis years before it was given.
Her devotion to her children is clear. “Leo is the happiest, cheekiest little boy and he loves comedy. He likes to mess about and roll about with daddy. He loves cars and is a big fan of Hot Wheels and Lego. He has the most gorgeous smile and his giggle is infectious.
“Penelope is the most sensitive of them all. She’s absolutely gorgeous and loves to read. She’s a proper home bird and isn’t that outgoing. She’s quite shy and she has lovely friends and a small circle because she struggles at school with socialising. But she is the sweetest little girl and is so kind and caring.
“Felicity is a massive whirlwind. We were like, ‘this is definitely the last one’. She’s trouble. She’s the youngest so she likes to be heard, she likes a lot of attention, she takes up the most time and is the loudest. She’s caring, funny and a huge personality.”
Christine and Paddy make sure only one works away from home at a time because she is nervous about leaving her children in anyone’s care. “Even when they started school I used to sit outside in the car like a nervous wreck waiting for them.”
She still cannot bring herself to hand them over to babysitters. “Little things like breakfast can take an hour because of their quirky ways with food. The colour of the plate could be an issue, the water bottle they use or even the temperature of the water. One likes toast cut in to triangles, one likes squares, one likes the crusts cut, one doesn’t like butter, one likes brown and the others don’t.
“I’d have to leave such a big list of minor details that make a huge difference in them having a happy meal time.”
Empathy for parents who struggle at mealtimes is behind Christine’s decision to promote McCain and Family’s Mealtimes for All campaign.
“I’m asked to support a lot and I can’t do them all. But straight away I said yes because this is so close to our hearts.
“After the year we’ve had there’s been a huge rise in families struggling, especially families with disabled children. So McCain giving £1 million in 150,000 grants is perfect timing.”
Christine’s me time is mainly spent at the gym. “I found a gym that had a little creche where there were only a couple of other younger kids. It meant they could socialise, and I could work out while we were all in the same building.
“It became a little bit of therapy for me because I didn’t really ever go out to see friends. Working out and knowing the children had a good time made the gym a really positive place to be. God knows I’ve missed it.”
Christine and Paddy have never spent a whole night together away from their children since they became parents and lockdown has pushed that dream further in to the future.
“It’s a shame because we’d made such big steps. Our first night out together was for Mirror’s Pride of Britain because it’s so special. We never stayed over night – we stayed for the awards and drove back through the night and my mum had the children.
“We felt like we were getting towards having a full night away. Then the lockdown happened and I think we have gone backwards. I don’t think a night away is going to happen any time soon.
“We try and just enjoy lunch dates when the children are at school – that’s the only time we get together. It’s just how it is for us because we don’t have childcare. We just have my mum to help but with the pandemic, we haven’t had mum either.”
During the Covid restrictions, Christine also endured the worry of her mum going through six months of chemotherapy while in isolation. On top of everything else, the family faced the upheaval of a house move.
It would have sent many over the edge. But Christine sunny outlook and hilarious husband helped carried her through.
“Laughter has got us through the years. We laugh a lot because we’ve got to, but it’s not like he’s performing – at home he is a dad and a husband. And I just do what any mum would do.
“But marrying a comedian was a good idea.”
McCain believes every family should be able to enjoy mealtimes together, taking time for the little moments that matter. Christine McGuinness is supporting McCain and Family Fund as part of the McCain Nation’s Conversations Mealtimes For All Report which explores the barriers to these moments for families raising disabled or seriously ill children. For more information on the partnership and ways to donate, please visit www.mccainfamilyfund.co.uk
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