Beth Davis is a self-proclaimed mess. But this small-town Florida mama has turned her musings into The Southern Mess, lifestyle platform and blog that gives a candid look into her life. We were introduced to The Southern Mess this summer when Beth participated in our #themiddlepart campaign for DCC Awareness Day with her daughter, Austen. We are excited for you to meet Beth through this candid interview and follow along with her on The Southern Mess.
Q: Tell us a little bit about you and your family.
Beth: My husband, Brad & I both grew up in the same small town. Our childhood homes were about 8 miles from each other. Although our families knew of one another, we didn’t cross paths until high school. We started dating and are now coming up on our 13th wedding anniversary. We still live in the same small town and both our families are here as well. In 2011 our baby girl, Austen, was born and on the day she arrived we also received her diagnosis of agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC). Austen, turned 9 years old this year and surprises us every single day. She attends school and splits her time between a Special Ed and a Regular Ed environment. Brad works in the safety & security field while I split my days working at our family business and running The Southern Mess, my lifestyle blog & advocate platform. The flexibility in my schedule allows me to be available for Austen’s therapies, appointments, and anything else that may come up day to day. Both our families are very involved and help us quite a bit. We are so blessed to have such a great support system.
Q: Your daughter Austen has ACC and other conditions. Will you share your journey finding out her ACC and the other diagnoses?
Beth: Austen’s official diagnosis is complete agenesis of the corpus callosum with a gray matter heterotopia. As I mentioned before, we received Austen’s diagnosis on the day she was born. My doctor was simply doing an ultrasound to check on Austen. I was overdue and baby girl did NOT want to make her entrance. That ultrasound was the very first time an abnormality was detected. I had a perfect pregnancy. No sickness, no problems, and the anatomy scans had always appeared normal.
I always say that the timeline of her diagnosis was in God’s master plan. If I had found out sooner, I fear I would have worried and attempted to research ACC my entire pregnancy. Finding out when we did allowed me to avoid the fear & worry during pregnancy, but it was still a very early diagnosis. We were able to arrange support, guidance, and start finding ways to provide the best life possible for Austen.
The prognosis we were given was not a positive one and we were devastated. Austen was a seemingly healthy 8lb 11oz baby and was doing everything a newborn should be doing beautifully. It was hard to believe what they were telling us was true, but her MRI’s didn’t lie. After counseling with what seemed like every staff member at the hospital, we would go to NICU and hold Austen for as long as they would let us. It always gave me so much peace and hope to just sit and hold her.
At 7 months old Austen was diagnosed with a seizure disorder. Early on, the activity presented itself as Infantile Spasms but that was never an official diagnosis. She underwent treatment in the form of a steroid injection, which wasn’t successful, and Austen has continued to battle seizures. She takes a seizure medication daily and we take them as they come. We’ve become accustomed to that being part of the journey. As much as I hate it, I’ve learned to accept it and we carry on.
Q: Tell us about Austen. What’s her personality and interests?
Beth: Ohh, she’s an intricate little thing! Ha-ha! Austen has always been very content. She is (mostly) non-verbal and didn’t walk until just shy of 4 years old. Even in those early years she would sit and happily take in her surroundings. As she’s gotten older, we’ve really seen her progress cognitively. Although her processing is delayed, I am constantly in awe of her understanding and comprehension. She takes information in seamlessly. It’s the output that she struggles with. She is happiest outdoors. She loves dogs, books, has a massive Disney movie collection, and she’s never met a food she didn’t like. Austen says about 15-20 words consistently and seems to be slowly adding to her vocabulary. She loves going to school, and even though she struggles with giving others their personal space, she does great with her peers. I think Brad & I would both agree that Austen’s favorite word is “GO”. She loves to be out and about & I love to expose her to typical social situations. I feel like we can attribute so much growth and progress to simply placing her in a “typical” environment. Every day we see a little progress or notice something she’s suddenly doing. She is determined and she’s a warrior. It would be so easy for her to give up but she works hard and just keeps on going.
Q: What are Austen’s challenges and how do you cope with them?
Beth: Our challenges are ever changing, I think. Our long-term challenges are communication, sensory processing, and toilet training. We are in the midst of getting Austen an AAC [augmentative and alternative communication] device that is a good fit for her. There has been a lot of frustration over the years with communicating but she really does well figuring out how to tell me things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading her as well. I think mamas know their kids. That instinct just kicks in I guess.
I have learned so much about her sensory processing struggles the hard way. Fixing her hair in the mornings is probably the worst. I couldn’t understand because I was being so careful. I knew she hated it, but it wasn’t until I mentioned it at one of her therapy sessions that I was told it was actually a sensory thing. Teeth brushing, walking with bare feet, cold weather, and loud noises also top the list. I try to accommodate where I can, and we just work really hard on tolerance with the others. I’ve also had my share of meltdowns and tears through all of this so please don’t get the idea that I’m just over here being supermom. That’s not a thing!
Toilet training is the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done. One day she does great. The next day she refuses. The day after that she’s scared of the toilet. The second she has a seizure she loses control and can’t help but to have an accident. I honestly don’t know if we’ll ever be in a great place with that but today was a good day, and for that I am thankful.
I think our day-to-day challenges stem from these long-term things. Fits of anger and throwing things are common when she’s mad. I feel like those behaviors are mostly communication and sensory related. I’m sure any mama can relate to toilet training challenges. Somehow coping with that day after day was just built into us. I don’t love it but every day I do it all over again.
Q: When did you create The Southern Mess and what led you to do it?
Beth: I absolutely love this question because I feel like so many people can relate. In 2016, I was working at a company that I had been with for 16 years. It wasn’t what I would call my dream job, but I was good at what I did and the people I worked with were like family. At that time Austen was in 7 therapy sessions a week. Because we live in a rural area, I was having to drive to another town to a facility that accepted our insurance. I was so overwhelmed trying to miss as little work as possible and still make sure Austen was getting the best care she could get. My mama was such a huge help during all of this, and she cared for Austen while I worked, but I am Austen’s mom. I wanted to be at therapy with her. I wanted to be at all the appointments that she required. I finally had to make the decision to resign from my job. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for me to do it all. I began working part-time at my family’s company to keep some income and have the flexibility I needed to be with Austen. Blessed is an understatement, I know.
Although I was grateful, I was really lost. I spent 16 years pouring myself into a job that I just had to walk away from. It didn’t even feel like a choice. I felt like I was forced into it because of these life circumstances I found myself in. I love my family with everything in me and I did what was best for us. If I’m being fully transparent though, then I have to tell you that I was sad, and mad, and confused. I won’t ever pretend to be the sacrificial being that happily laid everything down. I felt like I was just expected to give up what I wanted and to be happy about it. Maybe that sounds awful and probably really selfish, but we’re being honest here, right?
As time passed, I was doing the mundane tasks of learning the family business and being a mom. Still feeling lost, I began to search for something for myself. Something attainable in my circumstances, but something that belonged to me. I wanted to show up for something I was passionate about. I wanted to create. I wanted to make an impact. I had seen this whole blog/Instagram thing be a business for others and thought “I could do that. I love to create, and I can take pictures.” I thought it sounded fun, but I was pretty concerned with what people would think. Wait. Let me just confess. I was scared that some random person in my small town would stumble across my profile and think it was stupid. Not any particular person. Just anyone. I didn’t want anyone to think it was stupid. I ran the idea by my sister and thank God she’s a dreamer and still is cheering me on. So, I did it. I started The Southern Mess. It started as snapshots of Southern life, then I added fashion, and eventually started bringing in my family and telling our story.
I’m happier right now than I ever have been. I felt like I was giving so much up but I finally realized I had to walk away from that to be in the place I’m in now. Starting The Southern Mess has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. I am comfortable in our family business, I am spending more time with Austen than was ever possible before, and I’m sharing our truth. Hopefully, we’re impacting a few lives along the way.
Q: The images you share are a beautiful part of the storytelling you do. Is there pressure to do things perfectly even though your platform is honest about life is messy sometimes?
Beth: Thank you so much. The creative process is something I throw myself into entirely. I love it.
Yes. There is so much pressure. I really want to say “That’s not the important part & that isn’t why I do this” but a part of me knows that’s not entirely true. When I sit and put so much heart into everything I do, or when I watch Austen struggle every single day, the truth is I want us to be heard. It’s hard not to look around and think “that person is changing lives, that person is making a huge impact, why can’t I change the world?” I often go back to thinking my photo wasn’t good enough or asking myself what I can do to be better? I don’t think it’s wrong to want to do better. I do, however, think that it’s easy to let comparison creep in and cause me to want to do better for the wrong reason.
I struggle sometimes with purpose. The minute I feel like things are going in the right direction something doesn’t work out and I question what I’m even doing. My husband is so instrumental in keeping me grounded. I’ll never forget the day he looked at me and said “Beth, what if Austen is your purpose? What if you were simply placed on this earth for her?” Any time I’m struggling I go back to that truth. Austen is my purpose. Sharing our life and her story is part of that truth. Our truth is messy, so I strive to embrace that. Perfection isn’t reality and most people don’t relate to that on a real human level. I suppose the pressure will always exist, but I think shifting that into motivation to be the best version of you, whatever that looks like, is the secret.
Q: Austen is very much a part of The Southern Mess. How does she like being part of it and why is it important to you to share her story.
Beth: Honestly, I think she could care less. She humors me and she loves to make cameos. She thinks it’s hilarious to look at herself on camera. My mama was always taking pictures when we were growing up and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Austen has always had a camera on her, so I think it’s just normal for her. It’s definitely in my best interest to catch her in the mornings though. After a long day she doesn’t have much tolerance for me and my camera.
A couple years into my journey with The Southern Mess I randomly shared something regarding Austen’s disability. After that something completely unexpected happened. A fellow special needs mama reached out to me and we had a conversation that turned into this mind-blowing realization for me. There was this whole community of special needs mamas doing the same thing I was doing. They were showing up for their child. They were going to therapies and appointments. They were changing pull-ups and holding their child through seizures. They were going to playgrounds and birthday parties trying so very hard to just make life “normal” and they were leaving in tears and feeling helpless and defeated and useless. So, I started sharing. I started sharing our journey, our struggles, my feelings, the funny things, the hard things…the mess. The real life mess. I finally realized that I did need something for myself, but it wasn’t just a hobby. It was a whole community. This community is full of families that just need to know they aren’t alone. They need encouragement and a support system.
I’ve always felt very strongly about sharing Austen’s story. From the very beginning I firmly believed that God put us on this journey for a reason. Although I still don’t fully understand all of it, it’s important for me to continue to share. I want every struggle she encounters to be completely worth it. For us, the opportunity to change even one life makes it worth it.
Q: The Southern Mess touches on so many areas including life, style, interesting products, parenting and more, and it’s become your business and creative outlet. How has the growth of your platform helped give you flexibility for your family and a place to make a difference?
Beth: I had someone in the industry tell me that I needed to “niche down” more. The truth is that I think there’s room for all the things I share. That’s who I am. I’m a mama that doesn’t get a ton of sleep. If I find a good concealer for these dark circles, I want to share that. If I find the best sneakers for running to and from appointments, to work, to pick-up, to the gym, and wherever else life might take me, I’m going to share that. You’ll hear about bad days. You’ll hear about our victories. That’s all part of this life. I’m not for everyone. I’ve had slow growth, but I have a loyal audience. They are truly invested in the miracle that Austen is. As The Southern Mess has grown it has opened doors for us to collaborate with so many amazing brands and allowed us to connect with so many special needs families. Although any extra income is nice, it honestly isn’t why I do this. I love this community, I love being able to work this business with Austen right by my side, and the calling to be a difference maker was born in me. I can’t shake it and I don’t want to. I’ll continue to work at it every single day.
Q: In July, you wrote a candid blog Dear Special Needs Mama, This is What I Know. How has being a special needs mama impacted and encouraged you to advocate for special needs parents and kids.
Beth: The day I wrote that blog post was a rough one. I felt like everything I referenced in that post had happened within a 24-hour time frame. There are people in my life that assure me that our life situations are “normal.” They say ‘Oh, every kid does that’ or ‘Yep, we’ve all been there.’ There have been times where I felt relief upon hearing that because it normalizes us for a moment. But the fact of the matter is, there has never been a more untrue statement. Until you have had your 9-year-old daughter in a public restroom trying to change a dirty pull-up while she’s standing up and screaming every time a toilet flushes or a hand dryer comes on…you have, in fact, not ‘been there.”
I earnestly appreciate that people try to reassure me that we’re “normal.” It’s ok though. I have come to terms with the fact that our life is different. I love that about us. What’s upsetting is when we’re in a difficult situation & thinking ‘What am I doing wrong? If this is normal kid behavior, then I’m awful at motherhood and everything that goes with it!’ That could not be farther from the truth.
No special needs mama should ever have to feel that way and I sat down that day intent on getting that message out. Our lives are different. They are crazy beautiful with emphasis on the crazy. I refuse to stand alone on this journey when we’re all just looking for someone to stand with. Our kids need us to stand with them as well. As special needs parents we know the battles we’ve faced. Just imagine what our special needs children are facing. I will spend this life equipping Austen for her future.
Q: You are getting involved with the NODCC’s communications and storytelling committee, and we thank you for volunteering to do that. How do you balance everything in your life especially as a special needs parent?
Beth: I am so excited to be getting involved! This is one of the “doors” that my platform opened for me. So, thank you for having me! I’m not sure I even grasp the definition of “balance” in regard to this crazy life of ours. I will say that we run on the same exact schedule pretty much every single day. While Austen is at school I go to work, when I pick her up, I’m able to go home with her. She loves to curl up on the couch after school and usually ends up napping for a bit. I use that time to work on The Southern Mess. My husband takes over on the days I go to the gym or while I’m cooking supper. I know I also mentioned our families. They are always pitching in when we need help. We couldn’t do everything we do without them. I may also be ridiculously attached to my planner! Ha-ha! I’m a little OCD in that way. Also, there are times we just say no to things. It’s ok to do that. If I’m offered a collaboration and I just don’t see a window in my schedule for it, I decline. If friends call and invite us to dinner and it’s been a rough day for Austen we don’t go. I am constantly trying to keep my house clean and it’s probably the thing that makes me the craziest. It is never completely clean all at one time. Maybe I’ll post a little bit of that realness soon!
A few years ago, I went to therapy and through my tears I told the therapist that I felt like such a failure. I wasn’t giving one thing in my life 100%. I was only able to give a little here and a little there and I didn’t feel like I was doing any one thing perfectly. She looked at me so bewildered and said ‘Beth, you only have 100%. The only way you can do all the things you need to do is by splitting it all up. You are never going to be able to give one thing 100% unless that’s the only thing you have to do.’ I remind myself of that when I feel like I’m coming undone. Sometimes I shift those percentages around, but I don’t put that kind of pressure on myself anymore.
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