Josephine Feeney – A Year With My Son Part 1
The following is an exert from Josephine Feeney’s book ‘A year with my son.’
A Year With My Son
That day, the sky was an unbroken tablecloth of blue. Underneath it, we cycled across the chalky plateau-land of Normandy. I wanted to be alone: to muse on my thoughts; to gaze out at the endless fields of wheat, corn and barley; to feel the cool breeze on my face; to push the pedals and forget about everything. This was our holiday: I wanted to feel free and happy.
Beside me, my son cycled. His feet noisily pushed the pedals as he huffed and puffed at every slight incline. Then, the dialogue between us began; ill-tempered on his part: badgering, cajoling, prodding. “Why do we have to come to France every year? Why can’t we go somewhere exciting like Thailand or Bali or Dubai?”
“Don’t you like France?”
“I hate it.”
“What do you hate about it?”
“Everything – the food, the countryside, the beaches. The French!”
For a few minutes we pedalled in silence, up the hill towards the wind turbine. We stopped to listen to the whine of the sails and the whining, grudging voice of my son started again. “Why can’t we go to Germany or Italy or Spain?”
Then my temper snapped. “What is wrong?”
A surly, “Nothing,” was the response.
“I know there’s something wrong. What is it? Tell me?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just hate France and I’ve told you so many times and still you book the holiday without asking me.”
“That’s not true!” I argued.
“I said I didn’t want to come to France.”
“Honestly – we work so hard, all the time and save up so carefully for two weeks in France. We’re in a lovely spot and I thought we were having a great time together.”
“And why can’t we have a dog?”
“You heard me. Why can’t we have a dog?”
Where had this come from? I wondered. Here we were standing on top of a hill, overlooking the stunning, Normandy landscape. The sun was warm, everything was perfect. “Why are you being like this?” I asked. “What’s really wrong?”
Then silence. The slight hiss of the turbine grew. “What’s really wrong?”
I noticed the tear, even though he tried to hide it. “I don’t know.”
“Why are you being so difficult?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s not France, is it?”
“It’s not the dog, either.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Of the future.”
“Frightened of the future?” I echoed his words.
“Yes… what am I going to do? Who am I going to be?”
“Oh son… you shouldn’t worry about that,” I said, trying to sound reassuring.
“Mum – I’m eighteen tomorrow. I’m going to be an adult but…” he hesitated.
“But I don’t know how to be grown up.”
I smiled. In my head I was thinking of a quick, cheap, one-liner. Nor do most men. But the thought that overtook me was, none of us really know.
“Look, son. I’m not going to abandon you on the steps of a church. I’ll always be here for you, so will your dad. We’ll help you… to continue growing.”
We hugged and cycled home and I thought of the old, cynical expression, “A burden shared is a buck passed.” For now, I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety about my son’s future. It was so huge and oppressive that I found it hard to cycle back to the holiday home. I managed and as soon as we arrived, he jumped off his bike and said, “Fancy a game of table tennis?” I played and, for a while, I forgot my anxiety. In truth, I parked it around the corner for the rest of the holiday and cycled, swam, read, played table tennis, ate, drank and sat around as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
And then we returned home… and woke up.
But first, a bit of background: I met my husband and married him within a year. We met, as he says, when we were, ‘almost young.’ I was in my mid-thirties when I found I was expecting my first child. It was a difficult pregnancy so I had to stop work as a supply teacher at twenty weeks and at thirty-six weeks, after travelling to a wedding in Scotland, I was hospitalised with suspected pre-eclampsia. I spent the rest of my pregnancy with my feet up. I read and ate a great deal. When Finn was born, I was three and a half stone over my normal weight.
I was seriously traumatised by the labour. Induced at forty one weeks, I spent several hours with doctors and midwives extremely concerned about the baby until at 8.30, one summer Monday morning, Finn was born. For a moment, I held him and then he was taken to be examined by the doctors as there were problems with his breathing.
Then there was a week in hospital of recovering from the consequences of a rushed forceps delivery and a hospital-acquired infection. My husband came every morning with fresh sweet peas from our small back yard. He helped me to look after our child and encouraged me to persist with breastfeeding. It was so painful but I said to myself, “There’s no alternative. You have to do this.”
To say that Finn, our first-born, was the most beloved child would be an understatement. No child was ever loved and cherished as much as him. He was so gorgeous, so responsive, so cheerful and so clever. Neither of us were in regular employment and our income was seriously limited but we had lots of time to spend with our son. Every morning ‘Daddy’ would place Finn at the end of the settee and play the guitar and sing to him. We never went out or had babysitters because we wanted to be with our son so much.
“Do you think we’re mad?” I used to ask Finn’s Dad.
“No. It’s just so lovely to have such a wonderful son,” he would reply. “All new parents must be like this.”
When Finn was six months old, we moved house. The mortgage was much bigger so I had to return to work so did Finn’s dad and poor old Finn had to go to a child-minder for half of the week. The rest of the week was filled with Pram Clubs, visits and fun. At home we would lie on the carpet together and I would hold up picture books. At eight months of age, Finn, sitting on my knee, knew when to turn the page of a picture book.
As Finn grew I would often roll out a sheet of wallpaper and give him chunky crayons or paint and he would paint and draw all over the paper. To us, he was just the brightest, loveliest, most articulate child in the world. He loved books and our weekly visits to the library were the greatest treat in the world.
When Finn was two years old, his sister was born and, understandably, he found it very difficult to share our attention. He used to climb up onto the wheels of the Silver Cross pram, prod her in the stomach and shout, “It’s woken up!” before becoming very cross that when Morag woke, I had to feed her. Although I encouraged Finn to sit close to me and Morag when I was feeding her, he often slapped my breast and shouted, “Stop it, Mummy!”
Eventually, his greatest enemy became his dearest friend as Finn and Morag grew to play, conspire and plan together. When Finn started school, Morag cried with loss, envy and frustration. She wanted to be with him, she didn’t want others to play with him.
In our opinion, Finn had received the best ever start in life so… school would be a doddle for him. He already knew how to read, count and draw. He had watched hardly any television and he could sit still and pay attention for long periods of time. He loved listening to stories and going for adventures in the park, the woods and the countryside.
But when Finn started school we realised that life was no longer about what he could do but it was about what he couldn’t do. He was four years old and his whole life, his personality and everything about him was measured by a series of tick boxes.
It doesn’t take the greatest psychologist to realise that when people tell you that you can’t do something, you fall behind with everything. So…
Finn can’t recognise his letters.
Finn can’t dress himself.
Finn can’t put his PE kit on.
Finn can’t draw.
Finn can’t paint.
Finn doesn’t eat properly.
Finn wets himself.
Finn can’t do…
Finn’s name became synonymous with failure and deep sighs. Parents evening became a predictable mini-drama of teachers giving me and Finn’s dad a lesson in psychology about what we should do and worse, what we should have done.
You should have prepared him more for school.
You should have taught him how to dress himself.
You should have shown him how to get into his PE kit.
You should have taught him his letters…
And because I was so heartbroken that my little son’s spirit was being crushed, I didn’t say that Finn could read, never mind recognise his letters. He loved stories and that, essentially, is what written words are for when you’re four: stories.
Finn started school in 1997, just after New Labour came to power. It was a time of great hope and optimism. Many teachers anticipated huge, positive changes in the National Curriculum and a return to a more child-centred education. So it did come as a massive shock, as Finn progressed through school, to discover that the education system was becoming more, not less, prescriptive and if you were creative and free thinking, school would gradually become more difficult.
Eventually, Finn was diagnosed with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and he received support within and without the classroom. We had many energy- sapping, nasty battles about provision for Finn which went on until he was fourteen years old. After a particularly unpleasant disagreement about Finn’s support, we took Finn out of his Catholic Comprehensive school and moved him to a county Comprehensive with the most amazing teachers and support system. Within a year, they transformed Finn’s life and, consequently, ours. When he started in Year Ten he came with a prediction of achieving nothing at GCSE but he turned it around and managed to get five A to Cs. Another two years at this enlightened school brought Finn two good A levels – a huge achievement for a boy who was predicted nothing at the age of fourteen.
The experts kept telling us to prepare for a difficult future. We were, they proclaimed, in denial about Finn’s abilities and his disability. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” one Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist said to us. “You’re going to have serious problems ahead.”
Others said, “He won’t be able to live independently.” And all the time in my head I was thinking, Hang on a minute… this is the little boy who knew how to turn the page of a picture story when he was eight months old. This is the boy who was talking to the local shopkeeper about the Taliban when he was three years old. This is the boy who cheered with us when he heard about the Good Friday Agreement when he was five years old.
What had happened to Finn in those intervening years? School happened and it happened to the whole of his generation. But worse, much, much worse than all that… all the way through school, Finn’s generation were promised a pot of gold at the end of the education rainbow. They were told, “If you work hard at school, you’ll get good results then you’ll go to University and then you’ll leave and have a wonderful job and a charmed life.”
They lied. There is no pot of gold. There wasn’t even a rainbow. Finn and his generation have been lied to, cajoled, fiddled with and, ultimately, betrayed.
So… here I am again, alone with my son. He’s unemployed, no course to go to and almost six foot tall. He’s kind, clever and thoughtful. Here’s my year with my son. This is Finn’s generation, the ones who are paying for our mistakes.