If there’s a theme that runs through the things I write, a constant thread, then I hope it’s a sense of unconditional love for my children. As much as I moan and winge, I think it’s there in everything I post, and it’s certainly my motivation. But reading back through the eighty plus entries, I think there’s also a strong sense of something else that runs throughout this blog. And that thing is guilt.
The feeling of guilt usually begins for me before I’ve even opened my eyes in the morning. B will burst into our bedroom with a cry of, “Is it school today?” I know the answer “yes” will upset him, and be followed by cries of, “put school in a line!” This is B’s way of saying ‘cross out the word school’ on his calendar. As well developed as B’s speech now is, the one thing we cannot do is reason with him. His world is totally black and white- he likes it or he doesn’t like it. No amount of reasoned argument is going to divert him away from his anti-school stance. Diverting his attention works, but how do you sneak a school uniform onto a child? I’ve been told time and time again that he is happy and settled at school, but it’s hard not to feel guilty packing him off. And I don’t even have to drop him off; I escape off to work before his school day starts.
At work, the guilt continues. Being a teacher used to pretty much define who I was. It’s not a job you can do half heartedly; it demands a big commitment, both in and out of the classroom. Lately I’ve there in body but not in spirit. Marking has been piling up and lessons have been under prepared. Thankfully, having done the job for fifteen years, I can get away with coasting, but this is not the stuff that great careers are made of. The youngsters who sit in front of me deserve the best possible effort from me and I feel guilty that they haven’t been getting it. The truth is, too much of my time is preoccupied with thoughts about B. I know the same is true for my wife.
When the reality of B’s life first became apparent I was struck with the pointlessness of much of what I do in the classroom. What good are poems or plays to anyone? They’re not real life, they won’t solve anyone’s problems, it’s all just a bit unreal and futile. It is not like me to think in this way. Perhaps autism has caused me to reassess what is important in life and to focus more on my family rather than getting bogged down in work. Nonetheless, I need to get back to feeling inspired and driven at work. When work is going well, I feel at my best and that’s where my family need me to be.
But I am not the dad that I want to be. My son demands time, energy, patience and understanding that is beyond me sometimes. And then there is my oldest son. Happy as he is, what sort of family upbringing does he have ahead of him? I spoke recently to a parent with an autistic son and a daughter aged twelve. I asked how the daughter had settled at school, to which she replied, “Good, considering she has a very different kind of life to her peers”. She then told me about her daughter’s involvement in a young carer’s group and how it has boosted her confidence. The daughter is very caring, understanding and mature- all qualities that have come in part from having a disabled brother. My son also shows compassion and understanding. He also has a lot to put up with. Is this the life I would have chosen for him? For either of them?
It doesn’t help that this week I’ve been talking to Superdad. Superdad is a colleague (friend even) at work with two children very similar in age to mine. Once upon a time our families would see each other socially. We’re close in age and at similar stages in our careers, so we have a lot in common. Where the similarities end is that Superdad has no reason to feel guilty for his shortcomings as a teacher, father or husband. Superdad’s children have piano lessons, do martial arts, multi-sports, dancing, cubs and, for all I know, can speak three languages. After the Easter break, I chatted to Superdad about what we’d been up to, dad-wise. I’d fumbled my way through two weeks of hellish pandemonium, relying on my two best friends Mr Wii and Mr DS to keep the kids occupied, and me sane. SuperFuckingDad had, I kid you not, set his little darlings the challenge of memorising Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. Which they’d done. I’ve always hated that poem. I hate it even more now.
There’s another way to look at all this. Instead of thinking ‘guilty’, I should be thinking ‘responsible’. I’m looking now at my son. I made him. I’m responsible for this beautiful, beautiful child in front of me. Well, okay, I’m partly responsible. My input was crucial. I didn’t grow him, carry him or nurse him but my the part I played was essential. All ten minutes of it. Alright, five. What I’m trying to say is that the genes passed on from father to son have resulted in a boy who fills me with tremendous pride and love because he truly is an adorable, fascinating, astounding child.
So if this incredible child is in any way down to me, then I’m guilty as charged. And none of the rest matters.
One more thing. After talking to Superdad, I re-read Kipling’s ‘If’. In this poem about triumph over adversity, one line struck me as being particularly relevant to the life of a parent who, finding things didn’t quite work out as expected, and feeling low on energy, somehow manages to succeed:
‘Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools’
Hey, maybe this poetry stuff is onto something after all. Damn you, Superdad!