Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fathers and sons

Fathers and sons

I am writing this piece as a very personal story in what is intended as a political journal. Sometimes the personal is more truly political, however. I never intended merely to comment on news stories. My weblog is about the politics of the family, very specifically my family.

The day I met G I also met her children J and C, and was drawn to them immediately. Within minutes I was mending a fuse for C. Very soon I was mad enough to suggest taking them all to Brighton that very afternoon.

We tore through the summer sunshine to Brighton. Then I lost the three of them going to park the car. Somehow I managed to find these needles in the haystack of a beech. It took a long time. G somehow convinced me we would always be able to find each other. A couple of hours later we lost J while attempting to walk along the promenade. It was the first of many times we lost J that summer. He does not get himself lost anymore, though he still detaches to some extent when we go walking together. I found him. G’s first strong impression of me is returning J to her, carrying him on my shoulders. Sometimes I stop believing that I can really offer this to the two of them as a long term project. It should have happened by now if it was going to happen. We need more help.

J and G have significant problems in their relationship. It has never really recovered from her long period of illness when he was very small and G’s betrayal of the family. But this relationship is less problematic than the one I had with my own mother who was only once briefly ill when I was young. While J has had a tendency to get lost, I had a tendency to walk away on holiday. On a number of occasions I have headed for the other end of the promenade. I have no memories of how I returned or was returned to where we were staying. I adored my mother, but I could not be angry with her. I had to walk away or become ill, which happened a lot until I was sent away to boarding school. When I was very small I would shit all around the living room, or so my mother told me. I have no direct memory of this. J finds it much easier to be angry with his mother than I did. But he continues to punish his parents for leaving him by shitting in his pants. It is not a very conscious or deliberate process. But all the doctors have declared it not to be a physical deficiency. He compounded the problem by disgracing himself for the first time at school just before the end of term, however. By this age I was at boarding school and tightly controlling my sphincter muscles in the typically repressed boarding school fashion. My bronchial asthma was probably as disturbed a response as J’s soiling himself. It makes people anxious. In therapy terms it is called turning anger on the self. Soiling makes other people angry. In psychotherapy language we would call it farming your anger out onto other people.

At boarding school it was hard to resist; no, it was impossible to resist institutionalisation. They even tried to control the movement of your bowels. We were made to queue at the toilets after breakfast, and our success or failure was recorded in a book. I always lied. I preferred the leisure of the period of enforced rest after lunch, when we were supposed to lie on our beds for twenty minutes. My resistance to their control led to a kind of constipation which has only left me in the last few years. It was my nick-name for a while at public school. It was a problem for my father all the time I knew him. He was the one whom I recall as supporting my learning to use the toilet as a very small boy. “Big job” we used to call it. Later, at university, I would read Norman O. Brown on culture and psychoanalysis, how constipation became the life pattern of the protestant ethic capitalists where my father belonged. They tell us we have freedom and democracy in the west. I can not imagine any greater degree of control attempted by a totalitarian regime. But of course this was freedom. My parents had chosen these private schools to send their children to, which would make them good drones for the dying days of the Great British Empire. They doubtless hoped it would be a pathway to higher places in the social hierarchy.

With G I am married to a possessor of one of the glittering prizes, an Oxford scholar. I have also continued on my drop out path, divesting myself of the last remnants of my old personality. I now spend about a minute on the loo, instead of twenty. My old sexual boundaries have fallen from me too. I have stopped worrying about catching cold. At six I had a paranoid attitude to authority already. I was sent to what was still called “Child guidance.” I was asked to play alone with toys in a sand pit as far as I can recall. I had no idea what they wanted to find out about me but I was determined not to show it to them. After a considerable struggle I have now succeeded in having J referred to the modern day version of child guidance, child and family mental health service, I think it is called. In terms of accessing public services this is like striking gold. It is the Cinderella of all Cinderellas. Children are not supposed to have psychiatric problems, despite all the research evidence to the contrary. We are to have family therapy, one day. Meanwhile J is to have some tests. He does not fit the profile of the normal version of ADHD, but they have invented a version for dreamers like J. The reason we have been taken on has little to do with J’s symptoms, which are not at all severe. But there is so much history of severe psychosis on the father’s side, as well as the problems G and her dad have had. I have not as yet admitted my own history of fragility to anyone. At J’s age I was sent away to an “open air school,” which catered for emotionally disturbed and delicate children together, which seems remarkably inspired to me. I am not sure in which category I belonged. It did wonders for my physical health. I remained paranoid about life at school, and generally distrustful. I occupied a world with my mother where all outsiders were hypocritical. In truth I was most unsafe with my mother. But I had had a competent nanny for the year before starting school, which had stabilised me. Prior to that I had a series of teenage school leavers whose immaturity and budding sexuality has put me off their ilk permanently. J and C had a full time nanny for a year while G was very unwell, when J was three. J and C do not seem to have the same good feelings for her as I had for Joe, who was a real nanny to rival Nana in Peter Pan.

Like all the older children in our families I was bright at school. I saw little of my father, when I was small. He worked till my bed time six days a week and went to church on Sundays. J’s father was also working a great deal in his early life. But he is very strongly attached to his Dad, which has made adjusting to me an oscillating process for him. Our younger children have struggled at school. R was well behind J at this age, but there was no problem with the school. R’s teacher had a very warm and loving relationship with her. At 13 she has totally blossomed and is outstanding in music, art, all forms of physical exercise and drama. She writes and reads well and is catching up in maths and science.

I continued to do well at school, and then well at university, thriving away from home. The legacy of early distress and illness led me to become one of the leading teachers of psychotherapy and counselling in this country. The primary head recommended boarding school for C. In my view the English Private School system continues to stunt emotional development and certainly did so for me. Recent experience as a therapist to teachers at such schools has convinced me that the fundamentals have not changed. I needed as much therapy to counter boarding school assaults on my rights as a person as I did to tackle family problems. C is undoubtedly thriving at home with us.

This last year in C…y should have really stabilised the boys’ lives. It has worked very well for C, who finishes among the few gifted and talented and the social centre of the class along with his best mate O. It was my doctor who diagnosed problems with my mother and eventually prescribed a parentectomy. Here the doctors, social workers and health visitors have been very positive and supportive about us and J, while the school has attempted to demonise us as his parents. The special needs teacher raised concerns about J’s behaviour in class, and the behaviour support teacher identified us as the reason. The head then compounded the matter my going over our heads and treating us as abusive or at best neglectful parents. This matter is still not put right. I have decided to continue my complaint until the matter is dealt with. The resignation of the head with no explanation is not a satisfactory outcome to us. The claim was that we have victimised J for not being good at school. If this were true it should have been even more true with R. It is utter nonsense.

It is true that Gill has not been well this last academic year, and I have become depressed as the school saga has continued without a good outcome. We have sought help but it has been very slow in coming. The school has made matters immensely worse for all of us. The Blair Government has decided to target children who are behind at the start of year 2 in primary school. The head of this school has been praised for her part in doing this. I think we are the victims of this policy as applied by well meaning but incompetent teachers and their managers driven by bureaucratic parameters instead of human relationships. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I am going to do my best to make sure this school starts to play a more positive role in this respect.

I have put an enormous amount of time and energy into the boy’s lives this last year. They are away with their dad for two weeks, giving me some time to reflect. I have a warm and affectionate relationship with both boys, much more so than one might expect with step sons. I have spent most time with J, teaching him cycling, swimming, rugby, cricket, nature study and use of the computer. I have tried teaching him to read and write too, without much success. I have listened a lot to his dreams and nightmares, his fantasies and his fears. I have attempted to provide some discipline and boundaries and to mediate his relationships with the other children. With C I discuss atomic physics and biology. I have helped him with poetry and cycle proficiency. He has tried vainly to involve me in computer games. He no longer needs a radio or a night light. I tuck him in at night. G always does J at bedtime. He comes in to have a cuddle with me in the mornings. I love my boys and they love me. I always wanted a boy; now I have two.

Let me end with an apology for the lack of my customary wit in this piece of writing. It may be the silly season but I still have my private eye open. I notice the Vicar of Albion (the one here is more the Dibley variety) has been having problems with his lawyer wife again. Apparently her firm is threatening to sue primary schools for not letting women wear burkas, and er, oh yes, to sue parents for sending their children to school in burkas. Maybe we should contact that august vicar’s wife to see what can be done about school’s which demonise middle class parents for having underachieving children. Our human rights have been infringed under Articles 7 and 8 of the Act. But the vicar is busy sweeping away all such things without the slightest hint of consultation. If the man in the pew is ever more likely to get gunned down in the street for setting out for matins in a heavy coat, what chance do we have for educational justice in Blairy England’s Albion.