Last Saturday it was Sam’s birthday party. Sixteen years old. How did we get here? I can hardly believe it. Gone is my baby, the small innocent boy, and in his place is a fledgling man. He flexes his muscles, and chafes at a lack of independence. Detentions make no difference to his truculence in school. He is not tall, although his voice has deepened and his cheeks are rough. When I observe the sons of my friends my heart skips a beat at the height and breadth he does not share. Nevertheless, my boy is growing up, and I am proud.
We took him and a group of his friends ten pin bowling. After a game in which there was much laughter and mutual helping and taking turns (no adult presence required), they shared a meal, and waited politely for cake and candles (it takes longer than you think to light sixteen of them, and a fair few puffs to blow them out). I can’t quite believe that this will be his last school-friend celebration, because in the summer, he leaves. He and his friends will be scattered to the four winds.
It’s one of the reasons I am still throwing him a birthday party. His younger siblings have reached the stage where, other than the cake-and-candles and the gifts they aren’t really bothered (or, they haven’t made a fuss, anyway). Certainly by my sixteenth, where I went for a walk around the village and called in on a neighbour for a chat, birthday parties were long a thing of the past, but, as ever where Sam is concerned, his birthday, as well as him, offers me an opportunity.
One of the things that happens when your child goes to secondary school is that you lose touch with the parents of their friends. For a long time, we were bound close, forged together in the crucible of the toddler group, the playgroup and the nursery; the cold hours waiting in playgrounds, washed with three o’clock rain. Whether this losing touch is peculiar to special schools, I don’t know, as even though he still needs delivering and fetching, I never have time to wait and chat; the vast majority of young people leave with a driver. For me, his party gives me the chance to connect with my peers, to find out how everyone is getting on.
In a way, it’s restful. Despite the noise and lights, a sensory nightmare that everyone takes in their stride, meeting up with people who have been where you have been, who have walked by your side, even if at a distance, is a relief. At the last one I chatted with another mother about Sally Phillips’ documentary, a cultural event that continues to ripple over my community. Another time, a group of us talked about school, and how to fill in the multitude of forms that beset you when your child has a disability; the strangeness of finding yourself an appointee, together with a visit from the Official Checking Lady.
And last week, the conversation turned to the longer term. It’s not a place I think of much. We are very much a right here, right now, cross bridges when we get to them kind of family, and it works for us. But the bridges are coming up alarmingly fast. Sam, at 16, is a young man confidently hurtling towards an uncertain adulthood. With all the talk about the cuts in spending to schools, right at the point when he is leaving and heading towards the realms of the college, is there enough money to support him there either?
We talked about the possibility of starting our own business, the sort where we could provide our sons with both meaningful and safe employment and training. We discussed Team Domenica and Foxes Academy.
I think about these initiatives and I feel proud and inspired. I think how great they are, how fabulous it is that there are people who are committed to making the future less frightening for families like ours. And then I think about how many parents are involved in setting them up, and I just feel tired.
Sometimes I don’t feel equal to the task.