Aspirations is a funny old business. Sara Ryan mentioned the word in her “My Daft Life” blog today and it set me off on a load of old themes. What have been my aspirations for myself? What were my parent’s aspirations for me? What are my aspirations for Steven? Is it okay to have aspirations for anyone other than oneself?
Many times in the counselling room I’ve heard clients talk about the unobtainable aspirations their parents had for them and how they’ve been left with feelings of guilt and failure that they haven’t lived up to those aspirations. And for as many times I’ve heard that story, I’ve heard people talk about how their parents lack of aspiration for them has led to low self – worth and a lack of drive in going for something. If there is a moral to the story it must be that neither parents nor their children can win; the pitch is either too high, too low or non existent.
In my case, I was brought up with very mixed messages. As an “achiever”, I received a lot of love and praise for achieving and my nan’s prediction that I would be “the first doctor in the Neary family” didn’t feel like a pressure. At the same time, I grew up with grave warnings about “blowing my own trumpet” and for every childhood success I had, I was given the warning, “but don’t get ideas above your station”. In my family, pride about achievement wasn’t trumpeted and we were kept in our place by the fear of leaving and losing our station. I don’t know if this is good or bad. I do know though that attending a family funeral last year and receiving a lot of praise about the court case and my book, I had to suppress the anxiety that I might not have a place in the family station any more. I can hear “your mother would have been so proud of you” but I struggle with, “Wow – the first person in the Neary family to have a book published”.
Is there a difference between an aspiration and a dream? I remember embarrassingly a social studies group at school in 1977. We had to talk about our dreams (aspirations?) and I stupidly told a group of 16 year olds that one of my dreams was to have sex with Debbie Harry. That was probably a dream – aspirations we set ourselves tend to have a slim chance of success. I set myself goals; I love a challenge and I have dreams. I tend not to distinguish between the three.
I’m a parent, so needless to say, I’ve got aspirations for Steven. Most of the time, I’m content with them; I think I have a very grounded idea of who he is and what he can achieve. From time to time, something will come along and I question whether my aspirations for him are too limited. When the Paralympics were on, I had the fleeting thought about signing him up for shot putt training. In the last couple of weeks, Anna Kennedy has been celebrating her Autism Got’s Talent show. Again, fleetingly, I thought should I enter Steven for next year’s show doing his Basil Fawlty and Boy George impressions. But they are big public events and I dismiss my thoughts as I can see that I can get caught up with our modern notion that aspirations are only aspirations if they lead to fame or public recognition.
When Steven left school, I got terribly confused about what he should do with his life now that he was an adult. My idea was that first and foremost, whatever he did, he would need a routine, a structure to his week. Following that, I thought about his interests and things he would like doing and where he could engage with people, which he also likes doing. When I talked to Steven’s old social worker about him doing things like swimming, the gym, I could see that they didn’t fit into her ideas. She really pushed for him to go to college; she was very very keen on him doing a citizenship course. Steven went and stayed for 20 minutes but wasn’t too impressed with a lesson about the importance of queueing when you’re in a shop. I put it down to a lack of imagination (the social worker’s, not Steven’s). It was clear though that she was disappointed when he took up water aerobics at the Virgin Active on a Tuesday instead of the citizenship class – like it had less value. One of Steven’s mates at the Mencap Pool has been attending a cookery class for the last four years. The lessons are repeated every year. As his mother said to me: “We know that we’re always going to get rhubarb crumble every March”. There’s not a problem with that – the guy loves his class and finds the repetition reassuring. The problem is that course is presented as having an aspirational value – by attending he will be achieving a valuable life goal. He is achieving something, it’s just that what he’s achieving is different from the presentation.
It’s the same with Steven’s weekly visit to the day centre. He is there for four and a half hours. It was at the day centre that the occupational therapist decided that it would be good for Steven to make his pepperoni pizza whilst he was there. Nothing wrong in that. He’s quite an expert now and sure makes a mean pizza. However, the activity is still seen as a challenging task and one that adds value to his time spent at the day centre. The whole day is framed around the making of the pepperoni pizza. What is missing from this, is that there is absolutely nothing else for him to do there. If he wasn’t making the pizza, he would watch TV for four and a half hours. Therefore, the pizza is elevated in importance and aspirational value to cover the lack of any other meaningful activity at the place.
Sorry to get to the last paragraph before announcing that I’m not going to say what my aspirations for Steven are. That’s another problem for the learning disabled and their families – their aspirations get judged. Steven has a full week. The way he talks, I know that he is grateful for the routine of the week and he seems to enjoy what he does. He can make himself clear when he doesn’t want to do something and he is just as clear about why he finds the things he does fulfilling.
That’s good enough for me.