Jennifer and Ryan Straughn with their son Kofi. (Picture by Christoff Griffith.)
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When Ryan Straughn was growing up, he never really had “a relationship of substance” with his father. Raised with his grandmother in Grazettes, he remembers catching a bus on Thursday evenings after school to head to his paternal grandmother’s house in Rock Dundo, St James, to see his father, who worked at the Sanitation Service Authority. Sometimes he would see him, sometimes he would not.
That experience and others in his formative and teenaged years, the interaction between men and women he observed in his home and community, plus his understanding of how those relationships worked, shaped the Minister in the Ministry of Finance’s views on the “need for responsible adult males to be nurtured.”
“For me, growing up and seeing my grandmother a victim of domestic violence, my mother and other women around the neighbourhood, I made a determined effort that I would never ever do that because that’s not how I internalised the relationship should be between a man and a woman,” he said during an interview with EASY magazine, on a breezy, sunny Sunday morning at his St George home.
“I can’t remember how old I was but I just knew that’s not how I thought it should be. One could be angry and whatever, but at the end of the day to literally physically abuse your partner, your wife . . . . It seemed that people accepted it because it was the norm, but it shapes you one or two ways – either you perpetuate the behaviour or you choose not to engage in it”.
Today, the parliamentary representative for Christ Church East Central is married to Jennifer and has a nine-year-old son Kofi, who is autistic.
Kofi was born when they were living in London and Ryan recalls that “there was a level of excitement and fear at the same time because pregnancy is a very tricky period”.
“While I liked to feel her belly, I was scared because you know that anything can happen at any time . . . . I was scared in terms of what could happen to her and the baby.”
He regaled with their labour and delivery story after Jennifer went into labour two weeks early.
Kofi is non-verbal autistic but he is not treated differently than other children his age.
“He would go to the supermarket when I go. I make him push the trolley and put in the groceries (mainly gluten free), what normal children will do. We make him bring his clothes in his basket down the stairs, put them in the machine, close the door and I would do the rest. When they’re finished he takes them out, puts them in the dryer and I would deal with that.
“He gets up to the usual mischief,” said Ryan. For example, after watching YouTube videos Kofi attempted to make slime with ingredients that included his father’s shaving cream, after-shave, and toothpaste.
“I see that as exploring as long as he doesn’t harm himself. We try to make sure that he goes wherever we go, no shielding. He loves travelling. The first thing he does when he gets in any vehicle is look for the seat belt . . . . If he sees that the vehicle is moving and you’re not buckled he would motion to you to put it on.
“Even though he’s not speaking audibly, we’ve developed modes of communication that tend to work. It is not 100 per cent. I would dearly love to have a conversation with my son. It’s been seven years now that he hasn’t spoken and this is challenging.”
Kofi had started talking then he stopped.
“He was about two and a half when he was losing his speech. He was hitting himself in his head, which was kind of distressing because you had never seen anything like that before.
“We were trying to provide the support without understanding what was happening. Here it is your child is talking then he’s no longer talking and it’s hard to try to rationalise in your mind what is happening.
“One of my biggest worries is because of the lack of communication, people might try to take advantage of him. It’s one of those things at the back of my mind. We try to make as normal an existence as possible without communicating, which has improved. It has been hard. Certainly, for me not understanding what was happening to him and even for him.
“We have to teach him that not everybody means well, but it is difficult to explain. He just goes up to people and hugs them. Obviously, people would be surprised by it. Some people would like it, some people won’t. We’ve never had any nasty reactions but you never know. I suppose that he would sense who he can interact with.”
The lack of proper support structures during those initial stages was tough and frustrating, particularly not having “information available to make decisions about who to see, when to make them, when to do something and even now there seems to be no clear structure as to what to do.”
Their routine has changed with Ryan’s appointment to Cabinet. Before, he would cook on weekdays and Jennifer on Sundays. He would finish working by 2:30 p.m. and collect Kofi from school and they would be together between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“Now, between 6 and 8 in the morning I take no calls. That’s breakfast time and taking him to school time. At least I try to carve out those two hours because I don’t know how the day will always end up. Hopefully, as things settle down going forward I can get back to assist with teaching swimming on Saturdays which he goes to as well.
“I miss that as we would spend more time together. I definitely will carve out that Saturday morning to go to the beach and do that.” (GBM)