Mathew and Cathy: alive and kicking despite many challenges
How would you react if you discovered you were going to be a father at 17? Or if your second baby died? As teenagers, Mathew Neville and his wife Cathy went through tough challenges that might floor a number of us. But they’ve surfaced alive and kicking, with a hope and vigour that’s enviable. What helped them along the way? They sat down with ALI PEPPIATT
Mathew, 43, is global CEO of Alpha International and lives in London with his wife Cathy and their children Jack, Rosie and Harry.
‘I grew up on a farm in Bedfordshire in England. My parents divorced when I was 11, but I had a happy childhood. When I was 16, I met Cathy. My sister had just finished her A Levels and we planned to go to France for the summer, each taking a friend. My friend dropped out and another girl joined us: Cathy. We immediately hit it off!
By the time we arrived in France we were a couple, even though Cathy’s older than me. I loved her warmth, fun and big smile. It quickly became serious, and then Cathy discovered she was pregnant. People ask me if we were shocked at the news but actually we just laughed, probably in disbelief and because we were so young and naïve: I was 17 and she was 19.
Mathew: ‘We just laughed when we found out we were teenage parents, we were so young and naïve’
We felt quite happy about the baby, and Jack was born the Easter before my A Levels. Our families were worried for us but accepting and supportive, which made a big difference.
After Jack was born, it was a mad few months. Cathy and Jack lived with her parents, and I’d dash between studying and seeing them, then play football with my friends who couldn’t vaguely comprehend what being a father meant. I also remember lying on my bed with a pile of books and thinking, ‘I’m 17 and this is not what I expected. I had better pass my A Levels!’
I applied for university and won a place at University College, London (UCL). Cathy and I planned that I’d study there and she would stay home with her parents. But at the last minute, we changed our minds and got married. We wanted to get married and quite liked the idea of a party, too.
Busy, tired, happy and broke: newlyweds Mathew and Cathy with baby Jack
So at 18, I was married and living in a tiny flat in North London with a baby. And absolutely broke! To bring in money, I worked moving fridges early morning before my lectures and in a bar in the evenings. Somewhere in between, I wrote essays, helped with Jack and fitted in sleeping and eating. Cathy had taken on a cleaning job and we juggled baby shifts. I was so, so tired. And so, so busy. But we were happy.
We thought we might as well crack on with our family, so when Jack was 18 months old, we had another baby, Michael. Very soon we realised he was ill, nearly all the time. Bronchitis, chest problems, breathing difficulties. Cathy kept going to the doctor and being told ‘he’s fine’. But she knew he wasn’t.
‘We decided to crack on with our family and Michael was born when Jack was 18 months. But very soon we realised he was ill,’ says Mathew
Impulsively, we decided to have the boys christened. Michael wasn’t at all well and we wanted to do the traditional thing. The local vicar agreed but said we needed to attend an Alpha Course first. We’d never heard of it. Friends told us it was a course about God. Reluctantly, we did the course and to our surprise, enjoyed it. We liked that you could ask questions such as ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Why doesn’t God stop suffering?’ without offending anyone. But we were distracted with children and life, and didn’t take much in. I did, however, start thinking a bit more about God.
Michael deteriorated, and was now really ill. He had severe heart problems – an atrio-ventricular septal defect – and would suddenly stop breathing. He was in and out of the cardiac intensive care unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital, so we were either at the hospital or rushing to Bedford, 90 km away, to take care of Jack, who was only two. I was in my second year at UCL and my life was very different to my fellow students who were partying and lying in till midday. It was tough.
Cathy couldn’t even think of starting a career. She spent all her time at the hospital or travelling to Bedfordshire. Remembering the Alpha course, we would sometimes go to the hospital chapel and pray a little, but mostly we felt angry with God. We knew people were praying for us, which we found a combination of annoying and vaguely comforting.
Looking back. Mathew holds a photo of his fledgling family in hospital. Traumatic times followed baby Michael’s birth. He became severely ill with a heart condition, then Mathew and Cathy discovered he had suffered brain damage
We hit rock bottom when we discovered Michael had become severely brain damaged. The doctors warned us it was highly unlikely he’d survive and if he did, his life would be profoundly impacted by the brain damage. We loved him so much, and it was heart-breaking to watch him deteriorate and be powerless to do anything.
We were penniless, so I took a summer internship job at a bank and ended up working at Freeserve, an internet service provider, which introduced me to the world of corporate banking. Life for both of us was a blur of working, dashing to hospital, sleeping fitfully beside Michael in intensive care and living a day at a time, though I also remember being confident that somehow we’d get through.
Michael died in 1998, at 18 months of age. I had just graduated. It was devastating for us. I threw myself into work, working harder and longer hours. Cathy threw herself into the family. We didn’t know how to handle the grief and pain, how to talk about it.
Rosie was born in 1999, and life looked quite normal for a little while. Three years later, Harry came along. We soon learnt he had the same heart condition as Michael. It was a total shock. Like a recurring nightmare, we were back at Great Ormond Street Hospital again with the same operations and the same nurses. By now I was working crazy hours at Orange, a telecommunications company, and my career was giving me something I was looking for.
Thankfully, the operations and treatments were very successful for Harry, who’s a perfectly healthy teenager today, but our relationship started to take strain. We’d had so many challenges and didn’t know how to deal with the grief of losing Michael or help each other with the pain, and things became very rocky between us.
‘We didn’t know how to deal with our pain and things became very rocky between us.’ says Mathew
Friends suggested we attend something called the Marriage Course at their local church. We were at such a low ebb that we decided to give it a try. Cathy was struggling with anxiety and we were both exhausted. The course gave us tools to communicate about the real things that people argue about, such as money and sex, along with practical, sensible tips for our marriage. It was a totally new concept to us that marriages needed to be worked at. I’d worked at building my career but had never thought of building my marriage.
‘IT WAS A NEW CONCEPT TO US THAT MARRIAGES NEED TO BE WORKED AT’. HEAR MATHEW AND CATHY TALK ABOUT THE COURSE THAT TURNED THEIR CHALLENGED MARRIAGE INTO A THRIVING ONE
The course connected us into our local church, which we started attending. It all started to feel so relevant to me. I realised I’d always thought there was an eternity and a God, I just hadn’t quite fathomed it before. This was a turning point in our lives. We started to understand and experience the transforming love of Jesus, and what a living, daily faith looks like. It was a healing time as Cathy and I slowly built stability back into our lives.
Cathy and I began to pray together, which made a huge difference to our marriage. We knew so many marriages collapse after a child dies and we wanted to pull together. We were still grieving deeply and seemed to take it in turns to be strong and weak but we had – and still have – this great eternal hope.
‘We took it in turns to be strong and weak.’ says Mathew
I moved from Orange to World Vision, a development agency that helps over 100 million people in over 100 countries, where I became director of marketing and fundraising. Then in 2016, I was approached to become CEO of Alpha International. I accepted because I believe it is a great invitation to people to consider the big questions of life. I’ve seen it bring about transformation in palaces and prisons, and across the globe. There’s a lot of work to be done and I feel very privileged to be involved.
Alpha is run in 100 nations, but despite the demands of such a job, following Jesus has helped me find healthier priorities than previously. Work was my principal driver for a number of years, but now God comes first, then Cathy, then the family, and then my work. Reprioritising was a radical change for me, and over the years I have come to believe that it is essential for any leader who wants to be effective. But most important of all in my life has been the realisation that God exists and I am His child. I believe that in this knowledge I can rest secure.’
‘Connecting into our local church was a turning point in our lives and reprioritising my marriage was a radical change for me,’ says Mathew
‘I was very worried to tell my parents that I was pregnant at 19 and it was a shock for everyone. Mathew’s mother was suddenly a grandmother at 39!
I was also naïve about what a child entailed. I thought, ‘How difficult can it be to have a baby? I’ll just take another gap year, then get back to my studies!’
But of course it was hard when Jack was little. We lived in a tiny flat and were so broke. We were either working shifts or looking after Jack. My friends who were now at university seemed to be living such a different life to mine! But it became harder when Michael became ill, really ill.
Cathy: ‘I found myself struggling with deep anxiety. Our marriage was not in a good place.’
Watching Michael go in and out of operations and live with a tracheostomy in case he stopped breathing was incredibly painful. All we could do was sit helplessly and watch him struggle. We just about managed one day at a time.
Losing Michael was the most painful thing l have ever experienced, and I went through a very bleak time after he died. Later, Harry had a number of operations for his heart condition and for 11 months we were in and out of hospital again. Again we just kept going, a day at a time, but when we knew he was going to be all right, it all caught up with me and I found myself struggling with deep anxiety. Our marriage was not in a good place.
The Marriage Course that changed the course of Cathy and Mathew’s marriage is run in many countries around the world, and is open to married and long-term partners of any faith, or none
The Marriage Course, with its weekly opportunity to discuss issues privately together over a relaxed meal, took our marriage and helped us turn it into the thriving one that we craved. The loss and grief will always be with us, but when we connected with God we found a joy again and a peace. It was a huge shift in our family. We realised that we’re not alone and that God is with us in whatever situation we find ourselves.
I don’t think we’ll ever understand why Michael died, but we do know that God’s healing love and help has rescued us. He turned our lives around and helped us rebuild our family.
With all that’s happened in our lives, I put studies and a career on hold for a long time, but I’m now studying garden design and am really excited to be doing so.
Mathew and I now know we can trust God and that’s made all the difference, to everything. Since finding Him, we’ve never looked back.’