The Fear

This week I encountered The Fear. He was on a holiday park in North Devon, of all places, roaming between the static caravans that sit on a hillside overlooking the bay. I’m pretty sure most parents meet him at some point, but this week was my turn.

I’ve been anxious about Izzie before, concerned about her safety, worried about the future, but it’s always been small scale, fantasy-land fear, the kind you get before the dentist or a particularly unpleasant meeting – you’d rather avoid it, but you know that if you have to face it, you’ll get through the discomfort because it’s not really actually all that bad. The Fear is another matter entirely.

It crept up on me unannounced. Everything was fine – a bright, crisp morning, fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky, the ocean stretching out below us towards the horizon. Lizzie was walking down the hill holding Izzie’s hand and while I locked up the caravan, my little girl looked over her shoulder at me, the breeze tousling her hair. Her face was a picture of innocent joy, her toothy smile so infectious as she waved at her daddy that in that moment I knew what it was to be loved and what true happiness felt like.

And an instant later I was struck by The Fear – the all-pervading, nausea-inducing, gut-wrenching, knee-weakening presentiment that I would lose her.

The closest I’ve come to this feeling before is when Izzie was around three months old. I went into her room in the middle of the night to check on her and she was so still and quiet I thought she was dead. My first thought – nay, instinct – was to travel to wherever she had gone, because she needed me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for her. Short story even shorter, she wasn’t dead, she was just asleep – but the incident cleared up any lingering doubts about whether I truly believed in the hereafter.

The Fear wasn’t like this at all. It didn’t come from anything scary but from something joyous. It was as though upon reaching the heights of happiness, my body reacted and rebelled, viscerally and violently. Out of the clear blue sky I was filled with the most terrible and heartbreaking dread.

I’m not just talking about death, though that’s a given – cancer, meningitis, kidnap, murder, an accident, The Fear showed me it all – I’m talking as much about change. If I could have frozen that moment she waved at me with innocent joy, I would have done, because right now Izzie adores me – I’m the smartest, coolest, funniest, most-lovable chunk of a man she knows. But all that will change, and quickly too. My days as my daughter’s faultless hero are well and truly numbered.

I spent all that day with The Fear. Maybe, I thought, it’s here because I was talking to somebody about Seneca a few days ago, and his belief that your mind is the only thing you can rely on as everything else you can lose – friends, family, status, job, home, health, hair, all of it. Or maybe, I thought, I’m preoccupied with losing Izzie because police believe they might be days away from locating the body of Ben Needham, a British 21-month-old who went missing 25 years ago in Kos. Or perhaps it’s because I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother screaming life-affirming statements at one another like, ‘I’ve effing had it with you,’ ‘you effing well ruin everything,’ and, ‘I wish you were effing dead!’

But that’s not it at all. If it was, The Fear would be with me all the time. No, it’s because in that moment of perfect happiness I realised my unbridled love for another person – and simultaneously my utter and total vulnerability. Izzie has me, heart and soul, and if anything happens to her, I would be destroyed. The Fear was a safety mechanism, a reality check, because I was walking too close to contentment, and believed my happiness to be immortal. Keep away from the sun, Icarus, or you’ll fall into the sea.

And that is the dilemma of parenting. You give yourself and hold nothing back, but in so doing you risk everything. Your fate is tied to that fragile, fickle bundle of cells you call your child. And the price for your joy is The Fear, cropping up when you least expect him, reminding you you’re dancing with a moonbeam that can never be contained.

But in the meantime, long live this moment.

Imitation, experimentation, and intuition

How do children learn about the world? This is the issue dominating my mind right now, partly because fourteen-month Izzie is learning at an exponential rate and partly because I’ve ploughed through Sophie’s World over the last few nights and 3000 years of philosophy compressed into 400 pages is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

You can get really deep and complex and ponder the effects of sensory perceptions and experience versus the influence of innate cognition and primitive, pre-verbal mental reasoning. But if I’m not mistaken – which I might be as I haven’t really been sleeping – I’ve been able to reduce the entire field of infant learning down to three key processes:

  • Imitation: watching and copying;
  • Experimentation: fiddling until you’ve figured it out; and
  • Intuition: good god, how the hell did you know to do that?

Imitation is pretty simple. Since Izzie has seen us drink from cans, whenever she comes across one she lifts it to her mouth as though drinking. She does the same thing with deodorant cans, so it’s not a foolproof system, but the idea is right.

The good thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. Watching us press the pointy end of the pen to paper, whenever she gets her hands on a writing implement she now seeks out a newspaper, TV guide, or daddy’s book so that she can make lots of lovely little squiggles. Seeing us use the sponge to wash her face, every time I bath her now she grabs it off me, wets it, and washes my face – usually covering me with water. And when we tell her we’re going out, she grabs our shoes and tries to put them on our feet to help us get ready quicker – or not, as the case invariably is.

On the other hand, the bad thing about imitation as a learning tool is that you don’t have to teach her – she just picks it up. So when mummy playfully throws one of the baby’s cuddly toys at me, Izzie discovers that wonderful game called ‘throwing things at daddy’, but instead of limiting herself to soft, light toys, she thinks it’s all fair – books, coasters, wooden blocks, the kinds of things that really hurt when they connect with your shin bone, or elbow, or forehead. Likewise, because she sees daddy turn on his Xbox by pressing the on/off button on the front and hears a terribly interesting ‘beep’, at random times she’ll toddle over and press it – even if daddy has been playing a game for half an hour and hasn’t saved it! And because she sees Ozzie the dog chasing the cat around the lounge, for the last few days she’s been terrorising Korea (in case you’re wondering, she’s a rescue cat and that’s the name we’re stuck with).

Experimentation is a slightly more cerebral process. It’s all about taking an object and figuring out its intrinsic physical qualities. Whenever Izzie gets a new toy she starts out by bashing it against things (how heavy is it? What noise does it make?), proceeds to bite it (is it food? What does it taste like?), and then turns it all round and decides which is the most enjoyable way of interacting with it. So she’s gradually discovered that it’s more rewarding to press the keys on the piano thing we got her from a car boot sale (plinky-plonky style) than slap it or slobber all over it – although I kind of wish she hadn’t. And she’s discovered that if she pulls the oven door on her toy kitchen really hard, she can yank it off and then throw it at daddy – thus combining experimentation and imitation.

She’s also been using experimentation to discover how, if something doesn’t work one way, another way might produce a better outcome. Hitting her xylophone with the end of the beater that the string was attached to made a muffled thudding sound; now she uses the proper end and smacks the crap out of those metal bars with the volume and melody of a pneumatic drill. Drawing on paper with marker is all well and good, but drawing on her legs and/or dress gets a much more exciting reaction. And if she wants me to read her a book, she brings it to me and puts it on my lap, and if I don’t read it, she hits me with it, which is equally as fun.

You see, Izzie also experiments by varying causes to provoke multiple effects – a long-winded way of saying she tries various methods to manipulate her parents to get what she wants. Screaming, crying, stamping her feet, balling her fists – and if daddy doesn’t give in, she goes to mummy and repeats the process, and vice versa. She likes to point, to say ‘uh’ to indicate ‘that’, and failing that, to reach for it and clamber up on the furniture and move things about until she either gets it or gets given an equally attractive alternative. And if you’re walking in a direction she doesn’t want to go, she’s discovered that instead of resisting, screaming or crying, she can just go limp and sink down to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, refusing to budge until you turn the other way, whereupon she springs into life like Popeye with spinach in his belly. Too clever for her own good, that one.

Which brings us to the final learning process: intuition. Or rather, instead of a learning process it’s more like a remembering process because I have no freaking idea how to explain some of Izzie’s behaviours beyond the possibility that past lives exist. These are the things she does that she has not witnessed so can’t be imitating, hasn’t experimented with, and by rights should not have the reasoning power or cognition to achieve.

Like a few weeks back when I drank a Coke from a glass bottle and left it with a few dregs in the bottom on my father-in-law’s lawn. A few minutes later, Izzie totters over, picks up the bottle, sees it has some left in it, carries it over to the table, pours it into a glass, puts the bottle on the table top, picks up the glass, knocks back the Coke in a single gulp, puts the glass back on the table and toddles off again. If there weren’t other witnesses, I would have doubted the evidence of my own eyes. We’re not the kind of people who pour drinks from bottles into glasses – we drink it from the bottle or else drink cans – so where did that come from?

Similarly, I was bathing her the other day when she picked up her mum’s lady razor from the side of the bath, and despite never having seen or touched one before, proceeded to shave my forearm. Had it not had the plastic cover over the blade, I would have an arm as bald as an Olympic swimmer’s. The thing is, holding a wiggly-handled lady razor is quite a skill for a baby, especially getting it the right way up and to then run it down my arm multiple times in perfect imitation of a person shaving – where did that come from?

My mum took her to a toy shop and after looking around for a few minutes, Izzie took a box off the shelf, lay it on the floor, and then pressed it repeatedly with her foot. So far, so normal, except that inside the box was a mat you put on the floor then press with your foot to make noises – so how the hell did she know to do that?

And the other day we gave her a yellow duster, and what did she do with it? Yup. Started dusting the surfaces. I can guarantee she’s never seen us do that before!

So here is my treatise on child learning: imitation, experimentation, intuition…unless my daughter is the reincarnation of a Coke-drinking, music-mat-playing barber who likes cleaning, in which case I’m not sure I can generalise using her as my case study.

Failure and success in writing

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that the frequency of posts has dropped off lately. For this I must apologise and explain.

In my core I am a writer. Ever since I was a child, four or five years old, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I always said I’d write a book one day, and then when I was eight I wondered what the hell I was waiting for and started. The result was Mystery of the Samurai Kidnapper. Needless to say, it sucked, but I was hooked.

I wrote all kinds of stories and read everything I could – action, adventure, crime, horror, science-fiction, war. When I was sixteen I began writing seriously, and at eighteen started sending samples to magazines and agents and publishers.

Skip forward eighteen years and I’ve written nine books, several scripts and dozens of short stories – over two million words of creative writing. I’ve come close a few times – I had a call from Ian McEwan’s agent once to discuss my novel The Butterfly Collection, and nearly nabbed an agent from Blake Friedmann for Beyond Wild, only to fall at the final hurdle – but other than a few short stories, I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful at getting into print. It goes with the territory.

But earlier this year I felt I was on a roll. I entered twelve writing competitions. Normally I just take a punt, but these were twelve of the best best things I’ve ever written – I actually thought that this time I had a shot.

Some were for short stories, some for the first 5000 or 10,000 words of a novel. I worked like a dog, polished them to perfection, then waited with bated breath. I hoped to win, but I knew I’d be happy just to be short-listed in one of them. It would make all the years of sacrifice worthwhile.

Over the past few months, the competition results trickled in, one at a time. And with each one, my hope and joy gave way to bitter disappointment. I didn’t win any. I wasn’t short-listed for any. I wasn’t even long-listed for any. It might sound like sour grapes, but that last rejection in early July crushed me.

Rejection is part of being a writer, and you have to be resilient. To put it into perspective, JK Rowling recently spoke of her pain at having Harry Potter rejected twelve times. When that last competition declared, it brought my rejection count up to 327.

As a father, I have to act happy for my child. I have to make out like everything’s fine and dandy and be the same as I always am. So I did. But inside, I was broken. It took all my focus and energy to hide it. The last thing I wanted to do was write this blog.

So I sat, and I festered, and I wondered if I would ever bother to write again.

But, to quote a cliche, it is always darkest before the dawn.

I’ve been awarded a publishing contract! It’s for a book I’ve written on living with autism, provisionally entitled An Adult With Asperger’s: A Guide for the Newly-Diagnosed. It’s being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be coming out in the spring, and so I’m working around the clock to get the final draft ready in time.

As you can imagine, my mood and my self-esteem have both improved no end. I’ll try to keep posting every week on this blog as normal and I’ll keep you posted on the book as more details emerge.

I guess the moral of this story is: never give up, because you never know what’s around the next corner.

Thanks for reading,

Gillan Drew, author (yay!).

Asperger’s, Parenting and Negativity

When you become a parent you make a decision: you decide you’re going to sacrifice your own needs in order to look after those of another. You commit to giving up your time, energy, sleep and even your life, if necessary, so that your child is kept healthy, happy and safe. And you swear you will do everything in your power to create a well-adjusted, confident, stable and successful human being.

When you have Asperger’s Syndrome, you have to make a further decision: I’m not going to let my autism stop me being a good parent, come what may.

There are a number of natural deficits that afflict parents with Asperger’s. We love routines and struggle to cope with change, two characteristics that don’t really lend themselves to looking after an unpredictable ball of poop and pee. Our rigid thinking and difficulties processing information impinge upon our ability to do the multitasking required for effective parenting. Problems with motor clumsiness make baby handling somewhat awkward, while sensory issues such as hypersensitive smell and hearing make nappy-changing a horrific burden. But none of these are insurmountable.

When I encounter sudden change, I grit my teeth and bear it, fight down the anxiety that rips through my insides, and recover later, after the baby has gone to bed. Since I get easily distracted and can’t multitask, all I do when watching the baby is watch the baby – I can’t watch TV, read a book, enjoy a coffee or even go to the toilet, and when we’re out and about I pay scant attention to the outside world, but that is the price I pay, and the decision I’ve made, to keep her safe. And when I change her nappy I hold down the disgust and queasiness, smile as though everything is fine, and get on with the job at hand.

More difficult for the Aspergic parent is understanding and meeting your child’s needs. Given our difficulties interpreting social communication and problems understanding how other people think and feel, we can be oblivious to our child’s emotional state and struggle to give appropriate support. Since we often have limited social needs we can fail to appreciate our child’s social needs and thanks to social phobia fail to provide for them. And because we struggle to understand our emotions we can have difficulties regulating our behaviour in front of our children.

Again, none of these problems are insurmountable. Just because we do not intuitively ‘get’ our children the way a neurotypical parent might doesn’t mean we can’t consciously learn to meet their needs. I get advice from other parents, books and the internet to understand my daughter’s developmental needs and how to meet them. I study her noises and facial expressions to work out what they might mean. I take her to social events, the fair, the park, to give her the opportunity to mix with other children. I know she’s looking to me for reassurance so I make sure I smile and act confident even though inside I’m on the verge of panic. Going forward, I will encourage her to communicate her needs and feelings in an open and honest fashion, and I will discuss them and adapt my behaviour to meet them.

My life as a parent with Asperger’s is all about lists, and study, and systems, and hard-thinking. I compensate for my natural deficits by using my intellect. Since I spent 28-years without a diagnosis masking my condition, I hide my problems from my daughter and refuse to let them stop me from being a good parent. It is hard, it is thankless, and it is painful, but it is the decision I chose to make when I had a child.

And it is working. At thirteen months my daughter is a bubbly, happy, confident, outgoing, highly sociable little girl who only wants to run around the park playing with children she’s never met and get involved in anything and everything that’s going on around her. She is in every way the very model of a healthy, successful human being despite having two parents on the autism spectrum.

So you can imagine my anger and disgust when, upon entering ‘parenting’ and ‘Asperger’s’ into a search engine, I was confronted by pages and pages of horrendous, prejudiced, discriminatory anti-Aspie bile.

There is a paper by a psychologist calling for parents with AS to be labelled with a ‘parenting disability’. There is an article saying an Aspergic parent raising a neurotypical child is ‘the definition of abuse’. Everywhere you look there are articles and opinion pieces about how bad Aspergic people are at parenting, and how all children of autistic parents suffer long-term psychological damage, depression and low self-esteem. It is inevitable, apparently, that our children will suffer lifelong difficulties as we are such failures as human beings.

Autistic parents, so says the rhetoric, are inhuman unfeeling monsters who are incapable of expressing love or meeting any of their child’s needs; we should have our children closely monitored and/or removed for their own welfare; and we place a massive burden on child services and mental health teams. And even if we think we’re doing a good job, we’re actually not – we simply don’t have the insight or self-awareness to realise we’re crap, abusive, emotionally neglectful parents. While it is rarely explicitly expressed, it’s hard not to get the impression that a lot of people out there think that people such as myself should not be allowed to procreate. As parents, people with AS are the proverbial lepers.

As a parent with Asperger’s, it’s hard not to be affected by such bigoted negativity. It’s hard not to let that negativity seep inside and colour your parenting experience. But the fact is, they’re wrong, so, so wrong.

True, some people with Asperger’s Syndrome will make terrible parents, just as many neurotypical parents shouldn’t have a dog, let alone a child. But because I know I have Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes me a better parent because I am constantly assessing and evaluating my behaviour and consciously adapting it to better meet my daughter’s needs. Knowing kids need to feel love and Aspergic people are rarely demonstrative, I make sure to express my love in demonstrative ways. Knowing children need to develop their self-esteem and Aspergic people are too honest, when she brings home a picture from school that I think is rubbish I will tell her how good it is and put it on the fridge. I will study, and sacrifice, and tirelessly toil to be the best damned parent I can possibly be because that is the choice I have made.

And I will fight for the rights of any other Aspergic parent who makes the same choice, because saying that people with AS are incapable of being good parents is the real ‘definition of abuse’. 

Hot Weather Parenting

You think you’re getting the hang of this parenting thing – dang it, you know you’ve definitely got the hang of this parenting thing – and then you enter a heatwave and have to learn it all again from scratch.

Where before you spent your time worrying that your child will be too cold, now you have to strike a compromise between keeping her cool and keeping her covered. Instead of cardigans and sleepsuits, you’re packing sunhats, suncream and sunshades, dresses, shorts, cotton shirts and sandals. You overload on water until you’re weighed down like a pack mule, and you start to spend all your time in gardens and parks because the house is like a freaking furnace.

At thirteen months, Izzie is happily walking, running, playing, and being a normal little girl, and that makes it worse. You’re constantly chasing her around the lawn, trying to steer her into the shade, rescuing her sunhat from the bush she’s thrown it into, surreptitiously spraying her with the sunscreen, pulling twigs and acorns from her inquisitive fingers, fending off over-friendly dogs and local children, and swatting away stinging insects, all the while trying not to trip over the pink plastic crap that has turned your back garden into a garish graveyard of slides, paddling pools, sandpits and water tables.

Since she’s wearing dresses without a vest, her nappy is exposed, meaning within minutes it turns into a grass-stained, leaf-carrying, twig-dragging mess. Add to this that her mother and grandfather have a penchant for throwing her into paddling pools and dousing her with watering cans – which she loves, by the way – it turns said nappy into a gargantuan jellyfish that collects around her ankles. Unsurprisingly, she’s now spending a lot of her time naked from the waist down.

While that’s totally normal, the downside to this is that although she can walk, she’s not exactly ready for the Olympics. Twenty steps, perhaps, before she loses balance and slams down onto her bottom, then repeats the process ad finitum. And being in the middle of a heatwave, the ground is like concrete. With a nappy on, there’s a certain amount of padding – without, and her bottom is a mottled black-and-blue mess of bruises. No wonder she fidgets whenever we put her in her high chair!

And that’s another unexpected difficulty of hot weather parenting. All the good, hearty, wholesome, home-cooked grub that she was eating fine before, she now treats as though we’re trying to force feed her dog poo. She wants crisps, cheese, ham, wafers, raisins, biscuits, toast – the kind of stuff that’ll keep you alive, but probably isn’t the most healthy diet three meals a day. So mealtimes have become a lesson in patience and torture.

Nights are tough, too. Her room got up to 29-degrees the other evening. We borrowed an incredibly noisy A/C unit and got it down to 23, but the second I turned it off and put her to bed it jumped back up to 26. But then, of course, it cools as the night presses on. The current procedure is that I put her to bed in just a nappy, then a couple of hours later I put a breathable blanket over her, a couple of hours after that I slip her into a sleepsuit, and around four in the morning she’s ready for a gro-bag. Then the sun rises, and by the time we get her up the temperature is starting to rocket again. And I find I’ve barely slept.

Then there are the little indignities. Because of the heat, nappies start to smell like cheese within minutes of a wee. You change them twice as often, but can’t eliminate the noxious odour that pervades your house, even after you’ve emptied the steaming nappy bin and consigned it to the dustbin outside.

And to add boredom, social isolation and frustration to your plight, none of the mother-baby groups run over the summer holidays so you have to entertain yourselves, in public places now overrun with screaming terrors and their children. The other day, Lizzie suggested we take the little one to a water park at a local recreation ground. It’s free, like a little play park with fountains and water features and a paddling pool. So as I have committed myself to going out with Lizzie and Izzie more as a family (since I’m a hermit), I agreed.

We went in the afternoon. In a heatwave. In the summer holidays. As expected, the place was RAMMED. A veritable cornucopia of colours and movement and noise, noise, noise! Kids splashing you, bumping into you, stepping on your feet, shooting you with water pistols, screaming, shouting, throwing things, urgh!

I may have mentioned before that, as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I get rapidly overwhelmed by, well, colour and movement and noise and touch.

Lizzie and Izzie loved it. I went and sat under a tree.

It’s going to be a long hot summer.

 

Hysteria

Historically, hysteria only affected those with wombs. Bizarrely, it was believed that the womb wasn’t fixed in a woman’s abdomen – it could go wandering about her body wherever the hell it felt like, going up and down and side to side like an animal within an animal. And depending on where it happened to be and what parts of the body it was pressing on, it could cause physical symptoms like headaches and nosebleeds and even bad knees. That’s the reason the words ‘hysteria’ and ‘hysterectomy’ are so similar – ‘hystera’ is ancient Greek for uterus.

By the time the Victorians got hold of it, knowledge about the location of the womb had moved on, but so too had the symptoms of being a woman. Instead of causing physical ailments, hysteria now described a cluster of mental symptoms typically associated with a drunk fifteen-year-old girl at a party: anxiety, excitability, irrationality, excessive outpouring of emotion, irritability, weepiness and fainting. Hence in modern parlance the word ‘hysteria’, and its derivative ‘hysterical’, means a ridiculously over-the-top reaction with a level of emotional performance not normally seen outside of musical theatre or reality TV.

I give this lesson in etymology because we have reached a phase with Izzie that can best be characterized by, you guessed it, hysteria.

Basically, multiple times per day for the past couple of weeks she has broken down in floods of tears, sobs and screams. Sometimes I think she’s broken a bone, she’s so distressed. She cries so hard she can’t breathe and starts to choke. She gets so hysterical, it’s scary, and she won’t be soothed. Cuddles, sing-songs, kisses, rocking, water, milk, biscuits, nothing. The only way to stop her sometimes is to run a bath and put her in it, stroke her back until she gradually gets her breathing back under control. And when she’s finally calm, you say, ‘My God, girl, you were hysterical!’ and she giggles.

It takes very little to set it off. One of the most regular is that she wants to hold your hand all the time and walk from every here to every there. The second you let go, she drops to the floor, her forehead touches her knees and the screeching begins.

Same with leaving the room. That’s all it takes. Your foot crosses the threshold and she’s reduced to a wreck.

The other times are weird and unpredictable. She undid the zip on her bag, right to the bottom, but as the zip didn’t keep going any further, she burst into tears. She ate her banana, then cried because she had finished her banana. The chair was against the wall and she wanted to squeeze through the inch-wide gap instead of go around it, and because she couldn’t fit, no matter how hard she forced her head against the wood, she started screaming.

She pointed at a cactus on the window sill and cried because I wouldn’t give it to her; she held a book horizontally with the spine at the top, and screamed because the pages wouldn’t open right to left; she sobbed uncontrollably because her right shoe had to go on her right foot when she wanted it on the left.

Then there are the times when you can’t work out what the hell is the reason. She’s sitting on your lap perfectly fine, and suddenly she’s out-and-out screaming and crying, and nothing has changed from one moment to the next. It frays your nerves and tests your patience. In your mind, a good dad keeps his kids happy, and this screaming, crying baby taunts you, every tear a knife to the heart saying, ‘bad dad, bad dad, bad dad, bad dad.’ She’s having a bath every day now – not to keep her clean but to stop the tantrums when they start.

So this is the phase we have reached. At least, I hope it’s just a phase and not her personality coming to the fore. In ancient Greece, the cure for a wandering womb was to get pregnant. If that’s the case, we’ve got a lot of years to wait until this passes!

First Words

One of the major milestones all parents look forward to is their child’s first word. After all, a spoken language is what distinguishes us from the rest of the intelligent apes, and the first word is the moment when your little bundle of neediness and poop becomes a fully integrated part of the human race. Every baby diary dutifully stipulates you must record this sacred first word, and people can often tell you what it was as it sinks into the familial consciousness as a treasured anecdote.

I’m finding it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Izzie talks. That is, she makes lots of babbling noises that she combines in long streams of phonemes. Every so often, she’ll therefore come out with something not simply resembling a word, but as clear a word as you’ve ever heard. By accident.

Do these random noises count as words? I bloody hope not. About five months ago when she was sitting on our bed, she looked at me, smiled, and said as plain as day, ‘Murder.’ When I was bathing her a month after that, she pointed at me, all innocent and sweet, and said, ‘Man-boobs.’ There’s no way in hell I’m writing that in her baby diary!

Then there are the words she uses that aren’t actual words. Whenever she sees my father-in-law’s dog she says, ‘Wo-wo,’ and does it consistently enough for us to know what she means. If a word is a bunch of sounds that carry a specific meaning that is used to communicate information, then ‘wo-wo’ is definitely her first word. But ‘wo-wo’ isn’t a word – at least, not in any language of which I’m aware.

And what about words she mispronounces? If you greet her and say, ‘Hello,’ she replies with, ‘Ay-oh’. There are two problems with this one. First, she’s simply repeating what you’re saying rather than volunteering the sound herself. Secondly, ‘ay-oh’ is not ‘hello’. So do these facts invalidate it as a word?

Anyway, what she can say seems, to my mind at least, far less important than what she can understand. It’s said that for every word they can say, a child understands ten. I think that’s an underestimate – Izzie seems to understand freaking everything.

Mummy, daddy, Nana, Granny, Poppa and Gramps are a given by this age, and there’s no doubting she knows her own name. Yes, no and don’t are also in the bag, even if she chooses to ignore them more often than not. And key events are well known – bedtime (rubs eyes), nappy change (runs away), bye-bye (waves).

More impressive are the actions. Most of them are quite simple, one-action commands. ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ will prompt her to seek it out. ‘Get it for daddy,’ results in her fetching it. ‘Put it in the box,’ will make her do just that, and she’s very good at ‘hands up’, ‘clap’, and ‘twinkle, twinkle’ (opening and closing fists).

Some, however, are far more complex. If you say, ‘Mummy needs to put on her shoes,’ she crawls over to a shoe, picks it up, brings it back, and tries to put it on mummy’s foot. Generally the wrong foot, but it’s still remarkable when you consider she can’t actually speak yet. Before you know it, she’ll be making daddy his morning coffee.

So if anyone asks, many years hence, about Izzie’s first word, it was ‘murder’, followed by ‘man-boobs’, ‘wo-wo’ and ‘ay-oh’. But until she says something like ‘mummy’, I’m leaving the baby diary blank!