It should be obvious that parenting isn’t a competition. If it was, there would be medals, awards ceremonies and prize money. But there’s no extra credit for how long you can go without sleep, there are no special mentions for martyrdom, and if you’re the dad, give up now because there’s no way you can win.
I didn’t even think of parenting as a competition until yesterday, when the Health Visitor asked us how we were and I mentioned that I was exhausted from the night feeds.
‘It’s harder for the mum,’ she replied, as though I’d just maligned every new mother instead of simply stating a fact.
I know it’s hard for the mum, but along with her autism, Lizzie is on the borderline of both a learning disability and dyspraxia. For every twenty minutes Lizzie spends breastfeeding, I spend twenty minutes helping her position Izzie, getting the nipple shield in place, reassuring her, and making sure Izzie is latched on properly. Then, after the feed, Lizzie returns to sleep while I spend ten minutes changing Izzie, twenty minutes burping her, anything up to an hour settling her and ten minutes rocking her to sleep in her Moses Basket. Then I struggle to get to sleep, no matter how tired I am, and as soon as I do its time for the next feed and we start again. And now that we have introduced formula for one of the night feeds, which I do so that Lizzie can have a six-and-a-half hour period of uninterrupted sleep every night, I’m lucky to get four hours a night in total. So I’m allowed to be tired.
The Health Visitor considered this a moment. Then she said, ‘It’s still harder for the mum.’
Once the seed had been planted, it found fertile soil in which to grow. If it was a competition to see who was working hardest, then I would win hands down, I thought. Along with supervising every breastfeed in the daytime, I sterilise the bottles, prepare the feeds, do 95% of the nappy changes and all the poopy ones, and cuddle Izzie for hours when she won’t settle, on top of looking after the pets, dealing with the visitors, running errands to town, making all the meals, and being the shoulder to cry on, crutch to lean on, and punch bag to smack about for every emotion Lizzie experiences. So where was my medal?
The funny thing is that it didn’t bother me that I was doing the lion’s share – I was enjoying looking after my girls – until the spectre of competition reared its ugly head. And then it all started to feel a little unfair.
I’ve always thought of fairness being akin to equality. I’ve noticed this trait among many people with AS, a symptom of our black-and-white thinking and difficulty understanding the needs of others. If I get four hours of sleep each night, I thought, so should Lizzie; she should do the bottle feed every other night as well; and we should take it in turns to change the nappies.
The more I thought on it, though, the more I realised that people are not equal in their ability to give. Before Izzie was born, I needed around seven hours of sleep each night, while Lizzie needed ten. She has also always struggled with broken sleep or lack of it, whereas I’ve taken sleepless nights in my stride, so if we have an equal amount of sleep now, she will suffer for it more than I will. Likewise, given her difficulties with fine motor skills, changing nappies is so much harder for her than it is for me. We are both giving as much as we are capable of giving, so how can you ever say which partner is working harder?
For a moment the Health Visitor made me forget that parenting is a team sport. It is not about individual achievement – we win or lose together. We are as strong as our weakest member and as weak as our strongest member, and we are both giving it our all. Lizzie will slowly gain confidence and be able to care for Izzie without my supervision, so until then, I’ll pick up the slack for my teammate. And our prize is not some silly piece of metal, but a happy family and a healthy baby.
And did I mention we’re loving it, too?
Of course, if someone wants to give me a medal for parenting that’d be fine. But as they won’t, I’ve bought myself a badge that says, ‘Champion Dad of the Year’ so whenever I’m feeling unappreciated I can pin it to my chest and say, ‘There’s your medal, now stop moaning and wipe that poopy bottom!’