The Hidden Side of Postnatal Depression

It is not exceptional for one of the parents to be better at this baby business than the other. Despite today’s fluid gender roles, it is normally the dad who goes back to work while the mum becomes the more confident and capable partner, not out of choice but necessity –  being left alone all day, having to rely on your own wits and instincts, and doing the legwork of feeds, nappy changes and constant soothing, means you become better at it than the absent partner through familiarity alone.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. You both have different roles to play in bringing up your baby, two perspectives, two approaches, and this breadth of influence can only benefit the child. They know who to go to for comfort, who for play, who gives them food, who bathes them. The absent dad tends to do the fun stuff, but he’s also the disciplinarian; the present mum does the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day and has to say ‘no’ more often. It’s impossible to say which role is more important, provided you’re working together as a team with the best interests of your child at heart.

The trouble comes when the dad becomes the primary care giver even though the mum wants to be, but can’t because of problems outside her control. Like when she has autism, dyspraxia and postnatal depression.

I’ve touched on this issue before but it’s time to really flesh it out. When one partner struggles to cope with the crying, the sleeplessness, the changes to your routine, the practical aspects of childcare and the emotional toll of the responsibility, while the other seems to be doing fine, it can cause very real problems, particularly if the one struggling is the mother. It can damage the parents’ relationship, the mother’s mental health, the father’s resilience and the mother’s bond with the baby.

To be fair to Lizzie, it can’t be easy discovering you’re not all that good at the thing you’ve been looking forward to for years, or watching the person who was meant to be the secondary carer acting as both mother and father, and doing so with such apparent ease. She freely admits that it’s ten times harder than she thought it would be, so she sticks to the things she expected to be doing: dressing Izzie in pretty outfits, taking her to visit friends in the pushchair, having happy bathtimes. The day-to-day graft is predominantly on me.

At night, I take over sole care of Izzie from sometimes as early as half-eight right the way through to around eight in the morning. And as I’ve been putting in the effort as both mother and father, Izzie responds to me in ways that she doesn’t to Lizzie.

Friday night was a case in point. Lizzie took the baby to her dad’s. Izzie started crying, nay, screaming, and after twenty minutes of neither mother nor grandfather being able to stop it, they rang me in desperation. I went round and Izzie was instantly comforted. She just wanted her dad-mum. And it has driven Lizzie back several weeks.

She’s scared of Izzie, that much is clear. Scared of her screams, scared of her needs, scared of not being able to meet them. And of course, she resents me because I can, because the baby turns to me for comfort. So the better I get at being a dad, the more it upsets Lizzie and the worse her attitude towards me. She’s always angry at me for being what, at the moment, she is unable to be.

And it is putting a strain on our relationship. I know she doesn’t mean the things she says – that she no longer loves me, that she wants me gone, that she’ll get custody of the baby if it comes to it because she’s the mother and ‘the mother always does’ – because twenty minutes later she’s apologising and telling me she loves me, she needs me, and she can’t do it without me. But some of the things she says are so nasty, and they come so often, it becomes more difficult to simply shrug them off. I’m a ‘loser’ if I want a nap in the afternoon because I’ve been up since 4am; I’m ‘lazy’ if I don’t want to take the dog for a five mile walk with a 12-lb baby strapped to my chest; I’m a ‘teacher’s pet’ for answering the doctor’s questions while she sat in silence; and I’m ‘boring’ because I’d rather Izzie was in a sleepsuit to make it easier to check and change her rather than a dress-trouser-knickers-socks combo. We talk about helping mums cope with mood swings- we never talk about the effect this has on the dad.

This is the hidden side of postnatal depression. The dad is meant to shoulder it without complaint, bear the burden that the mother cannot, until she’s back on her feet. And I’m doing that. What I wasn’t prepared for was that every personal success for me knocks Lizzie’s confidence; every time I manage to sooth the baby when she can’t, she resents me more. And I don’t know the solution.

Have I made myself into a crutch that actually keeps her limping? Should I step back, force her to do more? Or would that make things worse if she’s truly not ready, or capable, of coping?

The problem with Lizzie is that she’s an expert at hiding her problems for fear of being seen as weak. It’s the reason she wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until her twenties. It’s the reason I wonder if she’s been honest with the doctor about how she’s feeling, or simply presenting the impression of someone that is coping. Of course, she wants to be seen as a good mother, and I don’t think for a moment it’s easy for any mother to admit they’re struggling because it goes against all our preconceived notions of motherhood – but until she faces it and accepts it, she can’t get better.

Luckily, the base of our relationship is very stable, and has been tempered in the fires of numerous crises. The surface might be full of holes at the moment, but the foundation is untouched. I love Lizzie to bits and it kills me that nothing I can do can make things better for her, and much of what I do to make things easier is actually resented.

So remember the next time you hear it mentioned that postnatal depression doesn’t only affect women – behind the scenes it puts added strain on the whole family. And if you see a dad out and about with his baby, please don’t congratulate him on ‘babysitting’ to give mum a rest – it may well be that he is the mum.

The Eight Week Check

The eight week check and vaccinations is the first major milestone in your baby’s official development. Even though if there was anything wrong it would probably have already been picked up by the hospital, midwives, health visitors or yourselves, you approach it with mild trepidation in case the doctor ‘finds’ something, gives you a look that says, ‘Oh dear,’ and then starts to discuss further tests and how it’s too early to tell but you might want to start thinking about long term management plans.

And when he asks about your baby, you feel a certain pressure to give the ‘right’ answer, even though you don’t know exactly what that is. You begin to feel judged, as though it is your parenting ability, and not the baby’s health, he’s examining.

‘How much do you feed her?’

I tell him. He nods. What does that mean? Nod as in, ‘Yes, that’s what I’d expect,’ or nod as in, ‘Just as I thought, you suck as a dad. I could tell from the moment you stepped into the room. I mean, look at the way she’s dressed. Who are you kidding? You’re just playing at being a parent.’

Actually, it might just be me who thinks that. Maybe I’m a little sensitive at the moment because I’ve been having dreams again.

The first night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse, and I was really good at it. I thought I might go back to college and do a Postgraduate Diploma in Children’s Nursing: I seem to be doing rather well with Izzie, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than looking after babies, and I’d surely be better than some of the uncommunicative, unfriendly and downright antisocial nurses who looked after us during our stay in hospital.

I pictured myself caring for cute little tots, reassuring worried parents, wearing a cool uniform and telling people that yes, I’m a nurse: how grand. My little one would look up to her dad as a hero, and they give you a bursary to train. What could be better?

Then the next night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse, and I was terrible at it. Deformed, terminally ill babies, emotional and aggressive parents, and horribly sarcastic work colleagues made my job a living hell. I started to think about the sick and dying children, the screams of anguish from horrified mums and dads as their babies slipped away, and my place in that environment. And it no longer looked quite so rosy.

The person specification for a children’s nurse describes an emotionally and mentally resilient individual with great intuition and impeccable people skills. Having been bullied in every job I ever had, and being rather sensitive to boot, I’m not so sure I’d cope with the stresses and strains of children’s nursing. Likewise my history of nervous breakdowns and diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome might not stand me in good stead. But doing a job that makes you suffer is what life is all about, right?

And then the third night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse on a hospital spaceship while battling an alien that navigated through the ventilation shafts and killed off my patients one by one. As good an indication as any that I don’t have the cognitive stability to be a nurse. So that idea is on the backburner for now.

I doubt I’d be able to give children injections anyway. When the nurse drew out the needle for the vaccinations, a full two inches long, I was wondering how much she’d actually insert when, without warning or preamble, she sank the full length into Izzie’s thigh. I have no idea how it didn’t go straight through and burst out the other side!

It was a horrible experience. Izzie’s eyes went wide with shock, her face turned purple, her mouth opened in unexpected pain and she started to scream. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she looked at me as if to say, ‘Why, dad, why?’ And then a second needle plunged into her other thigh and the horror on her face – ‘You’ve done it again, dad!’ – was heartbreaking.

They say it’s harder on the parents, and they’re right. By the time my irrational (rational?) urge to punch the nurse in the face for hurting my baby had subsided, Izzie was over it. The guilt has taken me days to assuage.

She didn’t suffer any negative side-effects, and on the plus side, it cured her constipation – if you can call following through every fart with a pea-sized poop a plus. Indeed, we’ve swung to the opposite extreme, from hard green nuggets with the consistency of plasticene once a day to multiple yellow liquid explosions. It also smells like vomit, I guess because it’s gone through her bowels so fast that it’s still mostly bile. And I know this because our baby who had only vomited twice since birth is now puking after every feed. But c’est la vie!

In all seriousness, though, it’s at times like these that we should take a moment to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have a healthy baby. Colic, constipation, diarrhoea and cradle cap are mere inconveniences – they’re minor in the general scheme of things – even if they drive us to despair. If they found out there was something wrong with Izzie, we’d take a deep breath and deal with it or adjust to it accordingly, because that’s the commitment we undertook when we chose to be parents, but it’s a relief to know that since she’s as healthy on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside, for now at least we don’t have to.

Medical Paranoia

I sometimes wonder how people survived in the past without the modern medical industry and its intrusion into every stage of life. How did they manage without someone measuring weight, length, head circumference, and comparing it to a chart to make sure their babies were developing properly (50th, 75th and 75th percentiles respectively, in case you were wondering – tall, thin and big-brained, just like all the best supermodels)?

And developmental stages: at the eight week check (well, nine, because our appointments were late coming through) the doctor told us Izzie should be smiling, cooing and following things with her eyes by now, as well as beginning to support her head, albeit unsteadily, and drawing up her knees and splaying her feet when placed on her tummy in preparation for crawling. Luckily she can do all those things, but what if she couldn’t? Would we worry about her health, or would we simply wait until she did them naturally at her own pace in her own time? I think we all know the answer to that.

In the past, they simply got on with things, and I don’t think it was necessarily a bad way to do it. Do we really need all of this data when humans have been raising children for hundreds of thousands of years? It’s like when grandparents visit and make little pointers on how to do things. I was feeding Izzie the other day when my mother said, ‘Make sure her nose is clear so she can breathe.’ Gee, thanks mum. I’ve only been doing this at least six times a day for nine weeks: how did I ever cope without you here?

Of course, modern medicine is great when things do go wrong, but given that we, as new parents, know so much, and so little, about the health of infants, we err on the side of caution and rush our kids to the doctor when a wait-and-see approach might have been more reasonable. So in the past week, Izzie has been prodded and poked, measured, evaluated, stuck with needles, dazzled, pulled and manipulated during two trips to the hospital, an examination from the Health Visitor, and an outing to the doctor’s.

Nine o’clock on Friday evening I discovered a watery lump on the back of Izzie’s scalp and was worried her squishy head had returned. Wait till Monday and see if it resolves in the meantime? Not a chance. What if it’s an infection? What if it’s a fractured skull? What if she’s going to die?

The doctor felt it, looked at me and said, ‘That’s her skin.’

‘But, like, when she was born she had this swollen squishy head thing, and it felt just like that.’

‘Uh-huh,’ he said, nodding. ‘It’s still just skin.’


Of some consolation was the fact that the waiting room for the out-of-hours GP at the hospital was packed with worried parents clutching babies and toddlers. The old maxim that you wrap your first child in cotton wool while you let the second juggle knives seems to be true: they were all only children (only childs?). A bump on the head, a sniffle, a funny-sounding cough – how did they used to manage without emergency rooms?

We have an ultrasound for Izzie today. Lizzie had hip dysplasia as a child, otherwise known as clicky hip, and so they wanted to screen Izzie against it. She had no problems when examined in NICU, no problems when examined at her eight week check, but to be on the safe side we need to look at the insides of her joints. Pain free but awkward.

When she grows up, Izzie will be amazed to discover that not only have we seen every square inch of her outsides, we’ve seen her hip joints, the four chambers of her heart, her brain and nasal cavity, stomach, kidneys, lungs, liver, bowels and bladder too. Nothing is private anymore.

I guess that’s the price we pay for modern medicine.

Colic, Part 2

Colic is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with, and if I was twenty and not the thirty-five that I now am, I’m not sure I’d have the tools to cope with it. Although ‘coping’ is a relative term: as I said in my last post, all you can do is survive.

When you’re not experiencing it, colic is a very easy thing to dismiss. ‘It’s nothing to worry about, just a bit of colic,’ is what you hear from health professionals, while people whose kids are grown and gone reassure you that it passes, so don’t let it colour your perceptions of parenting.

Nobody should ever use the word ‘just’ alongside ‘colic’. It’s like saying falling down a flight of stairs is ‘just a little tumble’. And the fact that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel is no practical help when you’re standing at the coal face in the dark. This might sound melodramatic, and if I weren’t the one going through it, I might roll my eyes and say, ‘Oh get on with it, nobody ever said it’d be easy.’ But the unlikely truth is that an eleven pound baby that can’t verbalise, move, or consciously plan her behaviour can dish out punishment like a professional.

A colicky baby doesn’t cry. Crying is dainty, purposeful and reasonable. A colicky baby screams an angry, pain-filled shriek of accusation and exasperation. The volume, tone and pitch seem perfectly calculated to inflict pain, set your teeth on edge, and rattle your nerves. And the duration – hour after hour after hour – saps your strength and your ability to think clearly. You can’t eat, talk, go to the toilet, read, watch TV, listen to music, or in any way relax because you’re subjected to a continuous assault on the senses.

And assault is what it is. While Asperger’s Syndrome is often portrayed as a social condition, many of us are afflicted with sensory issues from extreme sensitivity to surprising insensitivity. Lizzie has no sense of smell, very little sense of taste, and while she is oversensitive to touch, she has an incredibly high tolerance of pain. But like me, she has hypersensitive hearing, able to hear whispered conversations from several rooms away. This means that when Izzie screams, it causes us physical pain and a rush of adrenalin that befuddles us even further.

Worse are the emotions it stirs up. People liken those of us with Asperger’s to Mr. Spock from Star Trek – logical, unemotional beings who live in our heads, not our hearts – and they’re right, but not in the way that they think. Because the Vulcans are not unemotional creatures, but are in fact so emotional that they’ve had to come up with a way to control and overcome their passions. I think that far from being unemotional, people with AS feel emotions too much, and so force them down and try to operate at the level of intellect. This means we don’t understand our emotions, don’t know how to control then, so do our best to keep them at bay.

Colic unlocks them.

Lizzie can cope with a crying baby for around three minutes before it becomes too much. She feels overwhelmed, afraid, guilty; she gets upset. Why is Izzie crying? Why can’t I stop it? I’m a bad mother; I can’t deal with this; I’m not good enough. Lizzie’s heart pounds, her body goes into defence mode, and she hands the baby back to me and leaves the room. It damages her ability to bond with the baby and her involvement in Izzie’s care. I catch her crying when she’s by herself. It means we’re floating around a diagnosis of something with the initials PND.

This isn’t exclusive to parents with Asperger’s, of course. Colic is well known to heighten stress and cause anxiety, postnatal depression, self-esteem issues and relationship difficulties. You feel helpless. You feel frustrated by your inability to do anything to help. But you know it’s not the baby’s fault, so you take it out on each other.

As a couple, during a bout of colic you communicate by shouted niggles and pointed digs, because you’re both stressed and tired and you can’t hear one another or have anything like a reasonable conversation. You start to think about how unfair it is that the other person is eating dinner while yours is getting cold, or that they’re having a nice relaxing bath while you’re gritting your teeth against a tornado. It’s no wonder it puts such a strain on relationships. By the time it’s finished, it’s so late that you collapse into bed and the last thing you want to be is an attentive partner. Cuddle? I just want to be left alone.

Given Lizzie can only cope for around three minutes, when Izzie cries for a solid eight hours, I bear the brunt for seven hours and fifty-seven consecutive minutes. Her screams make such an impact on my mind that I even hear phantom baby cries when she’s fast asleep. It’s lonely trying to console a colicky baby, a nightmarish fight for survival that breaks your heart in two.

But survive I must and survive I do, even if I despair sometimes, even if I’m driven to tears, because I’m a dad, and that’s what dads do. The true measure of a person is not how they cope when everything’s going well, but what they do when it’s all falling apart. I knew going in that I’d have to walk through hell for my daughter, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

One day it’ll be over and I can wear my scars with pride. Until then, I just have to keep fighting, and remember what it is I’m fighting for.

Yogi Bear

This. Always this.


As six o’clock approaches, the seconds seem to tick closer together like the theme tune to Jaws, a panicked heartbeat that whispers, ‘Something wicked this way comes.’ Around the world, I imagine there are millions of parents like us, watching the clock, asking those self-same questions over and over again as though driven to the edge of madness: will my baby scream tonight? Will we survive until bedtime? Or will the colic monster get us?

That’s actually a bit of an exaggeration. While on average, colic occurs between 6pm and midnight, Izzie tends to start crying between five and six and continues for at least five hours. And we don’t watch the clock – we just have a vague apprehension as the afternoon wears on that this could well be the quiet before the almighty evening storm. But the rest is true: colic takes you to the very edge of despair.

I must admit, up until a few weeks ago I had no idea what colic is. In fact, I still don’t, because nobody does. What causes it? Nobody knows. Why does my baby have it? Nobody knows. What can I do to prevent it? Is she in pain? Why won’t she stop screaming? Nobody knows.

Colic affects at least one in every five babies, so it’s not exactly a fringe subject, but we know more about Kim Kardashian’s backside than what’s making our babies scream their lungs out all evening.

In this modern age of super fast fibre optic broadband, 5G phones and viagra for women, it’s easy to forget that we don’t know everything. With a seemingly infinite number of academic departments and high-tech companies committed to spending vast amounts of money probing the smallest and furthest reaches of the universe (Large Hadron Collider, anyone?), you could be forgiven for thinking that the biggest discoveries left to be made are unimaginably far away in size, space or time.

But the truth is that while we know some complex things in great detail, we have no idea about a lot of basic stuff. We know the state of the universe in the split second following the Big Bang – ten to the minus forty-three seconds after the Big Bang, to be exact, or 43 zeroes after the decimal point – and that was around thirteen billion years ago, but we don’t even know why people yawn. We used to think it gave an oxygen boost to a tired brain, but since that’s been shown to be false, there’s no consensus among scientists on why we do it. Is it a social signal to synchronise bedtimes for people living in groups? A means of cooling the brain? A stimulus to muscle stretching? Nobody knows.

This knowledge disparity is equally true of medical science. We can use 3D bioprinters to replicate tissues, grow organs in Petri dishes, transplant pigs’ hearts into human beings. Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, more than half of people diagnosed with cancer survive, while HIV is no longer a death sentence. And if medical TV shows and every Hollywood movie are to be believed, we can zap people with a jolt of electricity and bring them back to life after their hearts have stopped (news flash: we can’t).

Yet if you’ve ever spent much time in a hospital, you’ll realise modern medicine is based on guesswork. When Izzie was in ICU she had a temperature, so they started her on two types of antibiotic. Her symptoms went away, so we know one of them (probably) worked, but we don’t know what was actually wrong with her or why it worked. Same with the antidepressants known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). It’s assumed they increase serotonin levels, but they’re not actually sure how they work, only that they do. The morning after pill? It prevents pregnancy – somehow. Modern medicine is less high-tech science and more ‘let’s throw a bunch of pills at you and see what happens. Ah, it’s cleared up? It might have been something we did. Or not.’ In other words, it’s somewhere between science, art and alchemy.

The diagnostic criteria for colic reflects the vague idea of what it is. Colic is defined as three hours of unexplained crying at least three days a week for at least three weeks in an otherwise healthy baby. ‘Unexplained’ in this context means ‘unstoppable’, in that she doesn’t want food, changing or burping, and the usual things that comfort a crying baby don’t work: she just cries. It normally resolves by the time baby is four months, but can last up to a year (heaven forfend!). And there’s not much you can do about it.

There are, of course, many theories about colic. The most likely is that it’s the result of wind trapped in the intestines as colic is often accompanied by a red face as though straining, hands balled into fists, knees drawn up as though suffering stomach cramps, and an abundance of farting. Since babies lack a functioning body clock, it remains a mystery exactly why it occurs in the evening, but gas in the pipes seems as good an explanation as any.

Soothing a colicky baby is an absolute nightmare. Yesterday, Izzie cried from five till ten in the evening, stopping only to swallow when she was fed. I offered her the dummy, put her in the sling, cuddled her, walked her in the pram, took her for a drive, rocked her, sang to her, read to her, put her over my shoulder, my lap, my thighs, swung her in the car seat, sat her in her vibrating bouncy chair, played music, played the guitar, massaged her belly, put her on the bed, the sofa, the beanbag, on her front, back, side, and all to no avail. Ultimately, it took a combination of swaddling her, rocking her in the Moses Basket with her dummy in her mouth, playing white noise loudly right beside her head and making shushing sounds to settle her. Even then, I’m not sure if she went to sleep because of what I did or because she had exhausted herself. Whatever the case, we survived another evening.

That is all you can think about during an episode of colic: survival. Beyond a feeling of utter helplessness, colic can have a very negative effect on the parent. I will discuss these in my next post, but for now it’s enough to say that having a baby with colic can cause frustration, exhaustion, anxiety and depression, and puts added pressure on the parental relationship.

If you have a baby with colic, it might be a small consolation to know that you’re not alone, you’re not doing anything wrong that’s causing it, and colic doesn’t seem to cause any long-term effects. Of greater solace is the fact that, whether in a few weeks or a few months, this is going to be over. It will end. And once we’ve conquered this, teething is going to be a doddle!

Baby Talk

There’s something called Dunstan Baby Language that seems quite popular at the moment. It’s the idea that all babies have five ‘words’ that they use to communicate from birth, irrespective of culture. These are:

  1. ‘Neh’ – I’m hungry (listen for the ‘n’ sound);
  2. ‘Owh’ – I’m sleepy (watch for the wide open mouth);
  3. ‘Heh’ – I’m in discomfort (listen for the ‘h’ sound);
  4. ‘Eairh’ – I have lower-abdominal gas pains (a long, drawn-out sound);
  5. ‘Eh’ – I have an upper-abdominal air bubble I’m trying to shift (short or staccato, like ‘Eh-eh-eh-eh’).

I think, to a certain extent, these are fairly accurate. Izzie does make an ‘n’ sound in her screams when she’s really hungry, while her favourite cry is ‘eairh’, and I know for a fact she’s very gassy – she’s farted nineteen times already today, not that I’m counting, and not dainty little lady farts either but truck-driver tear-a-hole-in-the-seat-of-your-pants style guffs. The rest of the sounds are rather tough to distinguish from each other, and when Izzie goes, ‘Eairh-owh-neh-heh-eh,’ it muddies the water somewhat.

What is really good about this system is that it stresses the main problems with babies: they need feeding, changing, burping, cuddling or you just have to endure their pain. If only Izzie would stick to five sounds and these five alone, we might be getting somewhere. Instead, she’s confusing the hell out of me.

You see, at root, Asperger’s Syndrome is considered a developmental disorder affecting communication and social understanding. We struggle to comprehend the nuances of everyday verbal and non-verbal language, find it difficult to form and maintain relationships, and fail to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others. So far, these aspects of my condition have had very little impact on my parenting ability, but they are beginning to make themselves felt.

Up until about a week ago, Izzie was a socially simple baby. That is, her wants and needs were easy to understand and fulfil. She was either asleep, staring blankly at a lightbulb or window, or screwing up her face as she experimented with her muscles – no action needed – or else she was crying, so needed feeding, changing, winding or cuddling. It didn’t require a great deal of imagination or interpretation.

But all that has now changed. I was looking forward to when Izzie started smiling, and it’s undeniably cute, but I had no idea that alongside the grins would come a range of facial expressions and vocalisations communicating the whole gamut of human emotions, entirely in the non-verbal sphere. And that’s what I’m battling with right now.

When Izzie’s sad, her little bottom lip folds back and tears come into her eyes as she lets out a heart-rending whimper; when she’s tired, she yawns; and when she’s hungry, she sucks her fingers. In addition, when I chirrup like a bird or make funny faces at her, she frowns as though bewildered, and when I lean in close to her, her eyes go wide as if alarmed. And that’s the limit of what I can decipher.

Alongside these expressions, she sticks out her tongue, rolls her eyes, chews on her fists, kicks her legs, swings her arms, wiggles her fingers, grips onto things, claws her face, rubs her eyes, thrashes her head from side to side, grabs her nose, kicks off her blankets and booties and trousers, slaps her cheeks, purses her lips, goes rigid like a plank or scrunches tight into a ball, lifts her arms above her head (don’t shoot me!) or reaches one up with the other at her waist (Superman!), and that’s just scratching the surface. None of these gestures seem consistent or communicate very much – sometimes the tongue out means she’s hungry, sometimes not; pursing her lips means she’s peeing except when she isn’t; and she rubs her eyes when she’s tired or else about to spend the next eight hours awake. So I watch her and feel helplessly confused.

The babbling is even worse. Whenever Izzie’s now awake, she’s constantly talking, cooing, muttering, coughing, squeaking, grunting, spitting and spluttering. It makes me surprisingly anxious. What on earth is she saying? What does she want?

Every time she ‘says’ something I leap up to see what she’s asking for, what I as a dad need to do. I feel like I’m letting her down because I don’t speak baby and can’t figure out what she’s blathering on about. Sometimes I find myself hoping she’ll cry, because I can deal with that – it means something’s wrong and I can fix it. But I can’t fix something when I don’t know it’s broken.

Apparently, I am told, most of the time Izzie doesn’t want anything. I should just let her talk. Or talk back to her. But what about? I explained how laser printers worked yesterday, the tripartite division of government the day before, which I’m not sure she got because she had a good chuckle midway through. And at least when I talk to the dog, he pays attention – Izzie couldn’t seem to care less if I was there or not. And none of it sounds like neh, owh, heh, eairh or eh!

Nobody prepared me for this phase. Roll on when she can use actual words. That’s only a couple of weeks away, right? Right?


Asking For Help

Despite what you may have been told by a song from the brownest decade of the Twentieth Century, sorry is not the hardest word. A side-effect of Western culture’s emphasis on individuality and personal freedom in the economic, familial, artistic, political and social spheres has been to make a sacred cow of independence. Since Victorian times, society has treated the nuclear family as the model for civilisation – autonomous units comprising a father, a mother, and children. And a proper man looks after his family alone. A proper man makes his own way in the world. A proper man does it by himself.

These days, the hardest word is ‘help’. It’s an admission that you’re weak; it means you’re not a proper man; it means you can’t look after your family. Men are trained from birth to hide their weakness. Women are bombarded with images of the ideal mother. And people with Asperger’s Syndrome are confronted with what it is to be normal. We spend our lives fighting to meet an unachievable ideal. Deep down, we know these images are utter rubbish, because everyone needs help from time to time, and despite what they like to pretend, most self-made men have had help from family, friends, and the special lady who hides behind the scenes. But even so, we act as though it’s true.

This doesn’t seem to be such a problem in the East. Over there, families comprise grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and various hangers-on in addition to fathers, mothers and children. There’s no arbitrary age at which people should leave home, cut the apron strings and become independent.

And why should there be? We never stop learning in life, and we never stop meeting situations we don’t know how to deal with. Each generation helps and teaches the next, but they don’t suddenly stop after eighteen years and now you’re on your own. I’ve never had children before, but my parents have, so they can guide me. Then, when my kids have children, I can guide them, and so on and so forth.

Help is not a dirty word. A dirtier word is ‘I got so overwhelmed that I climbed onto the roof, stripped naked and started throwing tiles at passersby while chanting nursery rhymes and calling myself Cthulhu.’ Which is a distinct possibility at the moment because we need help.

Before the baby’s born you think you’ll take it all in your stride, and you do, for a few weeks. In weeks 1-6, the moment the baby blinks you leap up and deal with her. And then the adrenalin wears off. Week 8, you see movement in the pram – a foot comes into view, an arm suddenly darts into the air – and you freeze. Don’t make a sound: she might settle. A gurgle in her throat: don’t cry, don’t cry, please don’t cry. Waaaaaah! Damn it.

Izzie has entered a phase called ‘making mum and dad’s lives a misery.’ It consists of crying and grizzling all the time, except when she’s screaming. Not charming, melt-your-heart screams like you hear in supermarkets, but nerve-shattering end-of-the-world screams, with crimson cheeks and floods of tears, and nothing you do can stop it. We’ve spent an arm and a leg on anti-colic bottles, anti-colic formula, anti-colic beanbags, a vibrating anti-colic chair, but all to no avail. She screams in the car; she screams in the pram; she screams in the garden and the kitchen and the woods. She screams in my lap, over my shoulder, lying across my thighs, cuddled in my arms. She screams when she’s feeding, for crying out loud, suck, scream, suck, scream, suck, scream.

And sleep during the day is a thing of the past. The other morning she started at six a.m. and we finally managed to settle her at midnight. Yesterday she went from five a.m. to eight p.m. She’s so tired she rubs her face with the backs of her hands, screws her fists into her eyes, lolls from side to side, and the bags grow black under her eyes, but still she won’t close them. It’s as though she’s afraid she might miss something, or if she falls asleep she’ll wake to find we’ve grabbed our passports and run away to Acapulco without her – and she’s right to worry, because that last one was a serious possibility yesterday afternoon. I love her to bits but good gosh I wish she’d shut up for five minutes. I don’t think I’m asking a lot.

The past three days in picture form!
The past three days in picture form!

And so yesterday, reaching deep, we asked for help. My mum came over and babysat for two hours while Lizzie and I went out for a coffee. It’s normal and natural – it’s the first time we’ve left Izzie since she was in ICU, the first time off in seven weeks – but boy did we feel like we were failing as parents. Because parents are meant to cope without any help. Because parents are meant to love their children so much they never need a break from them.

Help is not a dirty word. But it sure does feel like it.

Going Out

I’m going out for an hour. Phone, keys, wallet: check. Watch so I always know the time. Oven off, windows shut, door closed and locked. Route planned? Of course. Painkillers and diarrhoea medication just in case. Excuses ready so if someone invites me somewhere I can politely decline. Topics of conversation prepared: lovely weather we’re having; have you heard about the situation in wherever; I’m a new dad so forgive the stutter, it’s just tiredness. St. Christopher medallion, rosary and crucifix because they make me feel better even though I’m not religious. Smooth pebble in my pocket so I have something tactile I can fiddle with if I get stressed. Hat to hide beneath, beard to hide behind. I don’t need to wear glasses per se but it’s another barrier against the world so on they go. Hard-soled shoes because they make a reassuringly grown-up clip-clop sound when I walk. Shirt with collar so my neck doesn’t burn and my hairy back doesn’t show. Long sleeves rolled up so I can adjust the length to cover my wrists if I feel vulnerable. A Sheriff’s badge in my pocket so I can pretend like I’m a cowboy, and a lawman, and a thousand times more confident than I actually am.

Right, I’m ready to go.

As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I find going out incredibly stressful. Even if I’ve done something a thousand times, and know somewhere like the back of my hand, I am always anxious about what might happen, and if I’ll be able to cope with it, and how long before I can return to the safety of my home. I don’t know exactly what it is that I’m afraid of – I’m pretty sure aliens aren’t going to choose the New Forest as the spearhead of their invasion of Earth – but it never gets any easier. No matter where I go, it’s like I’m heading to the dentist for root canal surgery, even if it’s to buy a chocolate bar. Which, to be honest, happens so often it increases the frequency of my dental visits.

Not that you’d know that I struggle – they don’t call it the ‘hidden disability’ for nothing. John Lennon said, ‘Act the way you want to be and soon you are the way you act.’ Wise words, utter rubbish. I always act like I know what I’m doing. I never do.

But I don’t allow it to stop me. My motto has always been, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ So I do. But if I had a choice, I’d be a recluse and never go out.

I don’t have a choice. I have a baby.

I have vowed not to let my social anxieties get in the way of me being a dad and a partner, and that means going to parenting classes and baby groups, meeting other parents with infants, going out for coffee with family and friends, seeing midwives and health visitors, picnics, parties, and the endless rushing about to find the unexpected necessities of child care: bepanthem, infacol, fenugreek, variflow teats, and all kinds of other weird and wonderful things I’d never heard of six weeks ago.

Unfortunately, since I compensate for my social deficits, convoluted thought processes and sensory abnormalities by using my intellect, going out exhausts me. To make things worse, since having a breakdown in late 2006 my brain shuts down when stressed, leaving me drowsy and unable to see my way out of a glass corridor. And in addition, having spent the past fifteen years on antidepressants – my entire adult life – I spend every day fighting against the lethargy that comes as a side-effect of chemically damping down your central nervous system. I therefore have to manage my energy use, pace myself to keep mind and body functional – or at least, as functional as they ever get – and try to take on one stressful task a day.

At least, that was how I used to manage. Now when I hit the wall, I just have to keep running. And going out now is so much harder.

We’re going out for an hour. Baby? Check. Is she wearing enough clothing? Probably, but we’ll bring extras in case she gets cold. A sun hat and woolly hat for the vagaries of the weather. A blanket. And a backup sleepsuit for if she soils herself. And another backup sleepsuit for if she soils the backup. Dummy, dummy case, spare dummy in case she loses her dummy. That’s her sorted.

When did she last feed? Just now? Better make up a bottle of sterilised water to take, even though she’s not due a feed for three hours. And maybe a second bottle for if we’re unaccountably delayed. And two lots of formula. Plus some infacol. And three muslins: you can never have too many muslins.

How about nappies? Three, just in case. So let’s take five. Changing mat, baby wipes, bottom cream, Vaseline, kitchen roll, nappy bags and hand sanitising gel. Enough to cope with the worst explosion she could possibly manage.

Let’s add one more nappy, just in case.

Car seat, travel system base, carrycot and sling, so we have a choice as to how to move her. And another blanket. Rain cover, insect net, parasol. Now are we ready?

Let’s take the puppy – collar, harness, lead, whistle, treats, poo bags, water, bowl. All of this is in addition to the worries I have about going out anyway. So as you can see, my mind is a whirl of worries and problems and contingencies.

But you’d never know it.

Now where did I put my keys?

Learning to Switch Off

Nobody ever said that parenthood was easy, and no new parent seriously thinks it’ll be a walk in the park, but deep down you figure you’ll survive because, well, you’re more awesome than any other parent that ever lived. Nonetheless, after seven weeks of broken sleep, emotional upheavals, psychological torment and disrupted meals, it’s very easy to become run-down in body, mind and spirit. It’s not enough just to say you’ll survive – you have to figure out a way of doing it. And for me that is learning how to switch off.

As might be clear for regular readers of this blog, I think about things. A lot. I’ve always been driven by an insatiable need to probe beneath the surface and figure out why things are the way they are, how they work, is there a better way, what should I do, is it right, what are the consequences, is anything objectively true, what does it all mean? My brother used to call me Johnny 5 after the robot from the movie Short Circuit: ‘Input, need input!’

By way of illustration, the subject matter of the books I’ve read this year include the search for the North-West Passage, the Battle of Waterloo, the afterlives of dead bodies, the origins of English idioms, the life of Jane Austen, the war in Afghanistan, round-the-world yachting, serial killers, psychology, mythology and, of course, babies. Plus a smattering of fiction. And an awful book about how a cat changed its owner’s life by being an uncontrollable, violent, wild beast that also happened to look cute, but the less said about that, the better.

Certainly my obsessive desire to understand how the world works and my place within it could be said to stem from my autism, but where it comes from is moot considering I am my autism and my autism is me. The unfortunate result is that I’m almost incapable of switching it off.

Every minute of every day my mind is a whirring mess of thoughts and counter-thoughts, ideas and connections, fears and resolutions. When I go to bed I lie awake at least an hour, struggling not to think. But of course, that only makes the thoughts come quicker.

So yesterday I did something I’ve not done in a long time. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea, closed my eyes, felt the breeze wash over me and listened to the sounds of the world around me. Just me, alone. No babies, no partners, no trying to control things. Watching the thoughts come and go like waves upon the shore. My breath in and out. Accepting what is. Allowing it to exist in that moment. Knowing that it’s okay.

It’s a technique called Mindfulness. I learnt it many years ago during a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Like most Eastern philosophies adapted for a mass-market Western audience, I considered it pseudo-spiritual New Age pants. How can you ‘watch’ your thoughts? Who’s doing the watching? And what was the point? How could this possibly help me? Sure, for the duration of the exercise I felt peaceful, but immediately afterwards it was gone. Hardly a worthwhile use of my time.

Or perhaps I just wasn’t stressed enough to feel the benefit.

Somehow yesterday I managed to recentre myself in myself. I know that that sound like wishy-washy crap – or a euphemism for masturbation (‘I recentred myself yesterday.’ / ‘Well I hope you cleaned up afterwards.’) – but I found the resilience and sense of identity that was missing the past few days, enough to feel like me again. I think you spend so much time thinking, worrying, tending to and caring about and for your child and your partner, you find you can’t work out where they end and you begin. So for disentangling your thoughts and emotions from another, for that, Mindfulness is indeed a tool.

I used it again today. I sat on the swing chair, sheltered from the rain under the canopy, and watched the leaves on the bushes blowing in the breeze. No thoughts of babies – no thoughts at all. Just me with myself being me.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Izzie crying, Lizzie demanding my attention, phones ringing, people at the door, bottles need sterilising, dog to walk, nappy change, we’ve run out of baby wipes. But for those few minutes I’m managing to switch off, and I’m okay, and I’m surviving.

It’s not a miracle cure, and I still feel tired, and irritable, and paranoid that if I’m not there to sort things out then Izzie will grow horns out of her forehead, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed. And yes, I know it sounds bad that forgetting about the child you brought into this world to cherish and love can be therapeutic, but ten minutes of switching off can make the difference between coping with the day or burning out mid-afternoon. And if you burn out, well, who’s going to keep those horns away then?

Sense of Humour Bypass

The hardest thing about looking after a baby is not a single, groundbreaking event like a giant poo or a sudden explosive scream just as you’re settling down to dinner. It’s not a night without once closing your eyes or an entire day of crying. It’s subtler than that, the accumulation of lots of little events, weeks of broken sleep, and the general running down of your energy reserves, but when it comes, it’s no less impactive than a Mike Tyson slap round the face.

One day you wake up and find that things just aren’t funny anymore.

At five this morning I came downstairs with the baby to discover the dog had, in her infinite generosity, left me some chocolatey gifts all over the kitchen. And not crisp, tempered chocolates, but some kind of squidgy, runny mousse that has somehow stained the lino black as though we’ve spilt oil on the floor. Normally I’d think, ‘Wow, what a great anecdote to add to my ever-growing pile of gross-out fun!’ Instead, I cleaned it up with about half a roll of toilet paper, disinfected my hands, and set about feeding Izzie.

How dull.

I think the funk set in yesterday. I’m particularly good at what we in the autism community call ‘masking’. This is using your intellect to compensate for your condition and thereby mask your symptoms. It was the reason it took until I was 28 to receive a diagnosis. It’s not being dishonest, simply that we’ve learnt to hide the more ‘out there’ aspects of our autism in an attempt to fit in.

Unfortunately, the more tired I become, the less capable I am of consciously suppressing my autistic behaviours. Thus, if I’m not paying really close attention, I start taking everything literally; I lose the ability to understand when someone is joking; my social filter stops working; I start being pedantic and pernickety; I become paranoid because I can’t figure out why people are behaving the way they are; my mind starts to trip over the rapid flow of thoughts; and I act out my obsessive tendencies.

Yesterday we went out for coffee with some family and family friends. Because I pay close attention to every little detail in a social interaction to know when to speak, what to talk about, I don’t miss a trick, so I noticed that every time I spoke, two of the people around the table looked at one another, made a face, and laughed. I watched them while other people spoke, and nothing. I spoke, same response – they looked at one another, made a face, and laughed.

Thinking I might be paranoid, I went to the toilet, cleared my head, returned and tried again. Same thing. They were mocking me.

I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Was I speaking too loud? Off topic? In an odd register? Was I saying things inappropriate to the context? Sure, I was discussing how Izzie seems to have a hard nugget of poo in her rectum which backs up a sausage and a tin of mushy peas, but they had asked how she was doing and nobody was eating at the time. Then I was mentioning my orthodontic treatment as a teenager, how they wanted to break my jaw, bring it forward and insert a false chin to line up my teeth, but instead I opted for an agonising headbrace. I’m not sure what’s so amusing about that. One of them said they kept all of their child’s teeth and had them in a box – I said they should make them into a bracelet, but that was considered horrible. Well, you’re the one collecting teeth like a kleptomaniac tooth fairy!

Later, I had a row with Lizzie. As she is also autistic, she can similarly struggle to see things from another’s perspective i.e. mine. I didn’t feel she was giving me my due for doing the nights and allowing her to get a full night’s sleep, every night. In fact, I turned very much into a woman. ‘You just don’t understand how hard it is,’ I said in my whiniest voice. ‘You go out with your friends and come home and just watch TV. You don’t pay me any attention anymore. I feel like a single father. I just want a little consideration, and wah, wah, self-pitying wah.’

In the ensuing argument she grew defensive and said some things she shouldn’t have, and which I should have known not to take seriously, but I did. And all I could think during the argument was, ‘Why are you saying nothink? There isn’t a k in it, the word is nothing. And stop saying miwk, it’s milk. This Estuary English is entirely inappropriate for someone born and raised in Dorset!’

We made up, but when she went out in the evening with the baby, instead of having a rest I spent three hours obsessively looking up Spanish swear words on the internet. They mostly cast aspersions on the sexual behaviour of one’s mother. But I can think of better things I could have been doing instead.

So here we stand, or rather sit, with Izzie fixing me with her creepy unblinking gaze as she has done the past few hours. If she’d only cry, I’d be able to deal with it: why the hell is she just looking at me?

I need to regain my sense of humour. You lose that, next comes misery, self-harm and suicide. Or, at the very least, socks with sandals and an interest in snooker. And I need to find it fast: nobody can survive a baby without it.