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.
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.