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.

Out and About With Baby

TV and movies lie. I always knew their depictions of birth and infancy were inaccurate and/or exaggerated – the first sign of labour is the waters suddenly breaking, women return to their pre-pregnancy weight the second they leave the hospital, and if you have a penis, you are utterly clueless about childcare – but there was one thing I accepted as the truth: new dads are the sexiest beings on the planet.

I’m perfectly happy with my partner Lizzie, of course. But there’s no harm in basking in the adoration of scores of single women drawn to your self-evident paternal prowess. If TV and movies are to be believed, as a guy, you can’t leave the house with your baby without sexy twenty-somethings swooning at your feet.

And I was kind of looking forward to that. As a balding thirty-five-year-old who can no longer tick the 25-34 box on forms (I’m lumped in with 44-year-olds now, and that feels ancient!), I wanted to feel attractive again, even it wasn’t actually me they cared about but the baby girl strapped to my chest.

It’s not true. At all. It doesn’t matter where I take Izzie – round the village, into town, down to the beach, through the forest – these broody nubile sex-goddesses are nowhere to be found.

But that’s not to say that I go unnoticed.

I’m quite a hit with grandmothers. In fact, I can’t go out without some slightly overweight old lady with blue rinse or a horribly off-putting wig standing too close and reaching a wrinkled, liver-spotted hand towards my baby while telling me about her grandchild’s chickenpox. It’s hardly reassuring me that I can still kick it with the youngsters.

The content of these encounters is equally disappointing. If I’m on my own, they coo and ah over Izzie and then look at me and say, ‘Tell her mother well done for having such a beautiful baby.’ If it’s someone we know they ask how Lizzie is feeling, how she’s coping, and tell me to congratulate her on doing such a wonderful job.

Er, don’t you want to tell me I have a beautiful baby, or ask me how I’m coping? No? Ah, I see, I’m just the dad.

It’s worse when Lizzie’s with me. Strangers and friends alike address all their questions and compliments to her, while I stand there with the baby in the sling and the changing bag over my shoulder like an overburdened caddie whose only job is transporting Izzie and her accoutrements from A to B. Because, of course, the mum does all the real work – the dad’s just decorative.

I take the puppy with me these days to see if that’ll add to my allure, but all that manages to do is interest eight-year-old girls. From this I have to conclude that sexy twenty-somethings aren’t interested in babies, while thirty-somethings and forty-somethings are so up to their eyeballs in their own kids that they don’t care one jot about anyone else’s.

Either that, or I have to accept that as a dad, I’m no longer attractive to young people. But at least the grannies like me.

Crying Kids Need Comforting

It’s become a cliche to say that babies do not come with a manual. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who loves clearly defined rules and black and white instructions, even I can appreciate that no two babies are the same and need to be treated with sensitivity to their individual needs. Yet if we all know this to be true, why are there so many books and theories about how we ‘should’ be raising our babies?

To illustrate this point, when my daughter cries, I pick her up. I do this because when Izzie wants something, she cries. That is, when I have missed the subtle signs she makes to communicate that she wants something, she cries. It’s a ‘come on dad, why aren’t you listening to me’ sort of thing. If I’ve ignored the signs too long, it’s more of a ‘for crying out loud I’ve been asking for ages, are you blind and deaf or just stupid’ scream. Unfortunately I don’t speak baby, so crying and screaming are part and parcel of a new parent’s life.

What Izzie wants comprises a rather small list: feeding, changing, burping, holding. She’s too young to crave world peace and cigarettes. So when my daughter cries, I pick her up, because she wants or needs me to do something. It seems pretty simple to me.

But this is a major bone of contention between competing parenting theories. Child-centred philosophies such as Attachment Parenting advocate this nurturing, touchy-feely ethos, while this is anathema to parent-led approaches like the Ferber Method. The former believes that a baby needs to feel loved to create emotional wellbeing, so you should comfort her when she cries to show her she’s safe; the latter that the kid needs to find a way to comfort herself because the world’s a hard place and it’s about time she learned this, so you should leave her to ‘cry it out’. I’ve got to say, I’m definitely swayed towards the first, even though child-centred approaches are far harder on the parents.

I am, however, surprised by just how many people subscribe to the parent-led theories. This is the idea that the child needs to adapt to fit into the world it finds itself in, rather than the parent adapting to the child. So if Izzie cries, we’re told to leave her to self-soothe; by picking her up we’re making a rod for our own backs; she’s playing us for fools; she’s learning how to manipulate us; we have to be cruel to be kind; and we’re creating a needy, dependent child who won’t be able to cope with the pressures of modern life.

Can I remind everyone she’s six weeks old?

In the 1950s a scientist/sadist named Harlow carried out some truly horrific experiments on a bunch of rhesus monkeys to see what kinds of parenting they responded to. Separating them from their mothers at birth, he put them in cages with two surrogate mothers. One, made of chicken wire, had a nipple that provided milk; the other, covered in soft cloth, provided nothing. The prevailing theory at the time was that the bond between mother and child was based on food. The monkeys, in short, would prefer the chicken wire monstrosity.

Not so. The monkeys spent their days clinging to the soft and cuddly mummy, only going to the chicken wire to feed. They craved the comfort and cuddles of their parent, and not only did this soothe them, it was vital for their social and emotional development. Indeed, those monkeys placed in cages containing only the wire-nipple mother grew up disturbed, unable to socialise, horribly ill-suited to communal monkey life.

The detached parenting style claims that cuddling your baby when she cries makes her dependent, emotionally weak, but Harlow found the opposite with his monkeys. When he put scary objects in the cages with the babies without cuddly mothers, they cowered in the corner; those with cuddly mothers were far braver, going up to the objects to investigate because they felt safer knowing they had support. Proof positive that nurturing children makes them better adapted to life in general.

Well, at least in rhesus monkeys. But the theory is sound, I think. If the child knows they are protected, they feel more secure. Knowing she has a safety net means that, as she grows up, Izzie will be more confident in taking risks. Coddling her actually makes her more independent!

At least, to a certain extent. We don’t want to become helicopter parents that hover over their children so they don’t learn to do anything for themselves, but at this stage, with a newborn, I can’t see anything wrong with cuddling my child.

We don’t follow any particular parenting theory, instead creating our own. Perhaps we are masochists, making a rod for our own backs, but the Gillan-Lizzie-Izzie Method is working for us so far. Our philosophy is that crying kids need comforting. And until we see a reason to change it, that is how it’ll stay.

A Sense of Inconvenience

While they might look like normal little people – well, within reason – the differences between babies and us comprise a great deal more than simply size. When they’re born, our baby’s five senses are far from fully developed, and though we might swear blind that our little one is watching the TV, odds are she’s simply gazing in that direction while wondering why that odd person beside her is getting all excited over nothing. In fact, their sensory development is quite different to what you might think.

Surprisingly, a newborn’s most acute sense is that of smell, and experiments on babies show they’re able to distinguish between their mother’s milk and that of another woman by smell alone. That’s pretty impressive, considering that no matter how many times I smell milk from the fridge, I can never tell if it’s gone off until a big lump of congealed yuck drops into my cereal.

According to the experts, touch is also a key sense at this stage. A newborn’s hands and mouths are their most sensitive parts, while the rest of the body can feel temperature and pain, before beginning to sense pressure and touch. Before you know it, that fabric softener you’ve been using doesn’t make things soft enough for her highness, and you’ll need to fork out on one that’s three times the price.

She can hear, but not all the frequencies and volumes we can – if you whisper sweet, soothing words in her ear, she might not even know you’re there. Her tastebuds can only distinguish between sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes, and despite a persistent myth that this is all anyone can taste, she’ll develop the full range of tastes later. And her vision is probably the least developed of all.

Newborn babies can see around twelve inches and in very limited colours, only able to sharply discern high contrast patterns, such as a chessboard – though why they’d be staring at a chessboard from a distance of twelve inches is anybody’s guess. Beyond that, the world is a blurry mess of movement and shapes and it’s not until around four months, when she develops binocular vision, that she can tell how near or far an object is, its size and relative dimensions, and thus be able to reach out and touch it. Prior to that, no matter how many times she punches you in the mouth, you can’t attribute intention to her – it’s just luck that her flailing hand caught you six times a day in the exact same spot.

There are other senses beyond the five we are (wrongly) taught at school. If we class a sense as a bunch of cells designed to pick up on a specific input, then most experts believe we have at least nine, and maybe as many as twenty-one, including hunger, thirst, balance (which enables us to sense movement), the sense we need to pee or poop, and a sense of the passage of time. In fact, most experts divide the sense of touch into different, discrete categories: touch, pressure, temperature, pain, and itch. So that’s an awful lot of different body systems for our babies to physiologically develop and learn to process.

But if babies are stuck in a bubble with limited perception of the world around them, then how on earth is it that Izzie manages to time her indiscretions for the worst possible time? Her sense of inconvenient timing arrived at birth and has been developing ever since. She’s fast asleep, the light is off, but the second – literally the very second – your head hits the pillow, she starts to cry. You cook dinner and she doesn’t make a murmur, but the moment you sit down to eat and you insert your fork into that first precious potato she somehow senses that now’s the time to scream. Telephone call? I’m going to cry. Furthest point of the walk from the car? I’m going to choose this exact moment to poop.

This morning she somehow timed her pee to the exact second I was slipping the clean nappy into place over the top of the dirty one – the precise moment my hand was positioned beneath her where she could give it a shower. A heartbeat of a chance and she took it. And what’s more, I have a tiny cut on that hand from where she scratched me. I learned two things: baby urine is surprisingly hot, and it feels oddly like acid on an open wound. And a third thing: it’s uncanny how awkward Izzie’s timing can be.

The worst is with her nappies. I have realised, since Izzie was born, that I’m rather squeamish. I don’t understand quite how or when it happened. When I was working as a care assistant in an old people’s home, and later as a student nurse on an infection control ward, I used to roll my eyes when I heard parents moan about dirty nappies. I made a living from wiping bottoms, and not just any old bottoms, but people with clostridium difficile, a hospital superbug that makes people incontinent and their poop into orange marmalade. I cleaned up diarrhoea after people had been eating sweetcorn. On one memorable occasion, we had to hoist a guy with a gangrenous sacral pressure sore up off the bed so he could poop into my (gloved) hands, which is the closest I’ve come to vomiting on a job.

The point is, I did these things without blinking. Perhaps I repressed my disgust and now it’s coming back to bite me, but somehow Izzie seems to know when I’m alone with her, and stores up her poop for then. And this isn’t just any old poop. Since starting her on the Comfort milk, it’s green and it reeks like a diseased goose.

It follows a pattern these days. First, the hard nugget that lures you onto the changing table with a peg on your nose. Then, as you remove the nappy, she passes a softer stool that comes out like a sausage and coils round and round until you have a twelve-inch Cumberland you have to detach from her bottom with a piece of tissue. Then she waits until you’ve been pulled into thinking she’s finished before she projects a green stream of mushy peas across the back of your hand.

Every time, nugget, sausage, peas. Every time I change her, that is. When her mother changes her, there’s none of that, and her mother has no sense of smell. It’s like she senses my weakness and goes in for the kill. So if there are any experts reading this, you need to add a new sense to your list: a baby’s sense of inconvenient timing.