Dependence on Power

In Praise of Mothers, Part 2, was going to arrive Thursday night, and is due to follow. However, as with anything baby related, and as I have mentioned before, the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley (whatever that means). Birthdays, flu jabs, Halloween (150-odd trick or treaters is too many!) and the final of the Rugby World Cup all managed to hinder the writing of this blog, as did a baby currently incapable of lasting five minutes without crying over her painful teething. But none were so disruptive as Thursday.

Lizzie was out shopping and I was getting Izzie ready for bed. I changed her nappy in the nursery, put her in a sleepsuit, and all that was left was a final goodnight bottle, so I started to carry her downstairs.

And halfway down, the world turned black.

We live in a village on the edge of the New Forest, so when it’s dark, it’s dark, and when there’s a power cut, it’s darker than that. I stepped on the cat (who’s black), the dog (who’s black and white), and must have bumped into every obstacle that fills a house with young children (you know the stuff – bouncers, play mats, chairs, your missing sense of sanity) before locating the carrycot so I could put Izzie down safely.

My torch lives by the back door in the kitchen, but it was hidden behind the Perfect Prep bottle-preparing machine and the steriliser, and wrapped in the wires coming out the back of them, so getting to it was a struggle. But otherwise, we were all good.

Except the baby was now crying because she wanted her bottle.

The Perfect Prep machine, as you might imagine, works on electricity. So does the kettle. But that’s okay, I figured, I’ll boil some water on the stove, because that’s gas – only the ignition button is powered by electricity, and I couldn’t find any matches (damn our non-smoking healthy living!). I could keep her warm though, because we have gas central heating – only the controller for that is electrical too, so no heating. I’d best ring my parents and tell them to expect some visitors for the night.

Thing is, we live in a mobile signal black spot so rely on the house phone to communicate. But it’s a house mobile, so when there’s no power, the handset can’t connect with the base unit and thus we can’t make any calls. In fact, the only thing that worked was Izzie’s baby monitor. I remember installing it a few weeks ago and wondering why I had to put batteries in something that was plugged into the mains. It was, clearly, for just this situation. But as Izzie was in the same room with me, it wasn’t exactly useful.

Eventually, Lizzie returned and looked after Izzie while I went up the street with the bottle machine until I found a house with lights on and borrowed a plug socket. We put a now milk-drunk baby to bed and then sat in the dark for another couple of hours, feeling surprisingly vulnerable, until the lights flicked on and Izzie started screaming, because her light was turned up full and she woke with a start.

It’s only when you have a power cut that you realise how dependant we’ve become on a single source of energy. All our gas appliances are controlled by electricity. Until I found the house that still had power, I seriously considered making a fire in the garden to boil some water – but that wouldn’t have worked either, because I had nothing to light it with!

So all parents, take note: make your home power-cut-ready. This involves:

  • Torches scattered throughout the house, especially in the nursery.
  • Matches, matches, matches. Or one of those oven-lighter things.
  • Candles.
  • A phone that plugs directly into the phone line.
  • Sterilised water – always keep a spare; don’t make it as you go.
  • A baby monitor with batteries, not just mains.
  • Plenty of blankets to keep warm.

And if the power cut comes midway through the nappy change, instead of immediately after, I have no advice to give. Just pray it never happens to you.

In Praise of Mothers, Part 1

This is going to sound like I’m betraying my sex, but I have to say it: I think mothers have it harder than us dads. That’s not to say that it’s easy for us, because being a parent isn’t easy for anyone, but we men have certain benefits that most women don’t.

Firstly, most men go out to work while the woman stays at home. Now, work is hardly a blast, but you get to get away from the screaming ball of snot and poop that happens to be your beloved and longed-for child. You get to have adult conversations about topics other than teething, weaning and dribble, conversations that keep you sane and allow you to acknowledge a world existing outside the insularity of child-rearing and the nuclear family. Don’t get me wrong – I love my daughter more than anything in the world – but it’s a bloody hard, unending slog, and sometimes you need a break from it. Most men get that break five days a week. Most women don’t get a break at all.

And men get to do all the cool stuff. The mum is washing clothes, changing nappies, breastfeeding or making up bottles, cleaning, sterilising, trying to soothe the screaming monkey, wiping its nose, changing every vomit-drenched outfit, and suffering under the burden of endless responsibility, every second of the day. Then dad swans in from work, to be greeted with an outlandishly huge smile from his little baby, because dad is cool and she hasn’t seen him all day and mum is boring because she’s always there. And he then bathes her (splash, splash, splash), and reads her a story, and gives her her last bottle and puts her to bed. All the pretty parts of childcare you see in TV adverts. The dad is the rock star of the parenting team; the mum’s the smelly roadie you only notice if they’re not doing their job.

At the NCT classes – that’s National Childbirth Trust, for those who don’t know – the men even said they were most looking forward to ‘daddy day care’. Because men look after their babies so rarely, and for so short a time, they can compare it to a situation in which a kid gets dropped off with a carer for a few hours before it gets picked up again. Lucky fellows.

Mothers, on the other hand, are looking after the baby all day, every day. It’s not ‘mummy day care’, it’s ‘mummy constant, oh God, where’s my time off, I’m losing my identity and my soul, care’, otherwise known as, ‘this is my freaking life’. I think there’s this idea that men go out to work and work, whereas women stay at home and don’t, so their lives must be easier. Let me tell you now, as a stay-at-home dad, it’s not easy at all.

But that doesn’t change the impression. Certainly some men come home and expect to get a couple of hours on the Xbox or watching TV, because they’ve earned some down time by working all day. Well, what do they think the mum’s been doing, putting her feet up, eating chocolate and watching morning TV while picking her nose? She has earned just as much down time, if not more. After eight hours looking after a baby by yourself, you don’t care how busy your partner’s been during the day, you just want an hour where you can switch off. It’s the constant focus that’s the killer, never letting down your guard, head in the game all the time, nothing missed. You can’t be a mum and do it half-arsed – you bring your all or not at all.

Mums can’t use work as an excuse, either. I’ve known men who think that, because they go out to work and their work is so much more important than the mother’s, they can’t do any of the night feeds – they need to earn a living, after all. Now put yourself in a mum’s shoes – get up, feed baby; change baby; dress baby; dad goes to work; entertain baby while doing chores; feed baby; change baby; take baby out; try to get baby to nap; feed baby, change baby; more chores; dad comes home and enjoys giggle time; baby’s gone to bed; go to bed yourself, exhausted; get up a couple of times in the night to change and feed baby; repeat. And how can looking after the next generation, and your own flesh and blood, ever be considered less important than anything?

I really think mums deserve a bit more credit than they’re given, don’t you?

Random Thoughts

It’s my birthday next week. Lizzie keeps asking me what I want. Apparently ‘a day to myself’ isn’t an appropriate gift.

Whenever I sneeze, Izzie bursts into tears in absolute terror. So when she’s in her chair, cot, or with Lizzie, I rush out of the room if I feel the urge. But what do I do when she’s asleep in my lap and I feel a sneeze coming on?

Check out my new i-phone, bitches!
Check out my new i-phone, bitches!

Izzie is fascinated with my face. If she’s not twisting my ears, tugging my awesome beard, or pulling my glasses off and flinging them on the floor, she’s pushing her fingers as far up my nostrils as she can manage. As cute as she is, it’s rather unpleasant.

Izzie is so innocent and uncomplicated, her face is a succession of emoticons. When she finds something funny, she laughs; if she’s happy, she smiles; sad, her bottom lip sticks out and her eyes fill with tears; confused, she frowns and twists her mouth; tired, she yawns and rubs her eyes; surprised, her mouth falls open and her eyes go wide. They could use her on those caricature cards they give to autistic people to explain what different emotional states look like.

Where do all our muslins disappear to?

When I fart these days, it smells exactly like the baby’s poop. I know for a fact we’re not eating the same thing, so what’s that all about?

When babies cry, it’s out of need, frustration and annoyance. They’re not really sad, despite the tears. When they’re genuinely sad – like when they wake from a bad dream or their dad sneezes – their crying looks and sounds completely different.

People keep asking what Izzie’s getting for Christmas. She’ll be six months old – she can have the wrapping paper from whatever I unwrap, and the box it came in if she’s lucky.

The first song she heard after she was born, playing on the radio in the operating theatre, was Phil Collins’ Can’t Hurry Love. If they’d waited a few minutes before yanking her out, it would have been Ellie Goulding’s version of Your Song, which would probably have been more appropriate. But then, they were hurrying, love.

Why do they have radios playing in operating theatres?

Not sure how much actually made it to your stomach there.
Not sure how much actually made it to your stomach there.

All-terrain buggies should be renamed ‘heavy, big-wheeled, wide wheel-base buggies’, because other than being incredibly heavy and too wide to go down shop aisles, that seems to be the only difference. The only genuinely all-terrain buggy is called a sling.

Apparently, the middle knuckle of my right index finger is more appealing than a teething ring.

Whenever I walk down the street these days I pay inordinate amounts of attention to other people’s babies, and conclude that, yes, mine is the best. People say I’m biased, and I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

She woke me up the other morning rhythmically banging her feet against the cot’s headboard. The fact she was put to bed facing the other way doesn’t seem to concern her.

Right now, when she burps, we cheer and tell her well done. In a couple of years we’ll tell her off for being so rude!

Izzie is terrified of missing things. She refuses to fall asleep in the afternoon as though worried in case something exciting is just around the corner. You can see her eyes drooping, but she refuses to give in, whereupon she goes past the point of tiredness into frenzy mode. That’s where she’s super tired, hyper alert, and has completely forgotten how to get to sleep. Tip: it’s not by pinwheeling your arms while shouting and going red in the face.

They need to build statues to honour whoever invented the dummy.

Now that Izzie is going to bed around 8pm, Lizzie and I keep sitting on the sofa, staring at each other, and wondering just what the hell we used to do in the evenings.

What is going on with that little cough thing that babies do for attention?

All my clothes seem to be covered in crusty white stains. It looks particularly dodgy on my black dressing gown. At least I know it’s puke, not that that makes it much better.

That stuff about having to be careful when changing a boy because they pee when the nappy comes off is only half right. If my experience with my daughter is anything to go by, all babies pee halfway through the nappy change, soaking themselves, their clothes, the clean nappy, you, and the carpet all at the same time.

Pesky bib!
Pesky bib!

How is it that dribble bibs are terrible at catching milk, milk bibs are terrible at catching dribble, and food bibs seem incapable of catching anything?

In the battle between the cot in the nursery and the Moses Basket on a rocker by the bed, the Moses Basket wins hands down because a) it’s right beside the bed, and b) it rocks. Whenever Izzie used to stir, I could lean over, pop her dummy back in, and rock her to sleep with my foot, all without getting out of bed or even really out from under the covers. Now I have to get up, go next door, put the dummy in, try to soothe her without rocking, and when she’s quiet I retreat to bed only for the monitor to kick in with grizzles around fifteen seconds later, forcing me to repeat the whole thing five or six times. And that’s a problem at three in the morning.

Izzie keeps doing phantom poops. She makes a noise, I feel the guff, the smell is awful, so I wait a couple of minutes, sniff her bottom to confirm that yes, it stinks, and pat the nappy to confirm that yes, there’s something in there, but by the time I open the nappy the poop has mysteriously vanished. Spooky.

Why, when I use the tympanic thermometer, does it always read 35.4 degrees? Am I not using it right?

And lastly, when I was doing night feeds every night around 3am, I could handle it. Now that Izzie sleeps through to around five-thirty or six in the morning two nights out of three, those 3am feeds every third night are absolute killers that I struggle to recover from. How does more sleep make you feel less awake? Or is it because I check her every couple of hours to make sure she’s still alive?

Support for Parents With Autism

This is a long one, so brace yourselves.

There’s plenty of support for parents with autism. There’s also a total lack of support for parents with autism. Weirdly contradictory, I know, but read on and I’ll explain.

While Lizzie was pregnant with Izzie, we received plenty of support on account of our autism. They gave us a consultant at the hospital, sent us to a nutritionist, referred us to the ‘special’ community midwives and introduced us to our future health visitors. We also had an outreach worker from a local children’s charity who visited us every few weeks to make sure we didn’t need anything extra and were up to speed on the processes of labour, birth, and what comes next. Pretty nifty.

The ‘special’ midwives visited us every few weeks in the safety of our own home, and gave us extra time to explain things and iron out any problems. The team was so good that when Lizzie was sent home from hospital because they didn’t believe she was in labour, three community midwives turned up when the emergency shout went out, and two of them accompanied Lizzie in the ambulance.

We had meetings involving social workers, the local autism charity and representatives of the local council to offer their help and support, too. The unborn baby was assigned a social worker and our competence was assessed (and found to be fine). We were given a fake baby to look after for a few days and attended both NHS and NCT courses on pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. The midwife team could support us for 28 days after birth; the health visitors could start from 11; and they’d see us every single day if they had to. Promises were made, support was offered, and our hands were going to be held right through the pregnancy and birth and into the future.

But it hasn’t worked out like that.

The main problem we had before the birth was getting Lizzie ready for her two nights in hospital. As a medically high-risk individual, she and the baby had to remain under observation for 48-hours. Trouble is, they wouldn’t allow anyone to stay with her overnight – visiting hours ended at 8pm and partners had to be gone by midnight, not to return before 10am – and as a highly anxious person with autism, a fear of hospitals and difficulties adjusting to new situations, Lizzie was terrified of being alone, particularly with a new baby.

Various people contacted the maternity unit on our behalf, and we were even given a tour of the birthing suite, postnatal ward, Special Care Unit, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and Transitional Care Unit (TCU) – all of which we unfortunately got to use – but they wouldn’t budge an inch: despite Lizzie not spending a night by herself for years, having six hours of support from the autism charity each week and a hell of a lot more from family, friends, and me, and struggling to communicate when stressed or with strangers, both of which she was going to be, they would not make any exceptions for anyone. The best we got was that the hospital would try to give her a side room on the postnatal ward, or a place in the eight-bed TCU, depending on space and circumstance. So she’d just have to grin and bear it.

As I have mentioned before, the labour and birth were a bit of an ordeal. Lizzie lost almost three litres of blood, the baby spent the first two days in an incubator on NICU and the next two in the special care unit, and then another three on TCU. I would like to say that the midwives and nurses and healthcare assistants were great, and they were, but one deep problem overshadowed that whole week: where was our special dispensation for being autistic?

‘Ah,’ I hear you say. ‘Why should you get extra attention for having autism? Never happened in my day. The midwives and nurses should have been able to support perfectly well.’

And yes, they should. But there are a couple of problems with that.

Staffing is the first issue. They don’t have the time to provide the extra support a person with autism needs. On the Postnatal Ward one night there was one midwife to cover 25 beds – so presuming one baby per child, that’s one person to care for fifty people. And Lizzie was in a side room. Did the midwife have the time to check on Lizzie, explain things to a greater depth, make sure Lizzie understood, and, more importantly, that she had understood Izzie? Of course she didn’t.

Things weren’t any better on TCU. You’d think that with eight beds supported by one midwife and one healthcare assistant, you’d be seen when there was a problem. But one night, it was ten o’clock, the staff had changed over at seven, we hadn’t seen anyone for four hours and my taxi (also named ‘Dad’) was due at eleven. We were worried about Izzie as she was jaundiced and not going to the toilet, and I was worried about Lizzie, who was freaking out, and I’d buzzed three times already, so I went to find someone. It turned out the two staff were feeding two sets of twins, and they told me to wait my turn. Hardly supportive of two desperate and terrified new parents, particularly if they both have autism.

Another issue is therefore understanding. I don’t know if they’ve had training in autism and Asperger’s – they should have done as a result of the Autism Act – but I had to explain to every one of them what it was and how it affected people. They all said the same thing – ‘Oh, if she needs anything, all she has to do is ring the buzzer.’ Even without a three hour wait, the simple fact is that Lizzie isn’t capable of asking for help. She shuts down when there’s a problem, goes into herself and stops communicating. And she pretends she understands things, or thinks she understands them, when she doesn’t. I watched midwives ask if she was okay and she smiled and they walked off when I knew there was actually something wrong. And I watched as people explained things to her and she nodded intelligently and then afterwards said to me, ‘What did any of that mean?’ This is why she needed someone who knew her to advocate for her, to talk to people on her behalf as the support workers and social workers had been doing. But they still wouldn’t let me stay.

Now, imagine you’re a twenty-nine year girl – perhaps not the easiest of things. Imagine you hate hospitals and have had to have counselling from various sources to face up to the fact that you have to spend two nights away from home. You’ll be away from your partner and your regular support network, and in addition, you’ll have the responsibility of a newborn baby that you have to look after alone, without your partner backing you up.

Now imagine that you have the baby, only it’s a terrifying nineteen hour ordeal involving ambulances, blood, screaming and pain, a spinal injection, episiotomy, failed ventouse and forceps delivery. Imagine you then haemorrhage and have to have two blood transfusions, while the baby is rushed off to Intensive Care in an incubator. Imagine that instead of the two days you’ve prepared for, you have no idea how long you’ll have to stay. Imagine that they put you in a side room and ignore you for eight hours at a time while you plod back and forth to NICU, where your baby is being fed through a tube in her nose.

Now imagine you get transferred to TCU after four days, and are handed your baby and expected to get on with it. They’re too busy to sit with you and show you how to breastfeed, so they give you advice and leave. Now that the baby’s not being fed through the nose, she’s desperately hungry, and won’t stop screaming and sucking on your breast even though there’s nothing in them.

Imagine she’s been feeding for five hours, and you’re weak, and sore, and tired, and you haven’t recovered from the blood loss, and you’re in a strange place with strange people and nobody is responding when you buzz. And then they tell your partner, the one who has been standing beside you all day, supporting you, giving you strength, that he has to leave and come back almost eleven hours later.

Now imagine that you have autism.

I think that warrants a little special dispensation.

People with autism don’t like change, and with a different midwife or nurse every few hours, and no consistency from one day to the next, hospitals aren’t designed to be easy for us. With the additional problems with communication, understanding and anxiety, people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism really need someone to advocate for them in hospitals. Ideally, a family member or partner should be allowed to stay with them to act as go-between. Hell, I’d have slept in a chair – I even asked to – if it meant I could stay and support Lizzie. It would free up nurses and midwives, provide far better care for new mothers, and be less cruel on people who have just been through a traumatic experience.

But they don’t make exceptions for anyone, apparently.

Once we were eventually out of hospital, we had great support from the midwives and health visitors. Until, unfortunately, a few weeks ago it was decided that as our village sits on the border between Hampshire and Dorset, all the people formerly looked after by Dorset health visitors (like us) must be transferred over to Hampshire health visitors. So the Dorset health visitors have washed their hands of us, but Hampshire haven’t picked us up yet. After seeing the health visitor every week since the birth, we’ve not been seen now for a month. I spoke to Hampshire and they said they’d be happy to see us, two towns over, in a year. So I rang Dorset to say that doesn’t sound right and they told me to speak to Hampshire. Again, for people who don’t respond well to change, to have support and then take it away seems like calculated cruelty.

So all in all, there are great support services out there for expectant parents with autism, and some great support services for parents with autism, but don’t expect to get much support inside hospital, because it all ends at the door. Equally, the provision of services in the community is terribly inconsistent and seems to be dependent on postcode and not need. I guess it’s lucky we’re doing so well, and nowadays don’t really need that much support, but for people further down the autism spectrum, I dread to think what could happen.

Being Silly

A few weeks ago when Izzie really started interacting with us and the world around her, my brother said, ‘Now’s the time they start to get interesting.’ I totally disagree. She was always interesting, but now’s the time she’s starting to get fun.

That’s not to say the first twelve weeks or so didn’t have their moments. All those firsts – first smile, first tears, first proper sad face, first time she grabbed my glasses and threw them on the floor – were exciting and revelatory. But the past few weeks she’s understood enough to be consistent in her behaviour – she’s discovered cause and effect, that a string of sounds can be funny and not just single weird noises, and she’s interested in everything. Consequently, whereas before she could be soothed by simple rocking or muttering, now she wants a whole song and dance routine.

I said a few weeks back that after colic, teething would be a breeze. Well I’m sorry to tell anyone with the same desperate hope that it’s anything but.

Colic hits in the evenings. True, the crying doesn’t stop and goes on for hours, but you can prepare for it by doing what you need to do during the day. Teething lasts all bloomin’ day, hour after hour, a constant procession of whining, grizzling, crying, chewing on everything within reach, and more crying. You have to change her outfit three times a day because she’s soaked with drool from her neck to her belly button, and that’s with the dribble bib in place. Feeding becomes a nightmare because she just wants to chew on the teat instead of suck, and getting her to sleep is impossible without teething gel, dummy and plenty of rocking.

But unlike colic, with teething you can sort of distract them from it. And that’s where the fun comes in.

If, every time she cries, you think, ‘Sheesh, not again,’ then it’s going to be a very long teething time. I made that mistake. Six hours is a killer with a baby that won’t settle, won’t rest, won’t sleep, won’t soothe. So you have to change your thinking. A lot of books tell you to embrace your silly side, and they’re right – when else are we going to have a legitimate excuse to act like a hyperactive eight-year-old?

Crying is not the enemy, just your reaction to it. Instead of thinking it a chore every time she cries and you have to comfort her, you have to think of it as an opportunity. ‘Yes! I get to act like a lunatic again!’ And how far you take it is up to you.

The past few days, in order to soothe Izzie I’ve been a human beat box – ‘wickedy, wickedy, wah, wickedy, zoop zoop, pow’ – turned her into an aeroplane, a spaceship and a pterosaur, reenacted the ‘Hot Stuff’ dole queue scene from the Full Monty, used more funny voices than Seth MacFarlane, sung a million-and-one half-remembered nursery rhymes, dusted off my guitar, made up all kinds of pretend languages, jumped around doing my Gollum impression, done peekaboo by holding up the muslin, my T-shirt and the dog, blown raspberries on her belly, read to her from a geology textbook (which she strangely enjoyed) and changed the lyrics to around two-dozen popular songs. For example, her afternoon lullaby, to the tune of In the Bleak Midwinter, goes:

Sleepy time, my baby,

Sleepy time for you,

Sleepy time, my baby,

Time to have a snooze.

Why oh why won’t you just sleep?

You’ve been up for hours,

So sleepy time, my baby,

Dad’s mood is turning sour.

She loves it, and it keeps her quiet. It doesn’t actually send her to sleep, but it stops her crying, and changing the words to the second four lines is always fun:

Come on baby, go to sleep,

The hour is getting late,

If you don’t close your eyes right now

I’ll roll you out the gate.

That sort of thing.

She also enjoyed this morning’s rendition of Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix – a duet that alternated between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Admittedly, a passive-aggressive amphibian and his physically-abusive spouse might not be ideal role models, but right now she has no idea who they are, so all’s good.

Unfortunately, acting like Jim Carrey all day is incredibly draining – not even Jim Carrey likes to be himself. I’m not going to lie to you – looking after a baby of this age is bloody hard work. But it can also be surprisingly fun, and kind of therapeutic, if you allow yourself to be a little silly. And the rewards – your child’s laughter, smiles and bemused silence instead of tears, tantrums and burst eardrums – are well worth the effort.

Mother-Baby Groups

Lizzie is regularly taking Izzie to mother-baby groups, and for my sins I have accompanied her to a few. I have to say, hats off to her, because it allows the baby to socialise with other babies/become overstimulated/pick up and incubate enough germs to start her own chemical weapons factory. But this is a good thing, apparently.

I say hats off to Lizzie because if it were down to me, Izzie would never set foot in one – or bottom, as the case may be – since I’ve discovered that I cannot stand mother-baby groups.

I thought that I was into babies because I loved Izzie so much, but the truth is that I’m into my baby, not babies per se, so my tolerance for and liking of the screaming, crying, vomiting, farting, pooping, dribbly offspring of other people is not the same as my tolerance for and liking of the screaming, crying, vomiting, farting, pooping, dribbly issue of my own loins. And when there are ten of them crying all at once, it’s damn hard not to tap out and say, ‘That’s me done, my ears are bleeding and my blood-pressure’s so high I can feel my heart beating in my eye-sockets!’

But that’s not the only problem with them. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I struggle with social situations at the best of times, but good golly gosh, mother-baby groups are hard work. They can be very cliquey, there’s a competition to see whose child is most advanced for their age, and everyone acts like the world’s greatest mother, making it really difficult to ask questions like, ‘How do I get her bogies out of her nose when her nostrils are so small?’ and, ‘Is it normal to have this dreadful fear of inadequacy and the constant spectre of your shortcomings as a parent?’ Because everyone seems to pretend they’re the living embodiment of Mother Nature, and we won’t condescend to talk to you because you’re clearly a beginner in this parenting game.

Being the only adult with a penis, you tend to stick out like a sore thumb too, and whenever I step into one of those groups, I feel my identity slowly sucked from my body and replaced with breastfuls of oestrogen. But that’s not my main issue with these groups, nor is it simply because they’re full of women – it’s because they’re full of mothers.

When you have a child, people stop seeing you as a person and start to see you as that thing that carries the cute baby around and takes it away again when it starts to cry or needs changing. ‘How’s the baby? Where’s the baby? Look at the baby! Ahhh.’ This transition from ‘individual’ to ‘baby’s plus-one’ can be particularly difficult and contribute to postnatal depression. When you’re coping with a momentous lifestyle change – marriage, divorce, coming out, changing career, abandoning the dye-job and letting it go grey – you need the support of the people around you who know you and see you as you to get through it. They remind you who you really are, what really matters, and smooth over the rough edges of your new identity.

But when you have a baby, everyone you know switches their attention to the little one, so not only has your life changed dramatically, your emotional support structure abandons you to focus in on the very thing that’s brought about the change. Frankly, it can be a bummer.

So, you go to mother-baby groups hoping to meet like-minded souls who know exactly what’s it’s like to be seen as nothing more than ‘mother’, people crying out for conversation about something other than nappies, and breastfeeding, and the day-to-day slog of childcare.

Then you get there.

Here’s a typical conversation at a mother-baby group:

‘Baby, baby, baby, I’m a mother, baby, baby.’

‘Ah, baby, baby, baby, I’m a mother too, baby, baby, baby.’

‘Breastfeeding, nappies, weaning, baby, baby, did you know I’m a mother, baby.’

‘Nappies, nappies, baby, I’m a mother, men just don’t understand.’

And so on, and so forth.

The only other topic of conversation is where they’ll meet up during the week to discuss being mothers some more. It’s like they’ve become Stepford Wives, or something – the thing that made them human has been sucked out and they’ve turned into boring child-rearing robots. For crying out loud, ladies, you’re people as well as mothers! You have other dimensions! There is a whole wide world out there filled with art, literature, politics, entertainment, sport, work, relationships, hope, dreams, joy, love – why on earth don’t you lift your eyes from your child for half a minute to see it?

Of course, I’m being facetious – I’m exaggerating. But it’s to prove a point. This morning I walked along the beach with the dog for ninety minutes. Every so often I’d pass a couple of women pushing their babies in prams, because it seems that young mothers love to go out in pairs, walk side-by-side, and completely block the promenade for everyone else. I understand it – nobody wants to stay in all day every day with their baby, and when the weather is nice, a walk along the beach in the sun with a friend is exactly what the doctor ordered.

But here’s the rub: as I passed these people – I must have met six such pairs today – I’d catch snippets of their conversations, and every single one of them was talking about babies and mothering.

The babies are asleep. You’re walking in the sunshine with your friend. The sea is lapping lazily against the shore. The air feels great in your lungs. It’s time to be you. And you’re still  talking about babies!?

That’s the thing I struggle with. I guess you’ll say, ‘It’s a mother-baby group, of course they’ll talk about babies and being mothers,’ and you’d have a point. You could also say, ‘But you’re talking about babies and parenting,’ and yes I am, but I’m not the walking embodiment of fatherhood and I never pretended to be – and it’s my blog, so nah, nee, nah, nee, nah, nah!

I’m sure people who enjoy mother-baby groups, and enjoy being earth mothers, will think I’m a silly man, so what do I know, and that’s fine. But we didn’t erase our identities the moment our children were born, and we don’t cease to be adults with adult needs just because we look after children all day. True, it informs a great deal of how we think about things – a couple of people I know died from carbon monoxide poisoning the other day, a mother and her son, and all I could think about was how awful it would be to lose Lizze and Izzie in like manner – but we are not one-dimensional characters just because we’re parents.

With Izzie on my lap I talk about the science behind the new Matt Damon movie, or the latest atrocity on the news, the etymology of the word ‘halcyon’ and how rough Kate Moss looks in her latest advert, if the new Facebook promo is really using the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind? on piano, or why the band PVRIS isn’t better known. If I one day found that all I could talk about was nappies, weaning, feeding, teething, and babies, babies, babies – well, that would be the day I realised I needed to find a new interest, and fast, before I ceased to be a human being and became a robo-nanny. Actually, come to think of it, that sounds rather fun…

It’s Harder On the Parents

Izzie has just spent her first night in her cot in her own room. Despite what I’ve said about accepting the passage of time, how it’s natural for a baby to move from one stage to another and instead of losing anything, you’re gaining a deeper understanding and a richer relationship, it’s still an incredibly bittersweet experience to see your daughter move on. Scratch that – it’s a painful, heart-rending, panic-inducing kick to the balls. And it hurts.

All week I’ve been putting off setting up the monitors, as though burying my head in the sand could somehow avert the inevitable. I secretly hoped they wouldn’t work, or I wouldn’t be able to figure out the instructions, or we’d have a power cut or no heating and she’d have to stay in the Moses Basket beside my bed, in my room, with me. Because for all my pontificating and philosophising, I’m just as emotionally insecure as the next parent, and I’m struggling to let go.

And that’s what parenting is all about. Our children do not belong to us – they belong to the Universe. And we are just borrowing them for a time. Each stage of their lives lasts just as long as it’s meant to, and no matter how much we might want to cling to a certain period because it makes us feel good, or important, or validated, we have to learn to let it go, release it emotionally, and move on to the next.

Easier said than done.

We put her in the cot in a grobag and she cried and cried. As we’re not advocates of the ‘cry-it-out’ method, I put my hand on her chest and rocked her gently from side to side until, after adding teething gel and a dummy, she suddenly went out like a light. So I removed the dummy and went next door and felt sick. My stomach tightened into knots, my arms tensed as though I was preparing to box, and my legs jiggled with nervous angst.

Ten minutes of sweating and writhing about in agitation, plagued by guilt, worry, my inability to accept change, and I could bear it no longer. I crept in there to find her still fast asleep, and in the same position I’d left her.

I spent the next hour staring at the monitor, watching the temperature gauge, waiting for it to burst into life – nothing. I woke every couple of hours feeling emotional and panicked. At four, I got up to check on her, and once again she was fast asleep, though in a slightly different position – about ninety-degrees away from straight. But she seemed okay, so I went back to bed, stared at the monitor for an hour, turned up the heating.

I got up at seven but she was still asleep, and it wasn’t until eight that she began to stir. After all my worrying, all of the stress and mental anguish, she slept right through from eleven at night till eight in the morning as though it was nothing.

Admittedly, she was facing the opposite direction to how we’d put her to bed – her feet to the headboard – but it just goes to show: this growing-up lark is far harder on the parents than on the children!

Stop Growing Up!

I must have a different concept of time to other people. ‘Can you believe she’s almost sixteen weeks old already?’ they say, as if it’s magically just happened on its own.

Yes, I can well believe it. I was there every day of the previous fifteen weeks.

A variation on this theme is, ‘I bet it feels like just yesterday she was born.’

Nope, it feels like she she was born 111 days ago. 111 long, hard, tiring but ultimately rewarding days. It feels like it was years ago, and I can barely remember my life before Izzie was born – it’s a grey blur where I had free time and sleep, like in a fairy tale.

Another old chestnut is, ‘Before you know it she’ll be eighteen and moving out.’

I’m not sure how she’ll be eighteen ‘before I know it’. I can’t imagine the upcoming hell of teething, toddling, talking and terrorising are going to slip by unnoticed. Nor can we get through eighteen birthdays, eighteen Christmasses, a million holidays, school trips, sports days, parent-teacher evenings, pimples, boyfriends and ‘the talk’ without being made aware, every step of the way, of the passage of time.

My whole life, time hasn’t passed for me as quickly as it seems to have done for others. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s Syndrome, the fact I pay attention to every little detail and don’t let anything past unless it’s been examined, interrogated, probed and analysed, every last ounce of information and experience wrung from it before it’s let go. At sixteen I felt I’d lived a lifetime, by twenty-five I was sure I’d lived three, and now, at thirty-five, I feel older than the dinosaurs.

So I’ve never understood how time can just fly by.

And yet, one piece of parenting advice has been ringing true of late: ‘Make the most of each moment because they grow so fast.’

Over the full range of eighteen years, the changes are going to be slow and steady and we can revel in them one by one. At this age, however – from about three months – the changes come thick and heavy and uncomfortably fast. I mean, yesterday Izzie had no idea her feet existed; today they’re the most exciting thing in the world and if she’s not staring at them or reaching for them, she’s stuffing them into her mouth.

The speed with which she’s come on in the past three weeks is incredible. She can now roll on her side…

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..support her own weight (albeit with a steadying hand)…

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…hold her own bottle…

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…put giraffes in her mouth…

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…and she’s teething. Which means if she isn’t talking non-stop, she’s trying to cram everything she can get her hands on into her mouth, or, failing that, chewing on her hands themselves.

What you lookin' at!?
What you lookin’ at!?

What is more, her personality is developing daily. She’s a happy, inquisitive, strong-willed, hyperactive sod with quite a temper on her if you don’t understand what she wants and respond quickly enough for her liking. If you make eye-contact with her while she’s feeding, she smiles and tries to talk to you, causing her to spill her milk everywhere and start to choke. But if you’re holding her while talking to someone else, she gets grumpy that she’s being left out of the conversation.

And she wants entertaining now, too. Things that interested her a fortnight ago aren’t good enough anymore. A few random noises? No, perform for me, daddy! When I sang Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ to her the other night, she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard, which was a little disconcerting given what it’s about (look it up if you don’t know). Then yesterday, when we were playing, I said to her in my best French accent, ‘Ah, ma petite pomme de terre!’ and she burst into tears and wouldn’t stop crying for ten minutes. So, soft rock, good, French, bad. Good to know.

The truth is, we have to make the most of each moment, because if you’re looking the other way, you’ll miss a world of development going on in your own living room. Right now, you have to embrace every moment or it’ll be gone forever, because they do indeed grow up fast.

So fast, in fact, that I’m actually feeling nostalgic about how she was a month ago – that baby that seemed to sleep a lot more, and struggled against us less. The baby that wasn’t quite as wilful as the one we’ve got now, because believe you me, she is going to be quite a handful – as stubborn and fiery-tempered as both of her parents. Or ‘determined’ and ‘passionate’, to put a positive spin on things.

In all honesty, part of this nostalgia comes from the fact that I’m scared of the future. It’s selfish and stupid, but I’ve been so darned good at this baby thing, I don’t want her to move on to the next phase. Lizzie takes her to baby groups and to parties and out swimming, and as Izzie grows up she’s going to love those things more and more. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I really struggle going to things like that, and while Lizzie has this innate understanding of toddlers and children, I never have, even as a child. As Izzie grows and becomes less like a baby, more like a toddler, and turns to her mum for the ‘fun’ things, I’m terrified of being left behind.

Of course, my relationship with Izzie will always be different from Lizzie’s relationship with her. I’m just paranoid that as she becomes more complex, I’ll struggle to relate to her or understand her as I do now, and that would break my heart.

But then, I think that in this society, we’re programmed to believe that change wrought by time is universally bad. You lose your hair, your teeth, and your bladder control; standards drop everywhere you look; kids run around like rootless, feckless waifs; and you don’t understand the world you live in anymore.

Clearly, given the numbers who tell you to cherish every moment, plenty of people feel as though their children ‘slipped through their fingers’, to paraphrase the song from Mamma Mia that made all our mums cry. But instead of focusing on what we lose, let’s look at what we gain over time – experience, confidence, a deeper understanding of ourselves and richer, more fulfilling relationships.

The only way of surviving both life and parenthood with a modicum of happiness is to embrace the passage of time, not resist it. Instead of wanting Izzie to stop growing, instead of holding on and resenting that we have to change, I should let go, enjoy every individual moment as a single thread in a lifelong tapestry of such moments. I will not be losing anything as Izzie develops because our relationship will grow, and both of us with it. Tomorrow, I will not be who I am today, and that will be a result of my changing relationship with my daughter. We’ll be different together. And that, my friends, is life.

Travels With Baby, Part 2: The Experience

If you imagine going on holiday with a baby is horrendously difficult, you’d be absolutely right. You’d also be quite spectacularly wrong. So work that one out.

By way of introduction, we went glamping on the Isle of Wight from Monday to Friday. Of course, you can call it glamping all you want, but a ‘canvas cottage’ is still a tent in a field buffeted by September winds and rattled by the first rains of autumn. Once your clothes are wet, they stay wet, the bed is made of foam on the floor, and at night the temperature drops to around twelve degrees.

I'm happy in my hat, daddy!
That’s okay, I’m warm enough, daddy!

As I have mentioned in a previous post (Out and About With Baby), the anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with Asperger’s Syndrome means just going to the shops by myself is a major ordeal. However, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of going away – since going out’s already so stressful, the anxiety from a holiday is a difference of kind rather than intensity, and if you’re going to struggle anyway, it makes a pleasant change doing it somewhere other than home.

For a similar reason, since looking after a baby is already so difficult, holidaying with one isn’t that much harder. At home your life revolves around sterilising bottles, making up feeds, changing nappies, and ensuring the little one is wearing clean clothes, is the right temperature, and you have enough spares of everything to stock your own branch of Mothercare. On holiday, the same applies. The main difference is that instead of popping to the supermarket, attending mother-and-baby groups, walking the dog or heading into town for a coffee, on holiday you’re visiting a stately home, taking part in an axe-throwing competition, playing crazy golf or searching for somewhere that does gluten-free cream teas (not common, I can tell you!).

Of course, there are other difficulties specific to travelling with a three-month-old. You leave home with the car piled up to the roof because you don’t know what the weather’s going to be like or how the baby will develop – one day she’s happy with the carry cot/pram, but the next she spends the whole day doing stomach crunches as she tries to sit up and you need to use the pushchair instead, or else she’ll have abs to die for. In addition to the travel system base unit, carry cot, pushchair and car seat, sunhoods and raincovers, parasol and umbrella, you have to add the steriliser, bottle warmer, changing bag, extras with which to refill the changing bag, baby’s suitcase containing warm weather and cold weather outfits, your partner’s suitcase, your backpack, a couple of rucksacks of food, drink, formula, a paperback (like you’ll ever find time to read it!), 6-way adapter plug, phone charger, Glo-egg. I have no idea how people can go away with two kids because we maxed out the available space with one.

Then there’s the fact you’re out and about for most of the day. When we go away, Lizzie and I tend to burn the candle at both ends, so to speak – Monday to Friday, and we checked out Alum Bay, Freshwater Bay and Ventnor, played crazy golf at Shanklin, enjoyed the arcades at Sandown, explored the WWII ruins at Culver Down, saw the windmill at Bembridge, walked the beaches at Whitecliff Bay and Ryde, visited Osborne House, East Cowes and Cowes, scoffed tasters at the Garlic Farm, shopped at Arreton Barns and Newport, navigated a hedge maze in Godshill, and still found time to go swimming twice with the baby, win a pub quiz and have a meal out. Such a heavy schedule means you need your sleep at night, and if the baby sleeps through as she started doing a few days before she went, then all is good.

Except the baby doesn’t sleep through. Because the routine has been altered, she alters with it. She knows things are different so she behaves differently. She doesn’t get tired when she usually does, doesn’t want to miss things, becomes overstimulated by all the sights and sounds and smells – ‘look, daddy, Queen Victoria’s bed, and a gold chandelier, and what sort of wax are they using to clean these marvellous wooden floors?’ So she keeps going, gets over-tired and grumpy, crashes suddenly early evening, and wakes at two am and five am. So holidaying with a baby means you’re horribly tired, and when you get home you really need another holiday.

Then there are the smaller practical considerations. Playing crazy golf, for example, is exceedingly awkward when you keep having to move the pushchair down staircases, over speed bumps and around lighthouses and windmills. You can’t play air hockey in an arcade with just the two of you, and nobody to watch the baby. Every time you get out of the car you have to debate whether to use the carry cot, pushchair, car seat or sling. And all the while, the clock is ticking between feeds, so you keep part of your brain focused on where you’ll be and whether there will be a cafe there where you can warm the bottle.

I think one of the hardest things about holidaying with a baby is that when she’s having an unsettled day, you’re stuck with her. At home you’d put her in her Moses Basket, rock her to sleep, perhaps go for a walk, put on some music or the television, and when all else fails you can take turns with your partner, allowing one of you a few moments of respite. On the last day we left the campsite at half ten and the ferry wasn’t until after seven. Izzie spent the whole day grizzling, crying, having mini-tantrums and demanding constant stimulation. This culminated in an utter refusal to sit in her car seat, and endless screaming when she did. Every time I tried to put her in the car seat she would straighten out and go stiff as a board, so I’d have to try and get her to bend at the waist, force her bottom into the seat, and hold her there with one hand while I attempted to put her straps on with the other. She might only be three months old but she knows what she wants and what she doesn’t, and boy is she strong!

But it’s not all bad. Going away with a baby didn’t stop us from doing most of the things we’d normally have done without her, and her smiles and chuckles made up for just about all the tears and screaming and inconveniences. Her fascination with every trivial, insignificant detail is a wonder to see and makes you look at things with new eyes. And you get to feel like a proper grown-up.

But not too adult to pass up a sundae that's bigger than your head!
But not too grown-up to pass on a sundae that’s bigger than your head!

All in all, going on holiday with a baby is hard work, but so is everything when you have a baby. It’s a slightly different experience from holidaying as a couple – you’re more focused on the baby and her welfare than on the things you’re actually doing – but by taking you away from the everyday grind, you can enjoy one another’s company and bond as a family without the usual stresses of home. That said, I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience unless it comes with a guarantee of four nights of uninterrupted sleep!

‘Different’ is not ‘wrong’

Thanks to problems with Theory of Mind, when you have Asperger’s Syndrome it can be very difficult to understand why people might want to do things differently to how you do them. Coupled with a tendency towards black-and-white thinking, this means we think our way of doing something is best, which makes all other methods worse. It is a short leap to thinking your way is ‘right’ and every other way is ‘wrong’.

As the primary carer of a baby, whether you have Asperger’s or not, it’s very easy to fall into this trap. You’re with the baby all day and all night, and as a result you quickly become an expert on all aspects of baby care. You develop ways of holding her, cleaning her, talking to her; you have routines dictating how you change nappies, make up feeds, how you put on sleep suits; you know how to respond to different cries, googles, gurgles and grunts; and everything you’ve worked out is definitely the best and only way of taking care of your little angel.

And then the other parent wades in.

For whatever reason – they work, they’re ill, they’re just not as in-tune with the baby’s needs as you are – they fumble around like a five-year-old trying to unscrew a doorknob with their eye-socket. You cringe, you grimace, and then you step in to show them how it should be done. ‘Like this,’ you say as you patiently guide them towards a better method. ‘No, no, hold her under here, like this, pat her bottom, there you go, see how well that works?’ Because you’re trying to help.

Ever since Lizzie returned home from hospital with Izzie, and struggled every step of the way, I’ve devoted myself to making things easier for her. I took over the night feeds, soothed the baby when she was colicky, strapped her to my chest when I walked the dog; every time it became too much for Lizzie, I took over; and everything I learned, every tactic and technique that worked, I tried to teach her.

Yet the more I’ve done to take the pressure off Lizzie, the worse she seems to have become. She would deny this but I’ve been doing around 75-80% of the baby care, and the fact I’ve had to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden has put an undeniable strain on our relationship, which came to a head the other day when I was telling Lizzie how to hold Izzie to stop her crying when she suddenly snapped, ‘Shut up! I don’t want to do anything the way you do it!’

We slept in separate beds and I was forced to do a great deal of soul-searching. Righteous indignation, resentment and a feeling of being criminally underappreciated slowly gave way to the realisation that Lizzie has increased in confidence when she goes out with the baby, decreased in confidence when she’s at home. The only possible reason for this is that when she’s out, I’m not with her, and when she’s home, I’m always peering over her shoulder, giving her ‘guidance’. Despite having the best of intentions, had I in fact made things more difficult for both of us?

I thought more about her outburst, wondered why she wouldn’t want to do things the right way for the baby – if my technique stops Izzie crying in thirty seconds, and Lizzie’s takes five minutes, surely she’s deliberately doing it the wrong way? I had to work really hard – I mean really, really hard – to turn my thinking around and realise that I can’t stage manage Lizzie’s relationship with Izzie, no matter how much I might want to. Her way of doing things is not wrong, simply different, and as Izzie’s mother she has as much right to experiment with different techniques and find her own solutions as I do. If it takes Lizzie five minutes to stop Izzie crying doing it her way, that is the nature of their relationship and it will be different from my relationship with Izzie. Not worse, not wrong – just different.

It’s hurtful and heartbreaking to admit that by trying to do what’s right for all of us I’ve actually made it much more difficult. I haven’t allowed Lizzie to develop her relationship with her daughter, build confidence in her baby-caring skills, or find her own solutions to her problems. I haven’t allowed her to be a mother, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Since having this epiphany, I’ve stepped back. When the baby cries every fibre of my being urges me to go to her, but I have had to dig my fingernails into my palms and leave Lizzie to soothe the baby her own way. I’ve watched her doing things in ways that I would not and have bitten my tongue. And Lizzie’s confidence, and enjoyment of the baby, have both increased immeasurably. She is doing so much more, and without complaint, all because I’m letting her get on with it.

For the first time in around thirteen weeks, I feel like we are joint parents with equal responsibility for the baby – there is no longer a primary and secondary carer, much as it pains me to admit it, because I loved being the primary carer. But this is the way it should be.

So, all parents reading this blog: don’t make the same mistake I did. Unless you want to look after two babies, you have to be your partner’s partner, not their parent. They’re not doing things wrong, just different. And if you don’t allow them to figure things out for themselves, you’re denying them the greatest thrill of being a parent. So shame on you!