Five Months of Autistic Parenting, Part 2

Because you act in a way that is normal for you, it can sometimes be easy to forget you have Asperger’s Syndrome. That is, until someone points out that your way of doing things is perhaps not strictly conventional.

I figured that most of our struggles as new parents had to do with us being new parents, because you’re meant to suffer, aren’t you? That was how I explained it to my autism support coordinator yesterday. We’re no different to any other parent.

‘Except that most of them don’t have difficulties with communicating, understanding relationships and processing information,’ she replied. ‘You do.’

Touche.

As the stress and tiredness of having five unrelenting months of childcare have caught up with us, Lizzie and me have increasingly argued about our roles and responsibilities. That goes with the territory, of course – when you’re looking after a baby, there’s far less time and energy to invest in your relationship beyond occasional back rubs and I-love-yous – but I’ve come to realise that our difficulties have a distinctly autistic flavour. Because we’re not the same as every other parent, and that’s worth remembering.

In my last post I wrote about how the little idiosyncrasies of my condition affected my life as a dad. This post and the next (because it’s a big topic) are about how the larger underlying issues of Asperger’s have affected my relationship as a parent.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve struggled with throughout the past five months is the issue of fairness. Since people with Asperger’s can have very logical, systematic and pedantic ways of seeing the world, rules and routines are very important to us. Unfortunately, our understanding of fairness as a black-and-white, unbending entity does not relate to how fairness actually works in real life. And I have erroneously applied my logical yet unreasonable idea of fairness to mine and Lizzie’s roles as parents.

If Lizzie goes out for six hours on a jolly with her friends, for example, leaving me to look after the baby, I consider it only fair that the next day I get six hours to myself while Lizzie looks after the baby. If I put the baby to bed one night, I think it only fair that Lizzie does it the next night. And if I change a poopy nappy, it’s her turn to change the next. It’s logical, it makes sense, and it’s undeniably fair.

Apparently, however, this is not how parenting and relationships are done and I have been waiting in vain for a fairer distribution of duties. I said in an earlier post (It’s Not A Competition) that we each give what we can give, and if I can give more than Lizzie can, that’s okay. Lately, however, I haven’t been living up to that enlightened thinking. I look at how much I do and how much she does, how many warm meals she eats compared to the number of my cold dinners, the amount of sleep she gets, the frequency with which she has time out with her friends leaving me at home alone with the baby, and it’s all started to seem rather unfair and one-sided. And part of our problems of late have undeniably resulted from my resentment of this state of affairs.

But as I said, apparently this turn-taking thing isn’t how parents are meant to behave. Thanks to our autistic ways of thinking, we have been living like flatmates who pass a baby between us – you look after her for a couple of hours while I do my own thing, then I’ll look after her for a couple of hours while you do your own thing, and so forth. I thought that was totally normal, but apparently not. Instead, we should be doing things together as a family and supporting one another instead of playing pass-the-parcel.

I have to here point out that I love spending time with Izzie, and in actual fact I wouldn’t mind if that was all I ever did. But I’ve become hung up on this issue of fairness, particularly in regard to the amount that Lizzie goes out. In recent weeks it has reached six days out of seven, for a minimum of three hours at a time, maximum of nine, sometimes with the baby but mostly without, day after day after day leaving me to look after Izzie by myself. I thought she was running away from her responsibilities as a mother, and that is how I addressed it, but the truth is that it had to do with her Asperger’s.

You see, Lizzie has never really had friends, but in the past couple of years has made around seven of them. Having AS, however, means she doesn’t know how to manage her relationships. She’s terrified of losing them, and thinks that if she says ‘No’ when someone invites her out, they won’t be her friend anymore. And she doesn’t want to include me in her plans because that would be asking permission, and she’s an adult who doesn’t need permission from anybody. So if seven friends invite her out in the week, she says yes to all seven, without thinking about the impact it is having on our relationship and family life.

The way forward, then, is teaching her that when you have other responsibilities to a child, a partner, a home, you’re allowed to say no, and that if they’re true friends, the friendship will survive. Her support workers are trying to get her to limit her time out without the baby and spend more time in the home, because they feel that the balance needs to be redressed – though, when I ask them if ‘unbalanced’ is a euphemism for ‘unfair’, they strongly deny it.

So we have been doing things differently recently. We have spent more time doing things as a family, not just in the home but going out together too. Some of the things Lizzie would have done with friends, like painting a plate at a cafe, she has done with me, the baby on my lap. This weekend we’re all going to a Christmas market. And when Lizzie gets invites she asks me if I mind her going out, which isn’t asking permission but checking in with me as her significant other, which makes me feel more appreciated than before.

And life is so much better. If it hadn’t been pointed out to me that we were doing things separately that we should have been doing together, I don’t think we’d have figured that one out for ourselves. If people hadn’t told me that ‘fairness’ is not the criteria by which you divide up the responsibilities of parenthood, we might have continued passing her between us and inadvertently made her feel like an unwanted burden, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes you need other people to point out to you what you can’t see for yourself, and we’re lucky enough in our lives to have those people around us.

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