Never Too Young For Mischief

Before embarking on this parenting lark, I figured babies were like little balls of dribble and poop. Some were easy on the eyes, others less so. They were slaves to their needs for milk and bowel movements, demanding instant gratification or else letting out an ear-splitting howl. And they were all exactly the same. To talk of ‘personality’ in a baby was laughable.

How wrong I was.

Izzie has buckets of personality, and a talent for mischief that I wouldn’t believe in a seven-month old if I hadn’t seen it myself. Far from being a passive servant to her physiological urges, she’s an active participant in learning, laughing and game-playing – mostly at the expense of daddy.

Take what she did to my phone the other day. Since her favourite game is grabbing those things her parents deem important enough to deny her access to – mobile phones, TV controllers, cameras, tablet devices – Lizzie was using my phone as bait to encourage her to crawl. And of course, it would be unfair to take it off her once she got it.

At least, this was Lizzie’s philosophy. I was blissfully ignorant of it until I walked into the lounge and saw Izzie with one end of my phone in her mouth, her fingers tapping the touch screen like she was playing a flute.

Ah, how cute, I thought – she’s making a phone call.

I was less amused when I took it off her (unleashing a wall of tortured screaming) to see she was in some application on the internet and there were two buttons on the screen, one reading ‘confirm’ and the other ‘cancel’.

Panicked, I quickly cancelled out of whatever it was she’d been about to install, or buy, or delete, thinking I’d dodged a bullet. But that was just the start of it.

She’d turned on the wi-fi, turned on Bluetooth, turned on the GPS tracker, turned on mobile data, put it into flight mode, and changed the network from Vodafone to T-Mobile! God knows what else she might have done that I haven’t found yet – there’s an icon on the top left of the screen that wasn’t there before, and all attempts to remove it have failed. And it seems to think I have headphones plugged in all the time now.

It’s the same story with my Kindle (forgive the pun). I’ll be writing something, little ‘un on my lap seemingly engrossed in her own thing, and suddenly this little hand will swipe across the screen and exit whatever application I’m using, or delete my file, or undo changes. And she smiles and giggles, like she knows exactly what she’s done.

She has an uncanny knack for making mischief. The other day I spent a couple of hours baby-proofing the lounge, putting plastic squares on sharp corners and sticking rubber padding on the edges of furniture with double-sided tape. Then I brought Izzie into her new ‘safe’ playground.

The very first thing she did – the very first! – was to roll her way over to the sideboard, grab the bottom of the rubber padding and – riiiiippp – pull off the whole three-foot strip. Then she eyed-up the padding on the TV table, so I put her to bed.

Not that bed is safe from her shenanigans. She loves throwing her dummy down the back of the cot, perhaps because she knows it’ll force me to pull out the drawer and strain to squeeze underneath to retrieve it. The other night, she was lying peacefully in her cot, ready to sleep, so I stepped out of the room and closed the door. Within twenty seconds, I heard the dummy clatter down behind the cot and she started to make crying sounds, only to laugh the moment I stepped back in.

Having a bit of sense – only a bit – I put the second dummy in her mouth, stepped out, closed the door, and in less than ten seconds – I counted – it followed the first down the back of the cot.

After enduring five minutes of her tearful sniffling I went back in there and – lo and behold – she started laughing!

I’ve developed a new tactic in the Battle of Bedtime – I put Dummy 1 in her mouth, and as soon as she takes it out I pop in Dummy 2, so she ends up with one in each hand and a perplexed expression on her face. It’s not foolproof – she can just throw them both down the back of the cot – but she hasn’t quite figured that out yet. And long may she remain in ignorance, or else Dummy 3 will have to make an appearance on the scene.

Nothing but passive servants to their physiological urges? They’re devious, calculating monsters!

Now I’m dreading the arrival of my phone bill…


Endless changing

When you’re having a baby, you expect its arrival to be the Great Unknown: you’re going to jump off the edge of a cliff in the night, with no idea what awaits you. But once you get into it, you’ll get into a rhythm, and the changes from then on will be incremental and manageable.

Not so. Not so at all.

Sure, the birth and first month is like leaping – falling – into the abyss, but gradually you learn how to fly. You learn to interpret the sounds the baby makes and what they mean, become adept at nappy changing, feeding, prepping bottles, soothing her. You work out ways of carrying her that are safe and don’t break your back or your arms, get into a routine, discover you can cope with the lack of sleep and the irritations of cold or skipped dinners, vomit-stained clothing and the ever present weight of responsibility. Things are getting easier. The future looks rosy.

And then, around three months, it all changes again.

She suddenly makes different sounds, different facial expressions. Whereas before, you knew exactly what she wanted and could meet her needs right away, now you can’t anticipate them at all, and you only realise she wants something after she’s started screaming. But on the plus side, she starts to sleep through the night and you have time on your hands and no idea what to do with it. You’re now an expert at nappies and bottles. You’re finally getting a handle on this parenting thing.

And then around five months, it all changes again. She wants to roll over all the time, so nappy changes turn into a nightmarish battle of wills. She starts waking again in the middle of the night for two hours at a time, and you’re so out of practice at missing sleep, it hits you worse than it did the first time around. She wants solid food – well, mush – because the milk just doesn’t cut it anymore. And everything within arms reach is a potential hazard that if she gets her hands on goes straight into her mouth and causes her to choke.

But you invent new methods to cope. I kept losing count of how many spoonfuls of formula I put in her milk as I had to keep one eye on her, so I’ve scrapped the numbers 1-7 and replaced them with the words ‘Thumb, pointer, middle, ring, pinkie, thumb, pointer,’ along with visualising the relevant fingers. Such an effective method, I can have a conversation while doing it and still keep count.

And changing her is so much easier if you give her a plastic baby coat hangar to play with, as it keeps her on her back and keeps her hands busy (and thus out of her own poop). [But a word of warning on this technique – never use something big, like a teddy bear. I made this mistake yesterday. The first thing she did was rub it between her legs and smear poop all up her belly, so I tossed it aside and gave her a sock instead. Finished, I turned to recover the poop-covered teddy bear to find the dog licking it clean. Gross does not describe it!]

We are approaching another change. In the past three weeks, from six-and-a-half months to now (seven months and five days), she has learned to crawl, sit unsupported, remove her nappy, manoeuvre herself anywhere she chooses to go, throw her dummies across the room, and speak, albeit in Spanish (‘habla, habla, habla, habla’, which prompts me to reply ‘Espanol? No habla Espanol. Habla Ingles, por favor.’).

And suddenly she’s decided she wants to be a drummer. Everything’s a drum to her – the tray table of her high chair, her toys, the floor, the sofa, her inflatable donut chair, daddy’s belly, mummy’s boobs. It used to be ‘can I pick it up, can I put it in my mouth?’ It’s now ‘can I pick it up, can I slap it and make a noise, can I put it in my mouth?’ Anything comes on TV with a heavy beat, like the intro to Modern Family, she stops what she’s doing and stares transfixed at the screen. Weirdly, she didn’t bat an eyelid when a compilation of old Sugababes videos was on, but put on Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Sleepwalking’ or ‘Shadow Moses’ and she’s fascinated (look them up if you want to know why that’s so unexpected! And yes, my musical tastes are eclectic).

And she’s started hooking things over her feet – any hoop or ring toy she gets she tries to turn into an ankle bracelet. The developments are coming so thick and fast – in sitting, crawling, walking, talking, facial expressions, reaching, holding, manipulating, weaning – that it’s hard to keep up. And she’s reached the point where she suddenly gets clingy and shy. A couple of weeks ago, she’d have gone with anyone; now, she glances at strangers then buries her face in my chest before glancing out again, or looks to me as if to say, ‘Is this okay, daddy? Are we safe? Or should I show this person the door?’

According to the Health Visitor, she’s way ahead of the curve, and she can’t believe how these developmental milestones have been reached so close together. Normally, she says, they’re more spread out so you have the chance to process them.

The end result of this is that Lizzie and I both feel we’re walking along the edge of an abyss. We can feel a giant change coming, a truly Great Unknown just ahead, invisible and unavoidable. We don’t know what it is – walking, words, a rudimentary nuclear reactor. We keep expecting to walk into the nursery in the morning to find her sitting dressed on the floor with a cup of tea, asking us whether we’d like one lump or two.

It’s not a very comfortable feeling. It feels like it did the week of the due date – like something huge and life-changing is rapidly approaching and we don’t know how we’ll cope and if we’re sufficiently prepared. Yet again we’ll have to find a way to adapt. And honestly, we’re both a little terrified of this unseen future.

So if you think having a baby will change your life, you’re wrong. It will change your life, then change it again, and again, and again, and again, and again…

Asperger’s, parenting and social care

The provision of social care for adults at the more functional end of the autism spectrum has always been somewhat spotty. If you’re at the lower end – with classic or Kanner’s autism – there’s plenty of help and support, but those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome face a lottery.

You see, as far as care services are concerned, AS falls between the Mental Health Team and the Learning Disabilities Team. It is not a mental health disorder, but then nor is it really a learning disability – it’s a developmental disorder. Nevertheless, autism tends to be within the Learning Disabilities Team’s remit – but they only get funding to deal with the lower end of the spectrum. In terms of care, then, if you have Asperger’s Syndrome there’s nothing the care services can provide.

You are, however, assigned a social worker – well, sometimes. But herein lies another problem. The team to which you are first assigned is the team you’re stuck with. I was first assigned to the Mental Health Team long before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s; as soon as I was diagnosed, I was discharged by the psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors, but kept the social worker from the team. And as I said before, Asperger’s isn’t a mental health problem and most social workers I’ve met are gobsmacked when they meet me to find I’m not Rain Man. Different end of the spectrum, guys. Thanks for joining us.

The job of the social worker is to give the service user (i.e. me) access to services pertaining to their condition. Since, as I said, there are no services for adults with Asperger’s, this access takes the form of money that can be used to buy support from private care agencies. I was deemed to require six hours of support each week, so they decided to fund me for three, and I pay for the other three. Thus three times a week, for two hours at a time, I have support workers come in to make sure I’m carrying out my activities of daily living – changing my clothes, cooking, cleaning, etc., and to help me with paperwork, budgeting and the various minutiae of modern life I’m thoroughly incapable of coping with.

This is the way it has been for around seven years now. However, things have changed lately because of the arrival of my little bundle of giggles and poop, otherwise known as Izzie. As regular followers of my blog will know, my partner Lizzie (yes, I know it rhymes and in hindsight it’s quite confusing) has struggled with the demands of motherhood. Like me, she has six hours of support each week, and also has a social worker from Mental Health. Since things were so tough over the first six months, we asked for additional hours just to help us out until we managed to find our feet again. Here is the response we received, paraphrased and dramatized:

‘We’re adult mental health social workers. Neither of you has a mental illness. We’re not even sure why we’ve been assigned to you. Unfortunately, you fall down the cracks between Mental Health and Learning Disabilities.’

But it’s not our fault what we have doesn’t fit into your organisational structure. What we’re asking for is additional funding for more hours for assistance. Because at the rate we’re going, we’ll end up with mental health issues.

‘Well, here’s the problem. We don’t deal with children – we only deal with adults.’

But we are adults. Adults who are asking for help.

‘The thing is, before the baby arrived you were both stable on six hours a week. The disruption in your lives has been caused by the baby. Therefore, if you need extra help because of the baby, the baby will have to fund it.’

I’m not sure I understand.

‘Being a parent is not a mental health problem. If you want any assistance, Izzie will have to get a social worker, and be assigned funding from Child Services.’

I see. So will you refer us?

‘I can give you their number…’

To cut a long story short, we applied to get a social worker for Izzie, to get us extra help as her parents, but as she’s at no risk of abuse or neglect, we were turned down. So, no help there.

Another avenue explored was the Perinatal Mental Health Team. Lizzie was assessed by them, and they concluded her difficulties were caused by her autism, not by postpartum depression, and since autism isn’t a mental health problem, they can’t provide any assistance. So if her autism is causing the problem, who can we go to for help with that? Apparently, nobody.

You can now perhaps understand something of our quandary. We have autism, and despite the joys of the past six months, it’s been a real struggle. We are not the same as every other parent, even though I like to pretend we are, but we’re too high-functioning to get any help from public services, too attentive to Izzie’s needs to get access to child services, and not suffering enough mentally to get extra funding.

To add insult to injury, we have just been summarily dropped by the one piece of free support we were receiving. Since I work Tuesday afternoons in a charity shop, and Lizzie struggles to cope at home on her own with the baby, we had an outreach worker from the local children’s centre who would come out and sit with them for an hour. It was useful and we were grateful for it.

We didn’t hear from the outreach worker after the festive period until she texted on Monday 11th asking to come out either Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning or Friday morning. Since Wednesday afternoon Lizzie was out with her mother, Thursday morning she takes Izzie to baby group (which is beneficial for mother and baby both), and Friday morning we have swimming classes (which cost £110 a term), we said we were busy. Besides, wasn’t the whole purpose of her visits to sit with Lizzie on Tuesday afternoons?

So she texted us again Tuesday just gone to tell us that they are closing our case because we have ‘disengaged from the process’ and failed to make ourselves available and haven’t kept in touch and if we ever want any help from the children’s centre again we will have to get Izzie a social worker and be referred.

This has left us both feeling perplexed and upset, principally because we have no idea which ‘process’ we are supposed to have disengaged from, but also because we don’t understand why we should have cancelled a Thursday morning Mother and Baby group or Friday morning swimming lesson when the whole reason she was coming was to sit with Lizzie for an hour on Tuesday afternoons? Furthermore, the wonderful invention called the telephone could have resolved whatever issues they had with us – what’s all this text message crap?

They clearly have no idea about autism. We like routines and we cannot abide change, so we make plans and stick to them – disruptions to our timetable make us agitated, anxious and insecure. When plans change you feel small and scared, but you can’t rationalise it away because there’s nothing you’re actually afraid of. It’s simply a general, all-pervading fear that all is not right with the world, a feeling of danger and fright when there’s nothing coming for us – just shadows in the dark. That’s why we don’t change plans at the drop of a hat. If people understood that, it might make things easier.

It reminds me of the time before my breakdown, before my diagnosis, when I was climbing the walls and my thoughts were tearing me apart. I was referred to a psychiatrist under the mental health team. But I wasn’t opening the post – I hadn’t for six months –  so when they sent out the appointment by letter, I didn’t open it and I therefore missed it. So they discharged me with the stipulation that if I was referred again I would go to the back of the queue. I only discovered this months after my breakdown when I finally had the energy to face up to opening the huge box of post my parents had kindly collected from my flat. How different things might have been if someone had actually picked up a phone. And how switched-off to the realities of mental health do you have to be to send someone an appointment by post when it said in the referral that he doesn’t open it?

I honestly think that, going forward, we’ll be better off as a family without the interventions of any of these social workers, care providers or so-called experts. The other day, when Lizzie was feeding Izzie during a support session, Izzie choked. We’ve just started her on food with a coarser texture, and choking is par for the course during weaning. The support worker even said that it was entirely innocent, normal, there wasn’t too much on the spoon or too much in her mouth, it was just one of those things. But she still felt the need to report it to her manager, and have it logged that on this day, at this time, during weaning our baby choked. Everybody is just looking for you to fail, and covering their arses in case you do, and that’s not an environment in which I want to raise my child.

Ending on a positive note, the past couple of weeks Lizzie has been so much better, it’s like she’s a different person. She’s far more attentive to Izzie’s needs, supports me more than she ever has, and is suddenly settling into the role of motherhood. And I have finally made peace with the fact that bedtimes and overnight is my domain, because Lizzie will never be capable of getting up in the night. We have different roles to play and given how Izzie is far ahead of the curve in almost every respect, we’re playing them damn well!

It’s just a shame it’s been such a struggle to get here.

Baby Blues

I got the baby blues, woo-oo, the baby blues, oh-oh.

Just imagine that sung by an itinerant black Southerner in the 1920s, Delta-style, and you’ve got how I’m feeling at the moment. Although in this context, my baby is an actual baby, and I’m not really in the mood for singing.

It started Monday when Lizzie’s mum looked after the little one for the day. I’ve been putting off accepting help from babysitters because I was afraid that if I got out of daddyship I’d struggle to get back in. Like when you make a New Year’s Resolution to go to the gym three days a week – you do it for months, and it’s easy because you get into a rhythm, but then you miss one day, through no fault of your own, and one day becomes two, becomes four, and wham! You’ve not set foot in a gym since 2010. That sort of thing.

Anyway, so Granny looked after Izzie all day Monday, then Lizzie took her out most of the day Tuesday, and suddenly every sleepless night, missed meal, repressed emotion and unfulfilled desire have caught up with me. I’m struggling to stay awake, can’t stop eating, bounce between wanting to cry and feeling completely numb, and can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything that I ought to be doing.

Before you know it, I’ll start menstruating.

And infinitely worse is how good it felt on Monday to have a day off. What kind of a dad spends a whole day thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s sooooooo nice not having the baby here’? I mean, it was great getting to reconnect with Lizzie, just the two of us, even though it was just watching crap TV on the sofa. But it was bliss just to sit without keeping one ear tuned to the baby monitor, to know I wouldn’t have to suddenly jump up, that I wasn’t responsible for once, and I feel very guilty about that. If I enjoy getting away from the baby, then I can’t love her, right?

Realistically, it’s probably normal after the hardest six months of my life, but I’m not being realistic right now. I just feel a little lost, and very, very blue.

Basically, I’m wallowing in self-pity. I’m sure it’ll pass. Izzie’s currently using her dummy-lead and dummy as a pair of nunchucks and smacking the crap out of my head. She keeps it up much longer she’ll have knocked me senseless. But maybe then I’d wake up in a better mood.

Codependent Parenting

Izzie’s crawling! Well, not crawling as such – commando crawling, as though she’s in combat fatigues on an army assault course while someone fires a machine gun over her head.

You can’t believe how happy we were the first time we saw her do it. I knew she could get about somehow because every night when I go to check on her, she’s up the top of the cot, head pressed hard against the headboard, neck at an acute angle, and fast asleep – despite it being a position Rip van Winkle would struggle to find comfortable.

The same sense of pride and accomplishment comes from her walking. If you stand behind her and hold her hands, she’s off! Today we toddled ten metres in a single stretch. She giggles while she’s doing it, excited that she’s a big girl now. In a room full of people, I absolutely burn with pride because she’s only six-months old.

But then I started thinking: how insecure am I if I need to show off about how quickly my daughter is developing? And how shallow am I that everyone’s amazement at how ahead-of-the-curve she is feels like a personal compliment to me? Her rapid development is mostly down to genetics and her own personality, so why am I claiming it as my own achievement? And why does it feel so much better than my own accomplishments?

I mean, in the past year I’ve won four short-story writing competitions, got a distinction for my Masters Degree, and a publisher is interested in my book on autism, yet this feels like nothing next to the fact that Izzie can take off her own nappy. Which begs the question: have I become codependent with my own daughter?

The signs are there. My whole sense of purpose at the moment revolves around Izzie and her wellbeing. My emotional security rests on being able to meet her needs. I’m happy because I can keep her safe and secure. And the other day when we picked her up from her grandmother’s and she totally blanked me, I took it as a personal slight. She looked everywhere but at me – please look at daddy, tell me you missed me and you still love me, please, ah!

But then, perhaps it’s normal at this stage – below the age of one – for a parent to feel so connected to his child. It’s meant to be that way, right? We’re programmed by evolution to nurture our children, protect them, because they’re so vulnerable. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived as a species.

And the last few nights when I’ve been putting Izzie to bed, holding her close and rocking her to sleep, she’s taken out her dummy and pressed it into my mouth. How can you not be touched by such an innocent and selfless act of sharing?

That is, unless she’s actually saying, ‘Stop singing, dad, you sound like a jackass.’ Nah, I’m sure she does it because she loves me, right? Right?

Partnership vs. Parenting

It has struck me of late how the requirements of being a partner and those of being a parent are often diametrically opposed.

It’s the quintessential conflict at the heart of Jane Austen – do we pick a partner based on practical considerations, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice, or do we marry for love, like Elizabeth Bennet? Actually, since Elizabeth Bennet only really warms up to Mr Darcy after she sees the size of his package (i.e. Pemberley), perhaps Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility is a better example. Except she decides not to marry the man she loves because she concludes he wouldn’t make her happy, so marries a rich guy old enough to be her father and learns to love him. And while Fanny Price marries for love in Mansfield Park, Edmund is her first cousin. In fact, the only character in Austen free to marry for love is the titular Emma – she’s the only one with an independent fortune who doesn’t need supporting by a man.

But whatever the case, that this is such a preoccupation in Austen’s novels shows that in Georgian times, it was a very real conflict. And so it still is in some areas of the modern world – the upper crust, for example, who seem to marry the person who fits the job description of ‘wife and mother’ while refusing to give up the mistresses they really love (no names mentioned). But for the most part, these days we in the Western world marry for love.

As partners, me and Lizzie are great for each other. While I’m a sensible, reclusive stick-in-the-mud, Lizzie is a childlike, emotionally-liberated basket case. While I fret about rules, money, going out, she ignores all propriety, splashes out on frivolities, and is so restless it’s nigh impossible to pin her down. Throughout our relationship, therefore, she’s encouraged me to let my hair down while I’ve helped her face up to her responsibilities – at least in part. She reminds me that the world is a magical place where fun should be had – I remind her that there are boundaries and we need to stay safe. That’s why we love each other.

Trouble is, the very things that you love in a partner are not necessarily very attractive in the parent of your child. In fact, they’re often the opposite.

Before Izzie was born, we pulled each other towards the middle, but since the birth we seem to have returned to our outer limits – I am the responsible worrier again, Lizzie the frivolous spendthrift.

Unfortunately, these two mutually exclusive positions have been playing havoc in our household of late. The most commonly used phrase in the past six months, since I became primary carer extraordinaire and Lizzie has struggled with her role as mother, has been, ‘Look, you don’t need to make things easier for me, just don’t make them any harder than they already are.’

I hate being the responsible one, the one who has to rein the other in, the one who has to say no more often than he can say yes. But it is the role I’ve had to take. And being a parent spills over into being a partner: those very things I love about Lizzie – her clumsiness, her messiness, her devil-may-care attitude – have lately been driving me insane.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the festive season. Christmas is different as a parent – at least it was for me. Normally I look forward to it, get excited, wake with boundless joy Christmas morn, suffer agonising anti-climax once the presents are opened, recover enough by lunchtime to be contented, and wobble in a confused daze until New Year where I’m filled with hope over the coming months and regret over where I’d considered I’d be by this stage of my life. And Lizzie, well, she lived through every one of those experiences and emotions, and then some.

I didn’t. I lived from day to day, hour to hour. Bottles, milk, solids, steriliser, muslins, bibs, toys, car seat. Have we got enough nappies? The baby wipes? Where’s her extra vest in case she soils this one? Teething gel? Spare dummy? While Lizzie dressed the baby in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats and woke her up to sing Auld Lang Syne, I fed her and changed her and rocked her back to sleep. While Lizzie drank champagne and ripped open presents, I listened to the baby monitor and kept the noise down. I didn’t mind it – Izzie was my stable anchor in the chaos of the silly season – but it hammered home how different we are, as parents, as partners, and as people.

If we were living in Georgian times, choosing our partners based on practical considerations, then, hand on heart, I doubt that many of us would have chosen the people we’re with now. We’d have chosen people who were different, better, smarter, funnier, kinder. I can’t imagine I’m the only person with a young child who’s looked around at other people and thought – if only I’d picked them, how much easier would my life be now?

But such thoughts are nothing more than fantasies. It’s so easy when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed, overfed, and surrounded by twinkling lights, to forget the important truth: we’re not living in Georgian times, and we didn’t choose our partners, at least not consciously – our hearts did. Not based on their parenting abilities, but because we loved them and love them still. Because they appealed to some intangible need or desire deep down within ourselves that only they could fulfil.

Lizzie might annoy the hell out of me as the mother of my child, but there’s nobody else I’d rather share my life with. It’s separating out these two conflicting realities that’s the hard part.