Such a Dad!

Lately I have been metamorphosising into a strange, inhuman creature known as a ‘dad’.

Now, of course, I’ve been a dad for eleven months, but it’s only now that it’s sinking inside and reorganising my DNA. Becoming a father doesn’t change you very much, but living as a father clearly does something to your body chemistry.

I went to a wedding on Friday. Normally I don’t dance, but as the music started I was suddenly driven by this urge to take Lizzie’s hands and lead her to the dance floor, where I jiggled about arrhythmically, rocked from foot to foot, did a few spins, and then caught sight of someone else doing exactly the same thing and realised: oh my gosh, I’m dad-dancing!

I was never a good dancer, but at the very least I could bop to the beat and unleash a bit of inner funk – now it’s just plain embarrassing!

I guess like most dads, I have to prove that I’m still young and try to impress my child by throwing myself into apparently ‘fun’ activities. When Lizzie was jumping up and down on a trampoline, of course I had to do it too to show I’m still with-it…and threw out my back, and hurt my neck, and hobbled around for the following week like an octogenarian. Before the baby came along, I’d never have got on a trampoline, so why do my dad genes make me do that?

And speaking of dad jeans, I went shopping the other day and spent the whole time going, ‘Why can’t I find any normal jeans? Why are they all skinny-fit, or slimline, or tapered? I don’t want trendy, I want comfort, with a high waistline and a zip fly for easy access and…whoops, when did I turn into a fifty year old?’

In fact, I’ve developed some rather strong opinions about youth fashion of late. Girls’ skirts are too short and their T-shirts don’t cover enough of their midriff. If I ever catch Izzie showing off that much skin, I’ll…damn, talking like a dad again.

Along the way I’ve grown fond of a hideously repetitive style of unfunny dad-ish one-liners. Every time Izzie poops herself, I say, ‘Shall we change you? We could change you for a nice Italian baby. That’d be good.’

I say that at least three times a day. It wasn’t particularly witty the first time I said it, and it doesn’t get any funnier as time goes by, but for some reason, that doesn’t stop me from saying it.

The same with opening the blinds in the morning: the moment they’re open and the light streams in onto my tired frame, I cry out, ‘Ah, I’m melting, oh, what a world, what a world,’ as I pretend to liquify down into the floor. Izzie has never once even smiled, but I still do it. Every day. Not funny, dad. Stop it.

Bathtimes have developed their own cheesy humour: we have a little blue shark bath toy, and no matter how many times I’ve done it, I whoosh it around the tub with just the dorsal fin poking above the water humming the Jaws theme and saying things like, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger bath,’ and, ‘Smile you son of a duck,’ and I listen to myself doing it and think, ‘Just shut up you sad old man!’

But at least I’ve not turned into a mum that talks through her child, the way Lizzie does.

‘Is daddy going to get mummy a drink?’ she says to the baby, or, ‘Mummy’s going to look after you while daddy mows the lawn,’ or even, ‘Daddy’s made a great big mess of the house and if he doesn’t tidy it up mummy will kick him out and cancel the wedding’ (see: passive-aggression for a full explanation of this behaviour!). T’would be nice if she’d ask me to my face instead of through a proxy!

Perhaps it’s inevitable that having a child turns you into a dad. In fact, most people would argue that having a child is pretty much the key factor in becoming a dad. But there’s a big difference between being a dad and being a ‘dad’. And while I’ve been the former for a while, the latter has crept up on me and cold-cocked me on the jaw.

What a strange state of affairs!

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AS, Children and Play

As a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, albeit undiagnosed, I never understood how to play with others.

At playschool I’d wander straight through the middle of the toy farm the other kids had carefully set out, trampling the animals underfoot and kicking apart the barns without realising it, and unable to comprehend why they were cross with me.

When I tried to play with my brother, I couldn’t get into the fantasy the way he could – the toys were plastic, or wooden or cloth, and had no existence beyond my own control. I cared for them as objects, not as independent beings. They didn’t have feelings – they didn’t mind being thrown against the wall or stuffed under the sofa. Just so long as no one else touched them.

Because I didn’t share. What was mine was mine, and what was yours was yours until it was either mine, or I broke it so you couldn’t have it. As a young child, it’s safe to say I was an asshat.

And I didn’t know how to mix with my peers. We used to go camping almost every weekend, and every weekend we’d be sent to play with the other kids on the campsite. My brother would take it in his stride, marching up to complete strangers and joining them in football or climbing trees or riding bikes – I’d hide behind him and never know what to say or do.

When I tried to be funny, I came across as spiteful; when I wanted to be cool, I was condescending; and playfulness always turned into physical domination where my clumsiness and misunderstanding of appropriate behaviour turned me into a one-man wrecking ball – and that’s when it wasn’t deliberate. When it was, it was much worse. No wonder I couldn’t make any friends!

At eleven months old, Izzie loves playing with the other kids – and I am finding it like pulling teeth.

Every time she crawls towards another child, I watch her like a hawk and get so tense I’m lucky I don’t drive my fingernails through my palms. I see other parents just dump their kids and let them get on with it, but I perch on the edge of my seat ready to pull them apart at the slightest sign of aggression from either side. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced as a dad.

‘Why’s she doing that?’ I think as she pulls a brick out of another child’s hand. ‘Now why’s she doing that?’ I wonder as she passes it back. I’m fine when she plays by herself, but the second she starts to move towards another toddler I cringe and hope she stops before she reaches them because I don’t understand why she wants to play with them.

It’s my problem, I know. You’re supposed to let kids figure out the social rules for themselves, with a little guidance. I’m not going to stop her playing with other children, but damn I wish it was easier.

I’m terrified the other kids will hurt her. I’m terrified they’ll make her cry and she’ll sit there screaming and grow up to be a recluse like me. But more than that, I’m terrified she’ll do something to the other child, and she’s too young to understand the consequences of her actions, but everyone will look at me, and judge me, and realise what a bad dad I am, raising a little tearaway. And I’m worried they’re right, and a dad with AS won’t be able to provide for his child’s social education.

And the thing is, it’s not an idle fear – Izzie’s bloody strong for a toddler. While I was bathing her this evening she rammed her finger so far up my nose it took five pieces of toilet paper to staunch the flow of blood. What if she hits another child? Pulls their hair? Scratches them? Oh God, what would I do then?

The thing with autism is that you like to control your life. You minimise your exposure to stressful, unpredictable social situations in order to protect yourself. Izzie playing by herself in the lounge I can cope with fine as I understand it and can control the variables – the moment you introduce a second child, all control and predictability goes out the window.

But unfortunately, for Izzie’s sake, I have to expose myself to increasingly stressful, unpredictable social situations so she can learn to function as a socially active neurotypical child. I can’t allow my own hang-ups to hold her back.

I just need to learn how to relax when my little girl is learning how to play with others – or at the very least make sure my fingernails are cut so short I can’t do myself any serious damage!

Millimetres from disaster

Every parent has been there, probably multiple times. You’re doing something, anything, and you come a hair’s breadth from disaster.

Sometimes it’s small – you’re carrying the little one up to bed in your arms and her head skims the door frame. You breathe a sigh of relief, knowing  you were a cat’s whisker away from cracking her skull into a solid piece of wood.

Sometimes, it’s bigger – you’re holding her in your arms, normally in public and over concrete, when she braces her feet against you and suddenly launches herself backwards into space. Somewhere between instinct, determination and sheer dumb luck, you arrest her fall with hands, arms and thighs. No trips to the hospital today, you think, shrinking from the disapproving stares. Crisis averted.

And sometimes, it’s on a whole other level.

I changed Izzie’s nappy the other morning, got her dressed, and left her to roam free upstairs as I finished getting myself ready. Long gone are the days where if you did that, she’d close the door to the nursery then sit behind it, sending you into a mild panic as you struggled to get back in without squishing her. Nowadays, she’s far more interested in exploring, and as long as you look round to check on her every thirty seconds, there’s not normally that much trouble she can get herself into.

And you can hear her – she’s fast, but boy is she noisy. Even when her hands and knees aren’t drumming over the floorboards, she babbles to herself constantly. If you want to know where she is, just listen for a couple of seconds and she’ll announce herself.

Anyway, the other morning Izzie was in the nursery pulling sleepsuits out of the drawer and throwing them over her shoulder, and I figured it’d be the ideal time to pop to the toilet. It would take her at least half a minute to completely empty the drawer, then another few minutes of flinging them to every corner of the nursery for her job to be truly finished. Plenty of time, and I’d hear her if she left the room.

So, I’m standing there, peeing, minding my own business, looking down, as you do when you’re a polite man who was taught how to aim, when to my absolute horror a little hand appears between my knees and grips the rim of the bowl. Then another little hand appears beside it, followed by the head of my little daughter, mesmerized by the majestic stream cascading down mere millimetres away from her face.

Oh. My. God. I cannot describe to anyone who has not experienced it the awkward awfulness of such a moment – hands full, mid-flow, the peace of a second before now hanging in shreds, replaced by the terrible fear you’re about to piss on your baby’s head!

I sprang into action. But just as I was pinching it off to avoid something that would haunt my nightmares for years to come – no mean feat in itself, any man can tell you – she switched her focus to the water (and other) in the bowl and reached down into the toilet, ready to scoop –

My free hand caught her wrist and stopped her a gnat’s bum fluff away from breaking the surface.

Manoeuvring her safely off the toilet and out of the bathroom – one hand on my junk, one clutching her wrist, and her so unsteady on her feet – wasn’t the easiest of things, but was nothing compared to what had come a moment before.

Now, I will never have to flashback to the day I gave my daughter the world’s worst hair wash. Never before have the words ‘millimetres from disaster’ held so much truth!

The Terrible Ten-Months

New parents hear so much about ‘the terrible twos’ that it’s very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. You sit there with your incredibly well-behaved baby and think with smug complacency that you have two years of parenting practice before having to face the horrors of unstoppable tantrums and a wilful refusal to behave.

And then you discover that’s a load of total crap.

For the past couple of months Izzie’s known what ‘No’ means, but played a little game called ‘how far can I push it?’ That’s normal and natural and the sign of a confident baby with an active mind and growing sense of independence, and I welcomed it.

The door to the hallway, for example –  it doesn’t close properly, and Izzie’s aware that if she rolls the doorstop out of the way, slips her fingers into the crack and pulls, she can wrench it open and escape into the magical and dangerous world that is the rest of the house. So whenever she tries this, I give her a stern ‘No,’ with a pointed finger and a glare.

In the past, she looked back, her hands dropping into her lap. Then, slowly, without breaking eye contact, she’d lift her hand and start to stroke the door jamb – ‘not touching it, daddy, see? Quarter of an inch away, but my fingers aren’t in the crack. Not doing anything wrong.’

Same with the plug sockets. ‘I’m just stroking the wall, daddy, millimetres from the plug you told me not to touch. You could barely get a sheet of paper between my fingers and the socket, but I’m not touching it, so you can’t punish me.’

And if she ever did get the door open and I told her ‘No’ a moment too late, she’d hover on the threshold, hold my stare, tentatively ease a toe into the hallway, listen to me tell her ‘No’ again, and then slowly and deliberately shift her whole foot across the line – just to see what she can get away with, just to see how far she can go.

Provocative, sure, but entertainingly so. She was intelligently exploring the limits of my authority and the consequences of her actions; I was showing her where the boundaries are while she pushed against them to see how flexible they might be. Normal and natural. How I miss it.

In the past fortnight, Izzie has learned to clap, developed her first mole (on her forehead), and yesterday cut her first tooth (lower left incisor). And since she’s now so clearly an adult, she thinks she doesn’t have to listen to a word I say anymore.

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her ‘No’, if she wants to open the hall door she’s damned well going to open it. And if she wants to touch the plug socket, hell, she’ll touch it just to show me that she can. And if she wants to crawl into the magical and dangerous world that is the rest of the house, nobody is going to stop her.

She forgets that I’m bigger and stronger than her and actually can stop her simply by picking her up and moving her somewhere else. But alongside the wilful disobedience comes the other symptom of the terrible twos – the tantrum.

Boy, does Izzie know how to tantrum. You wouldn’t think a ten-month-old could do it, but she’s got it down pat. She can’t even walk yet, but she knows how to stamp her feet. She’s as uncoordinated as the next baby, but she can ball her hands into fists and thrash them about in a temper.

A couple of nights back I was bathing her and she was playing with her plastic stacking pots, one in each hand. She took great delight in filling them with water and throwing it over me, before hitting me in the forehead with them and repeating it. After six or seven goes, I decided that enough was enough and tried to take them off her.

It was as if I had just declared World War III.

Getting the pots off her was no mean feet as she has the grip strength of an Amazon, but once I was done, the angry, screaming, thrashing, leg-kicking, arm-flailing, fist-waving tear monster sending tsunamis of water out of the tub and over the bathroom floor bore no resemblance to my cute little well-behaved daughter. It was like being caged with a wild animal with a toothache.

This stroppy self-righteousness has spread to all areas of her daily life. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a very good baby, hardly ever cries, and is a delight to be around most of the time. But she’s decided she can do what she wants, when she wants, and woe betide anybody who tries to stop her.

Terrible twos? If only they’d wait that long!

Parenting mistakes (to avoid)

All parents make mistakes. Sure, we think we’re great and we’re doing it right, because it feels right and because we’ve read the right books, but in actuality we’re making mistakes we know nothing about until it’s too late.

Too much love, too little, too much leeway, not enough – the consequences of these will not be known for decades, or at least until the teenage horror that was once your child picks up a psychology book and says, ‘Wah, the reason I can’t get a boyfriend is because you didn’t hug me enough/give me enough freedom/discipline me enough as a child!’ and all that crap. I guarantee that in twenty years time, everything we’re doing now will, apparently, have been wrong. But that’s the joy of parenting, guys!

Making mistakes we’ll be blamed for in the distant future is one thing; making mistakes with consequences in the here and now is quite another. For the edification of new or would-be parents everywhere, here are ten avoidable mistakes that I have made in my extensive ten months of parenting:

1. The muslin game.

Description: you throw a muslin over your baby’s head, and she pulls it off. You repeat with delight, and over time replace the muslin with sleepsuits, blankets, tea towels, nappies (clean), and whatever else is within reach: newspapers, books, telephones. What fun and what harm?

The unintended consequence: can we get Izzie to wear a sunhat? Put it on her head all you want, hold her hands, tie it under her chin, she thinks it’s highly amusing taking it off and flinging it away. After all, that’s what you’ve taught her with your fun and games!

How to avoid: don’t play with your child.

2. The bath plug

Description: at the end of a bath, you think it would be kind of cute if you let your baby pull out the plug. What a productive member of society she’ll be then.

The unintended consequence: the first thing Izzie does when she gets in the bath is pull out the plug. Because though you taught her how to pull out the plug, you didn’t teach her how not to pull out the plug.

How to avoid: don’t bath your child.

3. Dropsy

Description: when she’s in her high chair, your baby drops her beaker. You bend down, pick it up and hand it back to her. Well done! You’ve invented the game of dropsy.

The unintended consequence: twenty times a mealtime, every mealtime, Izzie drops her beaker on the floor. If you don’t pick it up, she screams; if you do, she immediately drops it again. What great fun!

How to avoid: don’t give your baby fluids.

4. Swimming

Description: you throw a toy out in front of your baby, she flaps her arms and you carry her through the water as though she’s swimming until she grabs hold of it. How can teaching her to swim possibly cause a problem?

The unintended consequence: when Izzie’s sitting in the bathtub and wants a toy that’s floating out of reach, she thinks she just needs to flap her arms to get it. This creates plenty of splashing, but strangely the toy doesn’t get any closer. You’ve taught her to get water all over the bathroom for no appreciable gain.

How to avoid: don’t teach your child to swim.

5. Raspberries and wibble-wibbles

Description: you know what’s just adorable? Teaching your baby to raspberry. First with just the lips, and later with the tongue. And teaching her to use her finger on her lips while humming to make that wibble-wobble sound: people just die when she does it. How cute is your baby?

The unintended consequence: you know what isn’t just adorable? When Izzie raspberries or wibble-wibbles with a mouthful of food, and either sprays it all over daddy or rubs it up her face. These are not memories to treasure.

How to avoid: don’t teach your baby to make sounds.

6. Yuuuuuuummmmmm and nom-nom-nom

Description: when your baby refuses to open her mouth and take the magic aeroplane spoon, what could be more natural then holding it to your own mouth and pretending to eat with a ‘yum’ and a ‘nom-nom-nom’? Your baby’s like, ‘Damn, that looks like it tastes good, I want me some of that!’

The unintended consequence: every time Izzie eats anything, she goes,’yuuuuuuuuummmm nom-nom-nom’ until she swallows. Then she takes another mouthful, and it’s ‘yuuuuuuummmmm nom-nom-nom’, and no matter how many times I tell her the other kids will think her weird if she moans over every mouthful, she steadfastly refuses to listen.

How to avoid: don’t feed your baby.

7. Feeding off your plate

Description: when your baby sits on your lap as you eat your dinner, you find yourself tempted to answer the question: ‘Would my baby like broccoli? A chip? Jalapenos?’ (NB for any social workers reading this, that last one’s a joke). So you pick up a morsel of food from your plate and find that, lo and behold, a love of barbecue pork ribs is another thing you have in common.

The unintended consequence: from now on, everything you have on your plate, no matter what it is, where you are, or what time of day, it’s fair game. That little chubby hand will reach for cutlery, crockery, burning hot potatoes, boiling stew, spicy curry, burgers, ice cream, pizza (you can see I have a great diet). And if you tell her it’s your food, and she’s already eaten, it’s like talking to someone who doesn’t speak English. Who’d have thought it?

How to avoid: don’t feed your baby (see point 6 for further details).

8. Wafer bribes

Description: your baby screams whenever you put her in her play pen. So you decide, quite naturally, to give her a wafer to munch on when you put her in there. That way, she’ll associate the play pen with happy thoughts, and won’t scream.

The unintended consequence: now, whenever Izzie goes into the play pen, she looks around with a ‘where the hell’s my gosh-darned wafer?’ kind of expression on her face. Then screams. You’ve merely delayed the inevitable.

How to avoid: leave her free to roam around the house.

9. What’s in a name?

Description: every parent wants their baby’s first word to be them. So you walk around saying ‘dad-dad-dad-dad-dad-dad-dad’ while your partner warbles ‘mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum’ and you wait to see who’ll win.

The unintended consequence: Izzie walks around saying ‘dad-dad-dad-dad-mum-mum-mum-mum-dad-dad-mum-mum’, with no idea what either means. Now that she says mum and dad a hundred times a day, how the hell are we going to know when she says it and really means it?

How to avoid: don’t teach your baby your names.

10. Afternoon naps

Description: it’s half four in the afternoon, you’re feeding your baby and she falls asleep between mouthfuls. You think to yourself, ‘It’s okay. She’s so peaceful I’ll let her have twenty minutes kip. Poor thing’s so tuckered out.’

The unintended consequence: congratulations! Your baby will now be up till midnight.

How to avoid: never let your child sleep. Ever.

And there, in a nutshell, are my tips: don’t ever feed your baby, give her fluids, play with her, bath her, let her sleep, teach her your names, or sounds, or how to swim, and be sure to leave her to run free with no restraint whatsoever. Then you’ll be a perfect parent and avoid making any mistakes at all.

But nor will you be a parent for long…