Casualties of the Parenting War

There’s a line in The Hunt For Red October where defecting Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius says something along the lines of, ‘It’s a war without battles, without monuments…only casualties’. He’s talking about his dead wife at the time, but I’ve always taken it as a description of the Cold War as a whole: two great nations circling one another like prize fighters, watching, waiting, testing, provoking, through storm and shine, day and night, summer and winter, year on year, the dead on each side mounting up from accidents, collisions, clumsiness, fatigue, bravado, without a shot being fired or any open form of hostility being declared.

The relationship between parent and child is a lot like that.

I have been kicked in the nuts more times in the past few months by my daughter than I ever was by the jackasses I went to school with, and believe me, I used to get kicked in the nuts a lot. I’ve been punched in the face, headbutted on the nose, had fingers rammed into ears and nostrils and down my throat, been strangled, throttled and choked, and had almost every hair on my body pulled, tweaked or ripped clean out. At the moment she enjoys jumping on me, hitting me, throwing things at me and smacking me around the head with whatever’s at hand. And lately she’s discovered the joys of poking her plastic toy forks in my eyes – cheers for that, sweetheart!

Then there are the accidents: as a person with autism, I have a tendency towards clumsiness, which generally translates to walking into things, banging my head on things, tripping over things, and falling down a lot. Many times I’ve hooked my foot around the leg of Izzie’s high chair, refrained from grabbing onto it as that would be dangerous, and thus fallen like a ton of bricks to the floor. Many times I’ve been holding her hand in the street and watching to make sure she doesn’t walk into anything, only to crack my shin on a bollard myself. And getting her lunch out of the oven today, I burned the back of my hand on the shelf.

The worst thing at the moment though is my back. The other day I was opening her pushchair on the quayside, pressed down on the foot-plate, got my shoelace caught in the mechanism, and fell flat on my back in front of a whole cohort of leather-clad bikers, pulling the pushchair over on top of me, bruising my ribs and wrenching my spine and shoulder in the process – I couldn’t lift my right arm for hours after.

Perhaps as a result of this fall, or perhaps because I carried her around on my back up and down cliffs and over hill and dale all last week, I made my back susceptible to further damage. You see, I have a semi-slipped disk in my spine, not bad enough to do anything about, but bad enough that every few years it trips and leaves me bedridden for days. And it’s tripped.

A couple of days back I put Izzie in her cot for a nap, bent down to pick up the nappy I’d just changed, and the next thing I knew I was on my elbows and knees with my forehead pressed into the carpet and my lower back muscles in agonising spasm. And a poopy nappy right under my cheek. Luckily, although I can barely walk, hobbling around like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I can actually walk. For now. Izzie still needs putting in and out of her high chair and her cot, bathing, changing, dressing and all the other back-breaking tasks of parenting, and in spite of the pain, it’s what you have to do. But in all honesty, it hurts like hell.

For her part, Izzie has the good grace to freak out every time I fall down and hurt myself. And it’s not exactly all one-way traffic.

When she was on my back last week, I did on one occasion walk under a low branch and hear a rather dramatic thud. More than once I’ve knocked her head on the top of the car door when I’ve been putting her in her car seat. She tried to run away from her shadow the other day, tripped and face-planted on the patio, tearing open her knee. A couple of weeks ago I was lying on my back on the floor when she charged at me and stumbled, slamming her head against mine and cutting her chin open on my tooth (I felt so freaking guilty as the blood poured down my T-shirt!). And every day she adds to the bruises on her legs and arms and forehead as she trips and falls and bashes into things and bounces off your knee and tumbles off the sofa. It’s a jolly good thing toddlers are resilient or else she’d feel as rough as I do now!

And that, fair readers, is one of the little-discussed aspects of parenting: without battles, without monuments, you will injure the crap out of each other. There will be blood, there will be tears, and sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but ultimately you’ll look back on it and laugh – that is, unless she puts your eyes out first!

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The Fear

This week I encountered The Fear. He was on a holiday park in North Devon, of all places, roaming between the static caravans that sit on a hillside overlooking the bay. I’m pretty sure most parents meet him at some point, but this week was my turn.

I’ve been anxious about Izzie before, concerned about her safety, worried about the future, but it’s always been small scale, fantasy-land fear, the kind you get before the dentist or a particularly unpleasant meeting – you’d rather avoid it, but you know that if you have to face it, you’ll get through the discomfort because it’s not really actually all that bad. The Fear is another matter entirely.

It crept up on me unannounced. Everything was fine – a bright, crisp morning, fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky, the ocean stretching out below us towards the horizon. Lizzie was walking down the hill holding Izzie’s hand and while I locked up the caravan, my little girl looked over her shoulder at me, the breeze tousling her hair. Her face was a picture of innocent joy, her toothy smile so infectious as she waved at her daddy that in that moment I knew what it was to be loved and what true happiness felt like.

And an instant later I was struck by The Fear – the all-pervading, nausea-inducing, gut-wrenching, knee-weakening presentiment that I would lose her.

The closest I’ve come to this feeling before is when Izzie was around three months old. I went into her room in the middle of the night to check on her and she was so still and quiet I thought she was dead. My first thought – nay, instinct – was to travel to wherever she had gone, because she needed me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for her. Short story even shorter, she wasn’t dead, she was just asleep – but the incident cleared up any lingering doubts about whether I truly believed in the hereafter.

The Fear wasn’t like this at all. It didn’t come from anything scary but from something joyous. It was as though upon reaching the heights of happiness, my body reacted and rebelled, viscerally and violently. Out of the clear blue sky I was filled with the most terrible and heartbreaking dread.

I’m not just talking about death, though that’s a given – cancer, meningitis, kidnap, murder, an accident, The Fear showed me it all – I’m talking as much about change. If I could have frozen that moment she waved at me with innocent joy, I would have done, because right now Izzie adores me – I’m the smartest, coolest, funniest, most-lovable chunk of a man she knows. But all that will change, and quickly too. My days as my daughter’s faultless hero are well and truly numbered.

I spent all that day with The Fear. Maybe, I thought, it’s here because I was talking to somebody about Seneca a few days ago, and his belief that your mind is the only thing you can rely on as everything else you can lose – friends, family, status, job, home, health, hair, all of it. Or maybe, I thought, I’m preoccupied with losing Izzie because police believe they might be days away from locating the body of Ben Needham, a British 21-month-old who went missing 25 years ago in Kos. Or perhaps it’s because I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother screaming life-affirming statements at one another like, ‘I’ve effing had it with you,’ ‘you effing well ruin everything,’ and, ‘I wish you were effing dead!’

But that’s not it at all. If it was, The Fear would be with me all the time. No, it’s because in that moment of perfect happiness I realised my unbridled love for another person – and simultaneously my utter and total vulnerability. Izzie has me, heart and soul, and if anything happens to her, I would be destroyed. The Fear was a safety mechanism, a reality check, because I was walking too close to contentment, and believed my happiness to be immortal. Keep away from the sun, Icarus, or you’ll fall into the sea.

And that is the dilemma of parenting. You give yourself and hold nothing back, but in so doing you risk everything. Your fate is tied to that fragile, fickle bundle of cells you call your child. And the price for your joy is The Fear, cropping up when you least expect him, reminding you you’re dancing with a moonbeam that can never be contained.

But in the meantime, long live this moment.