Babies: it’s a numbers game

It’s funny how numbers change depending on your age. When you’re eighteen, getting up three times a night means you’re a superstar. When you’re sixty, getting up three times a night means something completely different.

I’m thirty-eight. For me, getting up three times a night simply means I have a baby to look after.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I have a baby and a toddler to look after. And last night, it wasn’t three times.

It was forty-two.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: how on earth can you get up forty-two times to tend to your baby? Why didn’t you just stay up? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself. It’s all a bit of a blur – I was only semi-conscious for most of it. But some part of me was counting each and every time, so I know that, for some reason, I got up more than three dozen times to tend to little Rosie.

The best I can do is liken it to the snooze button on your alarm. She cried; I got up, went into the nursery, stuck her dummy back in her mouth, and settled her; then I crawled back into bed. Three or four minutes later, we repeated this charade, all because I was too knackered to get up, take her downstairs and give her milk, and because I was hoping beyond hope that this time – this time – she’d actually settle and go back to sleep for real.

In my defence, she wasn’t actually awake for most of this – she was in the same soporific stupor that I couldn’t climb out of. She’s taken to sleeping on her side in the cot, which means as she reaches full sleep, her dummy drops out and she starts to cry, without fully waking up. So every time I went in there I rolled her onto her back, put her dummy in, rubbed her nose and stroked her forehead, made cooing sounds, waited until she seemed to be asleep, and left. Four minutes later, when I went back, she’d be on her side again, her eyes still closed, but her whining mouth gasping for her missing dummy. Time after time after time.

After ninety minutes of this, I finally summoned the wherewithal to pick her up, take her downstairs and give her some milk.

Trouble is, she didn’t want it! She only wanted her dummy, and then fell promptly asleep in my arms.

After watching half-an-hour of Lone Survivor at silly o’clock in the morning, I took little Rosie back to bed and crawled back into my own, assuming she was finally gone. And then five minutes later…

This went on till about five, when she finally shut up. Just in time for my toddler to wake up coughing, and then demand I lie in her bed with her to settle her, which, exhausted as I was, I duly did. And after an hour of cuddling a fidgety jackrabbit, I got up to empty the nappy bin, change the cat litter, put the bins out and make breakfast for us all. Just another Monday morning in my household!

So, numbers, and how they change with age: I used to think that a twenty-year-old having a baby was way too young. Even a year ago, I’d look at some spring chicken pushing a baby in a buggy and think, ‘It’s a baby pushing a baby! How can they possibly cope?’ Now when I see them I think: ‘Damn, I wish I’d had kids at that age!’

At twenty I bounced back from things so much better than I do at thirty-eight. I could spend 48 hours locked in an editing suite working on my student film and then go to a lecture on psychoanalysis without any problems. I could run and jump and play without being stiff and sore in the morning. If I’d had a baby at twenty, I’d have had energy to spare.

Of course, if I’d had a child at twenty I know I’d have spent an incredibly frustrating decade feeling bitter about missing out on all the fantastic things life had to offer. As a thirty-eight year old, I can look back and say my twenties were awful, so I might as well have had a baby then, and I wouldn’t have missed out on anything.

On the other hand, I’m far wiser now, and can impart that wisdom to my children far better than I would have at twenty. And if I did have children at twenty, they wouldn’t be the children I have now, and that would be a tragedy as these are the best kids I could ever have hoped for. So there’s no point wishing to alter a life already lived. It happened for a reason – to make you the person you are today.

I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time. Especially as my toddler said to me this evening, ‘Daddy, me going to cry tonight in bed.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Then Daddy have to sleep in my bed.’

Yikes. If she’s this manipulative at two-and-a-half, what’s she going to be like at seven?

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An open letter to the Mental Health Community

Dear doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and other Mental Health professionals,

As somebody who accessed Mental Health services for much of his teens and twenties – and, depending on the person that I saw, was variously diagnosed with clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder, and prescribed all manner of antidepressants and mood stabilsers – may I begin by saying that I have nothing but respect for your profession. It is a very problematic and stressful area of medicine in which to specialise, and much of your work is more an art than a science. I am therefore fully cognizant of the pressures under which you work, and the difficulties that you face on a daily basis.

It is therefore with the best of intentions and sincere regret that I feel I must bring to your attention an area in which you could be regarded as failing in your duty of care. This is in the provision of services to adults with autism, particularly high-functioning members of the community, to whom your behaviour often amounts to nothing less than a flying kick to the balls – with both feet. Allow me to elucidate.

When I was working through my various (mis)diagnoses and battling the side-effects of my numerous sedating, mind-numbing and libido-crushing medications, I very helpfully had monthly reviews from a psychiatrist and weekly sessions from a counselling psychologist, such were my mental health difficulties. Indeed, they provided a measure of stability in an otherwise chaotic and trouble-filled life.

It was a little disheartening, then, when upon being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 28, I was immediately discharged by the Community Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’, and handed over to the Learning Disabilities Team, who said that ‘we have no services for high-functioning individuals’ and immediately discharged me also. This was ten years ago, and in all that time I have had no further input from the Mental Health Team or Learning Disabilities Team.

This makes me wonder, therefore, if you think that my clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder, and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder were merely symptoms of autism, rather than separate but co-existing mental health conditions, or if you thought that all of my problems with mood, identity, anxiety and depression would simply vanish alongside the diagnosis of autism? Surely, you did, else it would have been unethical to discharge somebody who had been receiving mental health treatment for over a decade without ensuring they were fully ‘cured’ and no longer needed mental health input.

To make it absolutely clear, I am wondering whether you think that having autism precludes the possibility of a person having mental health difficulties too? Because that seems, to a layman, a little like washing your hands of people who need help simply because you can pass the buck and attribute all their problems to autism.

Allow me a further, more recent example. My wife also has a diagnosis of autism and we have two children. Of late, her mental health has deteriorated quite badly, which has had a deleterious effect on our marriage and my ability to support both her and our children. In brief, her moods swing like a yo-yo, from hateful and aggressive and irrational to childish and giggly and equally irrational, and back again in the space of ten minutes; her OCDs mean she spends five hours an evening searching for things she has lost; she misremembers what has been said, or makes things up and believes them; struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality; at times seems out of control; is paranoid about people conspiring against her, then contacts others to conspire against me; continually empties her bank account buying pink plastic toys for our girls (eight dolls houses, seven push chairs, fifteen pairs of shoes); sabotages everything good that she has going for her; asks me to move out and take the children and then tells me she can’t live without me; is suffering the worst confidence, self-esteem and anxiety crises of her life; shuts down and retreats into her own world if she cannot handle things; and is worrying all her autism-specialist support workers, who have seen her behaviour first-hand and believe it to stem from some mental health disorder underlying the autism.

Now, to get my wife to acknowledge she has a problem has been tantamount to climbing Everest, but with much help and support from Children’s Services, who are equally concerned about her, and the Health Visitor, who similarly agrees, we managed to get her to attend to an appointment with her GP. She was accompanied by her Autism Support Manager, an expert who has known her for ten years and says that her behaviour is not normal and not consistent with autism. Her GP agreed that her behaviour was very troubling and, given the impact it is having on our marriage and her ability to look after the children, made an urgent referral to the Mental Health Team to have my wife assessed.

I have been castigated by my wife’s family for seeking help, for talking to people outside the family, for being honest. They told me I have betrayed my marriage, I am going to have my children taken away, everything is my fault and I should never speak to anybody about anything, but I have done this through a genuine desire to save my marriage, to get my wife help and make things better for her by giving her access to the wonderful abilities of Mental Health professionals such as yourselves. I was sure that you would be able to help.

You can therefore imagine my horror and disgust to receive a letter from the Mental Health Team saying that, after receiving the referral, they had ‘discussed’ my wife’s case and decided she doesn’t have any mental health problems and therefore doesn’t need to be assessed and has been discharged. Clearly, then, you think that OCD is simply a side-effect of autism; rapid mood swings are a side-effect of autism; irrationality and self-destructive behaviour are side-effects of autism; paranoia is a side-effect of autism; depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low confidence are side-effects of autism; and everybody who knows her and suggests she is suffering mental health problems is simply wrong, because she has autism and that trumps all. Indeed, I imagine that if she was hearing voices, or believed she was the Queen of Sheba, you would attribute that to her autism also. I would therefore like to ask: exactly what does it take for Mental Health professionals to see somebody with autism?

In society, those of us on the autism spectrum suffer a great deal of prejudice from people who see us as a label, a walking, talking diagnosis ripped from the pages of the DSM, instead of unique individuals. It is appalling that we must experience this same stigma from the Mental Health Community, who really ought to know better. Just because we have autism doesn’t mean we don’t also have mental health difficulties, and certainly should not give you the right to decline to see us simply because we have a developmental disorder to which you can ascribe all our problems.

I know that money is tight in this age of austerity and it helps your budget to fob off people with autism to other, less appropriate departments, but you might like to ask yourselves whether discriminating against an entire section of society – many of whom are struggling with various mental health disorders and very real distress and anguish – is right, or helpful, or fair.

In summary, I have sought your help because my wife’s mental health has been deteriorating, but you have refused to see her because you have decided all her problems are concomitant with a diagnosis of autism, placing the onus on me to hold this family together without your specialist assistance. I can only hope that her mental health does not continue to decline to the point at which even you can’t ignore it.

Warm regards and best wishes,

Gillan Drew

Unshockingly shockable

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m writing this while wearing my third pair of trousers today.

By the time your second baby comes around, you’re pretty sure you’re unshockable. The first introduced you to diarrhoea so explosive it went up the walls, poo so gravity-defying it could somehow climb from the nappy up and out the neck of a sleepsuit, and vomit so pungent it melted the clothes from off your body. I’ve had piss on my nipples, shit on my neck and puke on my toes. The second child? A breeze.

And it has been. My four-month-old Rosie has been much easier, as far as that sort of thing goes, than her sister. She’s always snotty – my clothes are held together by snail-trails at the moment – but she isn’t particularly poopy or pukey. Indeed, other than a poo that jumped into my lap like a rocket-propelled sausage when I was changing her at about four weeks, she hasn’t grossed me out once.

And then today happened.

I was sitting on the sofa with my baby on my lap, happily cooing and gurgling and squawking to herself, as she does from half-five every morning. The Olympics was on the TV, my toddler was playing with a colouring book, and all of a sudden I noticed my testicles were getting incredibly warm.

Weird, I thought – my baby’s sitting on my thighs so it’s not her. But now my butthole is getting hot, too. It’s like I’m lowering myself into a lovely relaxing bath. What the hell is going on?

I lifted up my baby and discovered the awful truth – her sleepsuit was sopping wet. It was dripping down between my legs onto the sofa cushion, and then soaking up into my jeans and boxers. And yes, my nether regions were now swimming in baby piss.

It’s amazing how quickly urine goes cold. I stood up and as my boxer shorts tightened against my balls, I couldn’t keep a look of horror from crossing my face. You know the one – the look that comes over you when a pleasant, refreshing fart in a restaurant turns out to be something a little more than gas.

Screaming at the utter horribleness of it all, I handed the baby to my wife and hobbled upstairs looking like John Wayne after riding a stallion for twelve hours. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Stripping off, I washed my junk in the sink, relieved to be free of the curse, and changed into fresh underwear and jeans. I went downstairs, to where my wife was changing the baby, and sat down on the sofa to watch.

Why does my butthole still feel wet, I wondered to myself. And then I realised I’d sat down in the puddle of urine still soaking into the cushion, and my newly-sterile groin was covered in baby pies again!

Poo from your face to your feet? No problem. Puke from my nipples to my nuts? Unpleasant, but I’ve got it in the bag. But white wine on my wedding tackle? You can get the hell out of my house.

I guess I’m still shockable after all.

My injury-prone toddler

My two-year-old absolutely kills me at the moment. The other day, the nursery asked if she has hearing problems that might affect her balance. No, I said – it’s just that she’s a boisterous, fearless child and her confidence far exceeds her ability at the moment.

To be honest, I’m terrified they’re going to contact Child Services because every time I take her in – every time – I have to fill in an injury form to explain why she has a black eye, a split lip, a grazed head, a bloodied nose. If I wasn’t her dad, I’d be suspicious.

I mean, the last week has seen her injure herself every day. On Sunday she threw herself down in a tantrum, misjudged the range and face-planted into the floor, grazing her chin in the process. On Monday she ran outside in her ballet clothes to see her grandmother, tripped over on the pavement, and skinned both her knees and both her palms. On Tuesday at her Grandpa’s, she fell into the corner of the coffee table and gave herself a black eye.

Wednesday she was spinning round and round in the lounge, fell over on her toys and scratched her chest. Thursday she was doing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with another girl at parents-and-toddlers, yanked the girl too hard, and took a headbutt to the nose that split her nostril. Yesterday, she ran off naked and returned to the room with a big scratch down her thigh (she said it was done by a monster, but we have no idea how she got it). And today, falling off the dining chair, falling flat on her face in the kitchen, and bashing her head on the side of the stairgate didn’t cause any injuries, but she does have a swollen ear from tripping headfirst into her toybox.

And this week was by no means exceptional.

Every thud, every bang, every cry, I go running, terrified she’s broken a bone or worse, and it’s turning me into a nervous wreck. This afternoon, for example – I left her in her playroom a moment to put a hammer back in the utility room when I heard her suddenly scream as though the roof had collapsed on her legs. Dropping the hammer, my heart in my mouth, I raced back to the playroom, dreading what I might find – and she wasn’t there.

In a panic, I screamed for my wife, searched the hall, the kitchen, shouted for my toddler, to no avail. I felt sick with worry.

She was in the lounge. In the ten seconds after I’d left her, she’d found a new toy her mum had bought her, and the blood-curdling scream had been one of joy and excitement, not pain and desperation. She’d then hurried into the lounge to show her mother, just as I rushed back into the playroom.

It scared the life out of me. So I did that usual manly thing of converting fear into anger by telling her off and ordering her never to scream like that again, because ohmygosh, I thought my heart would beat clear through my ribs and out of my chest.

When we first started taking her to nursery, they said that for a toddler to injure herself was normal and they’d be more concerned if she never had any injuries as it’d mean she was being overprotected. I’m pretty sure those words are coming back to bite us all in the ass. I just don’t know how to stop her hurting herself.

There again, with a dyspraxic mother and father who has fallen down more mountainsides than he can remember, perhaps it’s a family trait.

Out the mouths of babes

There’s this idea out there that children, because they aren’t tainted by the vices and peculiarities of society, are possessed of a special kind of wisdom that we lose as we age. They haven’t yet learned to lie, so their utterances are factual, and honest, and tap into a purer, more innocent state of being. If you want to hear truth, so the logic goes, ask a child – they’ll tell it to you straight, without sugar-coating or prevarication. People have even written books about how we can learn to live a fuller, happier life simply by listening to the instinctive wisdom of our children and incorporating it into our daily lives.

What a load of bollocks.

I’m not saying that kids don’t have their moments, but I’m really not sure we should be taking life advice from people who think it’s okay to scratch their arseholes in front of mixed company.

While it’s true that children can be very honest and address subjects normally taboo in polite society, that doesn’t mean they’re right – and they’re normally pretty far from it. It’s not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the experience. Like tonight, when my two-year-old delighted in telling me that ‘Mummy’s got really big nipples’ – given she’s only ever seen three other pairs (mine, hers, and her baby sister’s), she has nothing to compare them to. Honesty is therefore not a measure of truth or reality – it’s just a two-year-old’s very unqualified opinion about something she knows nothing about. (For the record, my extensive knowledge of slightly more than three sets of nipples suggests they’re pretty-much average-sized, not ‘really big’ at all).

Likewise, innocence doesn’t show us a purer way to live – it just shows us ignorance. Like when my daughter tries to play hide-and-seek in the car, pulls her T-shirt up over her face, and cries, ‘Where am I, daddy? You can’t see me! Me hiding.’ Or when after clearing the dinner plate because I tell her eating it will make her grow up big and strong, she stands on tiptoes, reaches to the sky, and says, ‘Me bigger now?’ Or when she tells me that she’s not old enough to be a boy yet, but will be one day – although, to be fair, given the current predilection for transgenderism, she may well be right on that one.

Even so, you can’t trust a child’s judgement because the way they think is just too weird and unpolished. Over dinner this evening, my daughter leaned over towards me and said, ‘Me hope you fart,’ and then went straight back to eating. And she will not stop stripping all her dolls from her Sylvanian Families playsets because, ‘Me like them naked.’ And a few days ago she said, ‘Me not like you paint my nose. Me not like bogies.’ I’m not entirely sure what ‘wisdom’ I’m supposed to glean from these little pearls.

She can be snarky too. My wife was busy today so I took the little one to swimming lessons. Since I’ve not done it in a while, I said to her, ‘You’ll have to tell me what to do.’

From the back of the car, this sarcastic little voice replied, ‘You get in the water…and then you swim.’

Gee, thanks.

She can also be rather creepy at times. The other day she came up to me and, out of the blue, said, ‘Daddy, please may me have a knife?’

‘What on earth do you want a knife for?’

‘Nothing. Me have one?’

She’s two, for God’s sake!

Just as bad was when we were out driving. She suddenly said, ‘Daddy, me wearing pants or a nappy?’

‘Pants.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

And then an ominous silence.

‘Do you need the toilet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she replied. That was one uncomfortable car journey, I can tell you!

But then, I guess there was one positive thing she did this week. For the umpteenth time while bathing my daughter, my wife asked for help putting the baby to bed, so I snapped, ‘For crying out loud, just give her her dummy like I’ve said fifteen times already.’

My daughter looked up at me, subdued, and whispered, ‘You mean to mummy.’

‘No, I wasn’t being mean, I was…okay, maybe I was being a little mean.’

‘You say sorry to mummy.’

And she wouldn’t let it rest until I had apologised. And she was right.

So maybe we can learn some things from our children. As a general rule, however, I think I’ll be happier not taking guidance on how to live my life from someone who, this evening while sitting on the toilet, was sobbing because, ‘Me not like poo coming out of my bottom!’

Not exactly worthy of the Dalai Lama, is it?