Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?

 

My Endearitating Toddler

My daughter has just reached a milestone of cognitive development – she has named a toy!

I’d like to say this is a proud moment, especially considering I never named any of my toys growing up, but in all honesty I’m not really loving what she’s called it.

‘Oh, what a lovely doll,’ people say, smiling at her. ‘Does she have a name?’

My daughter beams right back at them and replies, in her angelic voice, as though butter wouldn’t melt, ‘Chewbutts.’

‘Oh,’ they tend to reply. ‘Chewbutts?’

‘No,’ replies my daughter, and holds up her index finger like a teacher correcting a pupil’s pronunciation. ‘Chew. Butts.’

‘Well that’s an interesting name,’ they generally say. And then they give you that look, the one that is somehow sympathetic and supportive while simultaneously questioning your parenting ability and your fitness to reproduce.

This seems to be our lot in life at the moment. My daughter mastered her first complete sentence the other day, copying something from one of her toys: ‘I love cookies.’ But she doesn’t say cookies. She thinks she’s saying cookies, but she’s not.

She’s saying, ‘I love titties.’

She loves dropping it into conversation whenever and wherever she can. Particularly when you’re around judgemental strangers at the supermarket.

‘I love titties.’

‘Cookies.’

‘Titties.’

‘Cookies!’

I’ve created a word to describe this phenomenon – well, I’ve slammed together two pre-existing words, so it’s not that impressive:

Endearitating, adj. – those utterly adorable behaviours you cherish and seek to encourage that simultaneously drive you up the freaking wall.

Words are a real problem at the moment. I’m daddy, which is pretty obvious and straightforward. Nana is dada, which is a little more confusing. And dad means a multitude of things. So a typical conversation goes like this:

‘Daddy.’

‘Yes Izzie?’

‘Dad.’

‘Yes?’

‘Dad.’

‘What is it?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What!?’

‘Dad!’

‘What!? For the love of God, what do you want!?’

‘Dad! Dad!’

And then I realise she’s seen a cat out of the window – a dad. And she’s saying, daddy, look at dat, it’s a cat.

Those are the easy conversations – the ones with an object where she’ll shut up once you’ve acknowledged it. Harder still are the times she really is saying daddy and has no idea what she wants – but she’s damned sure she’s going to make you suffer until she gets it.

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘I’m not going to keep doing this.’

‘Daddy? Daddy? Daddy! Dadd-deeee! DADD-DEEEE!’

‘What!?’

‘…daddy?’

She’s also reached that point where she cares deeply about other people, something that’s beautiful, and commendable, and gosh-darned annoying.

‘Where’s dada?’

‘Nana’s in France.’

‘Oh. And poppa?’

‘He’s with nana.’

‘And gry-ee?’

‘Granny’s also in France.’

‘George?’

‘He’s in France with granny.’

‘Oh. Dada?’

‘I just told you – she’s in France.’

‘And poppa?’

‘In France, with nana.’

‘Gry-ee?’

‘Like I said, granny’s in France, with George, before you ask.’

‘Oh. And dada?’

‘France! With poppa.’

‘And Gry-ee?’

‘She’s in France! With George, in France!’

‘Oh. And dada?’

This conversation occurs at least ten times a day. If we fail to answer, it’s a case of ‘Dada? Dada? Daddy, where’s dada? Dada? Daddy? Dada! Where’s dada? Where’s dada!’

And between these conversations, she picks up the TV controller, a wooden block, your watch, and talks into it as a phone. ‘Dada? Poppa?’ Then she hands it to you and says, ‘Dada, daddy. Daddy, dada.’ And you find yourself talking to your mum through your own shoe.

My sanity is hanging by a thread.

Rather adorably, she’s very concerned about our welfare, too. Rather annoyingly, she won’t let up. If you finish your breakfast before her, which is every day, she says:

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’m fine thanks, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’ve finished.’

‘More, daddy.’

‘No more, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘Can you please just leave me alone?’

‘Yes. More daddy, daddy more. Daddy? More?’

There is also an obsession with making sure our toiletry habits are healthy and regular.

‘Daddy wee wee?’

‘No, daddy doesn’t need to wee wee.’

‘Daddy poo poo?’

‘Nope, I’m good, ta.’

‘Wee wee poo poo, daddy.’

‘No, I don’t need to.’

‘Daddy wee wee.’

‘No.’

‘Daddy poo poo.’

‘Go bother your mother.’

This same concern occurs if you happen to close your eyes for five seconds.

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘I’m okay, sweetie.’

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

And if, God-forbid, you lie back on the sofa and put your feet up, you’re met with, ‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

‘Tup, daddy.’

‘Just give me thirty seconds to myself.’

‘Daddy, tup. Tup, daddy.’

And then she’ll climb onto my chest and start pulling at my eyelids to make sure I’m okay and I’m going to get up.

She’s also reached that important stage where she discovers the concept of ownership and has to decide what belongs to whom.

‘Daddy car.’

‘Yes, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Yes, that’s mummy’s car.’

‘Daddy car.’

‘Uh-huh, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Are we really doing this again?’

But at least that’s preferable to her notion that almost everything else belongs to her. Mine, mine, mine is a constant refrain in our house.

And she doesn’t turn two until next week. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

But you can’t get mad at her, even though you want to. She’s not doing it on purpose. At least, I hope she isn’t.

She truly is the most endearitating person I’ve ever met.

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

A Toddler’s Social Understanding

The first eighteen-odd months of a child’s life, their social skills are fairly simple, given that they revolve around another person’s ability to meet their needs: ‘feed me or I’ll scream, too late, waaaaaahhhhhhh!’

Their first hand gestures – pointing – are merely to make it easier for you to meet those needs. ‘I want that. No, not that: that! What are you, a moron?’ At this stage, it’s difficult to argue that kids are social beings at all, given that they’re self-centred hedonists who think other people exist solely to satisfy their desires, and they only acquire social skills as a cynical ploy to better manipulate those around them. If they were bigger, we’d call them psychopaths, or perhaps ‘rock stars’. It’s a good thing they’re small.

Then things get a little less selfish. They start to understand the pleasures of giving and receiving affection, by kissing and hugging and asking to be held. Around the same time they discover it can be fun to share their enjoyment with others – playing basic games, singing interactive songs, dancing, joking and imitating the behaviours of others (making pretend phone calls, cuddling pretend babies, preparing pretend cups of tea). They start to make friends, or have people they prefer to be with and those they wish to avoid. And they even learn a few key words (hello, goodbye, please, ta) to facilitate their entry into the social world. So far, so simple.

And then, after about eighteen-months, their level of social understanding mushrooms so quickly you struggle to recognise the increasingly complex creature that you share your home with.

My daughter is at this stage, and it is a daily dose of crazy.

For example, she has discovered hierarchy. A month ago, the dog was just another person around the house – albeit a hairy, smelly, waggy-tailed person. Now my daughter has realised that the dog is a non-human animal, and thus lower in status in the household than she is. And that means she is in charge, and can tell the dog to ‘shush!’ and ‘down!’ and ‘g’way!’ And woe betide if the dog doesn’t do as he’s told. It’s like having a pint-sized drill sergeant wandering around the lounge, demanding obedience at every turn. ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ cries the dog. Poor thing. She’ll be shaving his head next.

My daughter has also discovered the joys of storytelling, which is incredibly cute and incredibly confusing given her lack of spoken language. The other day I asked her what she did at her grandfather’s.

‘Izza da bed, bong da whoosh!’ she said, swinging her arms around and spinning on one foot.

‘You did what?’

‘Da bed. Dee bosh tan dum bin bed. Da whoosh da bed, an bed, sa bed, whoosh.’

‘What about the bed?’

‘Inda ban bed,’ she said, bewildered that I couldn’t understand. ‘Da bed, whoosh, bong ta bed. Whoosh. Da bed ta whoosh!’

Nope. Ten minutes of this. Something about a bed, that’s all I got.

A phone call to her grandfather established that what she’d been trying to explain was that she had been jumping up and down on the bed all afternoon. So obvious (not)!

Now, storytelling is a complex skill involving careful selection and omission – knowing what to include and what to leave out. My daughter will spend ages talking about something that lasted two seconds, and the rest of the day won’t even get a mention. She also has a weird predilection for the more morbid aspects of a toddler’s experience.

It doesn’t matter what she’s done, where she’s been or for how long – ask her what she did and she’ll tell you how she hurt herself. You went to the beach today? She’ll rub her eyes to show she got sand in them. What did you do at the park? She’ll point to a graze on her knee. Did you see your aunt? She’ll indicate where she banged her head on the table. You do not want to babysit my little girl – you make the slightest mistake, she’ll act it out and tell me all about it.

And that’s another complex social skill she’s developed lately – the concept of blame. After I put her to bed the other night, I came downstairs with the monitor and started to write. After a while, I started to hear giggling through the speakers – child and adult. This went on for around fifteen minutes until I popped upstairs to see what was happening. My wife had climbed into the little one’s cot and they were playing peekaboo. Nice.

I stood and watched for a moment, such a lovely scene of innocent joy – and then my daughter saw me.

The change was instantaneous. The smile vanished, her face fell and she pointed at my wife. ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ she shouted, as though saying, ‘It was her, daddy, it was her!’ She then gestured over the side of the cot. ‘Mummy, bed, da bed, mummy,’ she said, which I interpreted as, ‘I told her to get out, daddy, but she wouldn’t go, it’s her fault, I didn’t want to, she made me, it wasn’t me!’ Forgetting, of course, that I’d stood there and watched her, and she was in every way an active participant in the game.

Scary how quickly she’d sell out her mother. Scary that she’s already developed a concept of behaviour and consequence. Even scarier that she sees my wife as a playmate and me as the lawmaker who’ll tell them off for messing about after lights out. I guess that answers the question of how she sees the hierarchy between her parents.

For the next few nights, every time I walked past her room I could hear fake snoring as she pretended to be asleep. At 21-months! What a devious little sod. And what a socially-complex kid compared to a couple of months ago.

You have to watch out for these toddlers. One day they’re crying for a bottle of milk; the next, they’re planting evidence to frame others for their misdeeds. If your kid is approaching eighteen-months of age, watch out: the next few months are going to be interesting!

Just let my little girl dance

It started off innoculously enough – I was in a session with a support worker, I had some music on the TV, and the little one was dancing around the room, giggling, smiling and waving her arms like a happy little lunatic. ‘You’re going to be a dancer when you grow up, aren’t you?’ I said.

‘Wow,’ said my support worker. ‘What gender stereotyping! Why can’t we teach little girls to be doctors or mechanics?’

Considering my daughter is mostly pre-verbal, it might be a little early to start her on the finer points of anatomy and physiology, but since I was only half-serious, instead of leading with this self-evident statement, I said, ‘Because she likes dancing.’

‘Of course she likes dancing, you take her to ballet classes!’ the lady replied, as though I was somehow brainwashing my daughter into enjoying a stereotypically feminine pastime.

‘Well, actually we took her to ballet because we noticed she enjoyed dancing, not the other way around. And since she loves being the centre of attention, posing for pictures and watching herself on videos, she might prefer to be a model or an actress.’

‘Actress,’ the lady spat, ignoring everything but the final word. ‘Why can’t she be an actor?’

Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars would take issue with this (gotta aim high, yo), I realised then that I had unwittingly wandered into a minefield of semantics, gender politics and societal expectation with someone who saw me as a gender-Nazi. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered my views on sex and gender to be rather liberal and enlightened.

I mean, I’ve always believed men and women can do pretty much any job equally well, regardless of what’s between their legs – with the possible exception of the adult entertainment industry. Whether it’s doctors, dentists, pilots, bus drivers, lecturers, tattooists, waiters or the police, the only real requirement is that a person can do the job and do it well. The greatest action movie ever made (Point Break, as if you didn’t know!) was directed by a woman. The best nurse I ever met was a man. Their sex didn’t make any difference at all – they were just damn good at doing their chosen professions.

Likewise, I’ve never considered there to be male and female jobs around the home. Most of my parents’ generation still believes that the man puts up shelves, disciplines the kids, carves the turkey and fixes the car while the woman does the washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing. That’s not how it happens in my household. We pitch in equally. Equally badly, as it turns out, but equally nonetheless.

And nor do traditional gender divisions restrict my interests and behaviours. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew books in spite of the teasing I got (even though they had the same authors as the Hardy Boys, since Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon never actually existed). My favourite movie is The Jane Austen Book Club, the DVD of which is bright pink and very much sits in the ‘chick flick’ section of the supermarket. For my parents’ silver wedding anniversary I did them a cross-stitch, and my favourite exhibit at the New Forest Show each year is the flower-arranging tent. I’m hardly an advocate of men behaving like men and women remembering their place.

So how the hell could she think I was an advocate for traditional gender roles, or that I want to restrict my daughter to a submissive position in society? And what’s so bad about being a dancer anyway?

More to the point, how could she twist something so innocent and beautiful as an infant enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing into some judgment of my supposedly totalitarian parenting techniques?

Apparently, it is because our daughter wears dresses, and has a toy kitchen, and plays with dolls. Good gosh, I am an awful father. Clearly, instead of obediently reinforcing the patriarchy, I should make her play with engines and models of the human skeleton until she damn well likes it!

In all seriousness, I see the role of father as a cross between teacher and facilitator. It is my job to teach my daughter about the world, and it is my job to encourage her natural interests and abilities and guide her into being a healthy, happy adult. And you know what? At play group, she liked playing with the kitchen, so we got her a kitchen. And at her friend’s house, she really enjoyed playing with a doll, so we got her a doll. And every morning when we open the wardrobe, she picks out her own outfit. We’re not forcing her to play with dolls or kitchens – she also has jigsaw puzzles, teddy bears, toy cars, a box of musical instruments – she chooses to play with them. And that is the crux of the issue.

There are extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who try to force their daughters to conform to the traditional female tropes of motherhood, housework and dancing  are clearly in the wrong; but so too are those who think we should force our daughters to be doctors or mechanics simply to fulfil an agenda. My daughter is an intelligent, strong-willed, independent young lady, and she will be whatever she wants to be. If, when she grows up, she does in fact wish to be a doctor, then I will support her and nobody has the right to tell her she should be a dancer instead; but equally, if she wants to be a dancer, then I’ll support her in that too, and woe betide anybody who says she ought to be a doctor.

True equality between the sexes is about freedom – the freedom for little girls and boys to choose what they enjoy doing, and what they’d like to do when they’re older, without it being dictated to them by traditionalists on the one hand and progressives on the other. In short, when I’m encouraging my daughter to dance, keep your big mouth shut.

 

I speak English, sort of

As the father of a twenty-month old daughter, the issue of learning to communicate in the English language is obviously high up on my list of current interests. We’re lingering at the monosyllabic phase, and while it’s fascinating that the word ‘bear’ can mean biscuit, water, bath, yoghurt, playroom, daddy sit in that chair, I want to watch Peppa Pig, and a number of other concepts we haven’t yet been able to figure out, all at the same time, it can make life a little more stressful than it needs to be. I mean, being able to tell us what she wants (biscuits), and being able to understand our response (no, you’ve already had three, you greedy little madam), would probably avoid a few of the meltdowns we’ve been experiencing lately – although, on second thought, maybe not, since the answer would still be no and she’d still have a tantrum because she wants biscuits! Regardless, learning to express our thoughts, feelings and desires through language is an important step on the road to becoming a fully-fledged member of society i.e. the moment at which you can leave home and give mum and dad a break.

Unfortunately, learning to communicate in English is easier said than done, pun entirely intended. Normally, way before the formal teaching of language in schools, kids learn to speak by being immersed in the language of their parents, and develop their communication skills through both imitation and experimentation. With two parents on the autism spectrum, however, there may be some problems with this process.

‘But you can clearly speak English!’ I hear you yell. What you really mean is that I can clearly write English, because in actual fact, a written language and a spoken language are two completely different things. I am only now realising just how true this is.

It is a well-known fact, and one I have written about before, that people with autism often take things literally, and therefore struggle with the nuances of language. While this is true, the reality of communicating in English when you have autism is far more complex than simply struggling to interpret homonyms, homophones and idioms. I mean, there are plenty of books out there that explain all of these things, and oftentimes you can work out the meaning by context. By focusing on this ‘literal interpretation of language’ spiel, it overlooks the other really weird and confusing ways that we communicate in spoken English. I’m talking about the vagaries of language that only English teachers and pedants tend to know about.

Like the way we add negative tags to positive questions, and vice versa. This morning, I said to my daughter, ‘You will be good for Granny, won’t you?’ Will you, won’t you – way to confuse the poor kid! Or when I say, ‘You haven’t done a poo, have you?’ you can almost hear the cogs whirring away as she thinks, ‘I haven’t have? Does yes mean no or yes mean yes? I don’t know, so instead I’ll just say “pooooooooo,” and leave daddy guessing.’

These constructions – a declarative statement followed by a question – are called tag questions (or question tags, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re reading this), and these parts of spoken English can cause problems for people with autism. The modal ones – that is, those those that request confirmation of information of which you’re not certain, like, ‘You’ve just pissed in the bath water, haven’t you?’ – aren’t overly important since they simply concern knowledge. It’s the other type, the affective tag questions, that can screw up your relationships.

These are the ones that soften statements or include people in conversations – the ‘I care about you and invite you to share in my life’ questions. My wife, bless her, is a lovely lass, but she sucks at affective tags. She thinks ‘Get me a drink,’ and ‘Get me a drink, could you?’ mean the same thing, no matter how much I try to explain to her that the first is an order and treats me as a slave, without respect or consideration, while the addition of the softening tag ‘could you?’ in the second turns it into a request, that acknowledges I am a person with feelings and a need to be treated with dignity. If you can detect hurt feelings in the previous sentence, well done – even though I know she doesn’t mean it, I do sometimes wish she could speak to me with a soupcon of grace.

She’s equally bad at using the other kind of affective tag, the so-called facilitative tag, in that she doesn’t use it at all. This is the tag question that’s all about sharing and reassurance. I’ll show her a video of 2Cellos playing Thunderstruck and say, ‘This is so freaking awesome, isn’t it?’ In this manner, I am sharing my excitement and tastes with her, and inviting her to join in by agreeing with me that yes, it’s the greatest ever video on YouTube, or bringing her own opinion to bear, such as, ‘No, it’s shit’ (although nobody who has seen 2Cellos doing Thunderstruck has ever or will ever say that). If there’s something my wife is thinking about – the weather, for instance – she’ll say something like, ‘It’s so much warmer than yesterday.’ Full stop. And I look at her and think, where’s my ‘isn’t it?’ Where’s my ‘don’t you think?’ How is our daughter meant to incorporate question tags into her speech if her mother, thanks to her autism, doesn’t use them?

In all fairness to my wife, though, I tend towards the opposite extreme and use enough for the both of us. Given my problems with Theory of Mind (understanding how other people think and feel), I’m paranoid that the people I’m talking to don’t understand what I’m saying, or that I’m not understanding them correctly, or that they’re bored, or that they don’t like me, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that my thinking is flawed, so that, constantly seeking reassurance and feedback, I litter my speech with modal and affective tags – you know? Right? Yeah? Innit.

A constant problem of conversing with my wife is that she fails to respond to these cues, making me even more paranoid, and that is another aspect of spoken English usage that totally differs from the written – instant feedback. You know what I mean? You see? Do you?

Silence. As an autistic individual, she again doesn’t get that during conversations, she’s meant to go, ‘Uh-huh,’ or ‘Oh,’ or ‘Yes,’ or ‘Hmm,’ or make any one of a hundred different random noises to indicate she is listening, understanding, and involved. The silence freaks me out. Has she slipped into a coma? Have I lost her completely? Am I making any gosh-darned sense?

But then, perhaps she’s right and I’m wrong. Whenever we have an argument, I’ll throw a line at her, something like, ‘How many times have I told you not to leave your wet towel on the floor?’ and she’ll reply, ‘Sorry,’ because she knows that’s how rhetorical questions work. I don’t. So I’ll reply,  ‘I’m not asking you to say sorry, I’m asking how many times I’ve told you not to leave your towel on the floor?’ And she’ll say, ‘Sorry,’ again, because that’s still how rhetorical questions work, and I’ll reply with, ‘Sorry is not a number! I’m looking for the response, “Somewhere between dozens and hundreds,”‘ because I can be quite a dick and if someone won’t argue with me the way I want to be argued with, I’m not above telling them exactly what to say.

Then there are these wonderful things called hedges, which we slip into sentences where we’re being negative in order to reduce the impact on the other person’s feelings, because most of us don’t actually want to be mean. In spoken language, hedges often take the form of making our statements a little vague – expressions like ‘sort of’, and ‘kind of’, and ‘a bit’. I don’t think either of us use them properly.

You’re meant to say things like, ‘You’re looking sort of unwell, today,’ or, ‘Your work is a tad below what I was expecting.’ The way I use hedges is that when my wife asks me how she looks in a particular outfit, I’ll be honest and reply, ‘You look kind of like a pregnant whale with a thyroid problem.’ And then she’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole, aren’t you?’ confirming that, yes, I am an arsehole.

And lastly, for the people still reading, in spoken English people fill their sentences with crutch words, something I tend to incorporate into my speech and my wife does not. These are, basically, those utterly pointless words that, honestly, aren’t even, actually, effective as intensifiers, but that we use anyway to, like, buy ourselves time to think and, well, can turn into vocal tics if we’re not careful, really. You get the picture.

Given that our biggest problem at the moment is teaching my daughter to say down (‘Nom.’ Down. ‘Nom.’ D-d-d-down. ‘D-d-d-nom.’), these problems may be a way away. But, monosyllabic as she is, we’re already encountering problems with the weirdness of spoken English.

‘Have you finished your dinner?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you don’t want any pudding, do you?’

‘Yes.’

Dammit. ‘Yes, you don’t want pudding?’

‘No.’

My English teacher never taught me how to resolve this impasse!

The Long Winter

Every year I look forward to the winter, when the trees turn into skeletons reaching bony branches into a crisp azure sky, the air fills with the reassuring scents of wood smoke and cinnamon, and as the evenings draw in I can snuggle safe in the warmth of my family’s comforting embrace. And as a bonus, I get to break out my rather fine collection of furry hats and oversized jumpers, my gloves and my scarves, and best of all my cowboy boots. Winter, I think, is my favourite time.

And then winter comes and it’s an eternal wasteland of grey days, miserable nights and an ever present sense of despair. The garden turns to mud, the dead leaves swirl about huddled bushes and overturned lawn furniture, and the cold seeps inside and seems to chill your very soul until your outlook becomes as bleak as the view from your dirt-encrusted windows. Good God, I think, I bloody hate the wintertime.

Normally, I start to feel better as soon as the daffodils begin to burst up from the frigid earth, bringing with them the promise of spring and cheerier times to come; this year, the daffodils are in full bloom and this despondency shows no sign of lifting. I’m caught in my own personal Groundhog Day, and there are six more weeks of winter.

The depression goes hand-in-hand with the tiredness. There comes a time when you have to accept that tiredness is no longer a transitory state –  it is now a part of you, a defining characteristic, just another one of your personality traits. Describe Gillan: male, six feet tall, autistic, tired, mostly friendly – provided he’s had his coffee.

I wake up tired, live tired, go to bed tired. In my dreams, I am too tired to do anything – I simply sit and stare at featureless walls in an empty room. I don’t remember the last time I felt well-rested and ready to face the day ahead. This is, of course, a familiar side-effect of being a parent. You count down the hours till the little one goes to bed, because you think you’ll be able to rest, catch up, get at least some of the way towards feeling okay again. But you don’t, because tiredness is who you are now.

Combined with the depression it becomes somewhat debilitating.

I spend hours lying on the sofa just staring at the ceiling. I think I should watch a movie, but after ten minutes I switch it off because I can’t concentrate or care. I think I should walk the dog but I can’t drag myself to my feet. I think I should write but can’t stomach the empty page. I can’t be bothered to cook, so I binge on chocolate and coffee. The other morning I ate four Creme Eggs, one after the other. Yesterday I ate three Crunchie Bars back to back, like chain smoking chocolate. And then I drank five coffees in a row just so I could get through until lunch. I’m not sure which is the most unhealthy.

I know too much, about all the wrong things. I can name dozens of serial killers, only a handful of victims; can name every state in America, but not the boroughs of my local town; know all manner of mental disorders, psychological conditions and mood stabilising medications, but can’t identify the plants that grow in my own back garden. If you need me to name a thousand movies I’ve seen, a thousand books I’ve read, a thousand bands I’ve heard, I can sit down with a pen and paper and list them for you (in fact, I do this a couple of times a year just for fun); but ask me to name a hundred people I have known in my life, I don’t think I’d be able to do it.

And that is the problem with depression – your mood dictates your thoughts, not the other way around. I have a lovely daughter, a lovely wife, a lovely family; I have a book coming out in three weeks, the culmination of a lifelong dream; and I have nothing to be unhappy about. I know this; I appreciate this; yet this awareness does nothing to lift my mood. Instead, the depression makes your brain turn on itself, devour the light and turn everything to the darkness. For darkness is not simply the absence of light – it is a physical entity that spreads and consumes all before it, a shadow fire that chills as much as it burns.

You start to wonder when last you felt happy, excited, or even at peace. You try to remember if there was ever a time you experienced what other humans call ‘joy’. You track back and back, and back even further. You remember a time when you were ten and you were surfing and…no, you weren’t happy even then. So you take it to the extreme – was I happy when I was six? Four? Am I just incapable of happiness?

And then people with no understanding say things to you, like, ‘Think happy thoughts,’ or, ‘Just pick yourself up and snap out of it,’ or, my favourite, ‘What you should do is get up early and go for a nice run, then you’ll feel better.’ If I can’t motivate myself to do those things that once gave me a modicum of pleasure, how on earth am I meant to drag myself out into the cold and the wet to exercise? Whoever recommends that course of action has no idea what it is like to battle every day of your life against simply giving up. And I am tired of fighting.

For depression is not something I have done to myself. I have not thought depressing thoughts. I have not chosen to feel this way. I have not caused it through my own weakness. Depression is something that has happened to me. It is an illness I contracted when I hit puberty, something from which I have never been free. It lies dormant for a time, only to return with a vengeance. Normally in the wintertime, to be fair. A black dog creeping in from the borderlands, uninvited. And no matter how I try to kill it with thought, medication, meditation, diet, I have no doubt it will dog my footsteps the rest of my life to come.

Luckily, for the pile of apathy writing this blog, I am a parent and a husband, and those things are more important to me than my own wellbeing. I cannot indulge my more destructive, neglectful tendencies without irrevocably destroying my self-image, and I am far too egotistical about my prowess as a father and a partner to neglect my duties towards others.

If I lived alone, as I have in the past, I would wake up in my clothes, stay in bed till lunchtime, eat junk, and go back to bed without changing, washing, shaving, opening the post, or doing any of the everyday chores that make a person a functioning member of society. Instead, as a father, I must haul my weary bones out of bed each morning to get my daughter up, dressed and fed. I have to change my clothes to set a good impression, brush my teeth when she brushes hers, eat at the table with her. In the evening I have to cook my wife a delicious and nutritious dinner and I bath when she baths. I might only be going through the motions, an imitation of a living, feeling being, but in so doing I find a way to function, despite the depression. I remain a good father and a good husband even as I cave in upon myself and sink beneath the weight of my own lethargy.

This is my life now, and I can keep it going as long as I must. I have done it before and I have no doubt I will do it again many times over. I just wish this winter would end.