Debating a two-year-old

Why have you emptied the cupboard onto the kitchen floor? No, don’t walk away. Come back. Don’t hide in that cupboard. Are you listening to me? Izzie? Come out of there. Come out or you’re on the naughty step.

‘Okay, daddy.’

Right. Good. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip? That’s better. Now, come here, I want to talk to you.

Leave the water bottle alone. I said leave it alone.

This broken.

It’s not broken.

This broken, daddy.

Don’t change the subject. Come here. The count of three. One, two…

Good. Stop sticking out your bottom lip. Now, why did you empty all the baking tins out of the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

You have to open your mouth when you speak.

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

No, you have to open your mouth. I know you’re capable of talking because you’ve been doing it all day. So tell me why you emptied the cupboard, and this time, open your mouth when you talk.

Muh huh bluh muh nuh juh bluh.’

That isn’t any better. Think about what you want to say and then say it. Why did you empty the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Me sit in my chair.’

Fine, sit in your chair. Then tell me why there are baking tins all over the floor. No, look at me. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip again? That’s better. Now. Why did you disobey your mummy?

‘Mmf luff juh buh muh Daisy.’

Only one word of that was in English. What about Daisy?

My friend Daisy.’

I know she’s your friend. What’s that got to do with this?

‘Mmf luff juh buh tell me.’

Daisy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

When did she tell you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yesterday.’

You haven’t seen Daisy for a week. Are you lying to me?

‘No.’

Lying is naughty.

‘Me lying.’

So Daisy didn’t tell you to empty it?

‘No.’

Then why did you empty it?

‘Mummy tell me.’

Your mummy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

The person who told you not to empty the cupboard told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

Are you lying to me again?

‘Yes.’

So why did you empty the cupboard all over the floor? Suck in that bottom lip. Do you know why you emptied the cupboard?

‘No, me not know why.’

Well, at least you’re honest. When mummy tells you not to do something, don’t do it, okay?

‘Okay, daddy. Me go in my playroom now?’

No, let’s pick these all up off the floor and put them back in the cupboard, please.

‘Daddy do it.’

No, you made the mess so you can tidy it up.

‘Me want daddy do it.’

And me want holiday, but we don’t always get what we want.

‘Me not want holiday.’

Then you’re in luck. Now, please put all of these baking tins back in the cupboard.

‘Mummy do it.’

No, mummy’s not going to do it. Where’s this bottom lip thing come from?

‘Me need a toilet.’

Do you really need the toilet or are you trying to get out of clearing up?

‘Me need a wee-wee. Me not wear a nappy, me not wee-wee in my pants.’

Fine. Come on, let’s go sit on the potty.

‘You not look at my wee-wee.’

I won’t look at your wee-wee. Come on, take your trousers down, and your pants, there you go.

‘You not listen, daddy.’

I won’t listen. There. Are you doing anything?

‘No. Me not need a toilet.’

Goddamnit. Okay, stand up then. That’s it. Pull your pants up, and your trousers. There, all done.

‘Me play in my playroom now?’

No, you’re going to tidy up first.

‘Why?’

Because I said so. No, don’t sigh at me.

‘Me not want to tidy things, daddy.’

Why not?

‘Me naughty.’

Well, don’t be naughty.

Why?’

Because it’s not nice.

‘Me not want to tidy.’

Look, how about this – if you put the baking tins away, I’ll come in your playroom with you.

‘Okay.’

Thank God. Okay, that’s one. No, leave the water bottle alone.

‘This broken.’

It’s not broken, it’s meant to be like that. Now, put the baking tins away before I scream.

‘Daddy sad?’

No, daddy isn’t sad.

‘Daddy cry?’

No, daddy isn’t going to cry.

‘Daddy cry. Do it. Do it now.’

Wait, you want daddy to cry?

‘Yes. On my birthday and mummy’s birthday.’

Why would you want me to cry on your birthday?

‘You always do.’

What? You’ve completely lost me now.

‘Me play in my playroom with daddy?’

Put them away, and then I’ll play with you. I said don’t sigh at me.

‘Why?’

Because…oh for crying out loud, I’ll put one away and you put one away, how’s that? Okay?

‘Okay, daddy.’

Okay, good. Here, that’s one. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn. Pick that one up. That one right there. Where I’m pointing. Where I’m pointing, look.

‘Me not see it.’

Okay, now you’re just mucking me about.

‘Me not see anything.’

Right, that’s it. Straight to bed with no supper. Come on, up to bed.

‘No, me not go to bed. Me not tired. Me busy.’

With what?

‘Me got to put things in the cupboard.’

I know. I know you do. I told you to do it. Ten minutes ago. Ten minutes. You’re driving me insane, child, insane. Do you understand?

‘Daddy want a cuddle?’

Aaaaaaaawaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

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Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation

Every day at the moment, I’m having between sixty and seventy arguments. Some are mild, a witty response to a provocative remark; some are longer, a tussle between players on opposite sides of the game; and some are long drawn-out, bloodthirsty affairs that leave souls destroyed and lives in ruins. Sixty to seventy, every single day.

But it’s not as bad as all that: they only take place in my head.

Like many people with Asperger’s, I have something of a phobia about confrontation, to the point of enduring any amount of abuse in order to avoid it. When it does happen, I avoid eye-contact and retreat into myself, and all the cogent, coherent arguments I could make evaporate. I have a visceral reaction – acid, like liquid copper, spreads from my gut, my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and the back of my neck starts to burn, because even though words can apparently never hurt me, I feel as though I’m being physically attacked. So I wait for it to end, mutter some platitudes that completely undermine my own position, and then slink away in a turmoil of guilt, shame and humiliation like a dog with his tail between his legs.

And afterwards, I dwell on it. For days. I relive the argument, word for word, re-experience the feelings, the fear and helplessness, think of what I could have said or should have said but didn’t because at the time all I wanted was to retreat. Like someone who has taken a beating, it takes me a long time to recover. It’s as though my psyche is bruised, and the world is now altered, everything out of place and dangerous until I manage to rebuild my walls and feel safe around people once again.

I worked in telesales for a time. Last thing on Friday afternoon, a stranger eviscerated me down the phone line. I didn’t sleep that night, couldn’t relax all the next day, had bad dreams on the Saturday, ran over the incident a million times all day Sunday, and on Monday handed in my notice and bought a plane ticket to New Zealand. Growing up, people said I was sensitive – too sensitive to survive in society. I think the truth is that I’m autistic, and my problems with social communication and social interaction, married to anxiety, insecurity and an obsessive nature, make conflict something I’m particularly incapable of dealing with.

So I tend to avoid confrontation, if I can. You might have heard the opposite to this – that people with Asperger’s are themselves argumentative, self-centred egoists who run rough-shod over the feelings of others – and this is also true, no matter how contradictory. So how does that work?

I can only answer for myself. When it comes to facts – or at least what I consider to be facts – my natural pedantry, honesty, commitment to accuracy and inability to let things go mean I often get into arguments over trivial matters. Like when over dinner one time my (ex) sister-in-law was talking about someone overly concerned with their appearance, and concluded with the statement, ‘People are so fickle.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘People are so shallow and superficial.’

‘Oh, I totally agree,’ I replied. ‘But that’s not what fickle means.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No, it’s not. Fickle means changeable, inconstant, not shallow.’

‘I’m an English teacher.’

‘And I have a dictionary. Shall we look it up?’

‘Well, whatever it means, most normal people would have known what I meant.’

‘Then most normal people are using the word fickle incorrectly too.’

Sure, it’s a little thing and in hindsight it comes across as kind of petty, but that’s the sort of argument I can’t resist having – those to do with facts, where I will back myself to the hilt because I know I’m right.

On the other hand, when it comes to disagreements about less concrete things – emotional things – that’s what I struggle to cope with. I approach life in a rational fashion and expect other people to respond in a rational way, but that’s not what tends to happen. Instead, people are complex and confusing and behave in ways that aren’t rational at all. I just don’t understand it. You try to discuss something in a calm and controlled manner and they flip out, fly off the handle, scream and shout, and in a split second I’ve backed down, lost the argument and dropped into survival mode. Otherwise, if I try to stand up for myself, I get eaten alive.

I link this to my autism, especially since I know many others who experience the same anxiety over arguments. Perhaps having poor Theory of Mind skills – the ability to understand another’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view – means we are incapable of successful conflict-resolution. Or perhaps my aversion to confrontation is something more particular to me.

As a child, I grew up in a household in which confrontation had very real consequences, then at 19 I moved in with my girlfriend’s family, where a violent brother and emotionally unstable mother meant that any confrontation led to holes being kicked in doors and phones smashed against the wall. At 21 I formed a band with a girl who ruled my life for the next three years because I was terrified of her spectacular outbursts and felt powerless to escape her anger, while at 28 I moved into a ‘supported living’ house, where my housemate would break milk bottles on the kitchen floor if I disagreed with him. Over the years, I’ve learnt that confrontation means danger; backing down is the best way of surviving.

But it isn’t, because it’s incredibly damaging to your self-esteem and your long-term happiness. Living like this makes it very easy to be taken advantage of – unless you isolate yourself as a hermit, which, to be honest, is a very attractive option sometimes. I get churned up inside just thinking about the potential for arguments. I walk on eggshells, terrified of upsetting people because of how they’ll react, and I know what that makes me.

There’s that common expression about the world being divided between ‘givers’ and ‘takers’. This assumes that givers and takers are in some form of symbiotic relationship that fulfils one another’s psychological needs. I think the truth is much darker than that.

To paraphrase the 1960 movie The Apartment, there are ‘takers’ and ‘the took’. The worst thing about being the took is that you know you’re being taken, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Because takers don’t take what is freely given – they take whatever they want. It’s a form of abuse, one that people with Asperger’s are very susceptible to because of our difficulties handling confrontation.

So when I know I need to confront someone about something – when I’m being taken advantage of, for example – I obsessively plan out what I’m going to say. And then how they’ll respond. And what I’ll say next. And so on, and so forth.

Of course, in real life, people don’t respond how you want them to, so I try various permutations – if the person responds rationally, irrationally, emotionally, angrily, defensively, offensively, how I’ll react, how I’ll respond. I have the same argument sixty or seventy different ways, every single day, all in my head.

And then the moment comes, and all the preparation goes out of the window. You’re aggressive instead of assertive, you stumble over your words, the other person explodes and you cower, or worse they deny anything’s going on and it’s all in your mind, which confuses you, until at the end of the argument you’re in a worse position than when you started, and all the things you’d meant to say, and all the rights you were going to insist upon, lie unspoken in your heart.

And you realise that there’s really no reasoning with some people, so it’s best to leave those arguments where they belong – spinning around in your head all day, every day, because they’re the taker and you’re the took.

And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.