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!

The Physical Toll of Parenting

When someone says ‘new parents’ the first thing you think is ‘chronic tiredness’ because that’s the image we have of newborn babies – noisy, smelly sleep deprivers. Indeed, we hear mainly about the emotional and psychological effects of fatigue, and that’s not wrong because after eighty-nine consecutive nights of broken sleep I can only ascribe the mistakes I’ve been making recently to the fact I’m shattered – yesterday I put the butter in the cupboard and marmite in the fridge, spent five minutes using fingernails, keys and a penknife to pry the lid off my thermos cup only to discover it’s a screw top, and this afternoon somehow dropped my phone in a mug of coffee.

But I’ve realised of late that there’s a physical toll to parenting over and above simple exhaustion.

We all know that for women there are stretch marks and stitches to contend with (along with hormonal changes that cause them to grow scales and breathe fire, but the less said about these the better). But after twelve weeks of looking after a baby, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female: the only thing holding your body together is sticky tape and determination. And perhaps a little each of caffeine and codeine.

I have white hairs in my beard. Not grey – white. They definitely weren’t there twelve weeks ago. I’m missing a stage and jumping straight to silver! And my face seems to have lost some of its buoyancy – it’s not bouncing back with boyish elasticity after sleepless nights like it used to. I look tired.

As for Lizzie, I’ve noticed far more grey hairs hiding amongst her dark locks, but more than that, her face has changed in some indiscernible way. I’m assuming it has something to do with gaining pregnancy weight, losing it quickly after the birth, and screwing up her face muscles for nineteen hours of labour until she can crush walnuts with her cheeks. The distances between her features all seem a little off – her mouth perhaps a couple of millimetres wider, her chin a trifle thinner – so that when I lean it to kiss her, or watch her sleeping on the pillow beside me, at times she doesn’t look like Lizzie at all but a stranger in my bed. Some might find that rather exciting – I find it a little unsettling. Nobody prepared me for the fact my partner’s face might change!

Psychological symptoms are having a major impact on my physical health. I look like I’m calm and completely in control, but inside I’m constantly fretting, and so I keep getting outbreaks of psoriasis under my beard – horrible, itchy, sore, red, flaky dandruff-type stuff that I’ve never had before but is driving me mad these days. I rub the baby’s nappy cream into my beard and leave it there, white and gloopy and sweet-smelling, because it cools the irritation. And having Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I’m a nervous pooper, and my nerves have irritated my bowels something chronic – I’ve had diarrhoea five days out of seven since Izzie was born. Everything I eat comes out within a couple of hours – I can’t imagine it stays in my stomach long enough to be digested.

But it does. I know this because I’ve put on a stone in weight since the birth. That’s just over a pound a week. I know the reason. Normally we eat three meals a day because we’re asleep for eight hours, but when you have a baby and you’re awake on and off throughout the 24-hour period, you realise just how gosh-darned hungry you are at three in the morning. So sneaking a fourth meal into your nightly schedule with a bowl of cereal, couple of slices of toast, or bar of chocolate at silly o’clock, really isn’t as beneficial as you might think.

I had my asthma check the other day. My peak flow is the worst it’s been for years. Admittedly, that might have something to do with the fact I’ve been neglecting to take my inhaler, but I’m not above using the baby as an excuse.

When I struggled up from my chair a few days ago, Lizzie laughed and told me I was like an old man. She’s not wrong. Given the pain in my back, shoulders and legs, I’m hobbling around like an octogenarian. My body is wrecked (I have to be careful how I say that, because I told a woman the other day that I was wrecked and realised it sounded like in answer to the question, ‘How are you?’ I replied, ‘I’m erect.’).

Part of the reason is that I sit sideways in the armchair, my back against one arm and my legs hanging over the other so that my knees are level with my shoulders. It makes it so much easier with the baby to support her against my thighs while I’m feeding her or massaging her belly or making bicycles with her legs. It just means I’m scrunched up in a position not very conducive to my own comfort.

In particular, the lower left side of my back is starting to kill me. Being right-handed, I tend to support Izzie with my left arm so I can use the other to hold the bottle, poke her in the nose, ward off the attentions of the dog, or else scratch whatever happens to itch. When I carry her in the sling, I similarly favour the left, with the straps running from my left shoulder to right hip. This means I’m always leaning slightly to the right in order to compensate, straining my muscles as they battle to keep my spine straight.

At least, I hope that’s what it is. The past five days, the pain has moved from the surface to the inside and I can feel it if I press on my front or my back, as though it’s sitting in my kidneys. Worse, it’s spread to my right side in the past couple of days, making me wonder if I’m dehydrated and my kidneys are aching.

And my left arm hurts too. Since Izzie is twelve weeks old, has been bottle fed for ten weeks, had ten bottles each day in the early weeks and around six now, if we average eight per day then she’s been fed in the region of (clasps his tongue between his lips as he tries to calculate it) 560 bottles. If we conservatively reckon I’ve done half of those, then I’ve held Izzie in my left arm 280 times in ten weeks. This might explain why it feels like my left biceps is torn in two, and is far bigger and harder than my right. If I keep this up I’ll have an Arnold Schwarzenegger leftie and a right modelled on Daniel Radcliffe – not attractive but great for hustling an arm wrestler.

So that is the reality of parenting – it turns you into a grey-haired, odd-faced, flaky-skinned, sore-spined, kidney-aching, stiff, limping, fat, lopsided Quasimodo with diarrhoea. We don’t mention that to prospective parents!