The definition of impossible

Before you have kids, you think of the impossible in terms of massively unachievable goals that affect the very nature of our existence. World peace, faster-than-light travel, a day without anybody mentioning Brexit. You know, big things.

After you’ve had kids, your understanding of impossibility comes much closer to home.

Like, have you ever tried explaining to a four-year-old that the man who lives with Granny isn’t Grandpa but is actually Granny’s boyfriend? What about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband, or why some people get married and some people don’t? It makes faster-than-light travel seem a cinch by comparison.

What about trying to follow the labyrinthine stories they tell through all the twists and turns of pointless details and extraneous information? You might as well try learning ancient Greek without a primer for all the sense it makes.

Have you ever tried fishing poo out of the bathtub without smearing it all over the sides? Or explaining to a toddler that she really shouldn’t poop in the bath.

Why? Why?

Have you ever tried explaining to your kids that Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble are the same person, or that the distinction between ‘not nearly there yet’ and ‘nearly there yet’ is longer than thirty seconds? I’ve given up trying to make them understand perspective – if they think the moon is chasing the car every time we drive, I’m just going to have to leave that delusion intact.

I’ve also decided not to bother asking what my eldest did at school anymore, because it’s a mystery I will never get to the bottom of. Other than learning that she once saw a pigeon in the playground, whatever happens inside those school gates stays inside those school gates.

And forget trying to get your kid to understand how to tell a joke.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Izzie. Ha ha!

Izzie who?

Izzie. It’s me. Your daughter.

Oh

At least her chicken jokes are getting better, if only because their randomness makes them unintentionally amusing. Why did the cow cross the road? Because it was the dog’s day off at work, ha ha!

Of course, some people out there are going to argue that these things aren’t really impossible, and they’re hardly universal, applying only to me in my very limited family sphere. To those people, I will say that I’ve come to believe there are some impossible truths that cross all cultures and time periods and afflict every parent in human history: the word ‘no’ will never be the end of it; you cannot cut an onion small enough that your kids don’t pick every last bit out of their dinner; and even if you tie their shoes together and lock them in a safe, when you come to leave the house, one will always be missing.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget about the impossible in the life of a parent: it is easier to get an honest answer from a politician than to get your kids to change their bedtime story.

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How Fatherhood Changes You

I’ve been putting off writing this post, for reasons that will become clear later. For now, suffice to say, my head has not been in the right place.

They say that parenting changes you, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. I always figured it simply brought to the fore those qualities you already had lying dormant within you – self-sacrifice, responsibility, generosity, and what have you. Being a dad hasn’t made me who I am – it has simply shone a light on some of those hitherto undernourished and unappreciated aspects of my character and allowed them to flourish. For better and for worse.

I’ve mentioned many times before how parenting has brought out my paranoia, so much so, in fact, that it’s not worth repeating it here. I’ve also discussed how fatherhood has turned me into a crap dancer with a penchant for atrocious puns, but I’m pretty sure these things are normal.

Slightly more tragic was my wife’s revelation, a couple of weeks ago, that I have become rather boring.

Boring!? Surely not. I’m still young. I’m still energetic. I’m still…actually, she has a point. I have become a little old of late.

See, when you spend the better part of your day looking after a toddler, especially when you define your role as keeping her safe, you tend to become a little over-serious in your outlook. Couple that with being knackered all the time, and I invariably greet my wife’s ‘let’s go to the pub, let’s go to the park, let’s go to the shops, let’s go to the zoo, let’s go to Spain’ with ‘can we not and just say we did?’ Which, admittedly, isn’t the behaviour of the young, vibrant dad I set out to be.

So I have tried to soften a little. My wife Lizzie said she wanted me to be more juvenile, more playful, more fun – so I threw a glass of water over her. Apparently, this wasn’t exactly what she meant. Nor was pinging her bra-strap whenever her back is turned or hiding her breakfast/drink/phone every time she glances away. And shooting her in the back of the head with a Nerf gun was very much a bad idea.

But things seem to be a little better. There are more pillow fights and visits to soft play, less arguing about risk assessments and budgeting. That’s one of the compromises you have to make as a parent.

The other MASSIVE change I have noticed in myself as a result of fatherhood, and something that is affecting my life, is my level of sensitivity towards anything that connects parenting, children and pregnancy with suffering, pain, disappointment and death.

Perhaps because of my autism, I’ve always been more sensitive towards the suffering of animals than people. In fact, I used to get myself so upset over nature shows that I couldn’t watch them as a child and I avoid them as an adult, whereas I loved true crime – it didn’t matter how nasty or gruesome it was, it didn’t really affect me. I’ve read all about James Bulger, JonBenet Ramsay and the Lindbergh Baby. I even did my Masters dissertation on infanticide, researching over four-hundred newborn child murders in Victorian Hampshire without batting an eyelid.

But fatherhood does something to your sensitivities. I first noticed it when my wife was expecting. I decided to reread Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, which I did for A-Level, and despite knowing for twenty years that there’s a miscarriage scene, despite never having been bothered by the miscarriage scene, I read the miscarriage scene and started to cry. Weird, I thought – it’s the woman who’s meant to get hormonal.

When my Izzie was born and placed in an incubator, and my wife Lizzie was haemorrhaging and having transfusions, I sought out the hospital’s chapel for some rest and reflection, despite not being at all religious. Inside they had a prayer tree, with prayers written on paper leaves and pinned to the branches. One simply had a name, a date two days previously, and two devastating, soul-destroying words: ‘born sleeping’. Let me tell you, it killed me.

Since then, every time I hear about a miscarriage or a still birth, I well up. But it has become worse as time’s gone on. The more I’ve grown into my role as father, the more afraid I’ve become at the prospect of losing my daughter, whether through illness or accident, the more sensitive I’ve become to the suffering of all children. And I don’t know if sad stories about children are in the ascendancy at the moment or if I just never noticed them before, but they seem to be everywhere.

I cried over Ben Needham. I cried over the little boy killed by a dog a few weeks ago. Standing behind the counter of the children’s hospice shop I work in, I cried at the pictures of children with tubes in their noses, despite having seen them hundreds of times before. I cried at photos of children bloodied and shell-shocked in Syria. I’ve cried, and I’ve cried, and I’ve cried.

And then two weeks ago I saw this picture, and all the other tears I’ve cried seemed as nothing [WARNING: DO NOT CLICK LINK IF SENSITIVE]. It is a photo of a little girl called Jessica Whelan who is dying of neuroblastoma, and instead of the usual pictures of cancer kids – visiting Disneyland, playing games, smiling and ‘being brave’ – it captures the reality of a terminally ill child. The pain, the sorrow, the indignity, the goddamned unfairness of it all. And since then, my emotions have been all over the place.

People say, ‘I can’t imagine what that must feel like for the parents,’ but the trouble is, as a father I can imagine it, and just imagining it is more pain than I can bear. But I can’t escape it because it’s in my head now. I lie awake in bed at night, wondering about the letters I’d write to my daughter if I was diagnosed with terminal cancer; I wonder how she’d cope if I wasn’t here; but more, I wonder how I’ll cope if she’s the one with the cancer, and how I’ll explain it to her, and how the world can be so fucking cruel.

The truth is, what we as parents, and what I as a father, have to learn, is that our children do not belong to us – they belong to the Universe. We are only borrowing them for a time. So we have to make the most of every day, build happy memories for however long we are gifted with the opportunity to do so, because it could all come crashing down in a heartbeat.

And in the meantime, I need to learn to stop holding on so tight, find a way to stop crying all the time, and work out how to grow a thicker skin, or else I’ll be an emotional wreck before the year is out.

The Dreaded Moment

It’s the moment every parent dreads. You put your baby in her cot, flat on her back and half-asleep. You wander to the bathroom to cut the tag off her new gro-bag. And when you return you see your not-quite-eight-months baby doing this:

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I am your worst nightmare!

Yup, she can stand. By herself. With no help from daddy anymore. Who needs you? Not me!

So in the morning you put her on her little pink scooter-car thing, and she not only shuffles around the floor like an infant Lewis Hamilton, she’s cocky about it:

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Ha! One hand! Eat my dust, turkeys!

It’s made mealtimes rather interesting, because along with this latest development comes a desire for independence stronger than some separatist movements. She doesn’t want me to hold her beaker anymore – she wants to do it herself. And if I try to help her, I get screamed at. Damn it, dad, I don’t care how much water I pour over myself, just let me do it my way!

Every achievement on the way to full mobility is written large upon her face. She grins from ear to ear, laughs uproariously, and babbles excitedly at how freaking cool she is.

But her ego has outgrown her ability.

She’s increasingly annoyed at how slow crawling is. You can see (and hear) her frustration that she can’t move as quick and easy as she wants. She keeps getting up on one knee and lifting both hands skywards as though asking to be picked up – but woe betide if you try, because she’s actually raising her arms in victory that she’s one step closer to walking and doesn’t appreciate you stepping on her freedom, thank you very much.

Her ‘victory hands’ are actually a little counter-productive to the whole standing project – she gets to her hands and feet like a cat arching its back, makes a triumphant one-armed salute, and face plants right into the carpet. But that doesn’t faze her at all, because she starts right up again.

And all of this while teething and fighting off an ear-infection. Determined is not the word: she’s a little trooper!

And yet, along with the pride, comes a tightening of the chest and a catching of the breath, because my baby is on the verge of becoming a toddler. I thought we’d have more time with our baby, that it’d be at least a year before she gave up her total dependence on us. I want to tell her to slow down, to stop being in such a rush, that it’ll come regardless, but she’s inherited my willfulness – I was the same as a baby, racing towards developmental milestones as though they came with prizes. I already feel like I’m being pushed aside, and I can’t say I altogether like it.

But then, when I think how far we’ve come since those first days of life in June, when I worried she wouldn’t be coming out of hospital, to how she is now, I have nothing to complain about. She’s a bona fide miracle.

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Week One
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Week 34

If her journey to independence continues at this rate, before I know it she’ll be trying on funky hats and telling me in a Mockney accent that she wants to be a chimneysweep’s scamp. I dread that day.

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Too late!

Asperger’s, Parenting and Unexpected Change

As is well-covered in the literature of autism, people with Asperger’s have a love of routines and struggle to cope with change. What I’ve been realising lately is that this bald statement covers up the nuances of what this means in practice, particularly when you’re the parent of a seven-month old.

And it can affect two people with AS in opposite ways.

I cannot handle change in terms of things being added. I need time to process and accept things that are coming up. Ever since I was a kid, I needed plenty of notice – at least a week – to get my head around a visit from relatives, a trip out somewhere, or anything out of the ordinary. If not, I tend to moan, kick up a fuss, say some nasty things I don’t really mean, and then go along with it anyway. But I don’t have much of a problem with things being cancelled anymore – indeed, the principal emotion is relief I don’t have to go through the effort of painting on my ‘public’ face and holding onto a fake smile for however many hours. I would be a hermit if I could get away with it.

Lizzie suffers the opposite extreme: she can’t handle change when it’s things being removed. She is mostly fine with things being added to the routine, especially if she’s the one doing the adding, but if something is cancelled her first response is to throw a tantrum. I liken it to a person walking along a road and finding a brick wall blocking their path. While other people would try to find a way around it, or else turn back, Lizzie bashes her head against it until one of them gives – sometimes the wall, but most often the head. Actually, scratch that – most often the heads of those around her.

Babies, as some of you are well aware and others can easily imagine, are unpredictable. Not only that, the world becomes unpredictable when you have them. Visitors arrive with little or no notice, longheld plans need to be dropped without warning, and you have to rush off to the doctor out of the blue. It’s impossible to say which of us struggles the most with the changes having a baby has brought to our lives, but I can guarantee that I suffer the most.

Now, when I say ‘suffer’, I’m not being melodramatic. I’m not talking about the discomfort I feel at friends, relatives and healthcare professionals clamouring for our time or pitching up on our doorstep unannounced. Nor am I talking about the disruption that sudden trips to the shops for some vital knick-knack cause to my quiet, ordered life. Fact is, the baby’s needs come first. I have accepted that. My needs, as an autistic individual, are immaterial next to hers. I have made that choice.

Unfortunately, Lizzie is either unwilling or, by dint of her condition, unable to make that choice. And so I genuinely suffer.

Like before Christmas when Izzie had a cold and I hadn’t slept for two days. Sunday morning I was so tired I couldn’t see straight, my back ached, I was covered in snot and dribble, and my throat felt like I’d been swallowing razor blades. I hadn’t had the chance to drink, eat, go to the bathroom, since the night before. When Lizzie arose, well-rested, and made herself some breakfast, I asked her to please look after the baby for an hour to give me a rest. But she had planned to go shopping, and, unable to alter her plans, she toddled off for more than three hours of non-essential retail therapy. I suffered.

Or like a couple of weeks ago when I got a migraine about teatime. Lizzie had planned to go out, so out she went. I couldn’t open my eyes more than slits as the light burned, I kept seeing spots of light dancing in front of my face, and my head throbbed with every beat of my heart like somebody was burying an axe in my skull. Every time I bent forward, it felt like my brain was being forced out of my eye-sockets. But I duly bathed the baby, gritting my teeth and shouting in pain whenever it became too much; hissed as I dried the baby; roared as I dressed her in nappy and sleepsuit; cried out as I placed her as gently as I could into the cot; snarled as I sang her to sleep. And then I collapsed, nauseous, into bed. I suffered.

Or the other week in the storms – our village turns into an island during heavy rain, and three years back I wrote off my car by driving into floodwaters (the single-most butt-puckering moment of my life!). So although we’d planned to take the baby to town, I refused point blank to expose her to the risk of getting stuck down some country lane surrounded by cows pretending to be ducks. The sensible thing. Unless you have autism and can’t change plans, in which case you kick off like a wild animal, say some truly awful things, and then go out anyway sans partner and baby. It was only later she admitted I was right, it had been too wet and downright risky to go out in that weather, with or without the baby.

Now, as this is mostly a positive, light-hearted blog, I’d like to say that whenever this happens I smile wryly, roll my eyes, say, ‘That’s Lizzie!’ to hoots of canned laughter, accept that it’s just her autism, and forgive and forget.

But nor is this a fairy tale.

There is a lingering resentment bubbling away under the surface as my needs, and Izzie’s needs, repeatedly come second to Lizzie’s inability to alter her plans for the greater good. Whether she can help it or not doesn’t matter – the resentment is there.

I have heard it said before that partnering a person with Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of abuse – not for the Aspie but the poor neurotypical saddled with their unreasonable behaviour. As someone with AS, I disagree with that, but let me be clear – people with Asperger’s can be cold, insensitive, selfish pricks at times. That’s the reality hiding behind the innocuous words, ‘people with Asperger’s have a love of routines and struggle to cope with change’.

Endless changing

When you’re having a baby, you expect its arrival to be the Great Unknown: you’re going to jump off the edge of a cliff in the night, with no idea what awaits you. But once you get into it, you’ll get into a rhythm, and the changes from then on will be incremental and manageable.

Not so. Not so at all.

Sure, the birth and first month is like leaping – falling – into the abyss, but gradually you learn how to fly. You learn to interpret the sounds the baby makes and what they mean, become adept at nappy changing, feeding, prepping bottles, soothing her. You work out ways of carrying her that are safe and don’t break your back or your arms, get into a routine, discover you can cope with the lack of sleep and the irritations of cold or skipped dinners, vomit-stained clothing and the ever present weight of responsibility. Things are getting easier. The future looks rosy.

And then, around three months, it all changes again.

She suddenly makes different sounds, different facial expressions. Whereas before, you knew exactly what she wanted and could meet her needs right away, now you can’t anticipate them at all, and you only realise she wants something after she’s started screaming. But on the plus side, she starts to sleep through the night and you have time on your hands and no idea what to do with it. You’re now an expert at nappies and bottles. You’re finally getting a handle on this parenting thing.

And then around five months, it all changes again. She wants to roll over all the time, so nappy changes turn into a nightmarish battle of wills. She starts waking again in the middle of the night for two hours at a time, and you’re so out of practice at missing sleep, it hits you worse than it did the first time around. She wants solid food – well, mush – because the milk just doesn’t cut it anymore. And everything within arms reach is a potential hazard that if she gets her hands on goes straight into her mouth and causes her to choke.

But you invent new methods to cope. I kept losing count of how many spoonfuls of formula I put in her milk as I had to keep one eye on her, so I’ve scrapped the numbers 1-7 and replaced them with the words ‘Thumb, pointer, middle, ring, pinkie, thumb, pointer,’ along with visualising the relevant fingers. Such an effective method, I can have a conversation while doing it and still keep count.

And changing her is so much easier if you give her a plastic baby coat hangar to play with, as it keeps her on her back and keeps her hands busy (and thus out of her own poop). [But a word of warning on this technique – never use something big, like a teddy bear. I made this mistake yesterday. The first thing she did was rub it between her legs and smear poop all up her belly, so I tossed it aside and gave her a sock instead. Finished, I turned to recover the poop-covered teddy bear to find the dog licking it clean. Gross does not describe it!]

We are approaching another change. In the past three weeks, from six-and-a-half months to now (seven months and five days), she has learned to crawl, sit unsupported, remove her nappy, manoeuvre herself anywhere she chooses to go, throw her dummies across the room, and speak, albeit in Spanish (‘habla, habla, habla, habla’, which prompts me to reply ‘Espanol? No habla Espanol. Habla Ingles, por favor.’).

And suddenly she’s decided she wants to be a drummer. Everything’s a drum to her – the tray table of her high chair, her toys, the floor, the sofa, her inflatable donut chair, daddy’s belly, mummy’s boobs. It used to be ‘can I pick it up, can I put it in my mouth?’ It’s now ‘can I pick it up, can I slap it and make a noise, can I put it in my mouth?’ Anything comes on TV with a heavy beat, like the intro to Modern Family, she stops what she’s doing and stares transfixed at the screen. Weirdly, she didn’t bat an eyelid when a compilation of old Sugababes videos was on, but put on Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Sleepwalking’ or ‘Shadow Moses’ and she’s fascinated (look them up if you want to know why that’s so unexpected! And yes, my musical tastes are eclectic).

And she’s started hooking things over her feet – any hoop or ring toy she gets she tries to turn into an ankle bracelet. The developments are coming so thick and fast – in sitting, crawling, walking, talking, facial expressions, reaching, holding, manipulating, weaning – that it’s hard to keep up. And she’s reached the point where she suddenly gets clingy and shy. A couple of weeks ago, she’d have gone with anyone; now, she glances at strangers then buries her face in my chest before glancing out again, or looks to me as if to say, ‘Is this okay, daddy? Are we safe? Or should I show this person the door?’

According to the Health Visitor, she’s way ahead of the curve, and she can’t believe how these developmental milestones have been reached so close together. Normally, she says, they’re more spread out so you have the chance to process them.

The end result of this is that Lizzie and I both feel we’re walking along the edge of an abyss. We can feel a giant change coming, a truly Great Unknown just ahead, invisible and unavoidable. We don’t know what it is – walking, words, a rudimentary nuclear reactor. We keep expecting to walk into the nursery in the morning to find her sitting dressed on the floor with a cup of tea, asking us whether we’d like one lump or two.

It’s not a very comfortable feeling. It feels like it did the week of the due date – like something huge and life-changing is rapidly approaching and we don’t know how we’ll cope and if we’re sufficiently prepared. Yet again we’ll have to find a way to adapt. And honestly, we’re both a little terrified of this unseen future.

So if you think having a baby will change your life, you’re wrong. It will change your life, then change it again, and again, and again, and again, and again…

Perspectives

I don’t want to go all New Age tree-hugger on you, but having a baby changes your perspective. As someone set in his ways, and a bit of a cynic with it, I figured my attitudes wouldn’t change much – none of that wishy-washy heal-the-world tosh. But loathe as I am to admit it, having a baby alters your perspective on things you were sure you had pegged.

That national treasure known as the NHS, for example. From the perspective of one who’s never used it, it’s the best of Britain, albeit sadly dying under the dual weights of lack of funding and mismanagement. From the perspective of a dad who spent a week visiting his newborn daughter and her mother, it’s already dead. I can’t fault the staff that work there, but one midwife covering a ward of twenty-five beds? That’s not just dangerous understaffing, it borders on criminality!

My perspective has changed on people too. Some of the ones I thought before the birth would be the greatest help have been conspicuous only by their absence, while others I thought were a waste of space have given generously of their time and effort and stepped up to the plate. It’s amazing how a little thing like a baby can bring out the true nature of people. I guess it’s done that to me.

I’ve changed my stance on public breastfeeding. Whenever I heard about somebody being asked to stop breastfeeding in a restaurant, or swimming pool, or public library, I’d go all Daily Mail and agree. ‘Too bloody right,’ I’d think. ‘There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing.’ But after watching Lizzie whip her boobs out in front of all and sundry, and the relief it gives to the baby, I really can’t understand what the fuss is all about.

And single mothers. Let nobody say that being a single mother on benefits is easy. This parenting lark is hard enough with two people, let alone one. So now, when I see a woman on Channel 5 with three kids under four by different dads, instead of right-wing indignation I wonder how she’s able to cope and if she’s getting enough sleep. Before you know it, I’ll be reading The Guardian!

My perspective on my parents has changed too. I look at my little baby, so perfectly formed, so pristine, and I wonder if one day she’ll want to deface her skin, or punch holes in her body parts. I speak as somebody with four tattoos who had his ears, nose and tongue pierced by the age of twenty. I understand now why my parents were so against it. It’s not because they’re culturally-arrested conservatives who can’t appreciate artistic self-expression, it’s because they can’t bear to watch you damage the body they’ve been protecting since the day you were born. Sorry mum and dad – my bad.

There are a host of behavioural changes too. When I’m out driving with precious cargo, I hesitate at junctions and roundabouts, passing up gaps I would have taken four weeks ago because now they seem too risky. It takes me forever to cross a road with the pram, waiting until there’s absolutely nothing coming before I make my move. The cat isn’t even allowed in the same room as Izzie, and when people come to visit I wonder how good their personal hygiene is, and what germs they might be bringing into my home. My perception of risk has changed the world into a significantly more dangerous place.

And my emotions have changed. Never a proud man, when I push the pram I feel a burst of pride; never sentimental, if I see a cute outfit I go all gooey inside and have to buy it; and never possessive of anything in my life, if somebody’s been holding my baby too long, I have to fight the urge to claw their eyes out while screaming, ‘Get your grubby hands off my daughter! She’s mine, mine, mine!’

And along with all these other changes, having a baby has changed my perspective on cliches. I hated all that guff about how ‘you’ll feel differently when you have kids of your own,’ and, ‘until you have a baby you’ll never understand.’ I hate it even more now because, from my perspective, it turns out that it was right.