I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

Advertisements

Running Down the Clock

Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.

Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.

Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.

And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.

‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’

On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long  four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.

And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.

The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.

Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.

I just have to remember that.

In a World of Poo

Like sex, periods and who farted in the elevator, poo and pooping is something we really don’t like to talk about. As a species, we keep up this strange charade that we don’t poop, even though the presence of toilet paper in everyone’s bathrooms suggests we’re really bad liars. It’s a natural bodily process, yet it’s shrouded by an aura of mystery and wonder, shame and disgust, as though we’re crapping out porno mags we’d hate our grandmothers to see. And that’s just silly.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s something we should discuss over dinner, and I’m certainly not advocating we start taking photos of our bowel movements to impress our neighbours with, but as someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is allergic to all different kinds of food, and spends much of his life either sitting on toilets or else desperately trying to find them, it can be a lot of fun watching people squirm whenever you bring it up. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re not only denying the reality of our experience and reassuring other sufferers that they’re perfectly normal, we’re missing out on a lot of potential humour.

From an early age I had problems with my gut. The slightest things could trigger a bout of diarrhoea – too much wheat, too much cheese, a new food, skipping a meal, even simple nervousness. I’ve taken allergy tests (I should avoid gluten, dairy, chocolate and pulses, apparently), given up wheat, and carefully manage my diet, but while severe episodes have become less frequent, my digestive system cannot be called normal by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve been passing soft stools for so many decades, I worry what might happen to my asshole should I ever pass something hard!

I often disappear from parties, weddings, barbecues and family dinners to spend a half-hour moaning as I destroy a kindly person’s perfectly clean toilet bowl. Thanks to an episode in an Amarillo coach station, I missed my bus, leaving me stranded in Texas while my luggage travelled 450 miles away to Denver. A month ago I was sitting in traffic on a busy road when I realised I just couldn’t hold it anymore – the conclusion to this story, involving my new hat and one of my baby daughter’s nappies, I’m not going to go into here.

But why do I bring all this up on a blog about parenting? Because it’s been dominating my thoughts since I’ve spent the past six days up to my elbows in a three-year-old’s watery-porridge-like poop, and it might be all my fault.

Saturday she had a stomach ache all day and was off her food. That night it started, and by today (Thursday), it still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s got worse because despite being out of nappies for a year, she’s become incontinent. If you want to know where she is, you just have to follow the slick brown snail trail that leads across the carpet, and there you will find her, sitting in a mess at the end of it.

Our sinks are clogged with chocolate-coated knickers; the bath tub is populated by two polka-dotted pillows and a slime-smeared rug; and there is a duvet out on the washing line in the pouring rain because it’s better out there than in here.

Some of her clothes aren’t worth trying to salvage, so have been dumped in a bin that the sea gulls have become very interested in. We’ve put her in her sister’s nappies, but as a three-year-old who is mistaken for a five-year-old all the time, they catch only some of the deluge before giving up and resigning themselves to the flow. We are drowning in a floodtide of poo, like a Biblical plague that destroys all before it, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to end.

The funny thing is that she’s fine in herself – other than that first day, her appetite has been good, she doesn’t have a temperature, and she has bundles of energy – and nor has she passed it to her little sister, her mother or me, so it’s clearly not viral and/or infectious. I thought it might be bacterial, but apparently not.

After she left a big brown dollop on the landing, which I stepped in at five o’clock this morning with bare feet, I took her to the doctor, who said she would put money on it being a food allergy. Despite eating wheat since we weaned her, apparently you can develop an allergy suddenly – almost overnight. We’ve been told to cut wheat out of her diet and she’s been referred to specialists for tests.

And so my daughter may well be embarking upon a lifetime of being that awkward one at the restaurant who asks for the special dietary menu, the asshole that everyone has to buy expensive ingredients to cater for, and the bastard who keeps stinking out their friends’ houses. And she will likely talk to all and sundry about the realities of living with her condition, and inwardly smile as she watches the discomfort on their faces.

Like father, like daughter.

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

How to age 5 years in 3 minutes

The three scariest things that can happen to a childless man:

  1. Looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you.
  2. Hearing the mechanic suck in his breath through his teeth when you ask how much it’ll cost.
  3. Your girlfriend turning to you and saying, “I know we’ve never talked about having children, but I’ve got some news…’

The three scariest things that can happen to a parent:

  1. Answering the door to a stranger who says, “Hello, I’m from Child Services.”
  2.  Discovering a rash that looks strangely like those meningitis pictures you keep Googling.
  3. When your child stops breathing.

So this afternoon I was driving along with my wife and youngest daughter in the car when suddenly 17-month-old Rosie’s breathing started to sound a bit raspy, like there was something lodged in her throat and she was struggling to breathe. I looked round and she was staring vacantly off to one side.

‘Rosie?’ I said.

No response.

‘Can you check on her?’ I asked my wife.

She turned round in her seat and said, with increasing panic, ‘Rosie? Rosie? Rosie!’

I looked round again and Rosie was still staring off to the side, eyes still blank, but now her lips were blue, her face was violet, and she looked like a porcelain doll.

‘I’m pulling in!’ I shouted, spun the wheel and stopped the car on someone’s driveway. Leaping out, I scattered the contents of the door pocket all across the road, rushed round the back of the car, ripped open Rosie’s door and dragged her from the seat.

She had this glazed look in her eyes and she was trying to breathe but there was nothing but this horrible gurgling rattle, and she was totally unresponsive.

I turned her upside down, lay her over my forearm and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades, whereupon two old ladies, thinking I was assaulting her, asked if she was okay.

I checked her and she wasn’t, so I shook her, turned her over, slapped her again a few times. When I turned her back the right way she was still struggling to breathe, but there was a bit more life in her eyes.

Cuddling her and bouncing her up and down, gradually the colour returned to her lips and she started breathing, if not normally then at least no longer sounding like she was dying. She didn’t react to me, just stared away and kept yawning and closing her eyes, everything sluggish and drained, her eyelids pink and lurid.

Luckily we were only a few minutes from the local surgery, so I rushed her there and they put me straight in to see a doctor. She was so sleepy, she didn’t react to the thermometer in her ear or the stick in her mouth, but she did start to cry when the doctor listened to her chest.

The long and the short of it, she has a fever but her chest sounds clear and her throat isn’t swollen. The doctor thinks it’s one of three things:

  1. A fit, though with no other symptoms or a repeat performance, it’s difficult to say any more at this time.
  2. She choked on a foreign body or even her own saliva.
  3. She is ill, and sometimes children hold their breath  when they’re feeling rotten, even to the point of turning blue.

Reassured, I took her home and she has been asleep on me the last ninety minutes while I listen to her breathing. But oh my gosh, if you’ve ever known fear before becoming a parent, it’s a thousand times worse after. It was probably three minutes between seeing her lips were blue and the colour returning to them, but those three minutes have kicked the living crap out of me.

I only hope it is a one-off.

A Three-Year-Old’s Heartbreak

As the father to two girls, and two gorgeous ones at that (sure, I’m biased, but it’s a fact), I figured there’d be some heartbreak in my daughters’ futures…way, way, way in their futures, when we have flying cars and holodecks, and have managed to merge man and machine into perfect beings fully trained to deal with the ups and downs of human relationships.

[Sigh]

My three-year-old daughter was a little quiet when she came back from her playdate this afternoon. It was with a boy who calls her his ‘lady’, while she calls him ‘my man.’ She often tells me she’s going to marry him, although to be fair, she also says she wants to marry ‘everyone in the whole wide world’, so that’s not exactly an exclusive club.

So I asked her what was wrong, and she said he’d told her he didn’t want to be her man anymore and she was no longer his lady. He has another lady, and he’s her man.

Oh. My. God.

With quivering lip and big fat tears spilling from her eyes, she said, ‘I want to be his lady. I loved being his lady. Why doesn’t he want me to be his lady?’

She sobbed her little heart out in my arms, and I think it broke my heart as much as hers. ‘I just want to be his lady. Why can’t I be his lady?’

It would be cute if not for the fact that rejection hurts no matter how old you are. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn – that no matter how much you might like someone, they might not like you back, or worse, prefer somebody else. I told her it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her, and it’s nothing that she’s done – it’s just something that happens sometimes. People’s feelings change, and there’ll be plenty more boys to come who’ll be glad to call her their lady.

I felt a bit useless, really. I guess all you can do is cuddle her, tell her you love her and always will. And hope you’re better prepared to deal with it next time.

In honesty, I always thought if a guy broke my daughter’s heart, I’d break his kneecaps. Never thought he’d be a three-year-old, though…

Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.