An Aspie Family Christmas

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a wife with the same, I have just experienced an incredibly stressful holiday season that has left my nerves in shreds and my marriage hanging on a knife-edge. For the avoidance of future issues, and to help out my fellow Aspies and their families, I thought I’d share what happened to me and offer some friendly advice on how to make things run more smoothly.

1. Keep the disruption short

My wife asked if we could spend a few days over Christmas with her sister and family, a four-hour drive away from home. As a supportive husband and father, of course I said yes. Two or three days at somebody else’s house is about my limit.

It wasn’t until two weeks before Christmas that I discovered my wife had actually arranged six days with her sister. I protested and tried to change it, only to be told by the wider family that it had already been arranged and changing it would be inconvenient. For them. The neurotypical ones.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I loaded the car with everything including the kitchen sink (a toy for my daughter), and we set off.

In short, it was two rather pleasant days, two rather annoying days, and two days in which I wanted to push people off the quayside and throw stones at them as they struggled to stay afloat.

People with autism need space to recharge our batteries. I’m not talking simply physical space – we need mental space, a way to escape the slowly building pressures and strains of being forced into relentless and unpredictable social situations. Such a thing is generally impossible in an unfamiliar environment filled with somebody else’s stuff and driven by rules and routines different from your own.

Without this release, as time goes on you become more tired, more stressed, more prickly, more antisocial, less able to cope. And then you look and act like an asshole as you start to isolate yourself, avoid eye-contact, mumble two-word responses to questions, and refuse to participate, all as a way of surviving. And are told this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be behaving over Christmas. By neurotypical people. Whom you already warned that you’d get like this if you had to spend six days with them, but who chose to ignore it anyway.

So to the families of Aspies – think carefully about the duration of the holiday arrangements, and when your loved one is showing signs of stress, leave them alone. You might think that trying to include them in activities will bring them out of their funk, but in reality it’ll likely make things worse as they’ll feel pressurised and even more trapped than they already do.

2. Keep the numbers small

I had been informed that there would be a total of eight people at Christmas, including myself, my wife and my two kids, perhaps because it was known that I’d become anxious or refuse to go if this number was any higher. So imagine my surprise when a further seven people turned up, to take up every spare room in the house and leave me to feed the baby on a hard wooden chair at the dining room table every night.

I’ve mentioned many times before that autism is an exhausting disorder. When I’m with other people I spend inordinate amounts of mental energy consciously processing those things that most neurotypical people take for granted, namely how to have a conversation, when it’s my turn to speak, what I should talk about, how I should phrase things, where I should look, how much eye-contact I should make, how to interpret what they’re saying, reading their body language, regulating my posture and my proximity, working out relationships, the appropriate register, making sure I’m not talking too loudly or too soft, dominating the conversation or saying something inappropriate. I do all this to ‘pass’ for normal in a process called masking, and it is incredibly stressful, overwhelming and draining, and causes massive anxiety.

That’s with just one other person. Put me in a house with fourteen other people and I’m on overload. I can’t mentally process so many inputs and interactions, and something has to give – normally my peace of mind and my ability to function. I tend to come across at these times as arrogant and antisocial as I struggle to regulate what I say or how I should say it. My coping mechanism is to withdraw from the social encounter, deal with people one-to-one, minimise the number of simultaneous interactions – something that’s impossible in a crowd.

So if you want your Aspie family member to have a good time during holidays, less really is more.

3. If you make a plan, stick to it

It is well known – so well known, in fact, that it’s hardly worth mentioning – that people with autism hate change. I have discussed this many times and pointed out that it’s slightly more nuanced than that. My wife, for example, cannot handle change that involves the cancellation of something already arranged. I am the opposite – cancelling things doesn’t really bother me, but adding things in with little or no warning makes me freak out. The looseness of Christmas exposed my wife and I to both of these types of change, leading to great emotional distress for both of us.

Our second day was a case in point. It had long been arranged that everyone would go for a walk at the beach in the morning and in the afternoon someone would kindly look after our kids so my wife and I could head off to a coastal village to have a look around and spend some adult time together.

We left the house at 11.45 and arrived at the beach for 12.30, which by my reckoning, as a stickler for accuracy, is not morning. A minor point, perhaps, but incredibly frustrating for a person with autism. An hour’s walk in the wind and rain at the beach and I was more than ready to go back to the house, head off to the pretty village, and spend some quality time with my wife.

Unfortunately, somebody suddenly announced, ‘We’ve decided we’re all going to the pub for a drink.’ And that was that.

My wife was okay with this, as an additional activity is fine for her. I, on the other hand, panicked. Telling me I have to go into a stressful social situation – a dark, noisy, crowded pub at Christmas with people I don’t know very well – with barely a couple of minutes to get my head around it caused me massive unnecessary anxiety. For other people, going into a pub is probably a pleasant experience – for me, it is a torture that must be endured, and I need to mentally prepare myself for that. Unable to do so, I found it horrendous.

Unfortunately, staying at the pub over an hour, walking back to the car, driving back to the house, meant it was nearly dark by the time we got there. Then the person who said they would look after our kids had to prepare the food for dinner, thus we were unable to go to the coastal village. While I found this annoying because I’d been looking forward to it, my wife found this change of plan – the cancellation of something already arranged for no good reason – very upsetting and difficult to process.

Most of the people I know with Asperger’s suffer problems with anxiety, and changing plans tends to send our anxieties skyrocketing. Indeed, it can ruin our whole day as dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout lasts for hours. So if you must add or remove something from the schedule, make sure it’s for a good reason and not simply because of a sudden whim. A little sensitivity goes a long way to sparing your Aspie relatives a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

4. Don’t expect others to conform to your emotional standards

I lost count of the number of times I was told to cheer up, be happy, enjoy myself, join in, stop being a bah humbug, as though my emotional reactions were somehow ‘wrong’ because they differed from those of the people around me. Not only, therefore, was I expected to behave in a neurotypical manner and suppress my natural tendency towards a quiet, ordered life, I was also denied the right to feel my own perfectly normal emotions.

I was even told that, as my kids made it ‘magical’, I should feel magical. I asked precisely when an adjective had become an emotion and if such a feeling could be described to me, and therein lies the rub – people with autism often struggle to understand or appreciate their emotions. I certainly approach them from an intellectual viewpoint, and I find the concept of happiness, as it relates to me, very confusing.

To me, happiness isn’t about feeling good, it’s about not feeling bad. If I am ‘enjoying myself’ it means I feel absolutely nothing – the everpresent irritation, the tightness between my shoulder blades, that electrical storm of focused energy that buzzes around inside my head as I process, process, process, are not there. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling or jumping up and down. If I’m reading in a corner I’m quite possibly quietly content.

But like most people with Asperger’s, I won’t lie, and perhaps that’s why I stand out. I found Christmas extremely difficult, and when people asked how I was feeling, I told the truth. While everyone else was supposedly having ‘such a good time’, I spotted tears when they thought nobody was looking, heard whispered arguments from behind closed doors, noticed when formerly talkative people fell strangely silent and when couples sat beside one another without a single word passing between them beyond mildly passive-aggressive statements. So maybe I’m not so different after all.

I played with my kids and made sure they were happy, and I’m not sure why everyone was so bothered that I should display outward signs of pleasure for their own gratification. It seems to me less about making sure I’m enjoying myself and more about feeling threatened that somebody isn’t buying into the same sentimental bullshit that they are.

So don’t heap added pressure on your Aspie relatives by expecting them to feel a certain way – we’re already expected to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. Allow us our own emotions and to react exactly how we react, and we’ll do the same with you.

5. Turn off the gosh-darned music

As soon as the household arose, the radio went on. As it was rigged up throughout the house, the music would play in the kitchen, the dining room and the lounge, at quite a loud level, right up until bedtime. This was despite people coming and going, having conversations, playing games, making phone calls, watching videos on their handheld devices, and everything else that goes on in a house at Christmas.

My God, it was overwhelming. It was like a thousand tiny drills boring into your brain morning, noon and night. When you’ve heard Shane MacGowan slur his way through Fairytale of New York six times by lunch, you’re ready to agree with that line ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.’

People with autism tend to have oddly-balanced sensory systems. Normally, we have very sensitive hearing and struggle to filter out one sound from another. Stick me in a house with fourteen other people over Christmas and I can hear three or four simultaneous conversations, making it very difficult to pay attention to my book and thus get the mental space that I need. Add music to the mix and my sensory system is utterly overwhelmed, especially when that music is loud.

So spare a thought for your autistic relatives over Christmas – a quiet space or some quiet time is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.

6. Don’t lecture from a position of ignorance

While walking towards the aforementioned (awful, awful) pub, I explained my reservations to a member of my wife’s family. ‘For me,’ I said, ‘going to a pub is the equivalent of sitting a really difficult exam. I discussed this last month with Luke Jackson, an autistic author, and we agreed that while for most neurotypical people going to the pub is relaxing, for those of us with autism it’s jolly hard work. You see, you go to work, get stressed, and then go to the pub to unwind. But while you’re unwinding, we’re becoming more and more wound up. Afterwards, you go home and go to bed because you’re relaxed. We go home more stressed than when we left, and then have to spend a few hours unwinding and de-stressing before we can be relaxed enough to go to bed, which is awfully tiring and has a knock-on effect for the following days. That’s what it is to have autism and why I’d rather we didn’t go to this pub.’

Quite clear, I thought, frank, easy to understand. So how did he respond (other than, ‘Cheer up, you miserable bugger.’)?

He said, ‘Oh, how ridiculous. No, I don’t believe that at all.’

‘Well, that’s the way it is.’

‘No, of course it’s not.’

And that’s the level of understanding I tend to get from my wife’s family. This is just one of multiple examples over the six days of me explaining to someone how my autism affects me, only to have them disagree with it. What? Why on earth would you belittle and undermine my understanding of my own condition and my own behaviour!?!

With all humility aside, I am an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects me. I’m sought out to give speeches educating people about autism and I’ve written a well-received book about it, for Christ’s sake, one that’s sitting in the health section of every Waterstones in the UK. So why on earth would you dismiss what I say because you think you know best about a subject you have never studied, experienced or lived with?

Probably because there were some subsequent discussions about how ‘Asperger’s didn’t exist in my day,’ and how there are far too many people walking around using modern diagnoses as an excuse to cop out of life. Because that’s not condescending at all!

So if you want to keep cordial relations with your Aspie relatives, be sure to treat their expertise with the understanding and appreciation it deserves. Unless you’re a bigot, in which case we probably don’t want anything to do with you.

7. Bringing up the supposed links between MMR and autism isn’t going to win you any friends

 

I always find it strange that people dare bring this up. Without knowing very much about it, surely they know it’s a controversial conspiracy theory and therefore inappropriate to raise with people they don’t know from Adam. I don’t go up to somebody with cancer and say, ‘Hey, have you heard they have a cure for cancer, but they keep it hidden because they can make more money treating the disease than curing it?’ because that would be remarkably insensitive.

I have explained at length that MMR does not cause autism, and am armed with enough facts to shoot down any and all attempts to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people like my mother-in-law and various people in the house over Christmas telling me that my wife’s autism was caused by the MMR jab.

‘Andrew Wakefield was paid a hefty sum of money to find a link between MMR and autism so people could make compensation claims,’ I told them. ‘He was also marketing his own competing vaccine. This is what we call a conflict of interest and why his study has been completely discredited.’

‘He’s very popular in America.’

‘He had to go to America because he was struck off by the GMC for faking his research.’

‘Well, I still think he’s right.’

‘No, he’s not. The only study suggesting a link between MMR and autism had a sample size of twelve and was faked, whereas meta-analyses of studies featuring over 14.7 million kids – yes, 14.7 million – showed no statistically significant difference in rates of autism between those who’d had the vaccine and those who hadn’t.’

‘Well, I think that if you’re genetically predisposed towards autism, the shock of having three vaccines at once can trigger it.’

‘But where’s the evidence for that? If that was true, proportionately more people who’d had MMR would have autism than those who didn’t have the vaccine, and that’s not the case.’

‘She was different after she had the MMR. I know she was.’

And so I had to bite my tongue, or else I’d say something suitably cutting. Emotion trumps logic every time, and that’s damned annoying.

So don’t bring up this crap with your Aspie relatives during an already stressful time and then argue against facts with feelings. As I said, autism is my area of expertise, and trying to make out that you know more than me about it just makes you look ignorant.

8. And lastly, compromise is not a dirty word.

Nor are compassion, empathy or understanding. It seems odd that those of us with autism, who have clearly defined and specific needs, are the ones expected to fit in with everyone else. Yes, the ones who, because of their condition, have the least capacity to modify their behaviour to suit others are the ones who have to make the effort to adapt their behaviour to suit others. It doesn’t really strike one as fair, does it?

I’m not saying that the neurotypical side should make all the movement, but surely we could meet somewhere in the middle? It might make Christmas a little more enjoyable for all of us.

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A New Man for a New Year

When you become a dad, you have this idea that you’re going to get to be a man. I say ‘get to be’ because manliness and masculinity are somewhat vilified these days. We’re meant to be in touch with our feminine side, have opinions about soft furnishings, sculpt our eyebrows, wax our nut-sacks, and take longer than a supermodel to get ready for a night out. It’s rather telling that the male sex symbols of yesteryear had chiselled jaws, gravelly voices and rugged good looks, while those of today are pubescent boys who can sing like girls and are incapable of growing body hair. There’s no way I can compete with that.

So it’s nice to have an excuse to release the savage beast.

I’m not talking about boorish lad culture – booze, boobs, birds and balls. I’m talking about what were considered the traditional manly virtues of strength, courage and inventiveness. After all, men built the wheel, crossed oceans on ships made of iron, and tamed the very landscape with the sweat of their brows. In a family, the man used to be the provider, the protector, the lawgiver and the master of all he surveyed. Who wouldn’t want that?

I pictured myself hunting mammoths, fighting off packs of saber-toothed tigers, and decorating my cave with the skulls of my enemies as I bathed in the tears of their women. I am masculinity incarnate, red in tooth and claw. See my chest hair and hear me roar for I am MAN!

When I’m a dad, I thought, I’m going to be a cross between Alan Quartermain and Rambo.

The reality of being a house-husband to two little girls is somewhat different.

I spent most of Christmas sitting cross-legged on the floor sipping pretend tea from a flowery tin tea set, and saying things like, ‘Mmm, lovely,’ and, ‘Thank you, yes, I will have another pink plastic macaroon.’ That’s when I wasn’t watching child-friendly crap like Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s my Donkey? and Frozen, and resisting my daughter’s entreaties to shave off my beard as it’ll make me look ‘very pretty’. Let it go, honey, let it go.

I cooed over little tinkles in the potty, gave her high-fives for eating her crusts, and hugged her through the night as she woke up with bad dreams. I changed nappies in three separate female toilets because despite it being 2018 already, many eating and drinking establishments haven’t yet realised that a man might be the primary carer. And I started to perfect my hair-plaiting skills, which is pretty far from the strong hunter-gatherer I thought I would be.

And then a couple of days back, I found myself sitting very still while my two-year-old got out her toy makeup kit and pretended to do my makeup – lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher, eye-liner and mascara. She even tried to fix a shiny plastic princess tiara in my hair, but failed as I have no hair.

Eventually she sat back to admire her work, nodded, pleased, and said, ‘Willy bustle.’

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

Now, as somebody obsessed with words and their meanings, I rapidly extrapolated the following:

willy – n., British, inf., the male member; penis; symbol of masculinity.

bustle – n. a wooden frame worn under a skirt to puff it out at the back.

And so:

willy bustle – n. a cage beneath a woman’s skirts where she keeps her man’s masculinity imprisoned.

My God, I suddenly realised. She’s absolutely right. I’ve been completely emasculated. Since becoming a stay-at-home dad, my manhood has slowly and surely been removed until I no longer have anything down there. I am a Ken doll – an empty, de-sexualised piece of plastic that other people dress up and play with for their own amusement. I have no power whatsoever.

I don’t get to decide when I get up in the morning or what time I go to bed. I don’t get to decide when I eat, or whether my food will be warm or left to go cold. I don’t get to decide when I make myself a drink or when I go to the toilet. Oftentimes, I don’t even get to decide what clothes I wear – I throw on yesterday’s as I hurry downstairs so as not to disturb my wife’s beauty sleep. My life is a parade of doing things for other people. As a parent, so far, so normal.

But my powerlessness extends far beyond mere parenting: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, I’m clearly no Englishman. My wife and her father bought a house together, and a few years later, I moved in with her, so despite it being our house, it is still seen as hers. I have no say over what comes into the house or what goes out; who comes and when and for how long; where things go; how it’s decorated; what pets we have. I don’t decide where we go for holidays, what activities we partake in, or what car we drive. As my wife is a spendaholic and hoarder, I don’t decide what toys or clothes my kids get, or which ones are given away, no matter how horribly spoiled they’re becoming. I’m not allowed to say what I really think to her family members when they belittle my parenting abilities in my own home. And since my wife doesn’t want to be ‘controlled by a man’, she makes arrangements and goes out without considering me, leaving me at home alone with the baby.

She keeps my manhood locked up in a cage beneath her skirt.

Why don’t you put your foot down? I hear you ask. Simple. If ever I resist, I’m told that it’s her house and I know where the door is, and if I go, she’ll get custody of the kids because ‘the courts are always on the side of the mother.’ So even though we have established that I no longer have a penis, my sex will still be held against me. And that’s just not right.

As a man, I need my power, my respect and my dignity. As a human being, we all need that, but as a man, I need it especially. It doesn’t matter whether you believe gender difference is a social construct or something innate, or as I do somewhere in-between, it is an important part of a person’s identity, psychology and means of understanding their place in the world. It might be unpopular to say it, but I’m going to:

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

I am sick of being told that masculinity is something bad. I’m sick of how it’s totally okay to judge somebody simply because they’re a man. I’m sick of having to hide or suppress my totally normal masculinity because we are creating a society in which you’re meant to be ashamed of being male.

Things are changing. I felt so utterly powerless last week that I shaved my head in protest. And I am growing my beard long so there’s no mistaking that I am no longer going to be anybody’s bitch.

I’ve spent nine years making sacrifices to keep other people happy. I’ve spent nine years pussy-footing around, compromising on my needs, burying my instincts for fear of coming across as old-fashioned and chauvinistic. And where has it got me? Am I respected for being a martyr? Am I appreciated for going without while those around me take, take, take?

No. I’m a new man for a New Year, and I’m not going to take shit from anybody.

Wow, that got dark pretty quickly. So to lighten the mood, back to my willy bustle.

‘Honey,’ I called to my wife, with my pretend mascara and eye-shadow and blusher. ‘Izzie keeps saying willy bustle.’

‘She’s saying “really special”,’ my wife replied.

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

‘Daddy’s not special,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s manly and dangerous and he has a beard. And I’m in charge.’

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

‘It’s my way or the highway, kiddo,’ I said.

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.

A Christmas Parenting Problem

My daughter is a very boisterous child. She’s happiest when she’s falling off things and engaging in rough and tumble. She climbs up shelving units, jumps off the arms of sofas, spins in circles until she loses balance and crashes into the nest tables, runs until she trips and crashes down on grass, carpet, wood or concrete, and very rarely cries as a result of these semi-deliberate ‘accidents’. I’m sure she’s in training to be a stuntwoman. Her legs are a patchwork quilt of bruises and grazes and cuts, which she pokes and fusses over like they’re curiosities or badges of honour.

She’s a double-hard bastard, is what I’m trying to say. Despite being 17-months-old, her preferred playmates are kids aged 4-7 with whom she can wrestle, dance, and generally get up to mischief. She’s pretty much fearless. I get very concerned when she plays with kids her own age because she’s so excitable, energetic and rough that someone always seem to get hurt – and by ‘someone’, I mean whomever else happens to be playing with her. She’s a happy, confident and very contented child.

Which is why it’s all the more unexpected that she’s terrified of Santa.

She saw him a fortnight ago and screamed herself hoarse. She saw him last week and screamed herself hoarse. She saw a cut out of him on the wall of her soft play and pointed at it, shook her head and said, ‘Bad man’ (or she thinks Batman has really let himself go). She won’t go near the Christmas tree because it’s got a four-inch knitted Santa on it. She saw him on Peppa Pig and backed up ten feet until she was up against the wall, never once taking her eyes from the screen. She even went through a stack of CDs, came upon a picture of an elderly Brahms, and burst into tears. Clearly, overweight men with white beards are some kind of trigger to her – I’d better try not to let myself go (any further than I already have).

All of this would be a minor problem were I not married to a person who thinks that rather than peace, love and goodwill to all men, Christmas is actually all about trees, tinsel, markets, carol concerts, and a rather rotund gentleman with a penchant for dishing out presents from his sack. Indeed, my wife clung to a belief in Santa Claus far longer than would be considered rational, and I often have arguments with her over the existence or otherwise of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic (statements such as, ‘But how do you know they’re not real?’ and ‘What evidence is there that they don’t exist?’ show exactly where she believes the burden of proof should lie!).

Unfortunately we have two upcoming appointments with St Nick – prebooked, prepaid and non-refundable – and my wife’s love of Yuletide being what it is, there is no way in hell I can persuade her to cancel. The first is innocuous enough: a garden centre. We walk down a tunnel filled with twinkly lights, fake snow and geographically mismatched wildlife (I can accept flying reindeer, but polar bears mixing with penguins? Forget about it!), and we meet Santa in a little room at the end. If she screams, vomits or has any kind of adverse reaction, we can simply head for the nearest exit. Simple.

The other encounter I’m less optimistic about: it’s on a train.

The thought of sitting next to a screaming toddler while Santa enters the front of the carriage and slowly makes his way from the front to the back, stopping to greet and cuddle and provide gifts to every child along the way, fills me with dread. Not to mention the fact that I really don’t take any pleasure from exposing the little one to a situation that upsets, terrifies and traumatises her.

So, the past two weeks I’ve been trying everything I can to convince her that Santa is actually a very affable, non-threatening, child-friendly individual – albeit one who sneaks into your room at night while you’re asleep, hoping you won’t wake up, so he can steal your milk and cookies. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Still, it could be worse, I suppose. If she develops a phobia of thirty-something men with neatly-trimmed ginger beards tinged with an increasing amount of grey – well, then we’d really have problems!

Partnership vs. Parenting

It has struck me of late how the requirements of being a partner and those of being a parent are often diametrically opposed.

It’s the quintessential conflict at the heart of Jane Austen – do we pick a partner based on practical considerations, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice, or do we marry for love, like Elizabeth Bennet? Actually, since Elizabeth Bennet only really warms up to Mr Darcy after she sees the size of his package (i.e. Pemberley), perhaps Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility is a better example. Except she decides not to marry the man she loves because she concludes he wouldn’t make her happy, so marries a rich guy old enough to be her father and learns to love him. And while Fanny Price marries for love in Mansfield Park, Edmund is her first cousin. In fact, the only character in Austen free to marry for love is the titular Emma – she’s the only one with an independent fortune who doesn’t need supporting by a man.

But whatever the case, that this is such a preoccupation in Austen’s novels shows that in Georgian times, it was a very real conflict. And so it still is in some areas of the modern world – the upper crust, for example, who seem to marry the person who fits the job description of ‘wife and mother’ while refusing to give up the mistresses they really love (no names mentioned). But for the most part, these days we in the Western world marry for love.

As partners, me and Lizzie are great for each other. While I’m a sensible, reclusive stick-in-the-mud, Lizzie is a childlike, emotionally-liberated basket case. While I fret about rules, money, going out, she ignores all propriety, splashes out on frivolities, and is so restless it’s nigh impossible to pin her down. Throughout our relationship, therefore, she’s encouraged me to let my hair down while I’ve helped her face up to her responsibilities – at least in part. She reminds me that the world is a magical place where fun should be had – I remind her that there are boundaries and we need to stay safe. That’s why we love each other.

Trouble is, the very things that you love in a partner are not necessarily very attractive in the parent of your child. In fact, they’re often the opposite.

Before Izzie was born, we pulled each other towards the middle, but since the birth we seem to have returned to our outer limits – I am the responsible worrier again, Lizzie the frivolous spendthrift.

Unfortunately, these two mutually exclusive positions have been playing havoc in our household of late. The most commonly used phrase in the past six months, since I became primary carer extraordinaire and Lizzie has struggled with her role as mother, has been, ‘Look, you don’t need to make things easier for me, just don’t make them any harder than they already are.’

I hate being the responsible one, the one who has to rein the other in, the one who has to say no more often than he can say yes. But it is the role I’ve had to take. And being a parent spills over into being a partner: those very things I love about Lizzie – her clumsiness, her messiness, her devil-may-care attitude – have lately been driving me insane.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the festive season. Christmas is different as a parent – at least it was for me. Normally I look forward to it, get excited, wake with boundless joy Christmas morn, suffer agonising anti-climax once the presents are opened, recover enough by lunchtime to be contented, and wobble in a confused daze until New Year where I’m filled with hope over the coming months and regret over where I’d considered I’d be by this stage of my life. And Lizzie, well, she lived through every one of those experiences and emotions, and then some.

I didn’t. I lived from day to day, hour to hour. Bottles, milk, solids, steriliser, muslins, bibs, toys, car seat. Have we got enough nappies? The baby wipes? Where’s her extra vest in case she soils this one? Teething gel? Spare dummy? While Lizzie dressed the baby in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats and woke her up to sing Auld Lang Syne, I fed her and changed her and rocked her back to sleep. While Lizzie drank champagne and ripped open presents, I listened to the baby monitor and kept the noise down. I didn’t mind it – Izzie was my stable anchor in the chaos of the silly season – but it hammered home how different we are, as parents, as partners, and as people.

If we were living in Georgian times, choosing our partners based on practical considerations, then, hand on heart, I doubt that many of us would have chosen the people we’re with now. We’d have chosen people who were different, better, smarter, funnier, kinder. I can’t imagine I’m the only person with a young child who’s looked around at other people and thought – if only I’d picked them, how much easier would my life be now?

But such thoughts are nothing more than fantasies. It’s so easy when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed, overfed, and surrounded by twinkling lights, to forget the important truth: we’re not living in Georgian times, and we didn’t choose our partners, at least not consciously – our hearts did. Not based on their parenting abilities, but because we loved them and love them still. Because they appealed to some intangible need or desire deep down within ourselves that only they could fulfil.

Lizzie might annoy the hell out of me as the mother of my child, but there’s nobody else I’d rather share my life with. It’s separating out these two conflicting realities that’s the hard part.

Christmas Shenanigans

Christmas in a photo - the world as a blur!
Christmas in a photo – the world as a blur!

What has Izzie learned to do over the Christmas period? A whole heap, it seems.

Raspberries. She was pretty good before, but she’s perfected it now – perhaps because the funniest thing in the world is when daddy blows them on her belly and on her neck.

But I have created a monster.

It’s okay when she’s chomping on a wooden spoon – she blows on the bowl and uses her fingers along the handle like she’s playing a clarinet. And it’s tolerable when she has the dummy in her mouth – it just sounds like a lot of farts. But when she does it with food in her mouth – porridge, mushed-up carrots, rusks – it’s not pretty at all. Especially as I tend to be sitting right in front of her trying to feed her at the time. And she finds that pretty funny too.

She’s also making weird faces recently, like she’s trying to learn how all the muscles work. Mostly, she does duck impressions, sucking in her bottom lip, sticking out her top lip, and burbling. I guess it’s part of the process of learning to speak – after all the vowel sounds, double-ues and gees, she’s starting to make bee noises and something approximating an em, and the other day she randomly blurted out, ‘Hey you!’ which terrified the heck out of me.

Noise is something she’s fallen in love with over Christmas. The aforementioned wooden spoon that used to keep her quiet is now a drumstick for cracking out a rhythm on the tray of her high chair (always with her left hand). And the dummy is no longer a tool to help her sleep – it’s a passive-aggressive torture device she rattles back and forth along the slats of her cot like a prisoner with a mug along the bars of his cage. When she’s not laughing, that is, because bedtime is now an opportunity to chat to her teddy bears, kick the wooden headboard repeatedly, and generally have an amazing time.

Though she really ought to be tired, considering she barely sleeps at all during the day. She gets tired but she fights it, gets stroppy but resists any attempt to quieten her down, spits out her dummy, rubs her eyes, and cries. In fact, the sound she makes reminds me of that scene in Jaws where Quint is being eaten by the shark. She doesn’t want to miss anything, you see, though what she’s afraid of missing, I have no idea. The opportunity to be a nuisance, perhaps.

Because she’s loving being a nuisance too. She throws the dummy down the back of the cot so I have to pull the drawers out and crawl underneath to retrieve it (never fun at three in the morning). When she’s on her play mat she kicks the uprights over so it rolls up and buries her.

Help!
Help!

She constantly tries to turn the spoon round and jam the handle down her throat, and keep your face away from her if you value your ears – her current speciality is scrunching them up in her hands and digging in her fingernails, which is excruciatingly painful. And if she gets your phone, somewhere between chewing on the corner and drooling into the earphone socket, she sets the alarm for four in the morning.

But woe betide if you try to take it off her, because she knows what she wants.

If you think you're taking my spoon, you've got another think coming, mister!
If you think you’re taking my spoon, you’ve got another think coming, mister!

She’s become fixated with the TV controller and screams if you prise her robot-strong fingers off it. She wants to stand up all the time, not sit, not crawl – stand. So this morning when we put her in her chair for breakfast she slammed her little fists into the arms and stamped her feet  like an eight-year-old throwing a tantrum – she’s six months, for crying out loud. And the ball pit we bought her for Christmas isn’t going to get much use because all she does is press her face to the little holes in the side and strain to get out.

Get me the hell out of here!
Get me the hell out of here!

Which goes to show that the old adage is true: kids would rather play with the box than the toy within it. She got approximately a million toys for Christmas, and her favourite toy from the whole period? The bag container from inside the nappy bin. Typical!

Thanks, dad! It's just what I always wanted!
Thanks, dad! It’s just what I always wanted!

But at least she’s not the dog, who followed the gingerbread house with a bag of popping candy chocolate orange segments…