AS, Parenting and Mental Exhaustion

Now that Izzie is crawling, standing, climbing and talking (albeit gibberish), people keep telling me how this is the best, most exciting, and most rewarding time of raising a baby. Those first months where she slept and cuddled and needed, needed, needed were boring, challenging, the hardest slog, but now that she’s interactive and starting to give something back, you can enjoy it. Now it gets interesting.

I have to admit, I feel the opposite.

It’s my belief that Asperger’s Syndrome is at root a problem with information processing. We have no problem taking in vast quantities of information, but our brains are so structured that we compartmentalize this data. It’s in trying to interpret it – to work out how it relates to everything else and what it all means – that we struggle.

I can explain it much better using an orange.

Imagine that each piece of information that goes into making a concept, activity or understanding about the world is a single segment of an orange. A neurotypical person only needs to see one segment, or at the very most two or three, in order to realise they’re parts of an orange, and since they know what an orange looks like, they can construct the orange – the concept, the understanding – without needing to find the rest of the segments or even really thinking about it.

Not so if you have Asperger’s.

You get a piece of information – a segment – and you store it in one part of your mind. Then you find another piece, and even though it relates to the first and is part of the same orange, you don’t have the faculties to realise this, so you store it in a totally different part of your mind. And you keep going like that, and even when you have all the pieces, and you’ve seen an orange before, you can’t work out what it’s meant to look like, so you cram these segments together, trying to work out how they fit, and throwing some things out, and adding bits that aren’t supposed to be there, and ultimately making something you’re happy with but that, to anybody else, looks nothing like an orange.

Thus, in order to compensate for our deficits and function on a daily basis, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have to expend huge amounts of mental energy. What comes naturally to so many neurotypical people, we have to consciously process, and like a computer, we only have a limited amount of processing power.

This is why socialising is so exhausting. Interpreting what people are saying, how they’re saying it, what they mean, in what way they mean it, what you should say, what you shouldn’t say, when you should say it, is your voice too loud, too quiet, do they understand you, are you standing too close, are you making too much eye-contact or not enough, what’s the relationship between this person and that person, how are you coming across, and what does it all mean, while trying not to get distracted by music, other conversations, traffic noise, light bulbs, their deodorant, the way the sun is reflecting off someone’s forehead, and the fact their DVD collection isn’t alphabetized, is excruciating. It’s no wonder we so often become overwhelmed and suffer burnout. And why we need extended down time to recover.

So how does this relate to being a dad?

I liken it to the old people’s home I used to work in. Those upstairs were frail and grumpy, but were compos mentis and had simple needs – toileting, bathing, dressing, eating and sleeping. After working seventeen straight hours without a break, I’d be physically exhausted but mentally quite alert. Other than latent old-fashioned racism (‘That dark girl has stolen my pearls.’ ‘You’re wearing them, Gladys.’), it was a breeze.

Downstairs, behind code-locked doors, were the Alzheimer’s and dementia residents. Most of them were able-bodied, and so working with them wasn’t nearly as physically tiring as working upstairs. Mentally, however, it was like being hit with a crowbar.

You’d have a suddenly-naked ninety-year-old man charge at you with his willy in his hand, turn around to find a woman trying to remove non-existent make-up with cutlery. You’d try to console a former naval officer sobbing over a cat that had been dead for fifty years, before bathing a woman who screamed at the top of her lungs all day long. You ever tried shaving a man who’s spitting at you? Fighting off the advances of a woman who thinks you’re her long lost lover back from the dead?

I’d go home after a shift downstairs and my back wouldn’t ache, my feet wouldn’t hurt, and I’d be capable of running a marathon, but good golly, my brain would be mush. Trying to process the assault of noise, colour, emotion, attempts at communication – it left me useless for the whole night and into the next day.

And that’s how it is with Izzie.

When she was little, it was physically demanding but mentally easy – she spent half the time asleep and the rest of it feeding or pooping. Her needs were simple, her sounds were few and explicable, it was easy to know what she wanted and to cater to that. It was like she was an extension of myself and I loved it, because I was good at it and it worked.

Now, however, she has morphed into a person, entire of herself and completely separate from me. Since my problems revolve around interactivity, having a suddenly very interactive child is something I’m struggling with. She’s become incredibly complicated. It’s like I’m behind those code-locked doors again, downstairs in the dark.

These days, Izzie is in near-constant motion from six in the morning till gone seven at night. Instead of cuddles and sleep, she’s climbing on the furniture, chasing after the dog, throwing tantrums if you take the TV remote off her, fighting you when you change her nappy. Mealtimes are complicated affairs where you try to get enough nutrients and fluid into her while getting it spat and flung back into your face. You can’t take your eyes off her for thirty seconds or she’s unplugging the telephone or ripping the pages out of your favourite book. And no matter what you do, it seems to be wrong.

She’s learning at an astronomical rate, discovering new textures, tastes, sounds, skills, vocalizations, facial expressions. She laughs, she shouts, she reaches for you, she pulls your hair, and you spend all day right there with her, trying to keep up. And every new texture, taste, sound, skill, vocalization and facial expression, I’m trying to interpret it, trying to process it, trying not to get left behind. Am I doing it right, how do I keep her safe, what does she want, what does she need, why’s she doing that, is this right, what should I do, has she eaten enough, I’ve got to catch her if she falls, what rules should I make for this, and that, and the other, and what does it all mean?

And that’s before we factor in visits from family and friends, health visitors, nursery nurses, social workers, care coordinators and support workers, and the everyday trivia of shopping, cooking, cleaning, writing, working, which create a whole bunch of processing issues of their own.

Mentally, I’m mush.

This interactive stage, before babies can express themselves but after they have a need to do so, is by far the hardest part of parenting I’ve experienced. Lizzie is loving it, but I can’t help counting down the hours until Izzie goes to bed, and that’s making me feel like a crap dad, especially as I keep being told that this is meant to be such an amazing period. By the time I’ve got Izzie down, I’m not fit for anything in the evening but staring numbly into space, my brain trying to make oranges out of everything I’ve seen and done. Throw in a touch of SAD and I can feel the Black Dog circling ever closer to me again.

I have an adorable daughter and I seem to be doing a good job of raising her. Physically, it’s easier than ever. But oh my gosh I’m finding it mentally exhausting at the moment.

Perhaps this is just something I’ll have to get used to.

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!

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…

Codependent Parenting

Izzie’s crawling! Well, not crawling as such – commando crawling, as though she’s in combat fatigues on an army assault course while someone fires a machine gun over her head.

You can’t believe how happy we were the first time we saw her do it. I knew she could get about somehow because every night when I go to check on her, she’s up the top of the cot, head pressed hard against the headboard, neck at an acute angle, and fast asleep – despite it being a position Rip van Winkle would struggle to find comfortable.

The same sense of pride and accomplishment comes from her walking. If you stand behind her and hold her hands, she’s off! Today we toddled ten metres in a single stretch. She giggles while she’s doing it, excited that she’s a big girl now. In a room full of people, I absolutely burn with pride because she’s only six-months old.

But then I started thinking: how insecure am I if I need to show off about how quickly my daughter is developing? And how shallow am I that everyone’s amazement at how ahead-of-the-curve she is feels like a personal compliment to me? Her rapid development is mostly down to genetics and her own personality, so why am I claiming it as my own achievement? And why does it feel so much better than my own accomplishments?

I mean, in the past year I’ve won four short-story writing competitions, got a distinction for my Masters Degree, and a publisher is interested in my book on autism, yet this feels like nothing next to the fact that Izzie can take off her own nappy. Which begs the question: have I become codependent with my own daughter?

The signs are there. My whole sense of purpose at the moment revolves around Izzie and her wellbeing. My emotional security rests on being able to meet her needs. I’m happy because I can keep her safe and secure. And the other day when we picked her up from her grandmother’s and she totally blanked me, I took it as a personal slight. She looked everywhere but at me – please look at daddy, tell me you missed me and you still love me, please, ah!

But then, perhaps it’s normal at this stage – below the age of one – for a parent to feel so connected to his child. It’s meant to be that way, right? We’re programmed by evolution to nurture our children, protect them, because they’re so vulnerable. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived as a species.

And the last few nights when I’ve been putting Izzie to bed, holding her close and rocking her to sleep, she’s taken out her dummy and pressed it into my mouth. How can you not be touched by such an innocent and selfless act of sharing?

That is, unless she’s actually saying, ‘Stop singing, dad, you sound like a jackass.’ Nah, I’m sure she does it because she loves me, right? Right?

Babies aren’t balls of clay

While walking the dog round the forest yesterday, I met a French lady who peered at the 16-odd pounds of baby strapped to my chest and asked me how old she was.

‘Just coming up to five months,’ I replied.

‘They grow up so fast,’ she said, and then added, ‘Make sure she grows up strong. There aren’t enough strong women in this world.’

Since I had no idea how to respond to that, I said, ‘I will. She’ll be a strong woman. She’ll be a Nobel Prize winner.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘We need more strong women. Promise me you’ll make her strong.’

‘I will,’ I repeated, as though solemnly undertaking a blood oath.

And then she was gone.

It was all a bit surreal, actually, particularly as her dog seemed to be a cross between a black lab and a hell hound, all teeth and drool and mad staring eyes. But for the rest of the walk, her imperative was bouncing around my head – make her strong, make her strong – and my agreement to do it.

But how exactly do you make a girl into a strong woman? Bathe her in ice water and dry her with sandpaper? Teach her to toy with men’s hearts and crush them underfoot like Miss Havisham’s pet Estella? Sure, I plan on taking her to karate lessons as soon as she’s old enough so she can defend herself, but other than that, I’m kind of at a loss as to how I’m meant to achieve this. And how much power over Izzie’s personality am I meant to have?

Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr John Watson, a behavioural psychologist and not Sherlock Holmes’ fictional biographer, said something along the lines of: ‘give me a dozen babies and I’ll make them into lawyers, doctors, artists, thieves or beggars depending on how I raise them and in spite of any natural proclivities they might have.’ Now, we know, and have known for a long time, that this is a pile of hooey – genetics and individual differences count equally as much as environmental factors in how we turn out – but people still seem to think that as parents we can control the development of our children.

My mother, for example – at the age of 27, while working for the police, I had a breakdown. Ten years later, my brother has just had a form of burn out after his wife left him and took the kids. So my mum is all, ‘Two kids, two breakdowns, how bad a mother am I? I should have made you stronger.’

So I asked her the same question: how, exactly, should she have made us stronger? Besides which, she tried – my parents used to send me to boys camp over the summer to build my character, toughen me up and force me to become more sociable. I found every summer a form of cruel and unusual punishment; my brother, on the other hand, was in his element. While I wandered down to the village every afternoon to lock myself in a toilet cubicle and cry, he thrived. While I was bookish and introverted, he was sociable and outgoing; while I was moody and introspective, he was laid back and confident. We were raised in the same house by the same parents and given the same guidance, moral framework and experiences, but were completely different people from the start. And the fact we both had breakdowns is plain bad luck, not a fault in our upbringing.

Because kids are not balls of clay that can be moulded into whatever we want – they’re people with their own thoughts, ideas, desires and abilities. Izzie already has a personality – two parts wilfulness, one part stubbornness, mixed with an insatiable curiosity and a happy disposition – and that’s without any input from me.

This is the lesson all parents need to learn – just because we made our children, it does not mean that we own them. They belong to the Universe. We brought them into being but they are themselves. They are not us in miniature, or a mirror of our beliefs and ideals. They are rivers that will find their own way to the sea, irrespective of the routes we took. We can guide them on their journey, steer them from our experience and insight, and love them for who they are – we cannot make them into something they’re not. They will disagree with us, and they’re not wrong to – for however much we teach our children, they teach us the same.

Will Izzie grow into a strong woman? I think so, because she’s fearless and determined already. All we have to do is nurture that independent spirit, and prevent it getting her into trouble. The same goes with any parent – we have to work with what is already there, and accept things as they are, instead of trying to turn our kids into something they’re not. So long as we remember that, we’ll be doing our job.

Stop Growing Up!

I must have a different concept of time to other people. ‘Can you believe she’s almost sixteen weeks old already?’ they say, as if it’s magically just happened on its own.

Yes, I can well believe it. I was there every day of the previous fifteen weeks.

A variation on this theme is, ‘I bet it feels like just yesterday she was born.’

Nope, it feels like she she was born 111 days ago. 111 long, hard, tiring but ultimately rewarding days. It feels like it was years ago, and I can barely remember my life before Izzie was born – it’s a grey blur where I had free time and sleep, like in a fairy tale.

Another old chestnut is, ‘Before you know it she’ll be eighteen and moving out.’

I’m not sure how she’ll be eighteen ‘before I know it’. I can’t imagine the upcoming hell of teething, toddling, talking and terrorising are going to slip by unnoticed. Nor can we get through eighteen birthdays, eighteen Christmasses, a million holidays, school trips, sports days, parent-teacher evenings, pimples, boyfriends and ‘the talk’ without being made aware, every step of the way, of the passage of time.

My whole life, time hasn’t passed for me as quickly as it seems to have done for others. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s Syndrome, the fact I pay attention to every little detail and don’t let anything past unless it’s been examined, interrogated, probed and analysed, every last ounce of information and experience wrung from it before it’s let go. At sixteen I felt I’d lived a lifetime, by twenty-five I was sure I’d lived three, and now, at thirty-five, I feel older than the dinosaurs.

So I’ve never understood how time can just fly by.

And yet, one piece of parenting advice has been ringing true of late: ‘Make the most of each moment because they grow so fast.’

Over the full range of eighteen years, the changes are going to be slow and steady and we can revel in them one by one. At this age, however – from about three months – the changes come thick and heavy and uncomfortably fast. I mean, yesterday Izzie had no idea her feet existed; today they’re the most exciting thing in the world and if she’s not staring at them or reaching for them, she’s stuffing them into her mouth.

The speed with which she’s come on in the past three weeks is incredible. She can now roll on her side…

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..support her own weight (albeit with a steadying hand)…

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…hold her own bottle…

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…put giraffes in her mouth…

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…and she’s teething. Which means if she isn’t talking non-stop, she’s trying to cram everything she can get her hands on into her mouth, or, failing that, chewing on her hands themselves.

What you lookin' at!?
What you lookin’ at!?

What is more, her personality is developing daily. She’s a happy, inquisitive, strong-willed, hyperactive sod with quite a temper on her if you don’t understand what she wants and respond quickly enough for her liking. If you make eye-contact with her while she’s feeding, she smiles and tries to talk to you, causing her to spill her milk everywhere and start to choke. But if you’re holding her while talking to someone else, she gets grumpy that she’s being left out of the conversation.

And she wants entertaining now, too. Things that interested her a fortnight ago aren’t good enough anymore. A few random noises? No, perform for me, daddy! When I sang Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ to her the other night, she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard, which was a little disconcerting given what it’s about (look it up if you don’t know). Then yesterday, when we were playing, I said to her in my best French accent, ‘Ah, ma petite pomme de terre!’ and she burst into tears and wouldn’t stop crying for ten minutes. So, soft rock, good, French, bad. Good to know.

The truth is, we have to make the most of each moment, because if you’re looking the other way, you’ll miss a world of development going on in your own living room. Right now, you have to embrace every moment or it’ll be gone forever, because they do indeed grow up fast.

So fast, in fact, that I’m actually feeling nostalgic about how she was a month ago – that baby that seemed to sleep a lot more, and struggled against us less. The baby that wasn’t quite as wilful as the one we’ve got now, because believe you me, she is going to be quite a handful – as stubborn and fiery-tempered as both of her parents. Or ‘determined’ and ‘passionate’, to put a positive spin on things.

In all honesty, part of this nostalgia comes from the fact that I’m scared of the future. It’s selfish and stupid, but I’ve been so darned good at this baby thing, I don’t want her to move on to the next phase. Lizzie takes her to baby groups and to parties and out swimming, and as Izzie grows up she’s going to love those things more and more. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I really struggle going to things like that, and while Lizzie has this innate understanding of toddlers and children, I never have, even as a child. As Izzie grows and becomes less like a baby, more like a toddler, and turns to her mum for the ‘fun’ things, I’m terrified of being left behind.

Of course, my relationship with Izzie will always be different from Lizzie’s relationship with her. I’m just paranoid that as she becomes more complex, I’ll struggle to relate to her or understand her as I do now, and that would break my heart.

But then, I think that in this society, we’re programmed to believe that change wrought by time is universally bad. You lose your hair, your teeth, and your bladder control; standards drop everywhere you look; kids run around like rootless, feckless waifs; and you don’t understand the world you live in anymore.

Clearly, given the numbers who tell you to cherish every moment, plenty of people feel as though their children ‘slipped through their fingers’, to paraphrase the song from Mamma Mia that made all our mums cry. But instead of focusing on what we lose, let’s look at what we gain over time – experience, confidence, a deeper understanding of ourselves and richer, more fulfilling relationships.

The only way of surviving both life and parenthood with a modicum of happiness is to embrace the passage of time, not resist it. Instead of wanting Izzie to stop growing, instead of holding on and resenting that we have to change, I should let go, enjoy every individual moment as a single thread in a lifelong tapestry of such moments. I will not be losing anything as Izzie develops because our relationship will grow, and both of us with it. Tomorrow, I will not be who I am today, and that will be a result of my changing relationship with my daughter. We’ll be different together. And that, my friends, is life.