My future daughter

It’s only natural, I think, to look at your two-year-old daughter and imagine what her life might be like in the future. She leaps around the room like a baby ballerina – a dancer. She gets out her plastic stethoscope and listens to your chest – a doctor. She pushes the dog off the back of the sofa – a pest-controller.

Then there are the hints of her future character. She tries to make sure everybody is involved in whatever we’re doing – she’s going to be sensitive to the needs of others. She befriends anybody and everybody she meets – she’s going to be sociable. She lures other children away from their parents whenever we’re in a pub – she’s going to be charismatic. Or a future cult-leader. No, I’m going with charismatic.

Unfortunately, not all of it is so positive. While her behaviour is probably (please God!) normal for a two-year-old, let’s just suppose for a second that my daughter acts the same way when she’s twenty-two. Those little idiosyncrasies of early childhood would look an awful lot different in an adult.

For example, imagine your grown-up daughter, who is called Izzie, suddenly appears in her doorway late at night as you’re walking past her room and declares, in a croaky, demon-possessed voice, ‘My name’s Actata.’

‘Jolly good,’ you reply.

‘What’s your name? Oi, where you going? Me talking to you!’

‘Go to sleep, Izzie.’

‘Me not Izzie, me Actata! Come back! Me in charge!’

You’d find that a bit weird, right?

Or what if your adult daughter disappeared upstairs for a couple of minutes, then reappeared wearing some sparkly gold sandals, a pair of knickers, a fluffy hoody, bright pink lipstick, dark sunglasses and a red woolly bobble-hat, with a bag of makeup over her shoulder, and then proceeded to strut back and forth across the lounge like something from the opening scenes of Pretty Woman, saying, ‘Me going to my new house. You not invited.’

You wouldn’t be strangely proud of her imagination – you’d be freaking terrified.

But that wouldn’t be anywhere near as alarming as your twentysomething daughter stripping off her clothes in the lounge every night before bed, climbing onto the back of the sofa, and doing five minutes of star-jumps while shouting, ‘Me naked, me naked, me naked!’ followed by, ‘Girls have noo-noos, boys have willies!’

And speaking of bed, what would you think if, every night after you’d made sure she was settled, your university-aged daughter took her pillow and duvet and made a little nest in the open doorway of her bedroom, and every time you returned her to bed you found her right back on the floor in the doorway again ten minutes later?

And what would you say to a grown-up daughter who claims ‘exercise’ is rolling off the arm of the sofa to fall flat on her face on the floor, time after time after time? Or who demands her dad sing to her every time she sits on the toilet to coax out her poop like a particularly gross snake charmer? Or who, whenever you’re driving the car screams, ‘Go, go, go! Faster, daddy, faster! Do your horn!’ Or who runs away from the cat every morning crying, ‘Don’t let her eat me, daddy, she’s going to eat me!’ Or hits her sister in the face with her doll Lucy, then claims it was Lucy who did it, not her.

Projecting into the future, there are only two types of adults I’ve met who behave anything like that. My daughter is going to be a melodramatic, free-spirited, adrenaline junkie nudist hippy who goes her own way, works as an actress, wears tie-dyes, conducts seances in her spare time, and is a shining beacon of what life can be like if we listen to our inner voice and refuse to conform.

Or she’s going to be a meth addict.

I’m really hoping it’s neither.

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The Fear

This week I encountered The Fear. He was on a holiday park in North Devon, of all places, roaming between the static caravans that sit on a hillside overlooking the bay. I’m pretty sure most parents meet him at some point, but this week was my turn.

I’ve been anxious about Izzie before, concerned about her safety, worried about the future, but it’s always been small scale, fantasy-land fear, the kind you get before the dentist or a particularly unpleasant meeting – you’d rather avoid it, but you know that if you have to face it, you’ll get through the discomfort because it’s not really actually all that bad. The Fear is another matter entirely.

It crept up on me unannounced. Everything was fine – a bright, crisp morning, fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky, the ocean stretching out below us towards the horizon. Lizzie was walking down the hill holding Izzie’s hand and while I locked up the caravan, my little girl looked over her shoulder at me, the breeze tousling her hair. Her face was a picture of innocent joy, her toothy smile so infectious as she waved at her daddy that in that moment I knew what it was to be loved and what true happiness felt like.

And an instant later I was struck by The Fear – the all-pervading, nausea-inducing, gut-wrenching, knee-weakening presentiment that I would lose her.

The closest I’ve come to this feeling before is when Izzie was around three months old. I went into her room in the middle of the night to check on her and she was so still and quiet I thought she was dead. My first thought – nay, instinct – was to travel to wherever she had gone, because she needed me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for her. Short story even shorter, she wasn’t dead, she was just asleep – but the incident cleared up any lingering doubts about whether I truly believed in the hereafter.

The Fear wasn’t like this at all. It didn’t come from anything scary but from something joyous. It was as though upon reaching the heights of happiness, my body reacted and rebelled, viscerally and violently. Out of the clear blue sky I was filled with the most terrible and heartbreaking dread.

I’m not just talking about death, though that’s a given – cancer, meningitis, kidnap, murder, an accident, The Fear showed me it all – I’m talking as much about change. If I could have frozen that moment she waved at me with innocent joy, I would have done, because right now Izzie adores me – I’m the smartest, coolest, funniest, most-lovable chunk of a man she knows. But all that will change, and quickly too. My days as my daughter’s faultless hero are well and truly numbered.

I spent all that day with The Fear. Maybe, I thought, it’s here because I was talking to somebody about Seneca a few days ago, and his belief that your mind is the only thing you can rely on as everything else you can lose – friends, family, status, job, home, health, hair, all of it. Or maybe, I thought, I’m preoccupied with losing Izzie because police believe they might be days away from locating the body of Ben Needham, a British 21-month-old who went missing 25 years ago in Kos. Or perhaps it’s because I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother screaming life-affirming statements at one another like, ‘I’ve effing had it with you,’ ‘you effing well ruin everything,’ and, ‘I wish you were effing dead!’

But that’s not it at all. If it was, The Fear would be with me all the time. No, it’s because in that moment of perfect happiness I realised my unbridled love for another person – and simultaneously my utter and total vulnerability. Izzie has me, heart and soul, and if anything happens to her, I would be destroyed. The Fear was a safety mechanism, a reality check, because I was walking too close to contentment, and believed my happiness to be immortal. Keep away from the sun, Icarus, or you’ll fall into the sea.

And that is the dilemma of parenting. You give yourself and hold nothing back, but in so doing you risk everything. Your fate is tied to that fragile, fickle bundle of cells you call your child. And the price for your joy is The Fear, cropping up when you least expect him, reminding you you’re dancing with a moonbeam that can never be contained.

But in the meantime, long live this moment.

Afraid of Number 2, Part 1

No, this isn’t a post about poop – I’ve done enough of those. And I’m not afraid of poop anymore – I’ve changed so many nappies now that I’m the poop master. Well, maybe not the master – after changing Izzie and washing my hands, I quite often look down half an hour later and think, ‘Why on earth is there poop on my knuckle?’ – so maybe I’m more like the poop first mate. Or at least the poop deck hand. But that’s by the by.

Instead, this post is about baby number two.

With the little sprocket now being nine months old, the same amount of time she was in the womb, the subject of repopulating said womb has been raised. Actually, it was first raised when Izzie was five weeks old and her mother informed me she was desperate to be pregnant again. So in truth, the subject is not now being raised so much as I’m being beaten repeatedly over the head with it.

Trouble is, it’s an entirely cerebral conversation – how much of an age gap do you want between the kids, do we wait until the first child is at preschool or go for it as quickly as possible, how many kids do you want in total? This has prompted Lizzie to suggest we start trying for a second baby in October. Rather, she has tried to suggest it – I have recently developed a serious medical condition where I go deaf whenever the subject is broached. Shame.

People seem to think that second babies will be easier than the first, and I guess that’s true in the same way that the fire that sweeps through the ruins of your house after it’s been knocked down by a tornado isn’t that bad because you’ve already lost everything anyway. But don’t forget that alongside the new baby you have a toddler. As hard as it is with one, it’s going to be exponentially harder with two. It’s like a man hanging off a cliff with a brick in his hand suddenly deciding he wants to hold a second brick in his other hand and hang on by his teeth – it’s doable, I suppose, but good golly gosh you’re making things difficult for yourself.

And I’m not sure I’m capable of planning my reproductive future with anything even approaching logic. ‘How many children do you want?’ asks Lizzie. How could I possibly know the answer to that? I have no idea what our lives would be like with two kids, let alone three, four, five. It’s a totally abstract concept. It’s like asking how many hairs I’d like in my eyebrows – um, a hundred? A thousand? I don’t have a freaking clue.

This could be because I’ve never given the possibility of a second child a moment’s thought. Bizarrely for someone who has taken hold of this parenting thing like a drowning man a lifeline, I spent all of my life up to fifteen months prior to Izzie’s birth not wanting kids – gritty, snotty, smelly little things that would take up my time, my energy and my money. But something happened to change all that.

Around four years ago, Lizzie’s mum asked when we were going to make her a grandmother. Cheers for that. I told her that I didn’t want kids because I always thought I’m too selfish for kids, I never wanted to pass on my depressive mindset to another generation or inflict my bullshit onto anyone else, and I wouldn’t be a good role model, not to mention that it’s a shitty, overpopulated world filled with misery, despair and an aching sense of ennui, and what possible right, or rhyme, or reason did I have playing God and bringing a little person into it? Frankly, the thought of a little version of me running around, blaming me for forcing it into life, was the worst hell I could imagine.

Her response was: ‘Well, that doesn’t stop Lizzie having children.’ And before I knew it, donor sperm had been imported from Denmark and some random fellow named Jan was going to impregnate my significant other.

It was, without a doubt, a game-changer. But since Lizzie acquires pets like a successful zoo then leaves me to look after them, I figured it would be something like that – I would help her raise the unholy affront to nature, but without any responsibility for deciding upon its future or blame for giving it faulty genes. In short, I would be uncle dad, mummy’s partner, and nothing more. Hardly ideal, but it was that or leave. And truth be told, I was looking forward to the Facebook update – ‘My girlfriend’s pregnant.’ ‘Wow, congratulations, you’re going to be a dad.’ ‘I never said I was going to be a dad. I said my girlfriend’s pregnant.’ Ouch…

So we embarked upon a journey of IUI treatment (intra-uterine-insemination) involving blood tests, internal and external ultrasounds, dye injected into fallopian tubes, hormone therapy that turned Lizzie into a snarling, vicious animal, daily injections, suppositories and counselling. We watched follicles grow day by day on her ovaries but never get large enough to pop. She became a medical object that had to be scanned and poked and prodded and studied, month after month after month. Not good times, for sure.

But then, amazingly, one of the follicles grew. And it kept growing. And it reached the right size. So we gave her an injection to release the egg, and a day later Jan came out of the freezer and his seed was separated from his juice (the womb is designed for sperm; semen irritates it), and he was placed into a long transparent tube and off he went.

Then something strange happened. I discovered in that sterile, unromantic hospital room that somewhere between watching the follicle grow on the ultrasound screen and repeatedly injecting hormones into Lizzie’s belly, her journey had become my journey. And good gosh I hoped that Dane’s alien sperm knocked up my girlfriend…

Continued tomorrow…

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…

Future Worries

I had an argument with my six-year-old niece today.

‘I know more than you,’ she said.

‘No you don’t.’

‘Yes I do. All you know is how to eat chocolate.’

‘Not true,’ I said. ‘I know how to dispose of a body where nobody will ever find it.’

Her jaw dropped open. When she’d recovered, she said, ‘Well, I know how to kill a dinosaur.’

‘That’s nothing,’ I said. ‘I’m the reason there are no dinosaurs.’

And it got worse from there.

I’ve always been a bit of an easy target for kids. No matter how old I get, they treat me like I’m one of them. In fact, they treat me like I’m beneath them. When I was an eighteen-year-old sixth former – tall, bearded, tattooed and pierced, with a leather jacket, a ponytail and chunky army boots – the eleven-year-old Year 7s used to trip me up, call me names, tease me, even spit on me. And it’s always been this way.

No matter how much I threaten, shout, growl, snarl, swear, they still think I’m just a big teddy bear. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s Syndrome, but I have no idea how to get a child to respect me as an adult. And since Izzie turned six months old yesterday, that’s starting to worry me.

I want Izzie to like me, of course. I want to be best friends with her. But I also want her to respect me. To trust me. Not to see me as a figure of fun to be poked and teased, but as a person with a wealth of knowledge and experience and, stemming from this, a certain amount of authority. If today with my niece and nephew is anything to go by, she’ll laugh at me, snap at me, make fun of me, throw things at me, hit me, talk down to me, roll her eyes when I talk, and generally treat me as just another plaything. As kids have always done.

It’s worse for Lizzie. Instead of people just seeing her as a big kid, she is a big kid. Thanks to her autism, learning disability and dyspraxia, she thinks the wind is caused by trees, spends her time doing paint-by-numbers and playing with gadgets, and can’t walk past a ‘keep off the grass’ sign without cartwheeling on the lawn. She gets on great with kids because she’s on their emotional level – space hoppers and trampolines, Kinder Eggs and Happy Meals – and she’s so clumsy, everything she does looks like it’s been made by a five-year-old. This is not to be mean – she would admit as much herself.

And so, as little Izzie grows, Lizzie is daily becoming more nervous about how she’ll cope with a young, precocious child. She’s terrified of Izzie growing up and making fun of her. She’s terrified of Izzie overtaking her very quickly and coming to look down on her. And she’s terrified of Izzie growing up to be embarrassed of her immature, incapable mother.

I don’t think she has much to worry about. I have no doubt she and Izzie will be best friends. They’ll have an innate understanding of one another and while it is likely true that Izzie will overtake her in knowledge, skill and maturity, I don’t think she’ll make fun of Lizzie – she’s more likely to be fiercely protective of her mother, and help her with her deficiencies.

However, I sincerely doubt Lizzie will be much of an authority figure or a disciplinarian, and so this will fall to me. In our relationship, I’m the one who has to say ‘no’ when Lizzie is getting carried away, climbing over safety barriers, trying to dance in the rain without shoes or a coat, or spending a month’s income on frivolities. Even now, she’s the one who buys cute outfits and toys and bouncy chairs; I’m the one who buys nappies, and nappy creams, and baby wipes.

So the question is: how I can be the lawgiver parent when no child has ever respected me?

I mean, I can’t even get the dog to behave anymore. Lizzie spent six hours making a Christmas Gingerbread House. I then spent three hours correcting the mistakes Lizzie had made with the Christmas Gingerbread House. Since it kept collapsing under its own weight, I froze the pieces overnight then as I rebuilt it, I reinforced it with chocolate fingers so there was an internal frame, then glued it all together with icing sugar. It collapsed again, so I persevered, and finally I had something I was proud of. I put it on a plate on the table this evening, left the room for two minutes to change the baby’s nappy. In case you can’t guess the ending to this story, I’ve attached a photo. Now, if I can’t get an eighteen-month-old Cocker Spaniel to behave, what hope do I have with a spirited toddler?

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