Running Down the Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

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

I just have to remember that.

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Number 2 – uh oh! (Part 3)

So why did somebody who professed in a series of posts that he didn’t want another child decide to have another child? It’s a reasonable question to ask and certainly requires an explanation – both for my readers and for the little sprog who will one day grow up and read it (who could be here in six hours or could arrive in six days – who the hell knows?).

For those of you who aren’t aware, I was averse to having a second child for a number of reasons – disruption to the first child’s life, not being sure I’d love it as much or be able to give it the same input, the intellectual approach to having the child (how much gap do you want between your kids?) rather than an emotional or spiritual one, and, most importantly, the fact I didn’t feel a pressing desire for one the way I did with the first.

That last one is the most important because it underpins all the others. If you do desire a second child, the clinical discussion of when you want it isn’t nearly so distasteful; you see the disruption to the first child’s life in terms of the positive effects it can bring; and despite a background dread that you’ll someone fail to bond with something new, you move forward with the faith that you will. Which goes to show that, while we see ourselves as rational beings, our arguments and the conclusions we reach are based as much on emotional factors as pure logic.

Why I desired a second child – that’s the real question.

It started at my wedding. Well, after my wedding, if we’re going to be technical, but it began in response to a conversation my mother had with a member of my wife’s family. See, my wife has always wanted a second child – even before the first – and nor is she averse to a fourth, sixth or eighth (however many we have, it apparently must be an even number, because reasons). She wanted more kids because it was unconscionable to her that Izzie should be an only child like she was.

I was always a little dismissive of that argument. Everybody wants what they didn’t have, and while the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, when you get there you find it still needs cutting. Having grown up with a brother, the presence or otherwise of siblings has never been an issue of much importance to me, and so I didn’t really understand where she was coming from.

Until a few weeks after the wedding, when my mother told me of this conversation that she’d had. My wife has always been rather coy about her childhood, and so I had never heard the stories of her growing up alone on her father’s farm after her mother left. I had never heard how she would wake up in a big empty farmhouse, her father already out with the cows; never heard how she was too far from the village to mix with the other kids; of how she’d sit alone as darkness fell, the only sounds the distant lowing of cattle or the wind breathing through the cornfields.

I certainly hadn’t heard that whenever people used to visit, she’d beg them to take her home with them, tell them she wouldn’t make a fuss, she’d sit in the corner and be quiet, if only she didn’t have to be quite so alone.

It was also a very confusing time. Growing up autistic, without being diagnosed, and with a father who, though doing his best, had no idea what to do about it, was clearly an emotionally crippling experience. And without someone to talk to, to share experiences, to discuss how she was feeling, my wife felt the lack of a sibling in a way few people probably ever do.

It was only then that I really understood my wife’s deep psychological need for a second child and her absolute terror of Izzie ever feeling anything like she had growing up. Of course, if we didn’t have a second child, Izzie’s childhood would be nothing like her mother’s, but even so, I started to wonder what she might miss out on.

I didn’t want to have a second child simply to benefit the first – I wanted to want one in its own right. But having a second child doesn’t simply benefit the first – it benefits both. They both get to share experiences, memories, good and bad; they have someone to moan to about their weird parents; and they have someone else who can teach them another aspect of what it is to be human.

And gradually, after having these thoughts, I started to feel a change in myself. I started seeing babies and becoming broody; started seeing families out and about with their little ones and wondering how big a gap there was between their ages; and ultimately started to feel as though I would like to go through the whole terrifying, exciting, exhilarating, life-affirming experience again.

And that is what it is – life. That’s about the best and only reason to have a second child.

I’ll close with the words of Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

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.