How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.

Casualties of the Parenting War

There’s a line in The Hunt For Red October where defecting Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius says something along the lines of, ‘It’s a war without battles, without monuments…only casualties’. He’s talking about his dead wife at the time, but I’ve always taken it as a description of the Cold War as a whole: two great nations circling one another like prize fighters, watching, waiting, testing, provoking, through storm and shine, day and night, summer and winter, year on year, the dead on each side mounting up from accidents, collisions, clumsiness, fatigue, bravado, without a shot being fired or any open form of hostility being declared.

The relationship between parent and child is a lot like that.

I have been kicked in the nuts more times in the past few months by my daughter than I ever was by the jackasses I went to school with, and believe me, I used to get kicked in the nuts a lot. I’ve been punched in the face, headbutted on the nose, had fingers rammed into ears and nostrils and down my throat, been strangled, throttled and choked, and had almost every hair on my body pulled, tweaked or ripped clean out. At the moment she enjoys jumping on me, hitting me, throwing things at me and smacking me around the head with whatever’s at hand. And lately she’s discovered the joys of poking her plastic toy forks in my eyes – cheers for that, sweetheart!

Then there are the accidents: as a person with autism, I have a tendency towards clumsiness, which generally translates to walking into things, banging my head on things, tripping over things, and falling down a lot. Many times I’ve hooked my foot around the leg of Izzie’s high chair, refrained from grabbing onto it as that would be dangerous, and thus fallen like a ton of bricks to the floor. Many times I’ve been holding her hand in the street and watching to make sure she doesn’t walk into anything, only to crack my shin on a bollard myself. And getting her lunch out of the oven today, I burned the back of my hand on the shelf.

The worst thing at the moment though is my back. The other day I was opening her pushchair on the quayside, pressed down on the foot-plate, got my shoelace caught in the mechanism, and fell flat on my back in front of a whole cohort of leather-clad bikers, pulling the pushchair over on top of me, bruising my ribs and wrenching my spine and shoulder in the process – I couldn’t lift my right arm for hours after.

Perhaps as a result of this fall, or perhaps because I carried her around on my back up and down cliffs and over hill and dale all last week, I made my back susceptible to further damage. You see, I have a semi-slipped disk in my spine, not bad enough to do anything about, but bad enough that every few years it trips and leaves me bedridden for days. And it’s tripped.

A couple of days back I put Izzie in her cot for a nap, bent down to pick up the nappy I’d just changed, and the next thing I knew I was on my elbows and knees with my forehead pressed into the carpet and my lower back muscles in agonising spasm. And a poopy nappy right under my cheek. Luckily, although I can barely walk, hobbling around like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I can actually walk. For now. Izzie still needs putting in and out of her high chair and her cot, bathing, changing, dressing and all the other back-breaking tasks of parenting, and in spite of the pain, it’s what you have to do. But in all honesty, it hurts like hell.

For her part, Izzie has the good grace to freak out every time I fall down and hurt myself. And it’s not exactly all one-way traffic.

When she was on my back last week, I did on one occasion walk under a low branch and hear a rather dramatic thud. More than once I’ve knocked her head on the top of the car door when I’ve been putting her in her car seat. She tried to run away from her shadow the other day, tripped and face-planted on the patio, tearing open her knee. A couple of weeks ago I was lying on my back on the floor when she charged at me and stumbled, slamming her head against mine and cutting her chin open on my tooth (I felt so freaking guilty as the blood poured down my T-shirt!). And every day she adds to the bruises on her legs and arms and forehead as she trips and falls and bashes into things and bounces off your knee and tumbles off the sofa. It’s a jolly good thing toddlers are resilient or else she’d feel as rough as I do now!

And that, fair readers, is one of the little-discussed aspects of parenting: without battles, without monuments, you will injure the crap out of each other. There will be blood, there will be tears, and sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but ultimately you’ll look back on it and laugh – that is, unless she puts your eyes out first!