How Fatherhood Changes You

I’ve been putting off writing this post, for reasons that will become clear later. For now, suffice to say, my head has not been in the right place.

They say that parenting changes you, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. I always figured it simply brought to the fore those qualities you already had lying dormant within you – self-sacrifice, responsibility, generosity, and what have you. Being a dad hasn’t made me who I am – it has simply shone a light on some of those hitherto undernourished and unappreciated aspects of my character and allowed them to flourish. For better and for worse.

I’ve mentioned many times before how parenting has brought out my paranoia, so much so, in fact, that it’s not worth repeating it here. I’ve also discussed how fatherhood has turned me into a crap dancer with a penchant for atrocious puns, but I’m pretty sure these things are normal.

Slightly more tragic was my wife’s revelation, a couple of weeks ago, that I have become rather boring.

Boring!? Surely not. I’m still young. I’m still energetic. I’m still…actually, she has a point. I have become a little old of late.

See, when you spend the better part of your day looking after a toddler, especially when you define your role as keeping her safe, you tend to become a little over-serious in your outlook. Couple that with being knackered all the time, and I invariably greet my wife’s ‘let’s go to the pub, let’s go to the park, let’s go to the shops, let’s go to the zoo, let’s go to Spain’ with ‘can we not and just say we did?’ Which, admittedly, isn’t the behaviour of the young, vibrant dad I set out to be.

So I have tried to soften a little. My wife Lizzie said she wanted me to be more juvenile, more playful, more fun – so I threw a glass of water over her. Apparently, this wasn’t exactly what she meant. Nor was pinging her bra-strap whenever her back is turned or hiding her breakfast/drink/phone every time she glances away. And shooting her in the back of the head with a Nerf gun was very much a bad idea.

But things seem to be a little better. There are more pillow fights and visits to soft play, less arguing about risk assessments and budgeting. That’s one of the compromises you have to make as a parent.

The other MASSIVE change I have noticed in myself as a result of fatherhood, and something that is affecting my life, is my level of sensitivity towards anything that connects parenting, children and pregnancy with suffering, pain, disappointment and death.

Perhaps because of my autism, I’ve always been more sensitive towards the suffering of animals than people. In fact, I used to get myself so upset over nature shows that I couldn’t watch them as a child and I avoid them as an adult, whereas I loved true crime – it didn’t matter how nasty or gruesome it was, it didn’t really affect me. I’ve read all about James Bulger, JonBenet Ramsay and the Lindbergh Baby. I even did my Masters dissertation on infanticide, researching over four-hundred newborn child murders in Victorian Hampshire without batting an eyelid.

But fatherhood does something to your sensitivities. I first noticed it when my wife was expecting. I decided to reread Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, which I did for A-Level, and despite knowing for twenty years that there’s a miscarriage scene, despite never having been bothered by the miscarriage scene, I read the miscarriage scene and started to cry. Weird, I thought – it’s the woman who’s meant to get hormonal.

When my Izzie was born and placed in an incubator, and my wife Lizzie was haemorrhaging and having transfusions, I sought out the hospital’s chapel for some rest and reflection, despite not being at all religious. Inside they had a prayer tree, with prayers written on paper leaves and pinned to the branches. One simply had a name, a date two days previously, and two devastating, soul-destroying words: ‘born sleeping’. Let me tell you, it killed me.

Since then, every time I hear about a miscarriage or a still birth, I well up. But it has become worse as time’s gone on. The more I’ve grown into my role as father, the more afraid I’ve become at the prospect of losing my daughter, whether through illness or accident, the more sensitive I’ve become to the suffering of all children. And I don’t know if sad stories about children are in the ascendancy at the moment or if I just never noticed them before, but they seem to be everywhere.

I cried over Ben Needham. I cried over the little boy killed by a dog a few weeks ago. Standing behind the counter of the children’s hospice shop I work in, I cried at the pictures of children with tubes in their noses, despite having seen them hundreds of times before. I cried at photos of children bloodied and shell-shocked in Syria. I’ve cried, and I’ve cried, and I’ve cried.

And then two weeks ago I saw this picture, and all the other tears I’ve cried seemed as nothing [WARNING: DO NOT CLICK LINK IF SENSITIVE]. It is a photo of a little girl called Jessica Whelan who is dying of neuroblastoma, and instead of the usual pictures of cancer kids – visiting Disneyland, playing games, smiling and ‘being brave’ – it captures the reality of a terminally ill child. The pain, the sorrow, the indignity, the goddamned unfairness of it all. And since then, my emotions have been all over the place.

People say, ‘I can’t imagine what that must feel like for the parents,’ but the trouble is, as a father I can imagine it, and just imagining it is more pain than I can bear. But I can’t escape it because it’s in my head now. I lie awake in bed at night, wondering about the letters I’d write to my daughter if I was diagnosed with terminal cancer; I wonder how she’d cope if I wasn’t here; but more, I wonder how I’ll cope if she’s the one with the cancer, and how I’ll explain it to her, and how the world can be so fucking cruel.

The truth is, what we as parents, and what I as a father, have to learn, is that our children do not belong to us – they belong to the Universe. We are only borrowing them for a time. So we have to make the most of every day, build happy memories for however long we are gifted with the opportunity to do so, because it could all come crashing down in a heartbeat.

And in the meantime, I need to learn to stop holding on so tight, find a way to stop crying all the time, and work out how to grow a thicker skin, or else I’ll be an emotional wreck before the year is out.

Five Months of Autistic Parenting, Part 3

Having Asperger’s Syndrome means you struggle to say the ‘right’ thing, misinterpret what other people are saying, fail to give due diligence to the feelings of others, and don’t appreciate that people have different needs. It also makes you rather self-centred. Mostly I can use my intellect to overcome my natural shortcomings in these areas, but the more tired I become, the harder it is to do that.

Having two tired new parents with Asperger’s in the same house with a five-month-old baby is a recipe for disaster.

This morning, for example – Lizzie is spending the day in Southampton shopping with a friend and she’s taking Izzie with her. Since I’m in desperate need of a break, I’ve been looking forward to today – for once there are no support workers, social workers or family members coming over, no urgent writing deadlines, no charity shop, no cooking, so it’s all mine, yes, all mine (he says, rubbing his hands together with a maniacal grin). I can soak in the bath with a book, make my model that has sat untouched for five months, go to the local coffee shop in the village and watch the world go by. Or I can mooch about in my underwear and watch rubbish TV. My day. Bliss.

And Lizzie would know that if she’d been listening and considering my needs.

So I’ve been up since five, fed the dog, the cat and the chickens – not to mention the baby – and I’m just waiting for Lizzie to hurry up and go when she says, ‘Oh, by the way, I want you to mow the lawn today.’

The lawn takes two hours to mow because we have a rubbish mower and a massive lawn. I have to empty the grass collecting box around twenty-six times during mowing. And it’s raining.

So I said, ‘No. Not a chance in hell. I’d rather poke out my eyeballs. You want me to do chores while you’re out on a jolly? How dare you even suggest that? This is my day.’

In hindsight, a simple, ‘No, I’d rather not,’ would probably have sufficed. Yes, I overreacted. And then she overreacted to my overreaction. And that’s how it tends to go at the moment. If we were less tired, we’d probably be able to rein ourselves in, realise the other person wasn’t being belligerent or deliberately insensitive, they just hadn’t realised their partner had been looking forward to a day off. But we flip out instead.

That is, unfortunately, part and parcel of having autism, and only to be expected.

What is not so obvious is why, as a result of my Asperger’s, I find it so difficult to entrust the care of my baby to others.

It would make life so much easier, and would have done over the past five months, to have babysitters. Lizzie has a remarkable ability to go out and then not think about home, or babies, or really much of anything (miaow!). I, however, find it nigh impossible to switch off.

The autistic brain is very susceptible to obsession – I’m using up my ‘day off’ writing about the baby! But this could also be the result of the fact that the autistic brain is also so structured that your thoughts can go round and round and round, growing bigger and more frantic with each circuit. Since Izzie was born, I haven’t rested, haven’t dropped my guard for even a moment – I am a dad, and that means constant vigilance, care and concern. After years of learning that people let you down, it’s very difficult to trust anyone else with the most precious thing in my life.

This goes for Lizzie too. As I have mentioned in previous posts, thanks to difficulties with Theory of Mind – that is, understanding how other people think – I struggle to comprehend why people would do things in a different way to me (because clearly my way is the best, which is why I’m President of Earth). I therefore find it very hard to step back – I want to take over, because Izzie is my baby and I know what she wants and I’m the best at doing it so back the hell away. This has inevitably led to friction between me and Lizzie and I realise now that I’m a total control freak.

But that’s because control keeps me safe. I’ve cleverly structured my life to avoid stressful situations and thus remain asymptomatic. If I go out to a social situation, I drive so I can leave any time it becomes too much. I sit on the end of tables so I can slip out unnoticed. I actively shun noisy and crowded environments. And so if I let others take over, I can’t ensure Izzie’s safety. I can’t be certain she’s getting what she needs, which is me, because I know best.

You see? Even I can see that I need to let go, step back, have a break, learn to trust others, and stop worrying so much when I’m not with her. But can I?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to this is, again, my autism. I’ve always struggled to understand relationships – how to form then, how to keep them, what they mean – and I’ve only ever managed to have one friend/partner at a time. If I have a second friend, or a friend other than my partner, I feel as though I am somehow betraying the people I care about. If I have a friend, then it means Lizzie isn’t enough, and how can I say that? Of course, Lizzie has plenty of friends and I don’t feel she’s betraying me, but I resist any overtures of friendship because I don’t want to betray her.

The same is true of Izzie. If I let someone look after her, I feel I’m somehow betraying her, letting her down. I’m failing her as a dad. People tell me to stop trying to be perfect, because I’m only human, but that is like an admission of failure. Why can’t I be both?

That’s the biggest lesson I have to learn from five months of autistic parenting – I have to learn how to let go and relax. If I’m not careful, my ten-month review of autistic parenting will describe how I don’t let Izzie out of my sight and I haven’t left the house for weeks. Or it’ll just be gibberish.

It’s Harder On the Parents

Izzie has just spent her first night in her cot in her own room. Despite what I’ve said about accepting the passage of time, how it’s natural for a baby to move from one stage to another and instead of losing anything, you’re gaining a deeper understanding and a richer relationship, it’s still an incredibly bittersweet experience to see your daughter move on. Scratch that – it’s a painful, heart-rending, panic-inducing kick to the balls. And it hurts.

All week I’ve been putting off setting up the monitors, as though burying my head in the sand could somehow avert the inevitable. I secretly hoped they wouldn’t work, or I wouldn’t be able to figure out the instructions, or we’d have a power cut or no heating and she’d have to stay in the Moses Basket beside my bed, in my room, with me. Because for all my pontificating and philosophising, I’m just as emotionally insecure as the next parent, and I’m struggling to let go.

And that’s what parenting is all about. Our children do not belong to us – they belong to the Universe. And we are just borrowing them for a time. Each stage of their lives lasts just as long as it’s meant to, and no matter how much we might want to cling to a certain period because it makes us feel good, or important, or validated, we have to learn to let it go, release it emotionally, and move on to the next.

Easier said than done.

We put her in the cot in a grobag and she cried and cried. As we’re not advocates of the ‘cry-it-out’ method, I put my hand on her chest and rocked her gently from side to side until, after adding teething gel and a dummy, she suddenly went out like a light. So I removed the dummy and went next door and felt sick. My stomach tightened into knots, my arms tensed as though I was preparing to box, and my legs jiggled with nervous angst.

Ten minutes of sweating and writhing about in agitation, plagued by guilt, worry, my inability to accept change, and I could bear it no longer. I crept in there to find her still fast asleep, and in the same position I’d left her.

I spent the next hour staring at the monitor, watching the temperature gauge, waiting for it to burst into life – nothing. I woke every couple of hours feeling emotional and panicked. At four, I got up to check on her, and once again she was fast asleep, though in a slightly different position – about ninety-degrees away from straight. But she seemed okay, so I went back to bed, stared at the monitor for an hour, turned up the heating.

I got up at seven but she was still asleep, and it wasn’t until eight that she began to stir. After all my worrying, all of the stress and mental anguish, she slept right through from eleven at night till eight in the morning as though it was nothing.

Admittedly, she was facing the opposite direction to how we’d put her to bed – her feet to the headboard – but it just goes to show: this growing-up lark is far harder on the parents than on the children!