A Three-Year-Old’s Heartbreak

As the father to two girls, and two gorgeous ones at that (sure, I’m biased, but it’s a fact), I figured there’d be some heartbreak in my daughters’ futures…way, way, way in their futures, when we have flying cars and holodecks, and have managed to merge man and machine into perfect beings fully trained to deal with the ups and downs of human relationships.

[Sigh]

My three-year-old daughter was a little quiet when she came back from her playdate this afternoon. It was with a boy who calls her his ‘lady’, while she calls him ‘my man.’ She often tells me she’s going to marry him, although to be fair, she also says she wants to marry ‘everyone in the whole wide world’, so that’s not exactly an exclusive club.

So I asked her what was wrong, and she said he’d told her he didn’t want to be her man anymore and she was no longer his lady. He has another lady, and he’s her man.

Oh. My. God.

With quivering lip and big fat tears spilling from her eyes, she said, ‘I want to be his lady. I loved being his lady. Why doesn’t he want me to be his lady?’

She sobbed her little heart out in my arms, and I think it broke my heart as much as hers. ‘I just want to be his lady. Why can’t I be his lady?’

It would be cute if not for the fact that rejection hurts no matter how old you are. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn – that no matter how much you might like someone, they might not like you back, or worse, prefer somebody else. I told her it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her, and it’s nothing that she’s done – it’s just something that happens sometimes. People’s feelings change, and there’ll be plenty more boys to come who’ll be glad to call her their lady.

I felt a bit useless, really. I guess all you can do is cuddle her, tell her you love her and always will. And hope you’re better prepared to deal with it next time.

In honesty, I always thought if a guy broke my daughter’s heart, I’d break his kneecaps. Never thought he’d be a three-year-old, though…

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My Daddy-Obsessed Daughter Rosie

My daughter is killing me.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m pretty sure that each day that passes, she’s shaving a bit off my life expectancy. I was going to reach a hundred. I’m down to eighty-nine. Keep this up, and I won’t be seeing fifty. Sometimes I think I’ll be lucky to see tomorrow.

Allow me to explain.

Over the past year, while I’ve repeatedly mentioned my three-year-old daughter Izzie on this blog, I’ve rarely referred to her sixteen-month-old sister Rosie. This has not been a deliberate decision, but come about as a result of the fact that, as Izzie continues to break new ground and present me with new challenges as a father, she gives me new things to write about. Rosie, on the other hand, as the second child, walks in her older sister’s footsteps as far as growing up goes, and as such gives me less new subject matter to work with.

As in the world of blogging, so in the world itself. My daughter is in the unfortunate position of being younger sister to the shining star that is my Izzie. While Rosie is no less delightful, no less adorable, no less loveable and intelligent and playful and lovely, she has been cursed to be born two years after her sister arrived. Had Rosie arrived first, I have no doubt she would be the world’s darling, but, through no fault of her own, she did not, and the consequence is to not only follow in her sister’s footsteps, but to be in her shadow.

Rosie is my forgotten sweetheart. It breaks my heart to see her so neglected by the very people who ought to be the most attentive. The family loved Izzie as she was the first daughter, grandchild, niece, whatever. They organised one day a week they’d look after her; two evenings a week they’d cook for her; booked her into classes; got memberships so they could visit zoos and soft play centres and adventure parks with her. When Rosie came along, these things were already in place, and they couldn’t possibly look after two children at once, so they simply stuck with the one. Meaning they were already so invested in Izzie they didn’t have the room or the inclination to integrate Rosie into their lives.

The long and the short of it is that for the past year, Rosie has mostly stayed at home with her daddy while Izzie has been gallivanting about the countryside with the extended family. Our household has become two separate teams – mummy going out with Izzie, and daddy staying at home with Rosie. This might be okay in families whose division of labour within the home is roughly equal, but since I do the lion’s share of the childcare – I get them up in the morning, get them breakfast, lunch and dinner, change all the nappies, wipe all the bottoms, do all the baths and put them both to bed every night – it means that while Izzie gets attention from both of us, Rosie only has me. And this has a significant effect on our relationship.

For a long time, Rosie has been a daddy’s girl. If I left the room she started to grizzle. If she felt unsure, unsafe, it was daddy to whom she fled. I thought it was rather cute, at first.

Then it started to concern me. Izzie would come and give me a hug, and Rosie would scream and try to pull her off me. Sibling rivalry, they said. Perfectly normal, they said.

About a month ago, I was lying on the sofa and my wife came over, got on her knees and placed her head on my chest. In a flash, Rosie had my wife’s hair entwined around her fingers and was dragging her away from me. And then, mission accomplished, she climbed up onto my chest and sat there like the king of the castle. Mine, she was almost saying. He’s mine.

Ouch. You can imagine what that does to a mother’s self-esteem.

Worse comes at night. She will only fall asleep with daddy, which means when I try to walk away, she morphs into a snarling, spitting, screaming creature that I barely recognise as human. I’m seriously waiting for her head to rotate 360-degrees as she projectile vomits pea soup. I’ve even found two sixes on her scalp – one more and we’ll know her true name (joking! But she does have an unusual birthmark on the back of her head…).

It’s a horrible life I seem to have carved out for myself. I advised in a previous post that you shouldn’t get into a place where your child will only fall asleep on you, but I unfortunately didn’t follow my own advice.

It’s my own fault. With the first baby, I went upstairs with her every night, rocked her in my arms, sang her to sleep or else read her a chapter of a book. With the second, I didn’t have the energy. I’d put the first to bed and, instead of rocking the second for hours, I figured it’d be easier just to lie on the sofa with her till she fell asleep naturally.

Big mistake.

The plan for the new year is to distance myself from my youngest. It sounds mean, sure, but she needs a far wider base of support than I can give her – especially if she wants me around in future years. Because, as much as I love her, I wish my little Rosie didn’t love me quite so much!

Three Words That Kill

It’s often said that, as a parent, the worst three words you can ever hear are, ‘I hate you,’ spoken by the sweet darling you’ve sacrificed your health and sanity for.

I always took this with a pinch of salt. Grow a freaking backbone, I thought. Your kids don’t mean it for one second – that’s how they talk. ‘I hate you’ is small person shorthand for ‘I’m angry because you won’t let me get my own way, but I’m not yet emotionally, cognitively or socially developed enough to deal with these feelings or articulate them in a healthy or appropriate manner.’

Besides, there are far worse things a parent can hear. Five words that never fail to freak me out are, ‘Hello, I’m from Children’s Services’. I’m sure I’d be turned into a gibbering wreck by a mere two words: ‘It’s meningitis.’ By comparison, ‘I hate you’ is incredibly mild.

This complacency left me thoroughly unprepared for a grouping of five words that have killed me over the past few days, especially as it’s Christmas. My three-year-old hasn’t told me she hates me, no – I’d be able to handle that. Instead, she keeps looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t love you, daddy.’

Ouch.

If she said it once, in the heat of the moment, that’d be okay, but she brings it up at least every hour. Sometimes she varies it with, ‘I don’t love you anymore,’ or she adds, ‘You’re naughty’ or ‘You’re always mean to me.’

She often juxtaposes it with, ‘But I love my mummy.’ Indeed, she delighted in telling people over Christmas, ‘I don’t love daddy anymore, but I love my mummy.’

I’ve got to tell you: that shit hurts.

Despite the tough, resilient front I put on, I have to admit that I’m not handling it well. For three years she was a daddy’s girl, but now I’m like something she’s stepped in. When she’s screaming because daddy’s putting her to bed and not mummy, and shouting that she doesn’t love daddy, she loves mummy, and even after you’ve calmed her down and read her a story and checked her room for monsters and told her you love her and wished her goodnight she says to you, ‘Can mummy put me to bed tomorrow because I love mummy and I don’t love you,’ it’s hard not to let that bring down your whole evening.

Whenever I ask her why, she tells me it’s because I’m naughty and mean to her.

What do I do that’s so bad? I make her eat her breakfast. I make her put her shoes on when we go out. If we’re driving and I notice she’s slipped her seatbelts off her shoulders, I tell her to put them back on. I make her stay in bed after I’ve put her there, and sit on the naughty step if she hits her sister. And instead of crisps and sweets all the time, I try to make her eat fruit.

Yep, what an ogre I must be. On Christmas morning, because I made her eat her cereal, she told me I wasn’t allowed to go to my in-laws for Christmas Dinner because I’d been naughty and mean to her and she didn’t love me and wanted to spend Christmas with people she loved – mummy, her sister, her grandparents, but certainly not me.

Every time I try to do things with her now, she kicks and screams and says she wants her mummy instead. It’s kind of hard to enjoy yourself when you’ve got that hanging over your head. You wonder why the hell you bother taking her to theme parks and adventure playgrounds, why you cook her nice food and go out especially to buy special puddings, why you play with her in the bath and dry her all over with a hair-drier, and wipe her bottom and kiss away her ouchies and educate her about the world, why you try so hard to do everything right when apparently everything you do is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’d be easier just to sit on the sofa, let her do what she wants, whenever she wants, let her eat junk and watch garbage on TV and go to bed when she chooses, and leave her to her beloved mummy. I would be far healthier and happier. I could read my books again, make models, watch movies, lounge in a hot bath, play video games, get a decent night’s sleep for a change – all the things I don’t have time for because I’m looking after two kids.

But if I did that, I wouldn’t be a parent. Let her mummy be her best friend. Much as I’d love to be able to, it’s not my job to make her feel warm and cuddly inside. It’s my job to keep her safe, clean and fed, to prepare her for the world, to make sure we have a home in which to live. She might say she doesn’t love me, but I’m the one she shouts for when she has a problem, I’m the one she needs if she’s had a nightmare, I’m the one who fixes the things that she breaks.

God, why does it matter to me so much what a three-year-old thinks of me? And why does it make me so upset when she says she doesn’t love me?

I guess that, no matter how old you get or how much you prepare yourself, rejection still feels like the absolute pits. I’d really better grow a backbone. I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

Romantic and Parental Love: an Aspie’s Perspective

When people say ‘I love you,’ what do they really mean?

As an Aspie, love has always been a confusing concept to me. When I was younger I took my cue from movies and TV, believing in a fantasy, fairy tale form of love that moved mountains, crossed oceans, and transcended space and time. People in love never argued, never had to compromise, and never had to say sorry, for love is such that they could communicate without words. It was a force so powerful it could even conquer death. Thanks Hollywood!

For some reason, the divorced and unhappily married people around me didn’t contradict my belief in a happily ever after. Indeed, they were an object lesson not to settle, to keep holding out for ‘the one’ – that person who would make everything better. I was half a person, broken and drowning, and she was half a person, broken and drowning, and together we would become a single whole, entire and swimming. We’d live in and through and for each other. Limerence, I think that’s called. Looking-for-a-miracle-cure-for-my-depression would be more accurate.

As I got older, I started to notice there were a few holes in this idea of love. For one thing, there are over seven billion people on this planet, so if there’s only one person out there for you, the odds of you finding them are too small to be worth calculating – unless you also believe in magic, and destiny, and unicorns, which I don’t. For another, from a psychological perspective, the very notion of being incomplete and needing another person to fulfil you puts you in a rather vulnerable position. Not to mention that it’s an incredibly disrespectful way of viewing your partner – only half a person without you. What rot.

I then redesigned my concept of love. It was not an emotion anymore, not a feeling, but a psychological compulsion programmed into you by biology, society and the greetings card industry. You got together with someone not to complete one another, not to make you happy but to enhance your own happiness. It was about two wholes coming together and remaining two wholes. Think two islands joined by a causeway that gets covered every high tide.

The emotional aspect of a relationship – the butterflies, the happiness, and all the other intense experiences of the honeymoon period – is simply a mislabelling of nervousness, lust and the fulfilment of social expectation. And once that exciting time fades, you’re left with a need for the other person that has developed through shared activities and the difficulty of disentangling your lives and CD collections. Not a particularly romantic idea, perhaps, but certainly more realistic.

As time went on, I decided that denying an emotional aspect to love didn’t entirely fit the reality I saw around me or that I experienced myself. And when you’re in a relationship, there is an undeniable merging of two people, a coming together of hopes and dreams, sacrifice and support, until you struggle to distinguish where you end and the other person begins. Clearly, I needed to come up with a new definition.

Love is partly a feeling, partly a psychological compulsion, partly the result of biology, partly a fulfilment of a social need, and partly an idea you consciously engage with, negotiate and decide upon yourself. Think two islands linked by a bridge, a causeway, a swamp, a lagoon, and a tangle of vegetation, all of which change depending on the height of the tide and the time of the year.

How does this work in practice? It means that my wife and I are bound together by a variety of things, some deliberate, some accidental, some beyond ourselves, some of which we’re unaware of; it means we are sometimes close, sometimes more distant, that sometimes it’s easy to connect and sometimes bloody difficult; and that ultimately, though we could sever our ties or seek other people to love, we have chosen to be together. This is what it means when we say, ‘I love you.’

Or at least, that’s what it means when we’re talking about romantic love.

Parental love is something entirely different.

There is no choice when it comes to parental love. You don’t consciously create ties with your child, psychoanalyse why you love them, adapt the form it takes to suit both of you – it just is, with an intensity beyond anything else.

And it asks no reciprocity. You’re not even sure it’s a two-way thing, and it wouldn’t really matter anyway, because you’d go on loving them regardless. You’d suffer any indignity so they don’t have to, fight the world if it was necessary, and lay down your life in a heartbeat. Autistic or otherwise, I think most parents would feel the same way.

Where autistic parents can differ is in our expression of that love. The children of autistic parents often grow up feeling unloved because, as we know we love them, we assume they know too and therefore don’t feel the need or even understand we have to tell them. Which is why, since birth, I have showered my daughter with hugs and kisses and smiles, even when they don’t come naturally to me, so she grows up feeling loved.

But it struck me the other day that there is one thing I’ve not done in the twenty-two months she’s been with us: I’ve never said to her, ‘I love you.’ It just never occurred to me to say it. I don’t know if that’s normal, I don’t know if it’s odd, but from now on I’m going to tell her every day – just so that she knows.

Even though it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Making Memories

Anybody who has seen the movie Alien cannot forget the scene where they try to cut the face-hugger off John Hurt, only to discover it has concentrated acid for blood. It burns through the deck, so they run down below to see it burning through to the next deck, and the next, and the next. It stops just before it eats through the hull and vents into space. Great scene.

Except when you experience it yourself.

The other night Izzie was sitting in my lap while I was feeding her when I suddenly thought, ‘Why does my general groin area feel damp?’ It turned out that Izzie had peed, and it had somehow made its way through her nappy, through her vest, her leggings and her dress, through my shirt, through my jeans, through my underwear and to my skin. She doesn’t have urine in her bladder: she has some super powerful alien pee that cuts through whatever you put in the way to stop it. I thought showering vomit out of my armpits was bad; washing your daughter’s pee off your man-parts in the sink is something else altogether!

But now I’ve written it, this story will be remembered. That is my revenge. It will be resurrected in years to come whenever Izzie needs a little embarrassing, and should she wish to know what she was like as a baby.

The same can’t be said for my origins. All I know about my birth is that my mother didn’t form placentas properly, something she found out when my brother was born weighing three pounds, so when she fell pregnant with me she had injections to give me extra nourishment in the womb. My dad missed my brother’s birth so was adamant he’d be there for mine. During labour the midwife told my dad it’d be hours before I arrived so he should go to the canteen and get a cup of tea. Five minutes later I popped out, and I’ve been disappointing him ever since.

Having had a baby, I want to know more. What exactly were these injections? Where did they go? How long was the labour? What pain relief did she use? How did they feel when they first saw me? And afterwards, what was I like as a baby? How was I over the first few weeks? I want info!

Unfortunately, my parents can’t remember anything beyond the fact that I was a miserable sod who made their lives a living hell. For one thing, it was thirty-five years ago; for another, in the blur of nappies, feeds, a jealous toddler, and moving house two weeks after I was born, all the colourful little details that put flesh on the bare bones of the story weren’t committed to memory, so were lost.

I’m not unusual in this. Asking around, it seems that for most of us, our early years are a hazy dream, some facts with very little context and a couple of out-of-focus photographs of us being held by people with bad haircuts and worse clothes. In those days, before paternity leave, when men’s involvement with babies started and ended with ‘breadwinner’ and they left the women to raise the kids, when the most technical thing in the house was a calculator and everything was written by hand, dishwashers were for the rich and microwaves cost the moon, it’s only to be expected that they spent their time trying to survive, not recording the minutiae of my life.

In today’s day and age, there’s no excuse. Apps, blogs, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter; cameras and notepads and recording devices built into your phone; it takes just a couple of minutes a day to make sure that nothing is forgotten.

All those little idiosyncrasies you love right now, the funny faces, the amusing behaviours, those precious features that make your baby so uniquely yours, can easily be lost in the fullness of time. As our children cannot remember this time themselves, it falls to us, their parents, to remember for them: the way Izzie stares at a point over my shoulder when I feed her, making me paranoid someone is sneaking up behind me; the way she grabs my bottom lip and tries to twist and pull it off; and the way she reaches one fist above her head and stretches out her body as though she thinks she’s Superman. The stories we tell now need preserving for posterity.

In years to come, when they hate us and wish we were dead, when they’re pushing our buttons and making us insane and we can’t think what on earth ever possessed us to have kids in the first place, we need to remember how we feel now, the love that binds us all together, and all the little things that make it worthwhile. Because this is the best thing we’ve ever done.

We owe it to them to make memories of this time. We also owe it to ourselves.