Never Too Young For Mischief

Before embarking on this parenting lark, I figured babies were like little balls of dribble and poop. Some were easy on the eyes, others less so. They were slaves to their needs for milk and bowel movements, demanding instant gratification or else letting out an ear-splitting howl. And they were all exactly the same. To talk of ‘personality’ in a baby was laughable.

How wrong I was.

Izzie has buckets of personality, and a talent for mischief that I wouldn’t believe in a seven-month old if I hadn’t seen it myself. Far from being a passive servant to her physiological urges, she’s an active participant in learning, laughing and game-playing – mostly at the expense of daddy.

Take what she did to my phone the other day. Since her favourite game is grabbing those things her parents deem important enough to deny her access to – mobile phones, TV controllers, cameras, tablet devices – Lizzie was using my phone as bait to encourage her to crawl. And of course, it would be unfair to take it off her once she got it.

At least, this was Lizzie’s philosophy. I was blissfully ignorant of it until I walked into the lounge and saw Izzie with one end of my phone in her mouth, her fingers tapping the touch screen like she was playing a flute.

Ah, how cute, I thought – she’s making a phone call.

I was less amused when I took it off her (unleashing a wall of tortured screaming) to see she was in some application on the internet and there were two buttons on the screen, one reading ‘confirm’ and the other ‘cancel’.

Panicked, I quickly cancelled out of whatever it was she’d been about to install, or buy, or delete, thinking I’d dodged a bullet. But that was just the start of it.

She’d turned on the wi-fi, turned on Bluetooth, turned on the GPS tracker, turned on mobile data, put it into flight mode, and changed the network from Vodafone to T-Mobile! God knows what else she might have done that I haven’t found yet – there’s an icon on the top left of the screen that wasn’t there before, and all attempts to remove it have failed. And it seems to think I have headphones plugged in all the time now.

It’s the same story with my Kindle (forgive the pun). I’ll be writing something, little ‘un on my lap seemingly engrossed in her own thing, and suddenly this little hand will swipe across the screen and exit whatever application I’m using, or delete my file, or undo changes. And she smiles and giggles, like she knows exactly what she’s done.

She has an uncanny knack for making mischief. The other day I spent a couple of hours baby-proofing the lounge, putting plastic squares on sharp corners and sticking rubber padding on the edges of furniture with double-sided tape. Then I brought Izzie into her new ‘safe’ playground.

The very first thing she did – the very first! – was to roll her way over to the sideboard, grab the bottom of the rubber padding and – riiiiippp – pull off the whole three-foot strip. Then she eyed-up the padding on the TV table, so I put her to bed.

Not that bed is safe from her shenanigans. She loves throwing her dummy down the back of the cot, perhaps because she knows it’ll force me to pull out the drawer and strain to squeeze underneath to retrieve it. The other night, she was lying peacefully in her cot, ready to sleep, so I stepped out of the room and closed the door. Within twenty seconds, I heard the dummy clatter down behind the cot and she started to make crying sounds, only to laugh the moment I stepped back in.

Having a bit of sense – only a bit – I put the second dummy in her mouth, stepped out, closed the door, and in less than ten seconds – I counted – it followed the first down the back of the cot.

After enduring five minutes of her tearful sniffling I went back in there and – lo and behold – she started laughing!

I’ve developed a new tactic in the Battle of Bedtime – I put Dummy 1 in her mouth, and as soon as she takes it out I pop in Dummy 2, so she ends up with one in each hand and a perplexed expression on her face. It’s not foolproof – she can just throw them both down the back of the cot – but she hasn’t quite figured that out yet. And long may she remain in ignorance, or else Dummy 3 will have to make an appearance on the scene.

Nothing but passive servants to their physiological urges? They’re devious, calculating monsters!

Now I’m dreading the arrival of my phone bill…

 

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.