Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.

The Hidden Disability and the Hands-On Dad

I’m a pretty placid guy, I think. I take as I find, try to treat others as I’d like to be treated myself, and generally endure massive amounts of abuse before I fight back. I can be irritable, sure, and I can be a dick, but I try to make the world a better place by being in it.

All that being said, there’s one thing that drives me freaking insane: when people assume I’m somehow less of a parent because I’m a man.

Yesterday, I arrived home from nursery at around 6pm with my little girl in tow and unloaded her from the back of the car. A neighbour was out in the street and asked me how I was.

‘Knackered,’ I replied.

‘Well, if you’re knackered, imagine how your wife feels,’ she replied. ‘It’s harder for her – she’s the mother.’

Wow. Considering we’ve only ever exchanged a couple of words before, it seems awfully forward to express such derision for my physical and mental state.

Allow me to respond.

‘Well, actually, my wife has autism and a learning disability and I’m practically her carer; I can’t leave her alone with the kids more than an hour or she becomes overwhelmed; she goes to bed at 9pm and sleeps right through till morning, so until 8am, I am a single parent; and every time the baby cries, she passes her to me.

‘For every five nappies I change, she changes one; I cook four nights a week while she cooks twice, unless she decides she’s not in the mood, in which case I have to throw something together or we go hungry; I look after the dog, the cat, the chickens, the fish; I do all the driving; and if I try to nap in the afternoon, I’m told I’m selfish and don’t care about the family.

‘When the baby cries, my wife cries; when my wife cries, the toddler cries; and then the toddler tells me I’m naughty for making mummy cry. So I soothe the baby, then soothe the toddler, which soothes my wife.

‘I’m the only one who baths our toddler; I put her to bed every night, even when she’s screaming to stay up because the baby’s still awake, which is every night; I take her to nursery twice a week and pick her up; I hold her hand when she wakes crying in the night; I cuddle her because since her sister arrived she needs three times the love and reassurance; I console her when mummy’s too busy playing with her phone to pay her any attention; and I’m the only one who disciplines her, gives her stability and clear boundaries, and remains consistent in my behaviour.

‘I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in two years, while my wife gets ten hours a night; haven’t had more than a few hours in a row ‘off’, while my wife goes out several times a week; bear the full responsibility for everybody in this household; and I am not allowed to get ill, or feel tired, or have a headache, or else everything falls apart.

‘If I go out, I have to arrange for someone to come in and sit with my wife; and everywhere I go, everybody asks me how my wife is coping, and how we can make things easier for her, and whether she needs more time away from the children.

‘My life revolves around my kids, as though I’m in a bubble of childcare; I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to do any of the things I used to do; I eat all the time and am so tired I barely know the day of the week; I feel as though I’m just going through the motions; and I read a pamphlet that said these are all signs of postnatal depression in women, but, damn it, this is just normal for me.

‘And now let me tell you why I’m knackered today. Between feeding and changing the baby last night, I worked on my speech till 1am. The baby was up at two, four and six this morning, an hour each time, and then my toddler once again got up at seven. I have had three hours of sleep in snatches of 45 minutes a time, and that’s the way it’s been for a month.

‘After breakfast I took my toddler to nursery, where she spent all day because I was out this afternoon and my wife wasn’t capable of looking after them both. After making lunch, I packed everything up for my wife and drove into Bournemouth. I then set up the pushchair, loaded the baby into it, and bid my wife adieu as I headed for a hotel.

‘Upon arrival, I was seated at a table beside best-selling author Kathy Lette and her son, Holby City actor Jules Robertson, and across from comedienne Rosie Jones. I was both overwhelmed and terrified, but I hid it well.

‘After a bit of chit-chat, I got up and gave a speech to 140 local business leaders, the mayors of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch, an MP and a Lord, encouraging them to provide work placements for people with special educational needs. After my speech, several people approached me and told me they had been sufficiently moved by my words to offer employment to people with autism.

‘Oh, did I forget to mention that I’m autistic too? And that I’m also susceptible to depression and have been on a high dose of antidepressants for fifteen years? And that nobody seems to give a damn about whether I’m coping?

‘So, my speech over, I picked up my wife, loaded the baby and pushchair into the car, and drove home. The baby apparently hadn’t woken up at all, but she was wet as my wife hadn’t changed her. I changed her clothes and nappy and fed her, then went to pick up my toddler from nursery.

‘On the way back, I thought how exhausted I was and how desperately I needed some rest, but I knew I still had to make tea, put my toddler to bed, and then, after my wife went to bed, get up up at least three times in the night to see to the baby.

‘And then I saw you, and you asked me how I was.

‘”Knackered,” I replied.

‘”Well, if you’re knackered, imagine how your wife feels,” you replied. “It’s harder for her – she’s the mother.”

‘Now, I’m not going to tell you how offensive your assumption is that my wife works harder at parenting than me. I’m not going to harp on about how while from the outside we might look like a nice, normal family, you have no freaking idea what goes on inside. And nor am I going to roll out that old adage that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME. No.

‘To assume makes you an ass, period. And that’s all I have to say about that.’

That’s what I could have said. Instead, I dug deep, took it on the chin, and said, ‘Yep, it’s much harder on the mum.’

Because the situation in my household is the situation in my household. It’s not ideal, sure, but I’m surviving, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow my neighbours to know what’s really going on, and talk about it among themselves, and judge us.

They call high-functioning autism the ‘hidden disability’, and it really is – in every way that matters.

The Hidden Side of Postnatal Depression

It is not exceptional for one of the parents to be better at this baby business than the other. Despite today’s fluid gender roles, it is normally the dad who goes back to work while the mum becomes the more confident and capable partner, not out of choice but necessity –  being left alone all day, having to rely on your own wits and instincts, and doing the legwork of feeds, nappy changes and constant soothing, means you become better at it than the absent partner through familiarity alone.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. You both have different roles to play in bringing up your baby, two perspectives, two approaches, and this breadth of influence can only benefit the child. They know who to go to for comfort, who for play, who gives them food, who bathes them. The absent dad tends to do the fun stuff, but he’s also the disciplinarian; the present mum does the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day and has to say ‘no’ more often. It’s impossible to say which role is more important, provided you’re working together as a team with the best interests of your child at heart.

The trouble comes when the dad becomes the primary care giver even though the mum wants to be, but can’t because of problems outside her control. Like when she has autism, dyspraxia and postnatal depression.

I’ve touched on this issue before but it’s time to really flesh it out. When one partner struggles to cope with the crying, the sleeplessness, the changes to your routine, the practical aspects of childcare and the emotional toll of the responsibility, while the other seems to be doing fine, it can cause very real problems, particularly if the one struggling is the mother. It can damage the parents’ relationship, the mother’s mental health, the father’s resilience and the mother’s bond with the baby.

To be fair to Lizzie, it can’t be easy discovering you’re not all that good at the thing you’ve been looking forward to for years, or watching the person who was meant to be the secondary carer acting as both mother and father, and doing so with such apparent ease. She freely admits that it’s ten times harder than she thought it would be, so she sticks to the things she expected to be doing: dressing Izzie in pretty outfits, taking her to visit friends in the pushchair, having happy bathtimes. The day-to-day graft is predominantly on me.

At night, I take over sole care of Izzie from sometimes as early as half-eight right the way through to around eight in the morning. And as I’ve been putting in the effort as both mother and father, Izzie responds to me in ways that she doesn’t to Lizzie.

Friday night was a case in point. Lizzie took the baby to her dad’s. Izzie started crying, nay, screaming, and after twenty minutes of neither mother nor grandfather being able to stop it, they rang me in desperation. I went round and Izzie was instantly comforted. She just wanted her dad-mum. And it has driven Lizzie back several weeks.

She’s scared of Izzie, that much is clear. Scared of her screams, scared of her needs, scared of not being able to meet them. And of course, she resents me because I can, because the baby turns to me for comfort. So the better I get at being a dad, the more it upsets Lizzie and the worse her attitude towards me. She’s always angry at me for being what, at the moment, she is unable to be.

And it is putting a strain on our relationship. I know she doesn’t mean the things she says – that she no longer loves me, that she wants me gone, that she’ll get custody of the baby if it comes to it because she’s the mother and ‘the mother always does’ – because twenty minutes later she’s apologising and telling me she loves me, she needs me, and she can’t do it without me. But some of the things she says are so nasty, and they come so often, it becomes more difficult to simply shrug them off. I’m a ‘loser’ if I want a nap in the afternoon because I’ve been up since 4am; I’m ‘lazy’ if I don’t want to take the dog for a five mile walk with a 12-lb baby strapped to my chest; I’m a ‘teacher’s pet’ for answering the doctor’s questions while she sat in silence; and I’m ‘boring’ because I’d rather Izzie was in a sleepsuit to make it easier to check and change her rather than a dress-trouser-knickers-socks combo. We talk about helping mums cope with mood swings- we never talk about the effect this has on the dad.

This is the hidden side of postnatal depression. The dad is meant to shoulder it without complaint, bear the burden that the mother cannot, until she’s back on her feet. And I’m doing that. What I wasn’t prepared for was that every personal success for me knocks Lizzie’s confidence; every time I manage to sooth the baby when she can’t, she resents me more. And I don’t know the solution.

Have I made myself into a crutch that actually keeps her limping? Should I step back, force her to do more? Or would that make things worse if she’s truly not ready, or capable, of coping?

The problem with Lizzie is that she’s an expert at hiding her problems for fear of being seen as weak. It’s the reason she wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until her twenties. It’s the reason I wonder if she’s been honest with the doctor about how she’s feeling, or simply presenting the impression of someone that is coping. Of course, she wants to be seen as a good mother, and I don’t think for a moment it’s easy for any mother to admit they’re struggling because it goes against all our preconceived notions of motherhood – but until she faces it and accepts it, she can’t get better.

Luckily, the base of our relationship is very stable, and has been tempered in the fires of numerous crises. The surface might be full of holes at the moment, but the foundation is untouched. I love Lizzie to bits and it kills me that nothing I can do can make things better for her, and much of what I do to make things easier is actually resented.

So remember the next time you hear it mentioned that postnatal depression doesn’t only affect women – behind the scenes it puts added strain on the whole family. And if you see a dad out and about with his baby, please don’t congratulate him on ‘babysitting’ to give mum a rest – it may well be that he is the mum.