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.

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.

Afraid of Number 2, Part 3

Irrespective of whether you are religious, spiritual, agnostic or atheist, having your first child is an act of faith.

No matter how much you learn or how well you prepare, no first time parent knows what they’re getting themselves into. You don’t know if you’ll make a good parent, or how you’ll cope with the lack of sleep, or the crying, or the screaming, or if your relationship will survive the stress. You don’t know what it’s going to be like changing nappies, or feeding, or bathing, or dressing, or being entirely responsible for another life in its physical, emotional and developmental needs. It’s the equivalent of being led blindfold to the edge of a cliff and then jumping off and trusting you’ll survive the fall. It’s not rational at all.

So why do we do it? Unless we play fast and loose with contraception, we do it because we’re driven to do it, without rhyme or reason. We do it because a couple of billion years of evolution have programmed it into our DNA to ensure our genetic legacy. And we do it because our hearts are crying out for completion, for something more to love.

Having a second child is nothing like that. It’s not such a leap into the unknown as you pretty much already know what it is to have and raise a baby. You know how your lives have changed, how your relationship has altered, and therefore how a second baby is likely to affect this fledgling family dynamic. As a result, discussions about a second baby are less to do with the heart than they are with the head.

‘I want Izzie to grow up with a sibling so she has someone to play with, learns to share, and won’t be lonely. I think an age gap of two to three years is best – with Izzie at pre-school there’ll be less disruption, and they’re close enough in age to get along. And I’m better with toddlers, you’re better with babies, so you can look after the new baby while I look after Izzie. It’s the perfect division of labour.’

So says my partner Lizzie. It all sounds very logical, and rational, and clinical, but logic had nothing to do with why I had Izzie. I had Izzie because my entire being was crying out to become a dad. There was a gap in my heart that I knew only a baby could fill.

Izzie filled it. It might change in the future, but right now I feel complete. My heart is whole. I don’t feel the pressing need to have a baby that I did before. So surely, then, it wouldn’t be right to have another baby purely because I can justify it intellectually?

And there are other considerations. As I wrote yesterday, Izzie was our miracle baby, a gift from the gods. How ungrateful would we be to take that miracle and demand another? And the journey to her birth was so long, and moving, and life-changing that how could a second baby possibly compete?

‘This is our daughter Izzie. After years of fertility treatment and events conspiring as though Nature itself determined that we should become parents, we were gifted with her presence. And this is our son Gregory.’

[pregnant pause]

‘We thought Izzie might like a playmate.’

Now I know that our children aren’t meant to compete, and I know that every child is a miracle (No, says the biologist, it’s a natural process resulting from the coming together of two gametes), but Izzie has set the bar pretty darned high. Even the reason for having a second baby – for Izzie’s personal development – means even before it’s born it’s in her shadow, not desired or considered in its own right the way Izzie was. And that’s just wrong.

It’s wrong to Izzie too. I love her so much and we’re so close, I feel like having another baby would be something of a betrayal. It’s like saying to her, ‘You’re great, and all, but we need more. And you can’t provide it. So there. Sucks to be you.’

And, in all honesty, I am afraid of having a second baby. My heart is full. People say that you always worry you won’t love the second child as much as the first, and then it arrives and your heart grows to fit all the love you feel and you don’t know what you were worrying about. You discover your capacity for love is boundless, and blah, blah, bollocks.

But what if you don’t? What if you discover that, heaven forfend, you have a limited capacity for love, and wouldn’t you know it, you’ve just hit your limit? Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. Go to the back of the class.

I have specific reasons for my doubts. Because of my Asperger’s, I’ve always struggled to manage feelings and relationships. If I had a friend, I couldn’t be friends with anyone else because not only would it be a betrayal (I know it’s not, but I can’t help feeling it is), I couldn’t find the mental space to consider the needs of more than one person at a time. And when I have a partner, like I do now, the very thought of wanting to spend time with anyone else just makes me feel dirty. This is a lifetime pattern of behaviour. I’m a U2 kind of guy (one-love, one-life).

I loved the fish until we got the chickens; I loved the chickens until we got the cat; I loved the cat until we got the dog; and I loved the dog until we got Izzie. What if, by having another baby, I transfer my love to it and can no longer care about Izzie or manage to consider her needs in such a way that I go from being a good dad to merely an adequate one? I don’t want to turn my attention and my heart away from her towards anything else and let her down. The very thought of it is heartbreaking.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I’m afraid of having a second child. I’m afraid I don’t have enough love to encompass two children. I’m afraid that my relationship with my daughter will irrevocably change. And I’m afraid if I’m spread so thin I’ll lose my ability to be a good, caring, attentive dad.

So in a way, I guess having a second child is a leap of faith. You’re not sure you’re going to love it – you don’t feel that you can – but you have it anyway, trusting that it’ll come good in the end. I said before that you can’t live your life imprisoned by fear, or else you deny yourself the chance of something good, and perhaps this is one of those things.

But not right now. Right now, I don’t feel the desire for a second baby, not on its own terms. My heart isn’t crying out for something to love. And until it does, I can’t even think about bringing another child into this world.

It’s explaining this to Lizzie that’s the hard part.

Asperger’s, Parenting and Unexpected Change

As is well-covered in the literature of autism, people with Asperger’s have a love of routines and struggle to cope with change. What I’ve been realising lately is that this bald statement covers up the nuances of what this means in practice, particularly when you’re the parent of a seven-month old.

And it can affect two people with AS in opposite ways.

I cannot handle change in terms of things being added. I need time to process and accept things that are coming up. Ever since I was a kid, I needed plenty of notice – at least a week – to get my head around a visit from relatives, a trip out somewhere, or anything out of the ordinary. If not, I tend to moan, kick up a fuss, say some nasty things I don’t really mean, and then go along with it anyway. But I don’t have much of a problem with things being cancelled anymore – indeed, the principal emotion is relief I don’t have to go through the effort of painting on my ‘public’ face and holding onto a fake smile for however many hours. I would be a hermit if I could get away with it.

Lizzie suffers the opposite extreme: she can’t handle change when it’s things being removed. She is mostly fine with things being added to the routine, especially if she’s the one doing the adding, but if something is cancelled her first response is to throw a tantrum. I liken it to a person walking along a road and finding a brick wall blocking their path. While other people would try to find a way around it, or else turn back, Lizzie bashes her head against it until one of them gives – sometimes the wall, but most often the head. Actually, scratch that – most often the heads of those around her.

Babies, as some of you are well aware and others can easily imagine, are unpredictable. Not only that, the world becomes unpredictable when you have them. Visitors arrive with little or no notice, longheld plans need to be dropped without warning, and you have to rush off to the doctor out of the blue. It’s impossible to say which of us struggles the most with the changes having a baby has brought to our lives, but I can guarantee that I suffer the most.

Now, when I say ‘suffer’, I’m not being melodramatic. I’m not talking about the discomfort I feel at friends, relatives and healthcare professionals clamouring for our time or pitching up on our doorstep unannounced. Nor am I talking about the disruption that sudden trips to the shops for some vital knick-knack cause to my quiet, ordered life. Fact is, the baby’s needs come first. I have accepted that. My needs, as an autistic individual, are immaterial next to hers. I have made that choice.

Unfortunately, Lizzie is either unwilling or, by dint of her condition, unable to make that choice. And so I genuinely suffer.

Like before Christmas when Izzie had a cold and I hadn’t slept for two days. Sunday morning I was so tired I couldn’t see straight, my back ached, I was covered in snot and dribble, and my throat felt like I’d been swallowing razor blades. I hadn’t had the chance to drink, eat, go to the bathroom, since the night before. When Lizzie arose, well-rested, and made herself some breakfast, I asked her to please look after the baby for an hour to give me a rest. But she had planned to go shopping, and, unable to alter her plans, she toddled off for more than three hours of non-essential retail therapy. I suffered.

Or like a couple of weeks ago when I got a migraine about teatime. Lizzie had planned to go out, so out she went. I couldn’t open my eyes more than slits as the light burned, I kept seeing spots of light dancing in front of my face, and my head throbbed with every beat of my heart like somebody was burying an axe in my skull. Every time I bent forward, it felt like my brain was being forced out of my eye-sockets. But I duly bathed the baby, gritting my teeth and shouting in pain whenever it became too much; hissed as I dried the baby; roared as I dressed her in nappy and sleepsuit; cried out as I placed her as gently as I could into the cot; snarled as I sang her to sleep. And then I collapsed, nauseous, into bed. I suffered.

Or the other week in the storms – our village turns into an island during heavy rain, and three years back I wrote off my car by driving into floodwaters (the single-most butt-puckering moment of my life!). So although we’d planned to take the baby to town, I refused point blank to expose her to the risk of getting stuck down some country lane surrounded by cows pretending to be ducks. The sensible thing. Unless you have autism and can’t change plans, in which case you kick off like a wild animal, say some truly awful things, and then go out anyway sans partner and baby. It was only later she admitted I was right, it had been too wet and downright risky to go out in that weather, with or without the baby.

Now, as this is mostly a positive, light-hearted blog, I’d like to say that whenever this happens I smile wryly, roll my eyes, say, ‘That’s Lizzie!’ to hoots of canned laughter, accept that it’s just her autism, and forgive and forget.

But nor is this a fairy tale.

There is a lingering resentment bubbling away under the surface as my needs, and Izzie’s needs, repeatedly come second to Lizzie’s inability to alter her plans for the greater good. Whether she can help it or not doesn’t matter – the resentment is there.

I have heard it said before that partnering a person with Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of abuse – not for the Aspie but the poor neurotypical saddled with their unreasonable behaviour. As someone with AS, I disagree with that, but let me be clear – people with Asperger’s can be cold, insensitive, selfish pricks at times. That’s the reality hiding behind the innocuous words, ‘people with Asperger’s have a love of routines and struggle to cope with change’.