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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Partners in the Marriage Business; or, what the hell happened to my sex life?

There’s a line in the Robin Williams movie RV: Runaway Vacation that really resonates with me. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, with the trite message that spending time with your family is more important than spending time at work, but it has a certain clumsy charm that makes it far more likeable than it ought to be.

Towards the end of the movie, when the family is at its lowest ebb, the wife opens up to a delightfully happy hippy couple about how when you first get together, it’s all romance and fun and affection, but then before you know it you’ve become ‘partners in the marriage business’ – this one needs taking to school, that one to football practice, you need to get the shopping on the way home from work, who’s paying the rent this month? – and somewhere along the way, you forget what it was that drew you together in the first place.

My wife and I have become partners in the marriage business.

Our relationship is entirely about who is cooking tonight, let’s get take-out, are we made of money, you need to pay the swimming teacher, I’d rather pay the pizza boy, do we have enough nappies, we’ve run out of wipes, why is there ink all over the carpet, you’ve shrunk my shirt, no you’re just fat, have you seen her dummy, where’s the lid to this bottle, I’ve lost the TV remote, well if the house was tidy we wouldn’t keep losing everything, so tidy it then, someone needs to get petrol, by someone you must mean me, you’ve spent how much on Christmas presents, no I haven’t even thought about it yet, can we please turn off Peppa Pig, I appear to be sitting in a wet patch, did you feed the cat, it’s your turn to change the nappy, I changed the last one, there’s poo on your jumper, I’m tired, I’m hormonal, how come we don’t connect any more, how can we possibly connect when we’ve got two kids, I hate my life, I hate your life too, oh God why’s she crying again, I don’t know I’m not a mind reader, really I thought you knew everything, oh go to hell, I’m already there, that’s because you’re the devil…and so on, and so forth.

Yes, the marriage business.

We’re so disconnected that the toddler has started calling them ‘mummy’s sofa’ and ‘daddy’s sofa’, and calling us ‘cheeky monkeys’ if we dare to swap. When we kiss or cuddle, as we’re trying to do to rekindle something of the spark we once had, the toddler shouts, ‘No fighting!’ because little signs of affection are so rare, she thinks we’re attacking each other.

It’s a little worse at the moment because my baby has a cold, my wife has a cough and a cold, and my toddler has a cough and a cold and conjunctivitis. In addition, we haven’t had an oven for three weeks as a two-day kitchen makeover has dragged on exponentially. And currently, the kids are tag-teaming me.

When they’re not screaming at the same time, they’re taking it in turns. Either way, there’s no respite. Two days ago I got up at 4.30 in the morning and didn’t get to bed until 2.30 am yesterday, which by my reckoning is a 22-hour day. Not even Amazon makes people work that hard.

So, as our marriage is on the rocks, and we’re aware of that, we decided we needed to reconnect physically, because everyone knows that if you solve the problems in the bedroom, everything else falls into place (yeah, I know it’s meant to be the opposite, but what else can we do, talk to each other?).

Unfortunately, intimate time when you’re married with a toddler and a baby is easier said than done. When I was up to my middle knuckles in shit the other day, trying to extract my baby from three layers of yellow-stained clothing and fighting to wipe peanut butter off her ankles, knees, belly button and nipples (no, I’m not joking, it was a bad one), my wife looked at me with a wink and a nod, and mouthed the word, ‘Later.’

I’m on a promise, I thought. Yay! But I wasn’t entirely convinced.

I’ve been on a promise for a fortnight now.

What tends to happen is, ‘Sex tonight?’

‘Yep, definitely.’

I put the toddler to bed around 7.30, and my wife goes to bed at nine with another hint of things to come: ‘don’t be long’, she says, seductively drawing her fingers across my shoulder as she leaves.

Whereupon the baby does her nightly cluster-feed, keeping me up till around midnight when she falls asleep in my arms. I go upstairs, put her in the Moses basket, rock her back to sleep since she always wakes up during the transfer. And then I look down at my wife in the bed.

Snoring away in a ball of misery and discontentment, wrapped up to the eyeballs in the least-flattering pyjamas she can find. Which, to be honest, is a relief.

I can’t afford the time or energy it takes to have sex. My kids climb over me all day so by the time I go to bed, I don’t want even the slightest trace of physical contact. Added to which, I’m knackered and I just want to sleep, knowing either of them could wake up any second and demand my attention.

But I figure I’d better go through the motions anyway and continue with the charade.

Nudging my wife with my knee, I say, ‘You still up for sex?’

‘Too tired,’ she mumbles without even waking up.

‘Thank God,’ I mutter, and collapse into bed.

We’re partners in the marriage business, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon.

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.