A Father’s Role

 

In the olden days – like, the really, really, really olden days – a father’s role was simple: catch food, drive your enemies before you, hear the lamentations of their women. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly simple, especially when all you have is a wooden club, but cavemen knew what it was to be men.

Years later it was decided that, while the father still had to provide for their children, they should also guide them towards successful adulthood by administering discipline, principally using ‘the rod’, ‘the birch’, ‘the staff’, or ‘the belt’, depending on their particular inclination.

Then we had this pesky thing called the sexual revolution, in which women decided they no longer wanted to sit around raising babies, baking cakes and waiting for their husbands to give them their pocket money, and instead go out and earn money for themselves. No bad thing in itself, but it upset thousands of years of a clear gender split in parenting roles.

The father is no longer the provider, because the mother can do that too. He’s also equally expected to help out with the night feeds, change nappies, give baths, nurture, cuddle, sing songs, mollycoddle, encourage and entertain. And discipline is hardly an exclusively masculine preserve. As a result, many men have lost their way, with nothing they can cling onto as an exclusively XY domain, unlike women, who have a sacrosanct arena of XX dominance: no matter how much I might want to, I shall never be able to give birth, breastfeed, or discuss pelvic floor exercises with my girlfriends – at least, not without embarrassment.

The thing is, we men are full of testosterone, ready to contend with nature red in tooth and claw, but there’s little call for that on the way to the chemist to get more baby wipes or when choosing between pink paint or floral wallpaper. So modern man channels all his brutish, preternatural manliness into the one thing we can make our own, and in this find fulfilment and transcendence: personal safety.

You mothers can wander about with the baby, smell the flowers, watch the sunshine; we fathers will protect you. That’s something we can do. That’s something you have to let us do so we feel like men. While you play in the play park, we’ll stand sentry, intercepting any and all potential dangers and inconveniences. We are a cross between Secret Service agents, bodyguards and ninjas. We stand ready to do violence upon those who would harm us and ours. We are men. Hear us roar! Miaow!

Trouble is, since I became a dad, I’ve realised that the world seems to have become an incredibly dangerous place, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Every hitherto friendly dog I pass in the street is now a potential child-killer, just waiting for me to drop my guard so it can maul my baby to death. I’m not just talking about Alsatians and Rottweilers – the village is full of prissy little Lhasa Apsos, fluffy, self-important, ten inches tall, all of whom will turn into Cujo if I’m not watching them. That’s without mentioning the cats, the size of tigers, that prowl between parked cars, sharpening their claws as they lust after toddler blood. It’s a freaking jungle out there, people.

And people too. The postman has morphed from a friendly chap who delivers the mail into a blood-thirsty psychopath who wants to take my baby away with him in his post bag. Elderly neighbours ask us if we have any plans for the day: why do you want to know that, are you planning on ambushing us and stealing our baby? You would not believe just how many kidnappers lurk around our village, ready to steal my nearest and dearest if I look away for even a second. Man with walking stick = man with offensive weapon, best avoided. Every bush, every tree, could be hiding the human equivalent of Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s my job to keep these bastards at bay.

Then there are the drivers. One mile an hour over the speed limit is one mile an hour too much: ‘Slow down, Lewis Hamilton, you’re not in Monaco now!’ The car park at the supermarket has changed from a place to dump my vehicle in order to purchase goods into a nightmare murderfest organised by the prison guards in Death Race 2000, filled with elderly people who reverse without warning and ignore the one-way traffic-flow system, yes, ignore it! And by the end of each car journey these days my eyes are bloodshot from glaring at every person along the way who has the potential to cause an accident which might harm my daughter – which, to be frank, is all of them.

Nature is just as violent. I see dog poo and wonder what diseases it might be able to pass on; I look at the sky and ponder whether or not little Izzie will make it home alive if the weather changes suddenly; I question if the trees I have walked under a thousand times will choose this day, this moment, to come crashing down upon us. Are those cows going to stampede? Can that bull get out of the field? Is the slurry pit giving out noxious gases? What if? What if? What if?

And that’s just outside the house. Inside, I’m increasingly suspicious that the TV might mean my daughter harm, or the dishwasher, or the tumble-dryer. Radiators are steam-filled pipe bombs, the boiler wants to kill her with carbon monoxide, the toilet is full of water to drown her in, the bedding can suffocate her, the plug sockets might arc electricity across the room, the carpet might cause burns, the food might poison her, the picture frame might brain her as she walks past and there’s the ever-present threat of the sofa swallowing her whole. I lie awake at night wondering if I’m doing enough to keep meteors from crashing through the roof or foxes from scaling the walls and sneaking inside through the air vents.

My parents asked me what I want for my birthday.

‘A fire extinguisher,’ I said.

All in all, I’m coping really well with my paranoia. But this, you see, is a modern father’s principal role: keeping our children safe. It’s what makes us men. It’s all we’ve got. Don’t take it away from us. Because you’ll need us when the zombies come.

Provided we haven’t worried ourselves to death first!

Millimetres from disaster

Every parent has been there, probably multiple times. You’re doing something, anything, and you come a hair’s breadth from disaster.

Sometimes it’s small – you’re carrying the little one up to bed in your arms and her head skims the door frame. You breathe a sigh of relief, knowing  you were a cat’s whisker away from cracking her skull into a solid piece of wood.

Sometimes, it’s bigger – you’re holding her in your arms, normally in public and over concrete, when she braces her feet against you and suddenly launches herself backwards into space. Somewhere between instinct, determination and sheer dumb luck, you arrest her fall with hands, arms and thighs. No trips to the hospital today, you think, shrinking from the disapproving stares. Crisis averted.

And sometimes, it’s on a whole other level.

I changed Izzie’s nappy the other morning, got her dressed, and left her to roam free upstairs as I finished getting myself ready. Long gone are the days where if you did that, she’d close the door to the nursery then sit behind it, sending you into a mild panic as you struggled to get back in without squishing her. Nowadays, she’s far more interested in exploring, and as long as you look round to check on her every thirty seconds, there’s not normally that much trouble she can get herself into.

And you can hear her – she’s fast, but boy is she noisy. Even when her hands and knees aren’t drumming over the floorboards, she babbles to herself constantly. If you want to know where she is, just listen for a couple of seconds and she’ll announce herself.

Anyway, the other morning Izzie was in the nursery pulling sleepsuits out of the drawer and throwing them over her shoulder, and I figured it’d be the ideal time to pop to the toilet. It would take her at least half a minute to completely empty the drawer, then another few minutes of flinging them to every corner of the nursery for her job to be truly finished. Plenty of time, and I’d hear her if she left the room.

So, I’m standing there, peeing, minding my own business, looking down, as you do when you’re a polite man who was taught how to aim, when to my absolute horror a little hand appears between my knees and grips the rim of the bowl. Then another little hand appears beside it, followed by the head of my little daughter, mesmerized by the majestic stream cascading down mere millimetres away from her face.

Oh. My. God. I cannot describe to anyone who has not experienced it the awkward awfulness of such a moment – hands full, mid-flow, the peace of a second before now hanging in shreds, replaced by the terrible fear you’re about to piss on your baby’s head!

I sprang into action. But just as I was pinching it off to avoid something that would haunt my nightmares for years to come – no mean feat in itself, any man can tell you – she switched her focus to the water (and other) in the bowl and reached down into the toilet, ready to scoop –

My free hand caught her wrist and stopped her a gnat’s bum fluff away from breaking the surface.

Manoeuvring her safely off the toilet and out of the bathroom – one hand on my junk, one clutching her wrist, and her so unsteady on her feet – wasn’t the easiest of things, but was nothing compared to what had come a moment before.

Now, I will never have to flashback to the day I gave my daughter the world’s worst hair wash. Never before have the words ‘millimetres from disaster’ held so much truth!

AS, Anxiety and Baby Safety

It is rare to meet someone with AS who doesn’t have some kind of anxiety problem, and yet anxiety is not part of Asperger’s Syndrome. Rather, it seems the symptoms of Asperger’s – the social confusion, difficulties with understanding, need for routine and inability to cope with change – often lead us into situations we can’t cope with and encourage others to tease us, humiliate us and bully us, and it is a lifetime of such occurrences, repeatedly falling on our arses, that causes the anxiety.

Even then, some of us can be bigger worriers than others.

It turns out that I have a reputation amongst the NCT crowd of being something of a worrier and rather overprotective (shocking, I know!). As I’ve said before, in order to cope with our anxieties, people with Asperger’s plan their lives to avoid risk and the unpredictable. Having a baby means that you don’t just have to plan to keep yourself safe – you have to think of the baby too. And your anxieties about yourself pale into insignificance alongside your need to protect your baby.

Now eight-and-a-half months old, Izzie has reached that stage where she wants to be involved with everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. She wants to know what you’re doing, what your partner’s doing, what the dog’s doing, what the cat’s doing, what the people out the window are doing, what’s behind that sofa, what’s in that cupboard, can I open this drawer, why can’t I wear that hat, your glasses would look better if I bent them, what happens if I empty out your bag, and everything in between. And keeping her safe has become a nightmare.

The house is starting to resemble a fortress. There are barred gates across every doorway, a wooden fence blocking access to the TV, a hexagonal playpen that looks like a cage-fighting arena taking up half the lounge, and foam corner protectors uglying up most of the furniture. We’ve put down a soft mat as the floor was (probably) too hard, and I’ve even relented about bumpers and put protectors around each slat of the cot because she keeps falling and cracking her head against the bars. Every single night.

But it’s all to no avail. She’s determined to stand and walk before she’s ready, which means she falls often and falls hard. Worse, she doesn’t seem to care – if she’s standing up against the sofa and wants to get to the other, she throws herself down like an unemployed stuntman so she can crawl; if she has a toy, she thrashes it about until she’s knocked herself almost senseless; and within a few seconds of putting her in her cot you’ll hear an awful, heavy thud as she drives her head into the wood, deliberately and repeatedly, as if that’s how the cool kids get to sleep these days.

I’ve had to come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to safeguard her entirely. I can chase her around the room as she waddles about, and catch her if she falls backwards – I can’t stop those face-planting forward falls that squish her nose and knock her teeth back into her gums. Nor can I stop her crawling over her wooden blocks, getting her fingers caught when she bashes two toys together, headbutting my knees or suddenly slamming her face into my forehead – no matter what precautions you take, she’s got you.

I was sitting on the sofa the other day when the lamp started sliding across the sideboard all by itself. Did we have a ghost? I jumped up to find Izzie had pulled herself to her feet, squeezed into the gap down the side of the dresser, reached up to the top and, even though it was out of sight, found the lead with her fingertips and was slowly preparing to pull the whole, heavy ceramic base of the lamp down on her head. This is just one example out of a hundred. Unless we have no phones, lights, chairs, sideboards, tables, floors, people in the room – anything, in fact – we will never eliminate risk.

All of this means the bruise above her eye the size and shape of a thumbprint has been joined by two on her temple the size of peanuts and one right in the middle of her forehead as big as an egg. And she’s into scratching herself too. We take her out in public, all black and blue and red, I’m terrified we’re going to get arrested for using her as a football. ‘It happened when she fell,’ I tell family and friends, and even I think I sound guilty.

The same is true of weaning. I freaking hate feeding her these days. Before, it was milk – pure, wholesome, liquidy milk. Now, it’s all kinds of food, food with bits, with lumps, with chunks. It’s bread, it’s meat, it’s pasta, it’s fruit. So at least once a meal she’ll laugh, or try to talk, or simply swallow something too big, and she’ll start to choke. Totally normal, apparently, totally natural, since she’s learning new textures and tastes, but as her face turns purple and her eyes bulge and tears spurt out of them, I have to fight down the panic because I don’t want to alarm her any more than she already is. So I’m a nervous wreck before we even begin, waiting for that unexpected moment she’ll suddenly start choking, and – something particularly hard for me – there is nothing I can do to prevent it. We can’t keep her on yoghurt and soup all her life, but good gosh I wish we could!

It’s a hard reality to accept but one that I guess all parents eventually have to – we cannot protect our children from the world or from themselves. We can try our best to ensure they’re kept safe, in a protected environment that minimises the risk factors, and be there to pick them back up, but ultimately they’re going to get bumps and bruises, fall out of trees, start dating that boy you don’t like just to piss you off – the trick is not to make a big deal out of it and hope that the damage is never too great. Otherwise you’ll make them neurotic and yourself a basket case, or worse – you’ll turn them into you.