Back-in-my-day Parents vs. Today’s Parents

We’ve all met them – it’s impossible not to – those people who had things so much harder in their day. Paper round uphill both ways, had to earn money or they didn’t eat, bath was a bucket in the front room, left school at fourteen, none of your namby-pamby ‘qualifications’, went to the University of Life, worked at the coal face sixteen hours a day with hand tools they had to hold with their feet, in total darkness, without breathing apparatus, lose a finger you kept working till the end of your shift, got paid a pittance but never complained because men knew how to be men, dammit, didn’t do me any harm, and your generation doesn’t even know it’s born, bloody snowflakes, the lot of you.

That’s all fine – while I don’t believe that anybody’s life is free from suffering, I accept that we have labour-saving devices that past generations could only dream of. And nor is this a new thing – in Jaws, Quint moans that there are no ‘good’ men left under the age of sixty, and that movie came out in 1975. Every generation thinks the next has it easier than they did. It’s natural. I accept that.

What I cannot accept, and what I find frankly bizarre, is how many of these people seem to want everyone to suffer the same way they did and despise any progress that makes things easier for the future – particularly when it comes to parenting.

Parents have spaces for pushchairs on buses? Well why should they? We never had those. We had to wake up our children and hold them under one arm while we collapsed the buggy and put it on the front of the bus – and with an armful of shopping too. That was how we did it and we had to cope, so they should too.

Parent-child spaces? They’re not disabled, why should they get extra-wide spaces? Is it because they have such big cars and such big pushchairs and such big car seats to keep their precious little darlings safe? We never had that, we had to make do with little cars, not even seatbelts, and we didn’t get any special treatment. They chose to be parents, get used to the struggle. And why are they so close to the store? They should put them at the back of the car park so the obese little bastards get some exercise.

Mumsnet? What a ridiculous pile of self-indulgent tripe. We didn’t have anywhere to go to get advice about our ‘darling’ sons and daughters, we had to deal with things by ourselves, on our own, with no help or support from anyone. And that goes for parenting books too – we didn’t have complicated parenting theories and techniques, we just had to get on with it. So just get on with it.

Breastfeeding discreetly in a public place? We were never allowed to do that, we had to go somewhere in private, no, we wanted to do it in private because we had self-respect, not like these modern women who whip it out in front of anyone.

And don’t get me started on disposable nappies, or bottle sterilisers, or Perfect Prep machines – we had to wash our nappies, and this was back when washing was difficult, and we had to boil the bottles and teats in water on the stove, and this was when water took hours to boil, and we had to heat the formula while our baby screamed and screamed and screamed until we thought we’d all die.

So why, I have to ask, why, if you know how hard it is to be a parent, would you want to keep things that hard for all time to come? Why would you resent anything that makes our lives that little bit easier? And are you really saying that, if you’d had in your day the advantages that we have in ours, you wouldn’t have used them?

Having a hard life doesn’t buy you a badge of honour. Nor does it make you better than anyone else, somehow superior to today’s parents, somehow purer. Being a compassionate member of society means wanting other people to have things easier than you did, so they don’t suffer quite so much.

Unless you believe that life is meant to be hard, and parents are meant to suffer, in which case I don’t think we’ll be seeing eye to eye any time soon.

‘Different’ is not ‘wrong’

Thanks to problems with Theory of Mind, when you have Asperger’s Syndrome it can be very difficult to understand why people might want to do things differently to how you do them. Coupled with a tendency towards black-and-white thinking, this means we think our way of doing something is best, which makes all other methods worse. It is a short leap to thinking your way is ‘right’ and every other way is ‘wrong’.

As the primary carer of a baby, whether you have Asperger’s or not, it’s very easy to fall into this trap. You’re with the baby all day and all night, and as a result you quickly become an expert on all aspects of baby care. You develop ways of holding her, cleaning her, talking to her; you have routines dictating how you change nappies, make up feeds, how you put on sleep suits; you know how to respond to different cries, googles, gurgles and grunts; and everything you’ve worked out is definitely the best and only way of taking care of your little angel.

And then the other parent wades in.

For whatever reason – they work, they’re ill, they’re just not as in-tune with the baby’s needs as you are – they fumble around like a five-year-old trying to unscrew a doorknob with their eye-socket. You cringe, you grimace, and then you step in to show them how it should be done. ‘Like this,’ you say as you patiently guide them towards a better method. ‘No, no, hold her under here, like this, pat her bottom, there you go, see how well that works?’ Because you’re trying to help.

Ever since Lizzie returned home from hospital with Izzie, and struggled every step of the way, I’ve devoted myself to making things easier for her. I took over the night feeds, soothed the baby when she was colicky, strapped her to my chest when I walked the dog; every time it became too much for Lizzie, I took over; and everything I learned, every tactic and technique that worked, I tried to teach her.

Yet the more I’ve done to take the pressure off Lizzie, the worse she seems to have become. She would deny this but I’ve been doing around 75-80% of the baby care, and the fact I’ve had to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden has put an undeniable strain on our relationship, which came to a head the other day when I was telling Lizzie how to hold Izzie to stop her crying when she suddenly snapped, ‘Shut up! I don’t want to do anything the way you do it!’

We slept in separate beds and I was forced to do a great deal of soul-searching. Righteous indignation, resentment and a feeling of being criminally underappreciated slowly gave way to the realisation that Lizzie has increased in confidence when she goes out with the baby, decreased in confidence when she’s at home. The only possible reason for this is that when she’s out, I’m not with her, and when she’s home, I’m always peering over her shoulder, giving her ‘guidance’. Despite having the best of intentions, had I in fact made things more difficult for both of us?

I thought more about her outburst, wondered why she wouldn’t want to do things the right way for the baby – if my technique stops Izzie crying in thirty seconds, and Lizzie’s takes five minutes, surely she’s deliberately doing it the wrong way? I had to work really hard – I mean really, really hard – to turn my thinking around and realise that I can’t stage manage Lizzie’s relationship with Izzie, no matter how much I might want to. Her way of doing things is not wrong, simply different, and as Izzie’s mother she has as much right to experiment with different techniques and find her own solutions as I do. If it takes Lizzie five minutes to stop Izzie crying doing it her way, that is the nature of their relationship and it will be different from my relationship with Izzie. Not worse, not wrong – just different.

It’s hurtful and heartbreaking to admit that by trying to do what’s right for all of us I’ve actually made it much more difficult. I haven’t allowed Lizzie to develop her relationship with her daughter, build confidence in her baby-caring skills, or find her own solutions to her problems. I haven’t allowed her to be a mother, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Since having this epiphany, I’ve stepped back. When the baby cries every fibre of my being urges me to go to her, but I have had to dig my fingernails into my palms and leave Lizzie to soothe the baby her own way. I’ve watched her doing things in ways that I would not and have bitten my tongue. And Lizzie’s confidence, and enjoyment of the baby, have both increased immeasurably. She is doing so much more, and without complaint, all because I’m letting her get on with it.

For the first time in around thirteen weeks, I feel like we are joint parents with equal responsibility for the baby – there is no longer a primary and secondary carer, much as it pains me to admit it, because I loved being the primary carer. But this is the way it should be.

So, all parents reading this blog: don’t make the same mistake I did. Unless you want to look after two babies, you have to be your partner’s partner, not their parent. They’re not doing things wrong, just different. And if you don’t allow them to figure things out for themselves, you’re denying them the greatest thrill of being a parent. So shame on you!