A British teenager spoke this week of his three day ordeal when he was lost in the Australian outback. I read with interest as this brave young man recounted how he was on his “last legs” and at the point of physical and mental exhaustion. And as I read, I could think of just one word. Lightweight.
I don’t want to detract from that man’s achievement or dampen his celebration, but come on, three whole days of peace and quiet, all that sunshine. Sorry son, but you can count yourself a real survival expert when you have faced, as a man, that most terrifying of experiences: looking after the kids, on your own, for a whole half term week. I’m talking single parenthood. Mr Mom. Daddy Day Care. It was half term, and for the entire week I was at the helm. Move over Bear Grylls. Step aside Ray Mears. Prepare for a tale of extreme parenting.
You might be wondering what had happened to my wife. Had she finally realised that the cool guy she married was long gone, was never coming back and decided to do a runner? Had the kids finally driven her out? Had she experienced a (very) early mid-life crisis and jumped on a plane to Prague with a tall, dark stranger she had met online? Unfortunately for her, it was none of these things.
My wife, in an act of gross selfishness and disregard for her husband, decided to have her gall bladder removed this half term. I suppose you could question the use of the word ‘decided’, unless you count deciding between excruciating pain and risk of infection or good health as a choice. Another questionable word I’ve heard lots this week is “lucky”. As in, “Isn’t it lucky that the operation was at half term when your husband is at home to look after you. And the kids. And the house.”
How is this lucky? How is a week of hard domestic graft, full on parenting, constant nursing of my wife and confinement to my house lucky?
As half term approached, I braced myself for a difficult week. In fact I braced a little too hard, and ended up with a dose of flu, which resulted in a whole week off work. Luckily (there’s that word again) my Manflu ended almost exactly as my wife’s medical adventures began. With one parent fighting fit, we were ready to handle a potentially difficult week of helping my wife recover, while I kept the kids clothed, fed, occupied, entertained and out of mischief. Without leaving the house. Winter half terms always present challenges for parents at home with kids. This was going to be tough.
We underestimated just how tough. My wife did not expect to feel as ill as she did, to be so incapacitated and in so much pain. She did not expect, four days after the op, to be passing out in the shower (luckily I was there to catch her. Once upon a time an early morning shared shower would have been the height of romance. This was about as sexy as the surgical stockings she has been made to wear this week). I knew I would be busy running around after the kids and making sure my wife was okay, but I’d entertained the idea of being able to get a bit of school work done- report writing, marking etc. This didn’t happen.
I could cope with the tiring routine of making meals, cleaning and tidying each day. I swallowed my squeamishness and looked after my wife. I made sure I was there for the boys when they needed me. What was really difficult to cope with was being confined to the house. Cabin fever takes hold. Things that once were charming become irritating. The constant nagging requests and demands become unbearable. The bad habits, awkwardness, stupid comments and messiness start to eat away at you, driving you mad. But enough about my marriage (only joking babe, you know I love you)!
It’s at times like this that my son’s dependence and lack of self-sufficiency become most apparent. He’s five years old and is bright, inquisitive, increasingly articulate and very full of energy. But his ability to look after himself makes him closer to a two or three year old. He cannot reliably dress or undress himself, wipe his bum, clean himself, brush his teeth, sit through a meal, get the things he wants and needs, find things etc. Many of these things are within his capability but his wandering, distracted mind means that they are not completed. So, as a parent, you do these things for him. This is not a problem of course, it’s just that, five years on, we’re still doing them, and it’s tiring.
Ironically, my wife has felt this week that her son did not need her at all. As long as his personal needs were met, my child was content. He did not look outside of himself to consider his mum, even though we constantly reminded him what the situation was. Still, he would shout at her, “Get me a freeze pop!” or yell, “Mum, wipe my bum!” down the stairs. Beyond these demands, he did not really engage with her. In contrast, my eldest was very concerned about his mum and aware of her illness. B was oblivious to his mum’s condition and showed no interest. This is fine- we don’t want either of them to be concerned, but it did make my wife realise how internal her son can be. If it’s not happening to him, it just doesn’t register. He’s so insular sometimes. The world could fall down around him and he wouldn’t notice. My wife, I guess would have liked to hear the words, “Are you alright, Mummy?” She’s missed his hugs this week.
Not that there haven’t been some near misses. He often tried to jump on or across her, oblivious to her condition. I’ve spent the week, when my wife was downstairs, protecting her from burst stitches or further internal damage.
Knowing the kids would need to be entertained this week, we made a decision to throw money at the problem. It’s money that we do not have, but after a week in the house with the kids I figured I’d be closer to the end of my tether than the end of my overdraft. We made a purchase that probably qualifies us for some sort of bad parenting award and was potentially a recipe for disaster. It would certainly, given the nature of my son’s autism, feed some of the more problematic aspects of his condition. But we weighed up the odds and decided that it was a bad idea but we’d do it anyway. And so, on Saturday, my wife bought my five-year-old son his very own tablet pc. A Kindle Fire, to be precise.
I will write a post about my son’s relationship with gadgets, computers and IT sometime soon. It will be a tale of extreme addiction and unhealthy obsession. I fed that unhealthy obsession this week, but boy did it help us. He’s spent far too much time on it, but the positives have been that the dishes were done and I was able to look after other things, like his mum. Not that it hasn’t been without problems of it’s own. When something doesn’t work the way B wants, it’s a shortcut to a meltdown, so there’s been that to deal with. “Do this level!” he will scream at me as he shoves ‘Cut the Rope’ or ‘Temple Run 2′ under my nose.
So it’s been a difficult week, but we got through it. I managed to keep everyone alive and fed and clothed. Those school reports didn’t get written (deadline: Monday, 12.00) and I may not have always been as prompt with cups of tea and tissues as I could have been. I’ll concede that, once or twice, I may have been a teeny bit bad tempered (I can picture my wife choking on her cornflakes when she reads that). I got it wrong several times but I overcame ‘the mountain’, as Bear Grylls would say (we call it ‘the ironing’).
I made several mistakes, as you might expect. Sometimes I demonstrated weakness and gave into impulses like leaving the room to use the bathroom. Talking of which, my wife and I watched a film recently in which the husband character goes to the toilet unnecessarily to hide from, I guess, family life. I remember thinking, ‘why are they showing this? This is a trade secret! Now wives everywhere will know! Our most sacred of sanctuaries has been revealed!’
On one such occasion I had been sat down for about thirty seconds when I heard screaming from the living room. One speed-wipe later and I was downstairs sorting out my boy, who had tumbled and hurt himself. He was just seconds away from hurling himself onto his mum’s lap, who would also soon be screaming. Serves me right for leaving the room. When he was calmer I asked him where it hurt. “Here!” he cried, pointing to his left knee. “No…erm… here” he said after a moments thought, and pointed to his right knee. It’s been a long week. Still, we survived.
And it may have been difficult and less than perfect, but I’ve learnt to stop expecting perfect. I was reminded this week of a lyric by Leonard Cohen: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’
Despite our imperfections, there is a great deal of light in our lives. Not least my son. Have a good week everyone.
P.S. Get well soon, babe x