Sometimes, I wonder whether the average family day out with the Marvels is actually just an open invitation for them to cunningly plan and stylishly execute an assault on my mental well-being in order to obtain some predetermined and meaningless prize - just for the fun of it driving me completely mad!
Now, I am confident. No, I am reasonably sure, that the nearly 4 and the 8 year old are not actually that intentionally calculated in the amount of stress, exasperation, panic and hair loss that they inflict during a 'nice' family day out, just for the sheer fun of it, but I must admit I am not completely 100% confident!
What should be a 'nice' family day out usually descends into such intense feelings of wanting to put your head inside a lion's mouth (just for a few moments of solitude) that I often wonder "is this really happening"? Is my fate in life really to drop to the floor in a sobbing mess next to the teenager dressed as the zoo mascot in the over sized alligator costume whilst everyone crowds round to stream my mental breakdown live on Facebook? Or is today the day that the zoo keeper and the ice cream vendor stood next to me peel off their masks to reveal the gleeful grins of those two loveable Geordies Ant and Dec, as we all fall about on the ground laughing (Peppa Pig style), feeling immensely grateful that this isn't really what life has in store for us every time we go on a 'nice' family day out. It's just a hilarious 'gotcha' moment to look back on and remember fondly....
Oh how I wish it was!
Don't get me wrong, I do absolutely love spending good quality time with my Marvels, but I do just wish it could be a little less stressful. I often think that I am living one of the universe's cruellest jokes; an autistic person parenting autistic children. For me it is more stressful than it should be; for them it is likely less fun than it could be.
We have learnt however, that there are many ways to reduce the stress and to try and make it a more pleasurable experience for everyone. For example; choosing the right location for a family day out - making sure there is enough space for the wild one to run, safe enough to ensure it is Marvel proof, low intensity surroundings so as not to over-stimulate the senses and most importantly somewhere that doesn't sell alcoholic beverages for sale, or else the journey home would be interesting!
Planning is also really important, for example; to make sure we pack a change of clothes for Marvel H who strips off the very moment a drop of water lands on his clothes, or to ensure the one obscure item Marvel A has requested we take with us doesn't inadvertently get left behind, or else we are all doomed! But, no matter how much planning and preparation goes into it, getting out of the door is like herding a mob of hearing impaired Meerkats. Requests to put shoes on turn into repeated commands and ushering out of the door toward the car always results in at least one of them breaking free in a distracted daze, as like a magpie, something shiny catches the corner of their eye.
The cynic in me has started to get suspicious that this is actually phase 1 of 'the hunt'. The sporting delight of Marvels A and H, who begin to execute their beautifully crafted plan to make Dad 'lose his s**t' so that he gives in to each and every one of their demands. Phase 1 seems to consist of a short sharp test of my resolve, just to see how far they need to be prepared to go to make their plan a success.
The car journey to the Zoo however, actually goes pretty well. The Marvels are quiet, occupied by electrical devices, with just the occasional "Daddy..." followed by the most random, but surprisingly well thought out question. This should fill me with hope. Hope that the day ahead might not pan out that badly after all - they can behave in the tightly confined space of the car, so surely they will be fine looking at all the animals at the zoo right?
In fact, this is actually phase 2 - the part on the nature documentaries where you would watch the lionesses lying around beneath the tree, just waiting for that unsuspecting pack of Antelope to cross the horizon of the Savannah in front of them. They've spotted them, but they pretend to be disinterested.
When we arrive in the car park all of the day's challenges begin to map out in front of us. Getting from the car to the entrance without losing my mind, a child or quite frankly all hope, is almost an impossible task and with it brings the first feelings of realisation that you are not the hunter in this scenario, you are most definitely the hunted.
Marvel A and Marvel H both set about a joint strategy of sensory disorientation. Marvel H constantly tries to break free from the pack on my right whilst I frantically watch out for the many dangers, such as the oncoming cars and the little child he is about to run head first into. My brain is already thrown into overdrive trying to process all of the many visual stimuli. Then Marvel A launches her part of the attack with an assault on my ears - "Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Daddy. Daaaaddy! Look at this." Much to my surprise even Emma, my own companion, gets carried away and swept along with the pack, taking her own opportunity to attack. Granted, she is only asking me if I have the tickets, but my senses have already taken such a battering in the preceding 60 seconds, that I can do little more than defensively snarl my teeth and snap back at her in what turns out to be a poorly misjudged act of self preservation.
Before I know it, in less than 60 seconds phase 3 has already succeeded in prizing apart the united front of the Alpha male and the Alpha female. Weakened and with the Alpha female ready to turn on me, we move forward into the heartlands of their hunting ground - the zoo.
As soon as we set foot into the valley beyond the turnstiles, Marvel A and Marvel H waste no time in capitalising on what they have already achieved, by initiating phase 4 - the trip to the toilets - another challenge which is calculated to further weaken my resolve. Going into any toilet with Marvel H and coming out without more than you went in with is a Mammoth task. I am convinced this phase of the hunt is designed for nothing more than psychological warfare and intimidation. This time Marvel H leads me into the dark recesses of the public toilets, much like the scene when Simba leads Nala into the Elephant's graveyard. Before we even reach the toilet cubicle Marvel H has already gathered up 101 different species of parasite and bacteria by bouncing between every surface he possibly can, like a primate swinging from branch to branch. Talking him through every step of what I am doing to relieve my bladder of the half litre of coffee I loaded up on before we left the house, I literally have no choice but to order him to keep his hands on his head like a common criminal. It's my only chance of stopping him from wild animal behaviours like licking the toilet seat or poking some conspicuous looking substance on the floor.
With my bladder only partially emptied, it's time to set the bacteria free in its natural habitat by washing our hands, whilst also keeping everything crossed that I can quickly usher Marvel H out of the wilds of the toilets before the man next to us invokes Marvel H's startled screaming chimpanzee reaction by drying his hands with the electric hand dryer!
Marvel H bounds out of the toilets to rejoin the pack. I stumble on behind, dazed, scared and ready to make a run for it. My opportunity quickly passes as we head off in search of the penguins.
The only time Marvel A and Marvel H ever seem like they are working together is when we reach phase 5. As we navigate the crowded paths in search of the penguins of Madagascar, like a finely trained pair of figure skating chipmunks they weave and glide across my path; left, right, in a figure of eight, all with the sole combined aim of making me lose sight of the trail in front of us as they begin to lay the groundwork for the final take down. Not realising what is about to happen, Marvel A pipes up, "Can we go in the shop?". Marvel H seamlessly takes over, "Can we get an ice cream?". They begin repeating this over and over again. I look to the Alpha female for help. Nothing. My mind starts trying to process the options. "Can we Dad? Can we? Can we have an ice cream Dad? Can we go in the shop? Please Dad. Pleeeeeease."
I can't hold off the baying pack any longer. "YES OK. Maybe later." without the slightest regard for my own safety, the words fell from my mouth, dazed and confused. When my brain finally catches up after processing the tirade of questions, it dawns on me and my heart sinks a little. Like the skilled Chess master they have cornered me once again into the Checkmate position. They have firmly staked their claim. Out maneuvered, I have nowhere left to turn. As I contemplate what on earth it was I just said, Marvel A has already etched the commitment to her brain with a timed reminder of when she will hold me to an emotional ransom. I may as well have signed a contract in blood - because to her nothing is any less binding than those words "Yes, maybe later."
Over the course of the day every move is executed to further wear me down. Marvel H uses his wolf-like skills, every now and then sliding into the shadows or sprinting toward a children's play area, unable to resist its magnetic pull. Marvel A, seemingly trained in the art of torture, takes every opportunity to interrupt every one of my sentences until, frustrated beyond belief, I crack and silently withdraw from the pack. I have virtually nothing left. If they mount another attack now, I am surely going down. I will be devoured. I hope it's quick.
Marvel A senses the end is nigh for me. She gives Marvel H a knowing glance and ramps up the questions, squeezing me tighter and tighter with everyone. She knows I have nothing left in the tank - my energy is spent. The pack closes, claws out, clinging to the back of their prey in a final attempt to force it to the ground into submission. The Marvels execute the final play of their game plan. For the 100th time that day they begin to argue. With less grace than the Gazelle, I attempt an escape, flailing my arms around I cry out "That's it! We've had enough! We're going home!"
This was the moment Marvel A was waiting for. Like a red rag to a bull, I have unwittingly unleashed the trigger phrase. Like the cunning cat Marvel A had been laying in wait in the long grass, waiting for her time to pounce. She didn't have to wait long. She knew it was only a matter of time. I said it again "We're going home." Like a naive calf, I had been lured into calling out the attack phrase.
"But you said we would go in the shop. YOU PROMISED!!"
My jugular had been exposed and she was now glaring at the target area. All I could think at that moment in time is 'I don't remember promising anything?' By now, it didn't matter. There is little point trying to reason with a lioness when it is staring you firmly in the eye. There was now little I could do. I had two options:
Options 1 - Stand my ground which would inevitably result in the death stare, foot stomping, screaming and maybe even a full on melt-down.
Or option 2 - Give in to the demands - setting myself up to fail again next time, giving her the upper hand and losing all parental control.......but at least I would live to fight another day!
I can shamefully say I lived to tell the tale......