Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

Port scans and industrial fans: 1 month of parenthood

30 Jun 2019

(Read part 1 first)

Gaby was alone with Oscar for their first night in the hospital. It was 3am, and she had just finished feeding him for the second time ever. She wanted to sing to him, but didn’t know any baby songs. I had gone home, ill and exhausted. She improvised.

Oscar, Oscar, who is my Oscar?
Oscar, Oscar, you are my Oscar.

It doesn’t sound any better when performed live, but I suppose it was better than nothing.

The next morning, still feeling like death, I came back to the hospital. I had planned on spending the day sniffling and watching speedruns of Super Mario 64, but Gaby was stuck in bed with both a baby and an urgent need to urinate. She needed my help.

After I arrived, a very serious pediatrician came in to check that our baby was still working. He undressed Oscar, poked him a bit, then said he looked fine. We noticed that Oscar had crapped himself. Should he be changed? Probably, said the serious pediatrician. Apparently that wasn’t part of his job. We carefully changed Oscar ourselves for the first time. It was a two person effort; we didn’t yet know that you can grab and lift both of a baby’s ankles with one hand and clean up their faeces with the other.

Oscar was later reinspected by a much smilier pediatrician. Let’s take a look at little…he began. His pager went off. He glanced at it. Actually, I’ll be right back, he said. Fifteen minutes and presumably one emergency delivery later he returned. Anyway, where were we?

Gaby and I had agreed to flip a coin for his second name. When we got married neither of us had any interest in changing our names, and I personally believe that life’s too short to double-barrel. I wanted Oscar Marx; Gaby preferred Oscar Heaton. We did the flip that morning, and Heaton won. I slightly regret this; I think Marx is an edgier name than Heaton, and if we’d gone with Gaby’s last name we could have picked up some very visible Progressiveness Points for free. Since we did a coin flip we should technically receive half the Progressiveness Points, in order to reflect the expected value of our strategy. But I can’t imagine that anyone will believe me or give a shit when I explain that actually I’m not helping to perpetuate the patriarchy in long run expectation.

My mother-in-law arrived around lunchtime. She stayed with us for the first two weeks, which was incredible. She cooked, cleaned, shopped, advised, and then retreated into the ether from whence she came so that we could unwind and meet our baby. She made a huge difference.

My brother and his girlfriend arrived around afternoon-snack time. They cooed and ahhed appropriately, and displayed their lack of confidence at holding a baby. I used to find this extremely difficult and stressful too. Now I scoff at anyone who can’t hold a baby with one hand while cooking oatmeal with the other and explaining into the phone tucked in between their ear and shoulder that no it’s actually fine to cook and hold a baby so long you wipe the scalding hot oat spatter off of their cheek quickly.

Then I went home again because, as mentioned above, I was dying of a violent sniffle. I actually got quite a lot of sympathy, which I appreciated. I lay in bed, drinking coconut water and watching videos from the most recent Game Developers Conference. So now I have a son, and I also know a lot about the troubles facing the indie game development industry. It’s been a good year.

I asked Gaby if she could pop by to CVS on her way home from the hospital and pick up some NyQuil, since I was having a pretty bad morning. She politely but firmly told me to get my own goddamn NyQuil and to come help her walk the twenty meters from the car to our apartment.

What’s surprised you the most? ask my friends and family who have read the books that tell you that that’s an insightful question to ask. What’s surprised me the most is that I don’t mind doing the stupid bullshit that comes with taking care of a baby - changing diapers, bottle feeding, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. I don’t know how this will change as the bullshit becomes stupider and less direct - spending two hours in traffic to pick Oscar up from poetry club, scrubbing nose blood out of his karate gear, or any of the other things that I’ll have to do if I can’t persuade him that the only things in life that matter are functional programming and Rocket League.

What’s surprised Gaby the most is how serious the recovery from pregnancy is. She knew that C-sections were major surgery and that you couldn’t really move for weeks and months after them. What didn’t occur to either of us is that squeezing a baby out of your vagina is no laughing matter either. We’re now in week five and Gaby is up and about, but still has to be careful about walking too far or too fast.

We’ve been using an app called Baby Tracker to track Oscar’s feeds. Gaby uses the app as a stopwatch to make sure she feeds him for long enough, and the resulting log of when he has fed is very helpful for deciding whether he’s grumpy because he’s hungry or because he’s sleepy. We’ve also noticed that when Oscar gets hungry he starts to try to feed on whatever is closest to his face. I think he’s playing a numbers game, reasoning that eventually something will be a nipple. Smart kid.

At first we also used Baby Tracker to track Oscar’s sleep, his mood, and his craps. I liked the idea of being a data-driven parent, willing to do whatever it took to optimize the family experience. “You don’t need to track all that stuff” people said. “Someone’s clearly not dedicated enough” I thought. However, I now realize that these people did not mean that the extra data is useful but optional. They meant that there is absolutely no purpose or benefit to it, and collecting it is a pure waste of time and energy.

It’s still not entirely clear to me what we should do with Oscar when he’s awake. Can we just hold him and get endless mileage out of that joke where we talk to him like he’s a real person with goals and aspirations? Should we read to him? Sing to him? What will happen if we don’t? Will he still get into his first choice college?

I’m also not sure whether we should be buying eco-friendly diapers. When Costco sell normal diapers by the crate, is this really the most effective place to pay our eco-tithings? What if we just never buy a car? Or what if we cash in the points that we’ve accumulated by not having owned a car for the last ten years? Does it work like that? Is there a blockchain that keeps track of this stuff?

In week two Gaby and her mother insisted that Oscar was starting to track me with his eyes as I spoke and moved around. I was unconvinced that he was doing any better than blind chance. I kept threatening to do some statistics, where we measured his baseline head motion and calculated whether my actions were altering his behavior in any detectable way. I never actually did this, but I’m still instinctively wary of over-imputing great intelligence and motivation into what are very likely to be random flailings. On the other hand, maybe it’s better to over-impute than to be too skeptical of your child’s accomplishments, even when they’re nowhere near significant at the 95% confidence level. Sure it’s possible to fluke your way to captain of the swimming team or to SVP of a major advertising agency, but your father should still probably just congratulate you rather than muse about what the median outcome would be if you re-ran history a thousand times.

Now that we’re in week five, I do accept that Oscar sometimes does follow me as I hold him and move my head from side to side. I don’t know exactly when he picked up this skill, which suggests that I really should have done those statistics. Presumably it’s not that he was randomly wobbling his eyes one day and exhibiting clear purpose and motivation the next. I would guess that he gradually got more and more deliberate, one step at a time, some steps bigger than others. This must be how most milestones go. At first they’re babbling total nonsense; then they start sprinkling in a few “da”s and “ma”s; then a few more; then a few more; then one day you decide that those last gurgles sounded sufficiently like “kernel extension” for you to classify them as their first words and declare victory.

Or one day you’re crushing them at Fortnite every single match; then the next day they get a lucky headshot. The day after that you resume stomping on them; then they pick up a few more lucky headshots; then a couple of well-planned ambushes; then you wake up one morning screaming and realize that you’re never going to be able to kill them ever again.

I had always assumed that if I had a child then they would immediately sleep through the night. Then I learned that this is physically impossible, and that not even the Dalai Lama slept through the night when he was a baby because his stomach was the size of a hydrogen atom and he needed to feed every 2 hours.

This concerned me greatly, since I’m extremely sensitive to not sleeping. Any less than my regulation eight hours and I fall apart (“well it was a pretty stupid idea to have a child then, wasn’t it?”). Fortunately, Gaby can survive on very patchy sleep, or at least claims that she can, which is good enough for me. I take Oscar from his 7pm-ish feed until my bedtime, and then at 6am I sneak into Gaby’s room and steal him until Gaby wakes up. Regardless of who does what and when, I’d strongly recommend sleeping in separate rooms if you have the option. No point two people getting grumpy for a one person job, especially when the second person is me.

When we first realized that sleep was going to be challenging we did what any anxious yuppies would do - get a twelve hundred dollar automated comforting crib called a Snoo. We’re actually renting it for three bucks a day, plus hidden fees, and I think that if there’s even a ten percent chance that it does something useful then it’s worth it. The Snoo connects to your wifi network and comes with an iPhone app that allows you to control it remotely. Yesterday I found the crib’s private IP address and started port-scanning it, but then Oscar had a freak out and I haven’t looked at the results yet. I’m sure that the Snoo is entirely secure and well-programmed, but I’m still holding out hope they forgot to put validation on the vibration speed setting.

ifconfig | grep broadcast | arp -a
nmap -p- 192.168.0.oscar

We’re also starting to discover other things that help Oscar sleep, or at least develop voodoo rituals and superstitions. He really loves being bounced on a yoga ball, and seems to respond well to loud YouTube videos of industrial fans. Pacifiers are somewhat effective, but a pain to keep held in his mouth. He seems to like hairdryers, but I think only the noise and not the air. He’ll usually eventually calm down when he’s in his stroller, especially when going over bumpy terrain. My wife thinks that he likes staring at faces, but not when they’re talking or making eye contact. I think this is magical thinking - what he really likes is red sweatshirts, but only when they’re worn inside out.

You can drive yourself to distraction looking at parenting advice on the internet. I’m still not sure what the right approach to it is. On the one hand, it’s surely prudent to at least consider parenting techniques that aren’t thoroughly evidence-based or recommended by a doctor, so long as they’re cheap, easy, and plausible. On the other hand, maybe the average success rate of these shots in the dark is so low that you’d be best off going with what the actual pediatrician with the actual medical degree recommends, and spending the rest of your time breathing deeply and counting to ten. I suspect that baby books are best read under the supervision of a trained professional who can reassure you that, even if you don’t follow the vigorous, contradictory advice of every book ever published, your child still has a shot at a good life.

It seems to be a general consensus that it’s better to praise a child’s actions, rather than anything intrinsic about them. “Great picture!” rather than “you are so good at drawing!” But saying “good boy!” is more satisfying that saying “excellent actions,” and much more satisfying than “your actions are consistent with the unprovable hypothesis that you are a good boy.” Fortunately Oscar doesn’t understand words yet, since he is only just a month old. But I still think it would be as well for us to get into good habits, since I’m sure that your child’s understanding of what you’re saying really creeps up on you.

I’m still working out how to rebalance my life now that it has another person in it. In the months before Oscar’s birth I had been writing a lot. I had been recording synthwave and making videos about programming. I had been playing Magic: The Gathering and PlayStation at every spare opportunity; and watching documentaries and hanging out with my darling wife. I had gone to work and Successfully Met Expectations. I had been doing other activities that I found worthy and productive, and plenty of others that I didn’t.

So how does Oscar fit into all of this? Is that a socially acceptable way to phrase it? In the past month I’ve put the PlayStation and synthwave on hold, but I’ve also written over 10,000 words of blog posts. I’m acutely conscious that any time spent on my hobbies is time not spent with my son, and that he will never be twenty-five days old again. I’m equally conscious that any time spent on my hobbies is time that Gaby is obliged spend with Oscar in my stead. She says that this is all she wants to do for now, although once her maternity leave is over she will want to get back to the software engineering. She says that she feels loved and supported, and that she wants to help me to continue to pursue my dreams and hobbies. I do believe her when she says this, but I’m still nervous.

My naive interpretation of modern parenting is that aggregate effort and responsibility should always be divided precisely down the middle. However, while I do think this is a good place to start, I don’t really think it’s where you need to end up. It’s got to be better to start by talking about what your honest preferences are, how these can be traded off against each other, and how they tessellate with having a baby. Then you can design your lives accordingly, perhaps double- and triple-checking that the woman isn’t getting the raw deal.

Gaby says she has felt guilty for being “deeply, deeply grumpy” with me for long periods of time when she had been particularly sleep deprived. When she first told me about this I replied that in my opinion she hadn’t been particularly grumpy at all. You can interpret this in several ways. I choose the flattering one.

I’m not sure when I should stop writing about Oscar. “Daaaaad stop blogging about me, you’re weirding out my co-workers.” “Sorry son, I’ll just finish this one about your last performance review and then I’m done, I promise.” The other day I unlocked Gaby’s phone in order to play a YouTube video of an industrial fan. Safari opened at her last Google search.

when do babies cuddle you back

I didn’t read any of the results, but I think I can retain my writing privileges until at least then.

(Next: part 3)

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