Robert Heaton

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

Parenthood #5: Great cement ideas that will make your partner happy

06 Jan 2020

(part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4)

Here’s a story - Gaby and Oscar were traveling home by train after visiting her grandparents. Oscar was looking around and smiling at anyone who would give him the time of day. Most people acknowledged him with a cordial smile, and then returned to scrolling through their Instasnapbook account. But then Oscar found someone behind Gaby who was willing to entertain him ad infinitum. He cooed and gurgled and had no end of fun with this mystery inexhaustible interlocutor. Gaby didn’t want to have to turn around and say an awkward hello, but after fifteen minutes she felt like she had no choice but to say thank you. She looked back, but there was nobody there. Oscar giggled and made another face at a giant poster of a man advertising life insurance.

Here’s some more anecdotes.

I’m a sucker for blogs about parenting that have “science” in their title, even though these blogs generally seem to conclude that no one really knows anything about raising children beyond the obvious basics, so you should just love your kid and read them a book every now and then.

It’s dangerous to be seduced by the word “science” though. During my youth I was nominally a Christian, but was also uncomfortably skeptical about the existence of God. In the end I decided that didn’t want to die and really didn’t want to burn in hell for all eternity, so I accepted Pascal’s Wager and stuck with it until I got up enough courage to stop. During this time I was comforted by the knowledge that there was a church called “Christian Science”. I didn’t read any of their promotional literature, but from their name I assumed that they were in possession of a solid, objective evidence base for the existence of Judeo-Christian God. I imagined that I was probably a Christian Scientist.

It’s only recently that I discovered that there is not actually any science in Christian Science.

I’m not sure at what point Oscar starts to have a shot at understanding any of the books I read him. At the moment I assume that any and all words are just as good or pointless as each other, and so I mostly just read him Dr. Seuss in French. Unfortunately, Les Oeufs Verts au Jambon does lose something in translation, and my French is turning out to be quite rusty. After we finished Poisson Un, Poisson Deux, Poisson Rouge, Poisson Bleu and were unwinding with some post-book dancing, I tried to instruct Oscar to “put your hands in the air like you just don’t care”. The best I could manage would be loosely translated as “move your arms like you’re not interested”.

How’s Oscar doing? He’s in the 99.9th percentile for length (which at some point starts to be called height), the 99th percentile for head size, and the 50th for weight. This is not entirely surprising. As my friend’s at high school helpfully pointed out every single day for seven years, I have a gigantic head. In our yearbook I was voted “Most likely to have the fattest head” by a write-in ballot that resulted in the creation of an entirely new category. Gaby has a freakishly tiny pea head. I guess Oscar could have gone either way.

We’ve been able to persuade ourselves that Oscar has hit several key milestones promisingly early. But he still has no idea how to crawl, his best friend is an Amtrak advert, and in any case plenty of distinguished babies amount to nothing. He likes ceiling fans, cats, chew toys, obviously you don’t care about any of this, let’s skip straight to some gender dynamics.

As at least half the world is presumably aware, women tend to be responsible for keeping track of what needs to be done in a household. This is a lot of work in itself. Men will dip in and ask “is there anything I can do?” but we tend not to be responsible for managing what those anythings might be.

To my credit, I’m fully responsible for immigration, taxes, and finances, which are deeply terrifying for short bursts of time (or in the case of the tax affairs of a US citizen living abroad, deeply terrifying constantly and for the rest of your life). However, there’s no denying that Gaby is currently the primary orchestrator of Oscar, although this may change in the next few months while I’m on parental leave.

I’ve been able to continue doing a lot of writing and music because I’m focussed and driven and get up at 5am and Gaby looks after Oscar more than I do. She insists that I am doing approximately half the work, but she is empirically wrong. I’m not yet sure if I care most about objective fairness, or about Gaby’s subjective beliefs. This dilemma probably has a philosophical name but I don’t know what it is.

Gaby has been trawling the internet for parenting and family advice. She hasn’t installed as many adblockers as she should, and so Facebook has been watching her. She was recently hit by an advert for a craftsy video called “great cement ideas that will make your partner happy”. Whatever you need to do to keep your marriage together, I guess.

I’ve been vegetarian for the last seven years, and vegan for most of those. Gaby is broadly happy riding on board the vegetable train, although she does still sometimes eat meat if someone offers it. So what should we do with Oscar?

Yes of course he gets to “make up his own mind”, that’s not an answer. How else could this possibly work? We don’t have a mind control gun. Kids technically also get to make up their own mind about whether it’s OK to punch people in the face, but we still tell our kids in no uncertain terms that this is a reprehensible thing to do. We don’t buy them face-punching gloves, and we certainly don’t give them a ride to face-punching club.

For the purposes of this bit, pretend that there’s no such thing as boxing.

“But that’s different.” No it’s not. Not eating meat isn’t a whimsical lifestyle choice - it’s declining to participate in something that is abhorrent on a level perfectly comparable to unconsenting face-punching (should there be an “in my opinion” in there? Not sure). Eating meat is sort of a personal decision, in the sense that society still seems to be broadly OK with it for some reason, but let’s check in on that in a hundred years (five hundred tops).

This said, I’m still something of an almond-milquetoast. If, after we do further research, there turn out to be plausible and compelling reasons to occasionally feed growing children salmon then I’m not sure I’ll have the strength of conviction to resist. If there also turn out to be convincing arguments that a daily portion of beef is important to the development of a child’s prefrontal cortex then I suppose I’ll have some truly difficult thinking to do. And what about when Oscar goes round to his friends’ houses? Should we tell little Joachim’s parents that little Oscar doesn’t eat meat? We’re leaning towards no but that might just be because we’re bad at handling conflict.

Before you start castigating me as a neglectful ideologue, replace “eating meat” with “punching faces” and then riddle me that.

I suppose that we should also, clearly but without prejudice, tell Oscar that there is no God. Maybe we’ll prefix this with an “in our considered opinion”, but if we do that here then why not everywhere else?

Oscar is still not very good at sleeping, which is a shame because that’s still the first thing people ask about. We haven’t yet done any sleep training, which is where you - broadly speaking - leave the baby to cry it out. This is for two reasons. First, we’re doing a lot of traveling, which anecdotally often resets any sleep training that a baby has learned. We work for the same company, and recently both had to travel to San Francisco for the annual employee indoctrination festival (the company calls it something else). I’m congenitally incapable of not being cynical about this festival, although admittedly this year it was very tastefully done and I did leave appreciably more motivated than I arrived.

Oscar was quiet and smiley during all of our meetings. At least nine hundred people separately invented the jokes “the interns get younger every year” and “has he signed an NDA?” The repetition got a little tedious after a while but we were still grateful for the attention.

Our second reason for not having committed to sleep training yet is that the momblog literature is divided on how traumatic the experience is for the baby. The world “cortisol” is often invoked. Yes our generation cried it out and we’re still here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way. Progress happens.

Having children is incredibly expensive. Daycare in London is £300 per week! Or more! As far as I can tell if you want to hire a full-time nanny in the UK then you have to be their official employer, which I suppose is quite reasonable from a labor rights point of view. But while I used to roll my eyes at any person or business who claimed that greater employment regulations would cause them to cut back on the number and hours of their employees, I now start to have some sympathy for them. We have no appetite for the risks and obligations that come from being an employer. If there are any reasonable-sounding loopholes that don’t seem like the kind of thing that should be illegal and don’t make us feel like we’re part of the problem then we’ll absolutely try to squeeze through them. If there aren’t any such loopholes then we’ll have to figure out something else.

Everything gets cheaper when your child gets a bit older and the state school system starts looking after them for free. Hopefully someone also manages to find the time to infect them with a lifelong hunger for learning. Or maybe that’s what Minecraft is for.

We’re still in America at the moment, so let’s talk vaccinations.

I’m as centre-left as they come, but my second-favorite political podcast is “The Ben Shapiro Show”, hosted by moderately-famous right-wing controversist Ben Shapiro. It’s fascinating to see how compelling anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-government lines can be when they’re delivered by someone talking quickly and confidently and when there’s no one there to counter them. It’s disheartening to realize how ill-equipped I am to convincingly argue the other side.

I find the left-wing equivalents of Ben Shapiro (Pod Save America, Stay Tuned With Preet, etc) to be boring dross. I don’t think that they’re any better or worse broadcasters than Shapiro, but they rarely say anything that I haven’t already heard on background noise over at least the last decade. This said, when going political scuba diving in strange waters you do have to make sure to come up for air occasionally. Ben Shapiro has been telling me that Ukraine may have interfered in the 2016 US election. It was only recently that I found out that this is widely accepted as a baseless conspiracy theory, at least by the people whose beliefs I tend to widely accept.

All this is to say that even smash-the-state-in-a-pro-business-kind-of-way Ben Shapiro thinks that the US government should be able to compel parents to vaccinate their children. It’s also to say that, despite my claims of self-congratulatory viewpoint diversity, Oscar will be feeding on a strict diet of The Economist, Five Thirty Eight, and The New Statesman until we’ve sat down and talked about the birds and the bees and the rights of transgender people.

We sit together on his play mat. He shakes his shakers and chews on his chew toys. I drink my coffee, name the world to him, and pick him up when he falls over. We sing “Old MacDonald” and subtitle the animals in sign language. Our Old MacDonald has dinosaurs and dolphins. In France Old MacDonald is called “Mathurin”. We play piano together. I put the soft pedal on and play a happy bassline in F major. Oscar mashes the keys above middle C and tries to eat the sheet music.

When he gets agitated we take a break to watch the ceiling fan. We try to come up with ways to estimate the number of revolutions the fan makes per minute. When he gets really agitated I pick him up and hold him until he falls asleep.

We sometimes do these things as a whole family, all three of us. It’s fun, if inefficient.

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