Robert Heaton

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

Parenthood #6: Re-rolling the dice

02 Mar 2020

(part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5)

At gatherings with my non-parent friends Oscar is currently a fun novelty. But at what point will his clapping and gurgling start to become a tedious distraction, and at what point will people get fed up with being the ones who have to make the journey to our postcode “because of the little man”? Will I still have friends this time next year? Answers via WhatsApp please.

I wish I had done more back and shoulder strengthening exercises before Oscar was born. Babies need a lot of picking up and carrying and putting down. Oscar also still usually needs jiggling to sleep, and now that he’s starting to try to walk he needs an adult (or at least a sturdy pre-teen) to bend down and give him some supporting fingers. On top of this, when I take Oscar outside I prefer to strap him to me in a sling instead of wheeling him around in a pushchair. In this configuration the two of us are much more compact and maneuverable, and our cuddling efficiency is maximized. However, all of this adds up to a sustained and significant strain on my back that is hard to take time off from.

People often say “you’ve got to look after yourself - what’s best for you is best for him.” This aphorism strikes me as both obviously true and open to being abused in order to justify anything. I suppose I shouldn’t worry though. If you’re acting in love and good faith then you’ll find a reasonable balance between your needs and your child’s, and if you’re not acting in love or good faith then you should probably work out why. Giving substantive weight to your own needs does not logically and necessarily lead to “sometimes you’ve got to take time for yourself to play PlayStation for four hours while your baby screams at a wall.” But even if this were where it led, if you’re severely spiritually depleted and that’s how you recharge and no one else is around to help, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

Working out what to buy and do with a small child is a difficult chore that has to be duplicated and duplicated by millions of parents every year. Because of this, once Gaby and I think we’ve found the best shoes or a good car seat or a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, we find it tempting to publish our findings online in some form to try and save other current and future parents the work.

However, I suspect that if one were to do this then the next day one would think “well if I’ve published all these glowing reviews of products then I might as well make a few bucks and stick in some ads and affiliate links.” Then the next day “well if I’ve got all these affiliate links then I might as well put some effort into search engine optimization to maximize my revenue.” Then before long you’ve got a parenting blog and a YouTube channel and are managing a team of contract content editors during your coffee breaks. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, it’s just not on my list of goals for 2020.

It occurs to me that even if you get this far then you’re still just yet another unverified source that the next parent has to randomly decide if they trust when agonizing over the optimum socks.

It’s perfectly prudent to compare your child and your family to other children and families around you. You don’t need to freak out if your child is walking or talking or winning her first round of Fornite later than other children, but it can’t hurt to have a general sense of what constitutes typical development and where she sits on that curve. You also don’t have to steal every habit, game, and song from every smiling family that you meet, but maybe they’ll have some decent ideas for fun or organizational strategies that you can borrow.

But comparison often leads to competition and judgement. Oscar is much better behaved than those kids - but Jesus Fucking Christ did that baby just put on his own shoes? Was that a fluke? How old is he? Well, anyway, look at those parents on their phones, they should really learn to be more present with their little one, like me. Yes I know I was checking Twitter quite a lot last week while Oscar was desperately trying to get my attention or at least a wooden block to play with, but it’s not every day you write a blog post that gets 1,500 points on Hacker News and 3,000 retweets. Someone’s got to earn the internet points to feed this family.

I used to think that parents who gave their children iPads on plane journeys were failures with no imagination. Now, having done four long-haul flights with Oscar, I can’t wait until the day when he has the finger control to at least attempt to play Candy Crush, ideally for seven hours straight with no breaks. Say what you like about Steve Jobs but he sure had a vision for helping parents kill their children’s time in situations where such time is in gross oversupply.

Are plastic Tupperwares harmful? Are glass ones any better? Is it worth only feeding him organic vegetables? What if we get normal vegetables but wash them? Are non-stick saucepans toxic? Do I hate myself for even asking these questions?

The stance we’ve settled on is that some of these things might fractionally improve Oscar’s expected life outcomes, but they could also easily be a waste of time and money and worry. We therefore will do any eyeroll-inducing, over-protective-parent things that are cheap, easy, and plausible, but won’t stress too much about the margins. We’ll buy some glass Tupperwares and feed him mostly organic vegetables, especially if he’s eating them raw, but if someone offers him a non-organic carrot that was stored in a plastic box then he’ll munch that right down too. Also if we turn our back on him for five seconds then he’ll eat cardboard and newspaper and bits of crud from the floor, which I fear are neither organic nor locally sourced.

We’ve crammed a foolishly large number of stressful life events into the last nine months. We had a baby, moved from San Francisco to New York for half a year, moved from New York to London for the foreseeable future, and now we’re trying and failing to buy a house. With hindsight I wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off waiting another year or two before we had Oscar.

Gaby is horrified by this suggestion, although she is mollified by the stipulation that Oscar would remain exactly the same as he is now, just delayed by twenty months or so. It goes without saying that I think that Oscar is my perfect little man and I wouldn’t change a thing about him, but I do still assume that if we rerolled the dice then we’d end up with someone very similar who we would love just as much.

This probably isn’t the kind of thing I should say out loud though.

I’m sorry if this next bit is nauseating but it’s also important.

Gaby and I have got through the last nine months with our relationship pretty much unscathed. We partly attribute this to our deep, cosmic love and compatibility, about which poets and MCs will tell stories for millennia to come. We attribute the rest to “family checkin”. Every Saturday morning we spend thirty minutes or so talking about our feelings, emotions, and gripes. That’s it really. We’ve experimented with different structures over the three years since we started this ritual, but at the moment the rules are:

  • Each person gets to monologue about their week and what’s on their mind
  • The other person can ask clarifying questions, but probably won’t offer their own opinions until after the monologue is over
  • Each monologue ends with the question “do you have any thoughts or observations?”
  • One of the questions is usually “can I do anything for you this week?”
  • Rotate who goes first so that it’s not always the same person who sets the tone

Sometimes family checkin is used to celebrate the week’s achievements, say thank you for something thoughtful the other person did, plan the coming days and weeks, or set future goals. Other times it’s used to vent about someone or something, talk about the week’s disappointments and failures, or talk about eternal problems and stressors that have no solution.

On not a few occasions family checkin is used to let the other person know about something that they did that made you feel sad or upset. This is usually quite effective at resolving such tensions before they ossify into resentments. It’s not magic though, and you do also have to use all those empathetic communication skills that they should have taught you at school but never did and now your employer is trying to quickly backfill in order to get you and your co-workers to give each other constructive feedback without wrecking the team-building exercise you do once a quarter.

Good-bad-good. When you do X it makes me feel Y.

If it’s been a tense or tetchy week then it’s comforting to have a time and a place to say and hear “I love you”.

We’re not sure how we’ll incorporate Oscar into family checkin once he’s old enough to have hopes and dreams and fears. It would probably be healthy for us to continue to be open and honest with our own tribulations in order to show Oscar that it’s OK to be vulnerable, although we’ll probably also need to do a separate parent checkin for restricted access topics. “Person X is being a total dingus, I need to vent.” “Should we get Oscar a PlayStation?” “I wish we hadn’t got Oscar a PlayStation, we need to fake a break-in and sell it on eBay.”

Both Gaby and I have worked remotely since Oscar was three months old and we moved to New York. It’s been wonderful. I’ve been working Oscar’s entire life so far and have only just gone on parental leave (more on which next time), but I’ve still been able to spend almost every day with him. I’ve been upstairs writing code while Oscar’s been downstairs playing with Gaby (while she was on parental leave) or one of his nanny’s (when she went back). It’s been truly special to be able to cuddle my son during my coffee breaks, and has meant that I’ve been able to help out more when Oscar has been ill or otherwise losing his mind.

This has of course been contingent on the triple privileges of having a job that can be done remotely; a supportive employer; and a (dual) income that can afford a nanny. And yes you can ask me again in two years if I wouldn’t mind going back to a noisy and distracting open office just for some peace and quiet, and yes you can also ask me again in five and ten years too. But for now I’m just telling it how I’ve experienced it so far.

While Gaby was pregnant I read a couple of enthusiastic articles about offices with onsite daycare, but I couldn’t understand how this could possibly be as much of a big deal as the articles made out. It did sound convenient not to have to search out childcare on your own, and it’s always nice to get anything free or subsidized, but beyond that? I get it now. Instead of aimlessly scrolling through Reddit on a coffee break, you scroll through Reddit with purpose and vigor, and then nip upstairs to give your infant child a big cuddle.

I sometimes feel like we should have figured out our childcare plans before Oscar was even born, but I don’t think that you can really know how you’ll feel about all the tradeoffs until you’re facing them for real.

Oscar has been getting incrementally better at sleeping. He still needs someone to rock him to sleep and is still a long way away from being able to calm himself down. But he does need somewhat less help, goes to sleep faster, and stays asleep for longer than the last time I wrote about him.

He used to scream for twenty minutes or more before eventually passing out, and even then only after vigorous bouncing on a yoga ball. Now he typically falls asleep after ten minutes of light jiggling, no yoga ball required, and we can usually flop him out from our arms onto the bed or crib without waking him up. If he gets hysterical then Gaby can almost always nurse him to sleep. This feels like a crutch that is good to avoid where possible, but sometimes we don’t have much choice. A much weirder crutch that I discovered in a deranged and desperate delirium is that I can usually snap him out of his madness by squawking the Arrested Development chicken noises at him for a few seconds.

There’s still a long way to go, but the fact that we’ve made this incremental progress gives me hope that we’ll be able to make more incremental progress in the future.

When Oscar wakes up he starts snuffling and grumbling in a bid to attract the attention of someone who can retrieve him. We’ve started leaving him for a few minutes when he does this, especially if he’s only been asleep for a few minutes and we think he’ll need to go back to sleep. This might be a genius strategy that will teach him self-reliance and self-soothing, or it might be a waste of time that achieves nothing other than needlessly pissing him off. As with so many things, it’s almost impossible to tell.

Sometimes he mutters and tosses in his sleep, apparently in the midst of a baby nightmare. Since he presumably doesn’t have much in the way of internal life yet it’s not clear to me what he could be having nightmares about, other than nebulous feelings of sadness and aloneness.

That’s my boy.

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