Robert Heaton

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

Don't worry son, all your friends are weirdos too

06 Jan 2021

Previously on parenting: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6) (part 7) (part 8)

The morning after the US election it looked like the presidency was still up in the air and the Democrats were going to lose the senate. We were on edge. We went for a morose morning walk, and Oscar was uncharacteristically grumpy too. He got even crabbier as the walk wore on, until he was screaming and bawling and refusing to get out of his pushchair. We decided that we wouldn’t send him to makeshift daycare at his grandparents and marveled at how amazing he was at picking up on world events and our subtle mood cues. When we got home we found a spoon in his boot.

The educationalists say that children should be encouraged to take risks. This teaches them how to make their own tradeoffs and estimations. But it occurs to me that a risk only counts as a learning opportunity if the child knows that they’re taking it. If they’re gingerly tip-toeing their way along a slippery plank then they learn to be careful on the one hand and to regulate their fear on the other. But if they’re blithely bouncing up and down on a deceptively rotten branch or investing in sub-prime mortgage securities without understanding that the probabilities of default of the underlying assets are highly correlated then I don’t see how they could be learning anything. You’re also not meant to make a fuss of a child when they fall over because then they look to you for their cues about how they feel. Unnecessary fuss leads to unnecessary sadness. But I often take this too far and completely ignore Oscar when he bumps himself and starts whimpering, which I don’t think helps anyone.

Children get shy when they’re around people they don’t know well. At least, that’s what happens to children who haven’t spent much time around people other than their immediate family because there’s a pandemic on. Even when they’re among their friends, they never do their tricks when you want them to. Most of the profit that Apple makes from iCloud must be from 7 second video clips of children staring blankly while their parents shout “come on Bill, say that again! come on! oh OK fine.”

Gaby and I both speak French to a mediocre high school standard, and we’re trying to teach Oscar too. It’s hard to know how it’s going. We asked him “what does the letter A say?” After a brief pause he replied “…pomme.” We pointed at his ears and said “ears; oreilles; ears; oreilles.” He raised his fists and started shouting “hooray! hooray!” It occurs to me that if you accept answers to questions in enough languages and are liberal enough with your interpretations then your child need never get anything wrong ever again.

When Oscar was 6 months old we tried to teach him sign language. The theory is that children can form thoughts before they are able to express them with speech, and so teaching them sign language allows them to start communicating earlier. This seemed logical and like the kind of thing that committed, scientific parents would do. However, since neither of us knew any sign language it was a lot of work and hard to keep up, and we didn’t get anywhere. He did learn “all done” which was useful at the time. In any case, there was only a small period where he had thoughts and motor skills but not speech. If we’d stuck with it then I’m sure that his language centers might be a little more well-developed and he might understand more points of view and his life might be a little richer and blah blah blah. As it is I’ve tossed sign language on the rationalized pile of “I never did that and I turned out alright”.

Oscar can count to ten, although I can’t imagine he knows what that means yet. We want to keep stretching him but there aren’t any songs about numbers above ten, so I’ve made up a few. I’m making fun of myself, but I’m not joking. Maybe the real goal should be to equip him with senses of humor and self-worth since everything else he can learn from books or on the job. I feel quite philosophical about all of this, but I think that’s only because I secretly believe Oscar is crushing it. If I didn’t think this then I’d find it much harder. Once again: making fun, not joking.

Gaby watched a momfluencer YouTube video in which the host suggested putting pipe cleaners in your colander to create a tactile toy. I can’t put pipe cleaners in my colander! Gaby said. I need it for straining my peas. I don’t want to have to wash it up twice. Gaby had previously decided that she would do everything for her baby, but that was too much work so now she just does the best she can.

I’m not sure why so many people make videos about their children. I suppose I’m doing the same thing here except I’ve accepted that I’m more bookish than I am charismatic. Maybe it’s because new parents want to diversify their household revenue streams and make parenting pay for itself. Or I wonder if it’s because most people, including me, don’t know anything about anything that a large number of people care about. When you have a baby, suddenly you’re an expert in something important. Of course very few people are actually an expert in parenting in a way in which they can teach you anything. But everyone is an expert in knowing how they feel about it, and I suspect that this is all anyone really wants to know. I don’t really care how your family is doing or about the parenting pedagogy that you’re telling yourself is responsible for your baby’s ability to count to twenty. I just want to know that it’s all rather a lot for someone else too.

I don’t know enough about the online parent YouTube influencer scene to know whether the overall vibe is one of aspiration, commiseration, or pure monetization. I’m sure it depends on who you watch. While writing this post I watched a 20 minute video about Instagram advice for momfluencers (at least, I watched the first 2 minutes on 2x speed and then skimmed the transcript). I learned that one should strive for relatable stories and always, without fail, fully utilize your allocation of 30 hashtags.

I can’t help but feel that paying too much attention to YouTube parenting will make me feel bad and want to buy things that Oscar doesn’t need and that won’t help any of us, since that’s arguably the point of all free-at-the-point-of-use online content. Which reminds me: like, subscribe, and sign up for early access to my expensive course about getting your dream job in Silicon Valley.

Seriously though, do subscribe.

If videos aren’t your thing then there’s also no end of books that claim to make you a better parent. The pop-baby-science authors shout about papers that they’ve over-interpreted and a handful of supporting anecdotes, while the academics bustle along behind them harrumphing “well steady on there” and “something about P-values”, until eventually they get around to packaging up their own papers and credentials and start hawking their own over-promising books. I’m being unfair for comic effect, but I think it’s OK because I’m not being that unfair or that funny.

There’s a popular parenting book/app/ecosystem called “The Wonder Weeks”. The core idea is that babies go through a fixed set of developmental leaps, each preceded by a fussy period. I’ve only skimmed summaries of the book, but my overall impression is that the idea of developmental leaps is widely-accepted, non-revolutionary science, but the extra sauce of predictable timing and fussy periods is rather lacking in proof. In fact, one of the authors’ PhD students attempted to produce experimental proof for the book’s claims, but was unable to. The Wonder Weeks author attempted to suppress the results, and was eventually fired and forced out of academia altogether. Nonetheless, Wonder Weeks are a comforting idea. When your baby is grumpy, not only is it not your fault, but it means that they’re about to grow and learn something new, although sometimes it does just mean they have a spoon in their boot. Framing them as wonder weeks emphasizes the fact that this too shall pass. Oscar has come to the end of his alleged Wonder Weeks period, but we still like to blame his stroppy periods on extra, doubly-made-up wonder weeks.

A couple of funny stories, apropos of nothing else:

When Oscar was born, one of my weirder friends bought him a small Teddy Roosevelt doll. Last week Oscar dragged it over to me shouting “Teddy! Teddy!” Amazed at his precocious knowledge of American presidents I ran to find my Richard Nixon action figure. I was disappointed when he kept shouting “Teddy! Teddy!” and I realized that he thought the doll was a Teddy Bear, not a Teddy Roosevelt.

Oscar fell over and bonked his head on the floor. Gaby was concerned that he might have damaged himself so she tried to bonk her own head on the floor at the same velocity to see how it felt. Her brain’s reflexes caused her to catch herself and she didn’t think she had properly replicated Oscar’s bonk. Eventually she overcame her defenses and plonked her head on the floor to her satisfaction. She had a headache for the whole afternoon. Oscar seems fine.

Being into your identity as a father is one of the only times that it feels OK to be into your identity as a man. Most other times it feels a bit alt-right-y. Our town has a very active “Mummies’ Network” on Facebook. It might be better for everyone if this was a “Parents’ Network”, although I’m not about to bother asking or setting up a competing “Dads’ Network”. Nonetheless, this is just Facebook, and we’re obviously all thoroughly modern people in real life. Or perhaps not. We’re parent-friends with a couple of families now. The UK recently went through a month of semi-lockdown, where you were only allowed to meet up with one other person at a time (babies don’t count). When we met up with these other families, mums always met mums, dads met dads. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but it does make you think. The country just went back into lockdown, we’ll see how that goes.

As a dad it does feel a bit odd to go to a baby group that is all mums, or at least it requires energy to remember and act like it’s not. In the brief period at the start of the year when I was on parental leave and was also able to go to soft plays and other kiddy groups with Oscar, I would have felt a bit weird offering to swap numbers with a mum. Don’t worry, it’s for virtuous reasons! Gaby has pro-actively given her number to some dads in the park and felt self-conscious as she did so. Maybe this will all smooth out as we become older and less attractive or just grow up.

Last year I read an article claiming that it was a searing indictment of a relationship if the dad didn’t have the childminder’s phone number. At the time I didn’t have the childminder’s phone number so I felt like a cretin and docked myself ten points. On reflection, whilst this might be a useful heuristic, I don’t think it’s a useful thing to try to make someone feel bad about, or worse, subtract points for. On the flip side I feel my points balance swelling whenever I take Oscar for a whole day straight. But I don’t think I can have it both ways. Either a superficial, repressive internal points system exists or it doesn’t. Individual rules like “dad must have childminder’s number” can give you things to think about. But they’re no substitute for talking.

I understand that women don’t generally get the luxury of even considering points-based accounting and they just have to take what they’re given. Gaby sometimes feels resentful that I act like the default arrangement is for her to look after Oscar. She’s right; when we get home from a morning out it’s easy for me to putter off and leave her holding the bag and the baby. But this isn’t just because I’m a bastard. As far as Oscar is concerned the default really is for Gaby to look after him. It really is easy for me to walk away; by contrast it’s a whole process for Gaby to successfully untangle herself from him. This is apparently quite common, especially in breastfed, co-sleeping babies. It’s probably not helpful for me to try to rationalize this with points. I can ask more questions and be more considerate, try to help out in other ways, and hopefully no one has to indict anyone else.

The UK lifted COVID lockdown for a few summer and autumn months, but we had to isolate for 2 weeks in the middle of the lull because of an infection scare. We turned out not to have it, but the test-and-trace system lost the vial of nose-gunk that would have allowed us to confidently rejoin the world sooner. We felt surprisingly isolated, which suggests that we were doing it right, but at the time it was easy to conclude that it was because we were losers. My parents had said that once we had a baby we’d be desperate to meet other parents. For a year or so I had thought that they were wrong. We were living in a series of transient locations, none of which felt like the future, and so none of which felt like they were important to build a community in.

But when we bought a house and settled down and had to retreat from the world for 2 weeks, we started to panic. The UK has a charity called the National Children’s Trust (NCT). Their most popular and famous offering is “NCT groups”: pre-natal groups for first-time parents to learn about babies and natter and make best friends for life. My mum is still friends with the people from her NCT group, 32 years later. But Oscar was born in San Francisco, lived in New York until he was 8 months old, then in one part of London for another 6 months, and has only just moved to another part of London and into his permanent home. We therefore haven’t been able to join an NCT group, and it felt like we had missed out on our only opportunity to make parent friends. Surely by now all other parents had formed perfectly-sized groups with no room for new arrivals, and we were doomed to lives of being picked last at parent basketball matches.

In my low moments I’ve Googled “mumsnet lonely”. There are a lot of results. This is likely a universal experience, although it could be just us and those ten other dweebs on the first page of Google. I’m not sure if reading these Mumsnet posts is camaraderie or schadenfreude. I tell myself that life has just shrunk because of COVID and that it will go back to normal soon enough, but I also wonder whether it’s the expanding family that causes the life shrinkage and so it won’t. I don’t really think this, but that can be hard to remember.

Catalyzed by our isolation, Gaby organized a parent-toddler meetup group in the local park. Her Facebook group got 200 members in a few hours, but thanks to a judiciously leaky conversion funnel we managed to keep the number of attendees on the day to around 15. We attempted to split the event into groups of 6 to comply with the UK regulations at the time, and I think we did a credible job. Within groups the parents social-distanced, tried to keep their children from drooling on each other too much, and talked about how nice it was to see other parents for once.

The children didn’t seem to know what to make of each other. I’m not sure if this is normal toddler behavior or a developmental pathology caused by COVID. “Why am I so weird daddy?” “Don’t worry son, it’s just the pandemic. On the bright side, all your friends are weirdos too.” Whenever there was a conflict over a ball or a stick, every parent wanted their child to be the one to learn the lesson about sharing. The children more or less shared the sticks, but the parents did not share the teachable moments. I don’t know if the meetup would have been as popular if there wasn’t a pandemic penting up everyone’s social energy and making them just as troglodytic as us. Nonetheless, it was very validating. We’ve made enough new parent friends to form a basketball team of our own and learned that there’s nothing quite like the stress of knowing a family with a baby a month or two older than yours.

Even when we’re not being social moths we spend a lot of time in the parks near our house and have started seeing some of the same faces. When we meet a familiar family and I can see that they don’t remember my name I save everyone from embarrassment by introducing myself to their children. When we see a child doing something impressive I’m usually able to restrain Gaby from asking the parents how old their child is. When older women say “oh my god isn’t he beautiful?” I desperately want to reply “thank you! isn’t my baby gorgeous too?” But my hairline has probably receded far enough that this would come across as grotesque rather than charming.

Gaby and I have been gradually burning down our vacation days in order to look after Oscar, and have been working an average of 3.5 days a week for the last 6 months. This sounds relaxing, and it sort of is, but not really. Only one of us is off work at a time, and the fact that the other person is upstairs working means that it doesn’t really feel like a day off and instead often feels like working 2 jobs simultaneously. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that we work at the same company on adjacent teams, which makes it hard not to ask how the Widget project is going or whether Barry is still being a complete, unforgivable shithead.

I’ve found it surprisingly hard to hang out with friends while I’m taking care of Oscar, even if we’re just going for a wander in the park. Keeping Oscar fed and happy and stimulated takes a surprising amount of brainpower, often more than enough to significantly impair my conversational ability (“oh yeah?” “mmm” “no I haven’t read any books for months”), but not enough to declare the conversation over and pointless. This makes me anxious that I’ve got more boring and that my banter may never reclaim its former peaks. My obvious implication is that actually I haven’t got more boring, and that my core conversational ability is just as sparkling as it ever was, but I suppose we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that my badinage really is declining. Being a good parent is a much harder and more useful skill than being an above-average landscape photographer or knowing a bit about European politics, but no one acts like it is.

Most of my friends don’t have children or any immediate plans to spawn any. On the other hand, many of them now have dogs, and I’ve heard the phrase “this must be what it’s like to have a baby, although I’m sure it’s much more intense when you have a baby, but I’m still quite tired and could use a break” a lot in the last few months. It seems like it’s easier to train a dog than a baby because you get feedback much faster. When my brother first got his dog and, reading between the lines, was having a bit of a tough time, he observed that he had thought that a dog would be like a puzzle to be solved. You read the right books, give them the right treats, and you’ve got a best friend for life/fifteen years or so. However, he continued, in reality a dog was not like a puzzle to be solved, and Kiki was being a yappy prick and biting everything, despite his best efforts. Two months later Kiki appears to be a hyper-compliant super-dog. It’s much more acceptable to be precious about your dog’s development than your baby’s. I think that this is for the benign reason that everyone understands that if you don’t hot-house your dog then it’s going to eat your shoes and ruin your life. The payoff of teaching your baby backgammon is less clear. Is the important thing nature, nurture, or just net worth? By contrast, Gaby thinks that dogs are more acceptable pupils because aspiration is unfashionable.

Since Gaby and I both work from home and at the same company we spend almost all day with each other and yet get relatively little quality time together. In the evening, once Oscar has finally gone to sleep, it feels like we haven’t seen each other forever but are also (in the nicest way possible) sick of the sight of each other and in sore need of alone time. I think we’ve reached a good balance though. Oscar still wakes up a lot in the night so Gaby needs to go to bed early and I get an hour or two to play PlayStation. We both know that it’s fine and healthy to want time to yourself, although I often forget this. We try to correct each other’s annoying habits by saying that, while I obviously don’t care, we wouldn’t want Oscar to speak like that, or to dump the laundry like this, or to leave the lever down on the coffee machine for the ten-millionth goddamn time and for other people (not me) to judge him for it.

When one of us takes Oscar in order to give the other a break it can be hard not to interrupt and ask for a quick hand, even though this does somewhat mess up the break. I’ve started going for strategic walks when I’m on a break so that I’m not available. I haven’t told Gaby, I hope she doesn’t read this.

One of our friends has grown up children. She remembered how when her family went to the beach, she and her husband would flop onto the sand and ask “OK is it your turn to be on duty or mine?” It can be a strain on a relationship and an individual to have to constantly negotiate these transactions. One of our employer’s operating principles is “disagree and commit”. The idea is that you vigorously debate the correct course of action, but once a decision has been reached you throw yourself into it, even if it’s not the one you were hoping for. I thought that this was wise and was impressed until I found out that the execs just stole it from Amazon. Still, it’s depressingly helpful for family life too.

When asked if I’m happier now that I have a child I pontificate and don’t answer the question. When Gaby is asked the same question she says that she is unquestionably happier in every way. I’ve heard of (but haven’t read) studies showing that parents are on average less happy than non-parents, but are by contrast more fulfilled. It can sometimes be hard to accurately discern how you feel, and so these studies influence how I decide I’m doing more than they should. As your children get older the blame for their choices shifts to them and the blame for your lack of ambition and engagement with the world shifts back to you. I don’t really mean that but I think there’s something to it and I like the way it sounds. I’m not sure whether I get my weird ideas from ambient culture or from myself.

I get up early and can usually squeeze in an hour or two of writing before work. Gaby has to take Oscar while I’m writing, but I pay her back with long diary entries about the first years of her child’s life. I still feel unqualified to write about being a parent. Regular readers will know that I bring this up a lot, but it concerns me so much that I have to include it in every post in case a new reader starts with this one and thinks I’m oblivious. I do get a lot of nice emails, but maybe the people with five kids and three jobs are too busy to heckle me about all the things I’m missing. Readers have appreciated my apparent honesty and lack of filter, but I should make it clear that none of this is any less filtered than an Instagram feed.

I’ve spoken to some new parents who say that having a child has focussed their mind and helped them get the most out of the free time that they still have. They claim that they are actually more productive than they used to be, whatever that means to them. However, I don’t think that this can really be true, and even if it somehow is I don’t think it can last. The only way through the next two decades is going to be to redefine “productivity” and feel OK about it.

When do I get to feel proud? I feel something when I see Oscar toddling around or charming someone he hasn’t met before, but pride doesn’t feel appropriate yet. I understand why my grandparents enjoyed simply watching children run and play. It’s fashionable (or perhaps just normal) to feel warm and positive towards young people, but up until now I’ve only ever felt jealous, and no one seems to give much of a practical shit about how these young people will ever afford to buy a house or retire when their own property prices or tax bands are at stake. Are you part of the problem? I ask this as someone who is definitely part of a wide range of problems.

Progress is so fast but so slow. It’s hard enough to stop and look back and feel proud of what you yourself have achieved. I wonder if it will be easier to do it on someone else’s behalf. I now see how playing clarinet badly in the school orchestra might be a good time to retrospect and get a little emotional. You see yourself reflected in your kids, especially your annoying verbal tics.

One of the best photos we have of me and Oscar is one where I’ve just finished putting Oscar to sleep and I’m pretending to be asleep too for cherubic effect. In twenty years will I have forgotten that I was pretending? Will the story be that we were having a doze together?

I’ve started getting emotional at anything that involves babies. I got teary at The Last of Us Part 2 because Ellie and Dinah have a baby and I have a baby and that’s it. There’s a bit on a ship where you find a note written by a man who is by now almost certainly a zombie and who you probably just shot in the face. He tells his partner that if their daughter wakes up early then there are some books to read to her in his bag. Toddlers still need to be read to in an apocalypse. I stopped playing for a few minutes to think. Then I probably shot his zombie daughter in the face too.

I cried at Season 4 of The Crown because Charles and Diana have a baby and they love him and I have a baby and I love him too. This despite the fact that Gaby suggested that I might not enjoy the show because “it has a lot of human interest”. I got teary at the book Little Bear Can’t You Sleep during the bit where Big Bear shows Little Bear the moon and the stars and Little Bear stops being afraid of the dark and falls asleep. After that incident I was sufficiently concerned that all this weepiness might be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning that I looked up the symptoms and checked our detectors. I’ve always made fun of my dad for being a sappy mess but maybe before I came along he was a model stoic.

It doesn’t stop there. We went to look around a nursery. Our tour was delayed by fifteen minutes because the other parent on the tour was late, and then when he showed up he asked a barrage of inane questions about their food and its sodium content. It’s both in-vogue and clearly sensible to pay attention to what your child eats. Many nurseries have extensive sections on their websites about their on-site chefs or at least their local, organic suppliers. Not everything that precious yuppies do is stupid and contemptible. But buddy, they’ve already said that their food is fresh and green, isn’t that enough for you? Everything will be fine, salt isn’t going to kill you, and I have important queries about their child-centric learning philosophy. After the tour we exchanged a few rounds of small talk and I found out that his daughter had serious kidney problems and could very much be killed by too much salt. He was having a tough time finding anywhere that could cope. I reframed the last hour.

A few weeks later I was reading a book about network security that drew analogies to 9/11. I watched a few YouTube videos about the attacks and listened to a recording of a man on one of the flights telling his wife and children that he didn’t think he was going to make it and that he loved them all so much. It’s not hard to feel compassion for people who have ill children or are about to die in a hijacked plane; you obviously don’t need to have a child in order to get a lump in your throat. But I do feel different than I did a few years ago.

Scroll down for more posts on parenthood. Let me know if you have any questions or stories of your own.

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