Robert Heaton

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

Another family without a backstory

20 Apr 2021

Previously on parenting: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6) (part 7) (part 8) (part 9)

Other people’s kids are just as interesting as Oscar, but I hate being reminded of this. It makes Oscar feel like another generic baby and the three of us like another family without a backstory. Even so, the idea of having other children and parents round to our house to play still feels like an unimaginable luxury. I can’t believe that one day, when the UK’s COVID restrictions lift high enough, we’ll be allowed to have as many playdates as we like. I can’t believe that they will quickly get tiresome.

Oscar lives in a pandemic-shrunk world that he’s trying to make the most of. Last week he toddled over to some ten year-olds and tried to make small talk. He doesn’t know much about anything so he tried his favorite topic of conversation. “Do you like cashews?” The ten year-olds pretended not to hear him. When Oscar was angry with Gaby he shouted “no more nursing!” which was the meanest thing he could think of. He sleeptalks about the few things he sees during the day “pushchair…want bread…build tower…”

We had booked for Oscar to go to a local nursery in May 2020. Then COVID began and plans changed. I stretched out my parental leave, then our employer gave us each an extra month off. When that ended we found ourselves with several further months of vacation that were going to expire at the end of the year, so we burned them down in Q4 and continued to look after Oscar ourselves.

Now we have a new plan. Oscar is booked into a new nursery starting in September 2021, and to bridge the gap between now and then he has a wonderful nanny who lives a 1 minute bike ride away and comes to our house 3 days a week. The other 2 days he goes to my parents at around eleven. We take him before that in the early morning and schedule meetings with the US in the evening.

Oscar’s nanny is inspirational. Her name isn’t Francesca but for privacy we’ll call her that. She does arts and crafts and singing and dancing and shows us what we could be if we had more imagination and energy. We haven’t seen other parents for months, so we’re grateful for the ideas.

At first I felt weird about being a directly-responsible, legal employer, so I made sure to do everything scrupulously properly. I got us all the necessary insurance, contracts, and registrations. I arranged monthly checkins to make sure that we weren’t doing anything wrong. As we realized just how wonderful Francesca was we kept increasing her pay to show our appreciation. She said “you know, you don’t have to keep giving more money!” Really? Shit. But we’d already said it.

Including taxes a nanny works out appreciably more expensive than a nursery. I rationalize the cost by reasoning that my parents take Oscar for the other 2 days a week and we certainly don’t pay them anything, so we still come out ahead. But I think I need to get comfortable with the more confident reasoning that we work hard and can sometimes choose to spend our wages on nice things.

Francesca speaks fluent French, so we’ve asked her to speak French with Oscar. Gaby gamely tries to join in for practice. Oscar helpfully translates some of what Francesca says into English so that we can understand. I’m not sure what will happen when Francesca goes back to her home country and Oscar goes to a delightful but mono-lingual nursery. Maybe he’ll look back at videos of himself in twenty years and think wow, I knew French?

Gaby has been continuing to pick up second-hand bargains from the internet. She found 30 children’s French books for £4 on Facebook Marketplace. She went to collect them. The seller was a gregarious old French man who was clearing out his grown-up children’s stuff after realizing that his little ones weren’t coming back and weren’t going to give him grandchildren. He was very pleased that his books had found a loving, French-speaking home in Anglo-centric Britain. “Oh magnifique, you speak French?” he asked Gaby. Gaby did not want to say that actually she didn’t and she was just trying to teach it to her son because that felt like a good idea, so instead she said that her husband was French (I am not). “Oh fantastique, where is he from?” the seller asked. Gaby said that I was from a little village outside of Lyon. “Oh delicieux, I love Lyon, a magnificent city,” the seller said. Gaby said yes it was. The seller began talking about the first time he went to Lyon and the nearby villages. Gaby said that she was in a bit of a hurry so could she have the books please.

French children’s books are odd. My favorite is the one about the crab who loses the will to live. Second is the one about the boy who gets angry at his parents for sending him to bed without any dinner and recovers his serenity by squashing his personified fury into a small box and putting it under his bed. But not every children’s book has to be a moral or healing lesson in self-care. All the best grown-up books are object lessons in how not to live.

In the middle of one afternoon I realized I was sleepy and wanted to stop working and go for a walk. I lied and told Francesca that I was taking a meeting on the phone so she didn’t think I was lazy. I think I got away with it.

Oscar can count to 30. Half the time he gets stuck in a loop: “16, 17, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…” We’ll have to fix this at some point but for now it does keep him busy forever.

He understands the rules of some of our games and plays them back at us. He asks to “be acrobat” and “flying baby boy” and stands in the appropriate launch position.

We can toddle around the streets without his pushchair. This feels oddly special; just me and my boy going through the world, like the first time we were alone in the house together. I remember watching other parents do this with their children a few months ago and wondering why Oscar didn’t want to do it and what we were doing wrong. We visit the construction site at the end of our road to see the machines. Sometimes Oscar feels gregarious and shouts “hi! Have nice day!” to all the builders who pass. Sometimes he feels shy and doesn’t. I hope I don’t seem disappointed.

Questions like “what would you like to do today?” and “what did you do with Gramps and Gransie?” are now actual conversations, not just exercises in talking to myself that are meant to be good for him. As I understand it when he gets old enough they’ll revert to being exercises in talking to myself again.

Sometimes Oscar sits on Gaby’s lap and demands to be snuggled while he plays with spoons or blocks, but refuses to let Gaby talk to or otherwise interact with him. I’m an independent baby and can look after myself, but please also hold me. I get more affection when Gaby isn’t around. When she is around Oscar shoves me out of the door and shouts “BYE BYE DADDY!”

I play Oscar my favorite bands, especially The Midnight and The National. I’ve got over my fear of singing to him in public, either because I’ve become more confident or because he’s old and interactive enough that passers-by can clearly see that he’s listening. Oscar knows most of the words to The Comeback Kid, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Fake Empire, and The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness. Videos of him singing along are a good way to siphon baby videos into my friends who have otherwise said that I can send them a photo at birth and graduation as long as I leave them alone in between.

All being well Oscar is going to come on a road trip with a friend and me to see The Midnight play in Glasgow in 2022. He won’t be allowed into the venue, and even if he was he’d be scared of the loud noises and wouldn’t know why it was special, but this still feels like thoughtful parenting.

“Security theatre” is the act of putting on a show of safety that’s ineffectual, unnecessary, or both. Most airport security is security theatre; so are over-complex password requirements. But security theatre at least demonstrates that you’re thinking about it, which is sometimes all that you need. What’s the threat level of a butter knife? Or pressing the on-off button on a plug socket? What if no one else is looking? I’m sure it’s fine. Although combining a butter knife and a plug socket must be a bad idea. Better hover nearby ostentatiously just in case.

I’m generally less worried than I used to be. We’ve had to devise new childcare strategies from scratch at least five times in the last two years, and they’ve all gone fine. Oscar still isn’t very good at sleeping, but he’s getting better and Gaby says that that’s good enough. Things don’t always work out, but they often do, especially run-of-the-mill things that have been handled by billions of parents before us.

In previous installments of this series I’ve written about my challenges and feelings. When a reader says to me “I’m sorry that you’ve been feeling that way” my first reaction is “Oh don’t worry, I was just saying that because I thought it sounded poignant.” Then I remember that actually I really did feel that way, even if I don’t right now. Either way I probably don’t want to talk about it in person unless you can let me have as many drafts as I need to get the wording right.

Most of my friends don’t have children but some are starting to think about it. “Do you have any advice?” they ask. This is not a good question because it lets me control the narrative and tell a sanitized story with a coherent thread. Similarly, if you ask for career advice then you’ll get a lot of probable-guff about hustle and drive and focus. “So how did you use that advice in your own career?” “Oh I just took a series of random jobs, then I got a random break, and everything somehow worked out.” There are useful lessons in that but not the ones you’re being sold.

Questions like “How has it been?” or “Is there anything you wish you had done differently?” start to pin your target down. Get the raw, experiential data then do your own synthesis later. I’ve become self-conscious and so now when I’m asked if I have any advice I stonewall and say that everyone’s situation and personalities are so different that it’s impossible to say anything universal. Prudent perhaps, but still a cop-out.

Many of my friends are nervous about the process of giving birth. Gaby says that she didn’t think about it much before it began, and on reflection rates it as “excruciatingly awful but worth it, and you usually recover.” Before I started drafting this post I re-read “Childbirth: a father’s-eye view” (the first installment in this series) to remind myself of my writing style and felt sick. About the childbirth, not the writing. I don’t know how to structure this information to provide both reassurance and validation. Fortunately I don’t think anyone pays too much attention to what I think or how I structure it.

I have ambitions to turn my parenting posts into a full book. I bought and read a couple of existing dad-books to scope out the competition. I didn’t enjoy them; the writing was too bombastic. Parenthood is mostly dull, especially in the recounting, so the authors resort to hyperbole to juice it up. Everything becomes a war or an inferno or a tactical nuclear strike or a near-divorcable offence. But if you describe too much of your home life as a high-octane drama then I start to think that you might be padding for barely-comic effect. Please just be honest and detailed.

The authors all use the second person too much. “You start to think”, “you wonder”, “you feel”. I do this myself too, because it’s safer than writing in the first-person. “I” is uncomfortably personal and vulnerable. “I start to think I might have made a mistake”, “I wonder whether my relationship will ever be the same”, “I feel sad”. “You” is the suggestion that everyone feels like this so there’s nothing wrong with I. But as a reader I switch off when I’m told that I felt something that I know I didn’t. I don’t agree with your premise so why should I read the rest? But as an author you’re never wrong when you write with “I”. You might be weak and disgraceful, and your story will probably be more interesting if you are, but you’re never factually incorrect.

I don’t want to be too snitty about these mediocre but successful and published books. It’s good to share stories, although they aren’t as funny as their authors’ think. Even if they were, it was unlikely that I would conclude “actually these are really good, I don’t think I have anything to add to this conversation.”

When you’re a parent your life doesn’t feel romantic anymore. You could try to make it romantic again, but there’s so much else to do. Maybe romance just takes new forms. I stayed up until 1am putting together Gaby’s new exercise machine instead of taking her to Paris. We watched The Crown in the middle of the day while Oscar was napping instead of going to the theatre.

We still have weekly checkins. They’re usually easy, and even when they’re tense it’s usually over something minor. I don’t know that we’d be well-equipped to deal with anything difficult. When our relationship feels particularly solid I paradoxically feel more comfortable not spending all my time with my family. When something feels off I feel like I need to hover around and show that everything is OK.

We’re both sensitive to feeling like we’ve done something wrong. We’ve found it helpful to tell the other person when we’re not grumpy, just tired, and when we’re actually pissed about something. We’ve also found it helpful to sometimes ask “I feel fragile, would you mind being extra nice to me so that I know everything’s OK?” I feel smug about the habits and frameworks that we’ve built, but I wonder how much you could get and get better, by reading a couple’s therapy book. Maybe the book’s advice would just be “it really all depends so talk more and figure it out for yourselves.” I also feel smug at how much better at communication and conflict resolution I am than when I was 21, but I forget that all the fomenters I knew back then have grown up too.

I have a few more thoughts that Gaby has said I can put in a book but not a blog.

I’m excited for Oscar’s future, but I don’t know if I should be. I’ll show you what I mean. I’ve been designing the curriculum for a new Computer Science degree at an Irish university. The first cohort starts in September 2022; prospective students can apply through the Irish Central Applications Office next spring. According to the marketing website, which I wrote, “[t]he goal of [the course] is to turn curious, creative people into the best software engineers in the world.”

I’ve got to where I am in my own career by piecing together scraps of knowledge from colleagues, O’Reilly books, assumptions, and incorrect assumptions. I feel wistful about the students getting all this knowledge fed directly into their brains at such a young age. “They can do anything, they’ve got the world at their feet.” I’m sure that indeed a higher-than-average fraction of them will get their own Wikipedia pages. But I imagine that most will turn out more or less just like me, although they might get there a few years faster.

An accelerated version of me isn’t remarkable, at least not in the inspirational but mentally-taxing Silicon Valley sense of putting a dent in the universe. The world needs more decent programmers who play a difficult but workaday role in large companies, but it’s not what comes to mind when I think of the word “remarkable”. I’m aware that I don’t properly value the benefit to the individual and society of having a good job; doing it well; and living your version of a good life. I don’t know how strict to be about the moral and carbon accounting.

Will Oscar want to be like his old dad too? Should he? For now he can have big dreams and be anything that he wants to be, but eventually he’ll have to choose something and then he’ll just have a job and a hobby and maybe a blog.

Oscar dumped a big pile of Sticklebricks on my desk and then forgot about them. I fiddle with them during meetings, just below the camera line. If I do achieve anything noteworthy then I’ll attribute it to the creativity pump of the Sticklebricks.

We left San Francisco for London almost 2 years ago. I miss SF more than I expected. As a computer programmer it was nice being the center of attention, even if a lot of the attention was bad. I’ve reserved Oscar some good Gmail and Twitter handles on the offchance that these are still popular services by the time he’s old enough to use them. Until I left SF I didn’t realize how much I had appreciated the billboards for enterprise SaaS software. I had nothing but contempt for the man on his laptop in the coffee shop working on a stillborn cryptocurrency startup, but he was an important part of the decor and I was glad that he was there. I appreciated the scale of America, even if I didn’t go to most of it. You can do a world tour without leaving the lower 48. In the rest of the world you get as far as you can in your hometown and then head to the US.

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