Robert Heaton

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

Height: 2ft 10 inches. Occupation: baby

14 Sep 2021

Previously on parenting: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6) (part 7) (part 8) (part 9) (part 10)

As I understand it, you should let your children take risks. But surely you shouldn’t let them take risks that could go wrong? A compromise - keep their skull and soul well-guarded and let them gamble with the rest. We took Oscar to a playground for the first time in more than a year. Big kids swung from high monkey bars and fell out of trees. Oscar wandered along a well-enclosed walkway between a tunnel and a slide. I stood back and let him seek out mild hazards. He leaned over the side and said “hold my hand”. I gave him a paw; he squeezed it and smiled and continued on his way. This caught me by surprise. No one’s ever needed me like that before.

I’m also told that you should help your children understand sharing. At the playground Oscar understood sharing enough to know that he hated it. Other children occasionally wanted to use the pretend telescope at the same time as each other and had a brief, cordial kerfuffle. But whenever anyone approached any part of what Oscar believed was his climbing frame he screamed “no! Don’t do that!” and barrelled over to push them away. My quips like “everyone wants their child to be the one to learn lessons about sharing!” wore thin. I felt embarrassed and a little concerned. Back at home Gaby came up with a game called “The Sharing Slide”. She made a small slide out of some planks of wood, and Oscar practiced letting Brown Bear, Penguin, and Horsey-Horse take turns to go down the slide ahead of him. Gaby felt absurd and fussy, but the slide seems to have been effective. Now Oscar is happy to take turns with people and stuffed animals and sometimes to even give them things that he likes. In the next module, Advanced Conflict Resolution, Penguin is going to start flagrantly violating the rules of the slide and Oscar is going to avoid pounding him into ice flakes.

Even when relations with his fellow toddlers were strained, it was wonderful watching Oscar play with other children. I don’t know enough about kids to know which parts of Oscar are generic toddler and which are his unique personality. What stories will we tell him about himself when he’s older? He seems to like cracking jokes. When Oscar meets new people his go-to icebreaker is “I did a wee wee on the carpet!” which is getting repetitive but his laughter is infectious. Does that mean he’s funny? Gaby’s mum tells her that she was a strong-willed and mischievous baby, so until now she’s seen herself as a strong-willed and mischievous yet professional adult. But now that Gaby is struggling to divine her own toddler’s personality she’s started to wonder how good a judge of character her mum really was. Perhaps Gaby’s will and mischief have softened a little as a result.

Oscar has started going to toddler football club. The coach is bright and fizzy but over-estimates the complexity of instruction that two-year olds can follow, so a lot of the time Oscar sits on the floor and eats a snack and watches. This feels like an inefficient use of a tenner but I imagine he still gets something from it. When he does get involved it’s a parent’s responsibility to shepherd their child through the activities. I’m anxious to be a well-behaved parent so the coach doesn’t get cross with me, but Oscar doesn’t understand the goal net and sits inside it and calls it his tent. There’s another child also named Oscar. My Oscar doesn’t usually listen to me but he is very attentive to other-Oscar’s dad and follows him around, trying to kick his ball and stomp on his cones and get in his way. Other-Oscar’s dad seems tolerant but confused. I don’t think he’s worked out what’s going on yet.

One night Oscar fell asleep while I was lying next to him. I got up and gave him a cinematic kiss goodnight. I might have even whispered “goodnight little Oscar.” He woke up and wouldn’t go back to sleep. I felt like an idiot.

We took Oscar on holiday to the seaside with some friends. He got on splendidly with Uncle Sam, Auntie Jes, and Uncle Ronan The Dog. He went to the pub to watch England v Germany in the second round of the Euros. He had a curry but didn’t join in the off-colour chanting. When England scored their second he knew that something important had happened, and stared and pointed at the TV screen for several minutes as the pub exploded around him.

Gaby and Oscar are currently visiting Gaby’s family in the US. Gaby has had her second jab, and I’m certain that we had COVID itself two months ago. Our PCR tests were negative, but we felt very delta-variant-y for a week and Gaby lost her sense of taste. Oscar was unaffected and still wanted entertaining. We introduced him to obstacle courses and Netflix, which both gave a good effort-to-entertainment ratio.

Gaby and Oscar are going to be gone for 3 weeks. I had thought that this would be a blissful break, and it is, but I miss them both more than I expected. I spent the first day they were gone scrolling through photos of Oscar with my mum. I do of course have more free time, which is why I’m writing this blog post now and why I’m most of the way through programming a Gameboy emulator. I’m going to play Pokemon.

We didn’t realise that since Oscar is a US citizen he can only enter the US using an American passport, which we hadn’t yet got for him. Getting a US passport while outside the country requires an appointment at an embassy. However, the London embassy is still operating at reduced, COVID-level capacity. Appointments were only available a few days in advance and vanished before we could get near them. Through persistence and a careful reading of the rules we wangled a side-channel appointment the day before Gaby and Oscar’s flight, and got Oscar his passport with hours to spare. The passport form had fields for “height” and “occupation”. We wrote “2 ft 10 inches” and “baby”.

Gaby was nervous about the plane journey for weeks beforehand, but after a few minutes exploring the aisle Oscar was happy to chat and play with his seatbelt buckle for 7 hours. He received no comments about how adorable he was, but several about his ridealong suitcase.

We’re morally and legally responsible for Oscar’s actions and liable to pay for any damage he causes, but I think there are grey areas. While my parents were looking after him they let him play with their car keys. They turned away to put their shoes on, and when they turned back the car keys were gone. They spent all day asking “where are the car keys Oscar?” He did not tell them. The keys were electric and not cheap to replace. I debated whether to offer to pay for them but decided that since they’re Oscar’s grandparents and should know better than to give anything expensive to a 2-year old, we were not liable.

Oscar calls computer keyboards “business buttons”. He says “I love you daddy, bye bye” when he wants me to go away. He once gave me his last cashew nut, which he had stolen from me seconds before, but this still felt meaningful. I don’t know, is any of this interesting to you?

Gaby and I decided to get married on a bench in McClaren Park, San Francisco. I didn’t propose as such; it was more of a suggestion. Things had been going well for the 8 months that we’d been together, I said, and I really did need a Green Card. So how about it? We said that it wouldn’t mean too much for several years, and if it didn’t work out then that would be understandable.

Neither of us meant this though. We had a hastily organised but tender wedding, and in my speech I was already using words like “forever”. But we’re both prudent, stony people who knew that you don’t commit your life to someone you’ve known for less than a year without your fingers half crossed. Still, even though it was a risk, it didn’t feel like one. In search of a quote I read over my old diary from when we first got together. It was all unprintable for one reason or another, so I won’t be citing it here. You’ll have to trust that I was already cautiously sure that we were going to grow old together. I know that I could have written that for everyone I ever kissed and only ever brought it up when the prophecy came true, but you’ll have to trust that I didn’t.

When we decided to get married I overplayed the no-big-deal, it’s-mostly-for-immigration, isn’t-that-wild nonchalance.  I still do this sometimes. When Gaby read the first draft of this section she commented This bit is good but I think you should mention that we do actually love each other. When I called my parents and told them I was getting married they weren’t sure if they were supposed to be happy for me. I called them again a few days later and made it clear that yes they should be. They cried a bit, booked their flights to New York for the next weekend, and said that they were very much looking forward to meeting this “Gaby” lady.

We got married in the Manhattan Court House. “This is a very beautiful moment,” the officiant said, “but I have fifty other couples to get through today so you will need to keep moving.”

We agreed to be undecided about having children. A few years later we started talking about them again. We were both still undecided. I was uncertain but leaning no; Gaby was uncertain but leaning yes. One day in Sutro Heights Gaby said that she did now think that we should have a baby, but if I didn’t then that was OK. I said that it still sounded like a lot of work. Gaby said not to worry, the baby could entertain itself in the corner while we went about our lives. So I said yes.

Gaby says that she wasn’t lying about the self-entertaining baby, she was just mistaken. I don’t mind; if she hadn’t formed an opinion then I don’t think we would ever have got round to it.

I should have been more decisive. At the start of my career I worked at a London startup that spent 3 months in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. We all lived in a house together, and one of the founders brought their family, including their 7 and 9 year olds. I spent most of my evenings taking the kids to the playground across the street. At the end the 7 year old gave me a card saying “you are the best friend I have ever had, I hope we see each other again.” No one else spent all their free time in the playground; no one else got a card.

At work I went to a coaching session about being a mentor. The core theme was that you should ask lots of questions, which I already knew, but an angle that I found novel was the facilitator’s focus on authentic questions. Don’t ask questions that you already know the answer to in order to coax out a desired response. I do this to Gaby a lot, and sometimes she stops me and says “I know what you’re doing, can we please just have a conversation?” If you do have a strong opinion, state it straightforwardly and then ask what the other person thinks. Keep in mind that you probably don’t have all the context, so consider asking about that with a sincere heart and tone of voice. These kinds of interpersonal tricks make me think that being a supportive, inspirational parent will be duck soup. But what works with a co-worker and at a push a spouse won’t necessarily work with a six-year old.

I find it tempting to try to analyse every mis-step between Gaby and me and to work out what was really behind our spat about the bins. But I think that unless there’s something deep and recurring going on then it’s often better to say that we love each other and let’s just move on. I’m trying to do less unrequested problem-solving. “Do you want to talk about that now or later or never?” We’re trying to build each other up more. I’m awarding us more points for completing mundane tasks. I got the leaky roof fixed; Gaby found some bargain puzzles on Gumtree. One night at dinner Oscar pointed at himself and said “I the best! You the best!” This will require some moderation at some point. But as Gaby pointed out, we’re probably not in danger of being overly cocksure.

My friends and I are sinking into our mid-thirties. When I was younger I would have thought it dismal to drink tea and discuss babies and property prices, but now I find it fun and useful. We do also find time to talk about the good old days, so we still have some life left.

How amazing are children? I have no idea. They’re gutsy, imaginative, and have online access to all the world’s knowledge. They’re also inexperienced, haven’t done the reading, and have access to TikTok.

Gaby says that she wasn’t a musical prodigy, but she did go to the Juilliard Music School in New York, which if you’re keeping score is a big deal. Her instrument was double bass, which looking back she thinks was a cumbersome, difficult-to-carry mistake. In her parents’ telling they didn’t know how the music scene worked, so while other parents sent their children to the right schools and the right teachers, they bumbled along through force of skill in between football practice and meetings about why Gaby wasn’t doing her homework. I like this down-to-earth narrative, but if Oscar wants to be a music prodigy (he doesn’t have to, I don’t care, this is just a train of thought) then we’ll have the time and the internet to do the research and find the right schools and the right teachers. That won’t make for a homespun story.

We’ve been playing piano with him anyway. We’ve put a big electric keyboard on the floor and labelled the keys. Oscar recognises the letters and seems to understand what it means to “play an A”, although he’s also been trying to “play an O”. He likes the keyboard’s demo song, perhaps because it’s the only song that he can make happen entirely on his own. I make monthly Daddy/Oscar playlists of 10-15 songs that we listen to together, although most of the time Oscar only wants to listen to The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness by The National. He’s started asking to “listen to System Only Dreams Total Darkness on the com-poooooter”, which means watching it played live on Letterman on YouTube. He knows when the chorus, guitar solo, breakdown, and second chorus are, because I always tell him and we’ve listened to the song over 200 times.

When you’re young I imagine that the natural expansion of your brain and brawn give you a constant feeling of progress, even if you aren’t doing your deliberate practice.When you’re older the default is to never get better at anything. How much should you expect to improve in your hobbies when you also have a job? What about when you also have a baby? What about when you also have some other stuff going on that you don’t like to talk about?

On my next time through life I’m going to do a few things differently. I’ll work less hard at school. I’ll still play chess but I’ll learn the Sicilian Dragon. I’ll learn C++ when I’m 12. I’ll either talk to more girls or stop worrying about it, they’ll still be there when I’ve stopped being so awkward. I’ll lose whatever vague religion I might have immediately. I’ll skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been. Actually, I suppose there isn’t going to be a next time. Well then Oscar, you’re going to have to endure a few suggestions over the coming years.

I loved my childhood but I could not be bothered to do it again. There’s so far to go before you actually get to do anything. First you learn about letters, then words, then sentences, then how to write better sentences, and then eventually if you practice enough you’ll be able to write a memo about top business priorities for Q2. Do your homework son! Why? I actually don’t have a good answer but I think you’ll find it to be the path of least resistance.

I hope Oscar has a childhood that he can feel nostalgic about and I hope I get to hear about some of it.

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