This is part 15 of a series about my experiences being a parent. Read the rest here.
We’re having another baby. Gaby’s been a blunt advocate for more ever since we got Oscar home. She muted her arguments when we were considering whether to have any children because she wanted to give me a free choice about my life’s wide arc. But now that we have one child our lifetype is set, and discussions about more are just debates about parameters. I knew that I’d agree when the time came, since Oscar is amazing and manageable, but I waffled until then to reserve some freedom of navigation.
Gaby loved being pregnant with Oscar. She glowed and knew it. But this pregnancy has felt harder. She wonders if the two have actually been about the same but her expectations have been different, or if perhaps now she just has less free time and reverence. Before having Oscar she read scads of accounts about how awful pregnancy and childbirth are and how women need to tell each other the truth. It was an obliging surprise when her own experience wasn’t so bad. Second time round she expected another cinch, and whilst it’s been tractable she has needed more steel than in her probably-airbrushed recollections. For example, Oscar’s placenta was on the front of her belly and shielded her from his kicks. This baby’s placenta is less well-placed, so she feels its feet more. Might sound trivial but nightkicks are a startling wakeup.
With Oscar, Gaby started taking care of herself immediately. She knew in her waters that she was pregnant, days before taking a test. A few weeks later the California wildfires came and San Francisco drowned in fine particulate matter. Gaby was stuck inside, windows closed, hugging a HEPA filter, its air quality indicator glowing red. She worked from home, did strength training exercises, ate yoghurt, took it easy. A simple life was good for her for a while, she thinks.
This time she didn’t realise that she was pregnant for almost a month. We’d been trying without success, and December had seemed like a normal failure. Gaby had her period. It was heavy enough that she assumed it couldn’t be implantation bleeding, so she didn’t bother taking a pregnancy test. She nearly fainted while running a few times, but thought she hadn’t slept enough. She snuck out after pre-school dropoffs to buy brownies and ice cream at 8:45am, but thought there was just something physically and spiritually wrong with her. She felt down and pissed with herself. She went for a scan to see how her next cycle was shaping up. The sonographer noticed a cyst called a corpus luteum. “I wouldn’t expect that to be there unless you were pregnant,” she said, “so we should really take a look at your uterus.” They found a foetus.
Gaby hadn’t been shy about telling her friends that we were trying to have another baby and that it was taking a while. But she thinks that many of them thought she was pining for another child and was distraught that she didn’t have one yet. She was touched at how happy her friends were for her when we told them we were expecting, but she hadn’t actually been upset, yet (I had but I didn’t tell anyone). “I know you’ve been wanting and wanting a baby, I’m tearing up for you. This is such happy news, you must be over the moon.” But we’d been aiming for a 3-ish year gap and were at 3 years and 4 months; still 3-ish; no problem yet. She thinks that it’s good for the world for women and couples to be open with their pregnancy attempts so that they can support each other and swap research and competent doctors, but if there’s a next time she probably won’t share.
Gaby feels less prepared for this child than she did for Oscar; she’s barely seen it by comparison. Commentators pan the US healthcare system, and they’re probably right, overall. But our experience with Oscar in the US was much better than our experience with number two in the UK has been. In the US we had good insurance and a great obgyn. We saw her 17 times and became close with her. She allayed what Gaby now calls “silly fears” but were real concerns at the time. We had a scan most visits, which allowed her to keep close tabs on the baby and bill our insurer for each one. She worked with Gaby to run tests on a rare muscle condition she has to see if it posed any cause for concern and billed our insurer for them too.
In the UK we’ve had 2 scans and a couple of checkups with different midwives. They each promised to follow up with further details but never did because they didn’t have time. They skipped several checks and jabs that Gaby got in the US because they aren’t judged to be cost-effective. Overall I’m sure they’re not, but the conditions they check for and prevent aren’t unimaginable edge-cases, and have afflicted several of our friends. Tail risks happen and protection from them is nice to have if you can get it. But the headline statistics in the UK are still excellent, and we got a few reasonably-priced private scans when we felt anxious. The best US healthcare was luscious, but I wouldn’t want to live there with bad or no insurance. This is all an anecdote, not a policy prescription.
Gaby’s concerned that it might not be feasible for her to love another child as much as she loves Oscar. She sends me pictures of Oscar as an infant in the middle of the night saying “How can another baby be as cute as this? They can’t. It’s not possible.” I think it will be. I also think that the fact that we have a good life with one child means that the second should fit in somewhere too. And now there’s only a month to go.
“I want mummmmy!” shouted Oscar. He was sitting at the dinner table, eating and kvetching. Gaby had got up to get a drink; I was sitting next to him. “I’m here Oscar,” I said. I didn’t expect him to care, but I thought I should show Gaby that I was trying: “I can help you too.” “Oh!” he said, “I didn’t see you there!” He smiled and carried on chewing.
Three months ago Oscar didn’t want me around at all. He was open about this. “Daddy I don’t like playing with you, I wish mummy was here.” “Mummy I love you so much but I don’t love daddy at all.” But right now he quite likes me. He buried his face into mine and said “Daddy I love you so much, you are my sweetest little boy.” He’s been doing this to Gaby for months but I’m happy to be included. This change is probably just the passage of time, but I’m also spending more one-on-one time with him in the mornings. Gaby has been having trouble sleeping, so when Oscar wakes up she lies in and I take him. The extra two hours in bed means that she can survive the day, but it also means two hours less with Oscar which she regrets and thinks about constantly.
Oscar and I read, cook breakfast, and play morning games. I like spending this extra time with him but I hope it isn’t the only reason that he likes me now, I’d like to hold on to my flexibility. I still get a lot of time to write because I’ve been waking up at 4:30am, accidentally and unavoidably, which is too early but I can’t get back to sleep. So I get up, make coffee, and write until Gaby texts me to say that our little man is awake. This hour or two is productive and tranquil but unsustainable unless I start going to bed even earlier. If I do manage to wake up later then I’ll still probably have a few minutes in the morning to squeeze in some admin or a think, but not enough to write anything worth keeping.
I’m usually cautious about identifying with anything. Tech companies, including mine, give their workers a collective noun (Googlers, Metamates, Amazonians). I don’t want to be part of this, I just want to be an employee. But I like the identity of being a dad. I like it when Oscar affirms that he’s my son and that at the moment I’m the joint-most important person in the world to him. He got a new backpack for his birthday. He wanted to wear it and ride his bike. He rolled through the park and shouted “sometimes daddy cycles with a backpack and now so do I!” When it’s time to eat he chants “Breakfast! Breakfast!” like I do. He says “oh crap.”
I like Fathers’ Day too. Gaby told Oscar that it was Father’s Day soon and that they should make a card to celebrate. Halfway through making it Oscar asked “what’s Father’s Day?” Gaby told him that it was a special day for Daddies, and we could call it Daddies’ Day. This made sense and he finished the card and proudly gave it to me three days early when Gaby was downstairs and unable to stop him.
I try to be honest about the parts of being a parent that I find hard, so I think I’m allowed to crow about the good bits too. At the moment I think Oscar is delightful nearly all the time. He’s funny, generous, curious, half-independent, half-needy, an equilibrium of mischief and co-operation. One evening we’d finished his shower and I said “OK Oscar, now I need to brush your teeth.” He shouted “absolutely not, no way, no!” and tried to escape past me. He ran within easy grabbing distance, I think on purpose, so I tackled him. He giggled and opened his mouth for the toothbrush. My parents observed that he’s kind in the ways that Gaby and I are. He asks people how they are, he helps clear the table, he says “goodbye, thanks for coming!” Compassionate parents can have intractable children (and vice versa), but it’s healthy to give ourselves credit while absolving ourselves of any blame.
I love him more and more every day on average, but I wonder if that’s only because he’s charming. This feels like an inappropriate contingency. What happened to unconditional love? Perhaps this is just obvious human nature. I was away in Ireland for a week visiting a university where I’m helping launch a new Computer Science degree course. When I got home and did my first bedtime for a week he snuggled into my neck and asked “I’m happy you are here, why did you stay in Ireland for so long? There are no toys in Ireland. Can we talk about something? You can choose.” I see why Gaby is so desperate to spend every moment with him; he’s been like this to her forever.
Gaby and Oscar came to Ireland with me for the first few days. We went to a park in the city centre. Gaby sat on the grass and read her book and I took Oscar into the playground. He went on the climbing frame. I started showing him how to step on the bars of the walkway, but he stepped in the gaps instead. No need to be prescriptive, so I backed off and he climbed and I watched for an hour. I didn’t look at my phone or even the time. He occasionally came over to update me on what he’d been doing. He got into a few disagreements, but no one seemed in danger or materially wronged so I stayed out of it. I had nothing to do and I did it perfectly.
On the other hand the last hour or two of making pretend pizza each day can be a drudge. Parenting is magical but you have to do more of it than you have easy energy for. Gaby, sometimes: “I would kill to go on the internet right now.”
We took Oscar to a chess tournament. I thought it would be fun to start playing again and I wanted to show Oscar a room full of chess boards. While we waited for the tournament to start Oscar and I played a game of our version of chess, where you take it in turns to move a piece of your colour from any square to any other square and that’s it. When the first round started Gaby and Oscar were shooed out of the hall. Oscar was desperate to go back in and play. “You can go back in when you’re older and you learn how to play chess,” said Gaby. “But daddy showed me how to play chess already!” Oscar whined.
After the first round my friends warned me not to underestimate the kids. They were even more dangerous than the kids in my day because they’d played obsessively online during lockdown and their in-person ratings hadn’t caught up yet. I held my nerve and beat a 7-year old who needed a booster seat to reach the back rank. He fell into a trap in the middlegame, at which point the game was morally over, but he played on to the death, which is usually seen as bad manners but I respected. Another kid played on against me in a slightly less - but still clearly - lost position, and caused enough trouble on the way down that I got into time pressure and gave back almost all of my advantage before only narrowly closing the game out. These kids probably claw back five percent of that type of clearly lost position; a great return on investment for a little discomfort. I tend to resign too early, before I’ve exhausted all my speculative counterplays, because I want to spend as little time as possible getting beaten. In round 4 I wanted to lose because if I won I would have to play a grandmaster and that would be embarrassing. I did lose, although only because I got decisively outplayed. If Oscar wants to play then I’ll be able to help him with his Benko Gambit, but I’m not sure I’ll be much help with his psychic constitution.
Now Oscar plays “chess tournament” at home. He gets out the chess board. He plays piano for a few seconds, because there was distracting foyer music playing during the first round and he thinks this is a key component of competition. He spends the rest of the make-believe telling his animals to be quiet. I’m not sure he has much passion for the game itself yet, but we’ve got time.
Read more of my posts about parenthood