Robert Heaton

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

I got married and had kids so you don't have to

22 Sep 2020

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

Because of Covid, Oscar doesn’t see many other children and we don’t see many other parents. When Oscar does see children in a park he learns weird rules for interacting with them. We do too. It’s clearly bad form to let your child lick another child when their saliva might be carrying a deadly virus, but what about in normal times? If your child steals someone else’s ball then are you obliged to wave an anti-bacterial wipe at it and return it as soon as possible, or can you turn it into a game? Setting aside the deadly virus, for a moment.

We just moved to London. Few of our friends have babies, so we’re going to need to go out and make some parent pals. While I was on parental leave I had just started getting together a calendar of local soft plays and toddler groups. Now the Gcal events slip by without anyone having any fun or making any connections. Even though Covid lockdown is starting to lift, I think it will be a while before we go back to Little Rascal’s House of Fomites.

I used to think that it was weird and unimaginative how the parents of friends were often friends with each other. Now I see that it’s obvious and a good idea. Telling people without children about the extremes of having a child can be mildly interesting. “He ran all the way across the field to hug me.” “It took weeks to get all the faeces off the ceiling.” But most parenting is gruntwork. “I found a good deal on these socks that have little grippy bits on the bottom so he doesn’t slip on the kitchen floor.” “Gaby spoke to three daycares yesterday, two of them seemed fine and one seemed quite good. Yes that’s the end of story.” I’m not sure if I’m supposed to resent or treasure the gruntwork. I know that no one’s judging me, but it would be useful to know whether I should try to find joy in the scrubbing or to rationalize it as the unpleasant price of the life-affirming upshots. The mundanities are still mundane to other parents, but at least they validate the ways in which we all spend our time. “I too value good deals on safety socks, and I’m not just being polite when I say that!” “When we spoke to daycares we found three that seemed mediocre and two that seemed quite good! Oh how we laughed.”

When people without children ask about what it’s like having a child, the subtext (or sometimes just the text) is often “should I have one?” I think that the only responsible answer is “I don’t know, but here’s my experience so far.” That said, I do want my friends to have children in order to validate my life choices and give me more people to talk to about non-slip socks. When people ask me what it’s like, I don’t gush. Being quite reserved, I’m not good at saying “I love this little man so much.” I’m also not good at saying “It gives meaning to my previously aimless existence and I can’t imagine life without him. Uh, but whatever you’re doing is good too.”

What if he hates you? people ask. What if he doesn’t like chess? Those are real risks, but as the toilet graffiti at my local cafe in San Francisco used to tell me “fuck it dawg, life’s a risk.” But what about your own hobbies and friends, aren’t you worried about them? If you read the rest of this post then you’ll see that yes, I very much am, but it’s working out OK so far, and we’re still talking, aren’t we? There’s no guarantee of anything, but remember what the toilet wall teaches us.

Every father thinks he’s the first man ever to look after his child for a few hours. I’ve skimmed the results of some surveys of how Coronavirus has affected the quantity and gender balance of household chores, and the conclusion always seems to be that men are shit. And maybe in aggregate we are, but some of us are trying and are just going through some difficult stuff right now you know. I get anxious that people will get mad at me because my experience of parenting is male and moneyed. To such people I say that I’m sorry and that I get mad at me for this too. Hopefully you can see that I’m trying to stay in the first person and to not claim any universal insight.

In some ways we’re doing parenting on hard mode. There’s a pandemic on. We’re using one hundred percent of our 2020 vacation days in order to look after Oscar instead of sending him to daycare. This is both delightful and draining. We’ve moved three times in Oscar’s year-and-a-bit of life so far. Two of these moves were over three thousand miles. On the other hand, we’re comfortable and salaried. We commiserate about our hardships while carefully enumerating our blessings.

A month or so ago I took Oscar for his one-year vaccinations. The nurse showed me how to restrain him and then stabbed him four times in his chubby little legs. He bawled his fragile eyes out. Many parents say that they find jabs difficult, but I assumed they were just being schmaltzy. It really was harrowing; maybe I should listen to people more. I stopped Oscar from getting away like I’d been shown and held him and sang the same verse of The Wheels on the Bus over and over. I cried too. I hope that things are going well with Oxford and AstraZeneca and that we get to do this all over again within the year.

Then last week I took Oscar on my own from a few hours before dinner all the way through to bedtime. I hadn’t done this for a while, and it was harder than I remembered. You have to plan ahead, because at any given moment your baby is likely either screaming or trying to kill themselves or both and you might not have an opening in which to nip upstairs and grab some towels. It becomes more important for everything to be in its right place. Mise en place. Mise en plastic boxes.

Oscar has started to become more fun since I last wrote about him. He’s always been fun of sorts, but it was usually fun like cooking, not actual fun like playing PlayStation. Now the gravitas of the situation has started seeping into me. We roll around on the floor. I stop to stare into his eyes. He starts shouting and squirms away to try and do something else. Jesum Crow you’re my son, I think. Better late than never. I feel happy when I come up with a new game that sticks. If I go “boom boom” like a kick drum then maybe twenty-five percent of the time Oscar will reply “pahhhh” like a snare. If that doesn’t work then “oogilyboogilywoogilyflubbledubble” usually gets a laugh instead.

Oscar has a clear hierarchy of love. In our bubble Gaby is, unsurprisingly, at the top. I think that my mum edges into second place at the moment, then I’m third, and my dad is a respectable last. Despite this hierarchy, Oscar is usually happy hanging out with whoever the best person available at the time happens to be. If Gaby is around then it can be difficult to get him to leave her alone, but if she’s not then he’ll settle for me. He usually won’t give my dad the time of the day, but my dad alleges that when no one else is around to see then Oscar can be very affectionate. It’s a convenient claim, but I believe it.

Oscar is becoming wiser. He knows several animal noises and a handful of body parts. He knows to run away when he’s stolen a phone because that’s his only shot at freedom. He understands and says the word “up”. I’m not sure if he understands “down”, or just experiences it as an absence of “up”. I could go on but I know you don’t care and that’s fine.

When people say that Oscar is clever in some way, my instinct is modesty. “I suppose so but you should see him trying to open a jar of peanut butter.” “Not really, he’s cheating by holding onto the bannister.” “He’s just a stupid baby!” This impulse is probably benign for now, and at least makes me sufferable. But once he can understand it it will have to change, or at least get more subtle. I suspect that this understanding creeps up on you. He’ll probably grasp enough to mimic before he grasps enough to comprehend. “I stupid baby! I not as smart as it looks!” The psychic damage might be reparable but it wouldn’t sound good at baby yoga.

I did very well at school. Not well enough to be considered a prodigy, but enough for my teachers to suggest that my parents look for a different school. My parents said that they had no idea, they thought that’s just how children were. I imagine that the internet has made it easier to get a sense for developmental baselines and where your child is in relation to them. I also imagine this kind of competition feels more important than it used to, although I don’t have the experience or sociology to back this up. I’m not sure how a self-identified enlightened parent should think about any of this. On the one hand, your child is beautiful and special just the way they are and it can’t be healthy for anyone to constantly compare them to their peers. But on the other, it seems prudent to at least have a sense of where they are in relation to the median, if only so that you know how seriously to take the “for ages X and up” on board game boxes. Whatever happens you probably shouldn’t hire them a block-stacking tutor, unless that’s just your whimsical name for a babysitter, or unless doing so can be shown to increase their expected future income and self-reported happiness index.

Toy and baby gear companies heavily push their claimed effects on a child’s development. It’s good that they’re thinking about this, but it does cause a lot of fear of missing out. There aren’t any randomized controlled trials showing the long-term impact of buying your child a KidzPlayz Lern2Spel, but you can’t base your life entirely on RCTs and sometimes you have to go with your intuition and the preponderance of the evidence. It’s easy to construct a plausible narrative for almost any toy, and they wouldn’t release those narratives if they weren’t true, would they?

FOMO sells.

These dilemmas remind me of the attraction of books with titles like “Take Control Of Your Career”, “Harness Your Inner Potential”, “Dull the Pain Of Existence, If Only For A Few Hours.” They also remind me of supplements that promise to increase your focus, longevity, virility, whimsicality. None of these statements have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, but what if they were true?

Thanks to accommodating employers we’re managing to cobble together full time Coronavirus care for Oscar on our own. The British government is trying to persuade us that schools and nurseries are safe, and maybe they’re right, but we think that while we have the option we might as well delay finding out for ourselves.

We’ve still been looking into daycares for when the virus is fixed or our employers run out of patience. I had previously felt it precious and bourgeois to care much about schools. I’d read somewhere that the school that a child goes to doesn’t matter much, and that home-life is everything. I hadn’t read any of the citations but it was a convenient conclusion so I feel that I didn’t need to. The idea of moving house just to live within the catchment area of a desirable school seemed like an act of full lunacy. Now this behavior still feels like a net loss for society and I hope that we never do it, but I can see why someone might. I still haven’t read any of the studies. Even if I did, it would be a lot of faith to place in a linear regression.

How are you supposed to judge daycares? There are governmental “Ofsted” ratings, but they’re quite coarse. It seems only fair to judge daycares by the base outcome metrics that they have control over - starting salary after graduation. Gaby found one daycare that she described as doing “lots of science experiments”. At first I was excited. These kids are the jailers, these kids are the inmates, this kid has electrodes strapped to their head, this kid is told to press a button to administer a small but increasing electric shock, this all teaches us something about human nature, Malcolm Gladwell writes about it to much acclaim, people criticize the methodology. Gaby clarified that they did experiments with the kids, not on them. I was disappointed but could see why this was overall a better approach.

My hot take on babyscience is that humanity knows an enormous amount about what is good for children, but this knowledge is so baked in to our lives that we don’t notice it. This means that it can feel like no one knows anything. We know that some chemicals are toxic and others are life-saving. We have some idea about how people learn best, especially as they get older. These are big deals. But beyond this everything seems to depend on whose research you happen to read, or more realistically, whose four minute YouTube vlog you happen to watch. You can find actual studies on the effect of painting your baby’s room’s walls different colors. Why isn’t this information given to every new parent? I’m not being rhetorical, I really would like to know. Is the research fundamentally flawed? Is it promising but unproven? Is the effect size too small to bother? What would it take in order for painting your baby’s room an unoptimized color to become as foolish as not giving them their vaccinations? I would guess that simple, reproducible babyhacks can get your baby a point or two of extra IQ. Beyond that you’d better just hope you have the time, resources, and personality to create a supportive home environment and read them a lot of books. Aside from that you can choose a few plausible-if-unproven parenting strategies and decide that those are the ones that matter. You might be wrong, but it won’t matter much and you’ll feel better.

I should be honest - I started Oscar’s life with erudite intentions, but I haven’t actually read much academic or popular parenting literature. The above assessment is an excuse for inaction, not a meta-analysis. Do send me your simple, reproducible babyhacks, along with any academic or mumfluencer citations.

About turn. I’m trying to rid myself of an invented image and hatred of bougie parents. By “bougie” I mean doing anything more precious than tossing your baby a plank of wood and a dictionary and leaving them to get on with it. You’re allowed to want success for your child, but you’re not allowed to do anything that might help them get there. You can take him to Mandarin lessons if you must, but you’d better apologize for it. To who? I’ll get back to you on that one. Make sure not to give your child too much. But remember that if you and your partner both work and you pay someone else to look after your child for part of the day then you’re not giving him enough. I think you can thread the needle if you stay at home but spend your days vacuuming and feeling harassed while your baby learns self-sufficiency in the corner. Bonus points if you drink so they have something interesting to put in their first novel. Make sure to set aside some time for home cooking, but for God’s sake don’t take it too seriously. I don’t care if organic food isn’t actually that expensive and might have some health benefits and at the very least gives you a sense of comfort. Uncle Frank worked with asbestos his whole life and that didn’t - well actually it killed him an agonizing death at the age of forty-nine, which is why Aunt Jemima has a big house and a fast car and is sad all the time.

Where did I get this nonsense from? My money’s on an unsophisticated understanding of a sometimes-ungenerous culture. Gaby doesn’t recognize any of it and thinks it’s a British thing. She says that in America you do what you have to in order to give your kid the resilience and self-love to crush their enemies in the marketplace and the UFC octagon. If someone doesn’t like it then they can 天哪 把它带上 (Google Translate Mandarin for “gosh-darn bring it on”).

In our household hierarchy Gaby and I have the strength and soft power, but Oscar doesn’t care about being reasonable and has no problem burning the system to the ground. As he gets older I imagine that these imbalances will level out. When his arguments start to become too cogent for a full dictatorship to hold then we’ll still at least have the capricious giving and withholding of our approval.

I used to think that there was a single, obvious right answer to questions of discipline and life guidance, and that parents just had to have the steel to follow through. Permit some video games, but not too many. Now no video games for a week. Now only video games for three weeks. However, since Oscar has started becoming more mercurial with his eating preferences I’ve already changed my mind. There are real tradeoffs between short- and long-term peace, and it’s not myopic to prioritize the short-term sometimes. You can’t enjoy the long-term if you’ve said too many untakebackable things before you get there.

Relationships with children are hard and the ante dear. What if he wants to turn down a place at a Russell Group university in order to join the circus? Assume for the sake of this example that Oscar is not a talented juggler and the circus is not a growth industry. Why, I’d Jedi Mind Trick him into doing the right and remunerative thing while thinking that it was his idea all along. Really? When was the last time I did that to anyone, let alone someone who has lived with me for almost two decades and has had the opportunity to make a close study of my ham-fisted approach to manipulation? Maybe if we locked him in the basement and refused to let him out until he accepted his university place and signed a statement for social services saying that he likes the basement and lives in it of his own free will? The short-term would be tense and abusive, but the long-term effects on gross lifetime earnings might be worth it.

On a smaller scale, I know we’ve still got a while but I still don’t know how we’re going to deal with video games. Many people of my generation grew up being told that video games were bad, but were just about tolerable in small doses. However, I don’t think that this was very helpful. It’s psychically strenuous being told that one of your favorite hobbies is a waste of time. That said, I know from experience how addictive games can be, especially online ones. I think that it is reasonable to pull rank and pull the power cord on a transparent schedule, forcibly shouldering some of the burden of trading short- and long-term payoffs.

On the other hand, linear, story-based games like The Last of Us feel more self-limiting. Once you kill the final boss it’s over, although I completed Banjo Kazooie enough times to know that this isn’t the whole story. I do wonder whether these kinds of rationalizations are just an attempt to awkwardly map a new form of entertainment onto something with which I’m familiar and find it easier to get comfortable. Is it legitimate to see The Last of Us as an interactive film in which the hero dies and un-dies a lot and spends a bizarre amount of time rummaging through drawers in search of rags and duct tape? I have plenty more fuddy-duddy thoughts. For example, maybe it’s better for Oscar’s brain if he has his buddies round to our physical house and they all play and chat in the same room? This feels impenetrably logical, but I assume that I’m missing a point somewhere. Or maybe it’s better if he becomes an elite level gamer? That way he’ll learn discipline and skills that he’ll need in the real world and he’ll - oh look at that, he just got a sponsorship deal with Blizzard, another with Red Bull, and a weekly column in Destructoid. Anyway, as I was saying, those skills might turn into something real one day.

I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

In my notes this final section was called “honesty and dark thoughts”. Don’t expect too much though. I’m not particularly honest with my therapist, and I don’t even tell anyone else that I have a therapist. Oscar has figured out how to stick his hands inside his nappy. This is manageable when he’s wearing access-preventing trousers, but it’s a real pain when we’ve taken his clothes off so that he can have a messy dinner and he’s just taken a jumbo dump. What? You asked for the truth.

OK fine, how about this? I feel bad for having needs and dreams that my family can’t fulfill. I feel worse that some of these needs and dreams can only be fulfilled in the absence of my family. I feel worst that some of them are simply the absence of my family, if only for a while.

This is the life we’ve been aiming for for what feels like forever so it had better be good otherwise what was the point of any of that?

One of the reasons I write these blog posts is to give people who don’t have children some idea of what it’s like. “I got married and had kids so you don’t have to.” I’m hoping to write about being a parent as honestly as I can without too severely damaging my family life. I feel a bit like a YouTuber who started out making insightful, carefully researched videos about music theory, but realized that there’s more money to be made for less work as a personality talking about their life. Except I don’t make any money and these posts take forever to write. I’m staying open to a career as a TikTok Dadfluencer if computer programming doesn’t work out, although if no one will pay me for my code then definitely no one will pay me for my Dadfluence.

It is acknowledged that parenting is hard work but fulfilling but sometimes you can’t be fucked. Even though these feelings are briefly acknowledged as normal, it still feels like they’re swept under the carpet by the media and the culture. I probably shouldn’t talk too generally about “the media” or “the culture” though. It’s a big world and parenting literature is broad enough to include both “Parenting for Mormons” and “Bringing Up Your Child For The Glory Of Satan”. What I really mean is “my general perception of things, for which I have no specific citations.” It’s normal to have doubts and regrets and fury. You can rationalize that these feelings are OK because, underneath them all you still love your child. Or you can rationalize that they’re OK because they’re intrinsically OK, even if you sometimes sincerely wonder if it might have all been a big mistake. Google “i wish i’d never had children” and you’ll see that some parents never love their children and long for the return of the freedom that they took away. I do love my child and I’m so glad that we have him. But there are tradeoffs. You do lose things that you wish you could have back, and sometimes there’s nothing to be done but to sit with that loss.

My own parents have politely asked to be left out of my parenting posts. I haven’t signed an NDA, but since I still rely on them for power tools I’m inclined to acquiesce. I think we have a great relationship, although I’d have to find and read their blogs to be sure. But anecdotally it seems that many people don’t get on with their parents. This is a poignant end to a relationship that took decades and a lifetime to build if a child ends up not liking their parents much. Vice versa too, but I think that there’s more pathos the first way. It seems to me that the biggest act of parental sacrifice isn’t money, time, or effort. It’s being happy for your child when they’re not, and may never again, be happy for you.

I’ve been becoming less afraid in the couple of weeks it’s taken to write this post so I’d better stop there while it’s all still true.

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