Things I've learned about being a parent
In the grand tradition of tech people barely doing something and then turning around and giving advice as if they’re experts, I thought I’d write up some of the things I’ve learned being the parent of a three-and-a-half-month-old baby. If you’re about to be a parent, you might find this useful. If you’re already a parent, you might disagree with me. And if you don’t want to have kids or think that being a parent is a long way off for you, this might reinforce your position. As always, your mileage may vary.
It’s jazz. Jazz musicians watch each other carefully throughout their performances. There are rules that dictate how they hand off to each other, and what they play when they do - but so much is also responsive, emotionally driven, and expressive. You can be very informed; you can learn techniques; you can build routines. But the number one lesson is to listen to what your child is telling you, implicitly and explicitly. Just like everything else in life, if you try and play rote from the textbook, you won’t do well. The core skill in parenting (and most things) is empathy.
Gadgets are a crutch. There is, of course, a whole industry of people trying to sell you things to help your baby sleep or make them smarter or healthier. We have a Snoo, a kind of robot crib that responsively rocks your baby to sleep. I thought it was miraculous until one day we didn’t use it and he both fell and stayed asleep just fine. There are white noise machines and apps to quantify your baby’s feeds and diaper changes. All of it just increases your anxiety and gives you a reason to think you’re a bad parent (often so you can buy more products from the app developer). Again: the rule is to be attentive to your baby.
The advice changes and will change again. The advice parents were given when I was a baby is not the same as the advice we’re given now. Older parents look at swaddling, for example, with horror: you’re straight-jacketing your baby! Newer parents (I think rightly) think of letting babies cry it out as tantamount to abuse. Some advice was right; some was wrong. The advice we’re being given this year is guaranteed to be outdated ten years from now.
Influencer parents are the devil. There are always people who try to make their living looking like perfect parents online. It’s also always true that every baby is different and different parents have different difficulties. Just as Instagram is dangerous for a teenager’s body image, it can convey harmful messages about how mothers in particular should act.
Invest in sleepers with zips and stretchy sleeves. You’ll thank me later.
Bottles are fine. There’s so much pressure on mothers to exclusively breastfeed. It’s sometimes impossible for lots of different reasons, from contextual to biological to personal choice. Breast milk is the healthiest thing for a baby to drink - no question. But sometimes formula is okay, and whatever’s being fed, a bottle is just fine. I like bottle-feeding: because I don’t lactate, it means I get to be an active participant in feeding my child.
Sexism is endemic. A nurse - a nurse! - at our hospital congratulated us on having a boy. (“I’ve only been able to have girls.”) Another apologized to me because I would need to hold or feed the baby sometimes. So many people think that parenting is women’s work. There is criticism of mothers who want to go back to work; there is criticism of fathers who want to be active parents. I am a fully-active parent and I resent this message enormously. This is yet another realm where traditional gender roles and societal traditions, in general, are not helpful.
You must also take care of yourself. I spent the first month not doing any exercise, eating a bunch of ice cream, and waking up every two hours. It was horrible and I felt like trash all the time. Later I cut out the ice cream and built going for a walk into my routine. It made a universe of difference. I still woke up very regularly, but the exercise and better diet made me feel like I had more energy.
Assume they can understand everything. My baby is a sponge. I’m certain he knows exactly what we’re saying all of the time. As much as cleaning poop off their onesies might be a pain, or as much as you’d like to not be feeding them at 3am, they’ve got to know how wonderful they are. There need to be smiles and good times. They don’t need to be neurotic at less than a year old - and they don’t need to pick up the idea that they’re a burden. They’re not a burden, after all! You can give your child reasons to go to therapy later on. I’m sure I will.
It’s a new baby every day. Babies regenerate, Doctor Who style. Their behavior changes radically, their body changes radically. (“How are your hands suddenly so big?” is a thing I’ve said multiple times.) They literally grow overnight. Enjoy the baby you have today and look forward to the one you’ll have tomorrow.
Treat your baby like they’re immunocompromised. A lot of people will expect you to be more social with your baby than you’re comfortable with. Don’t listen. They don’t have very functional immune systems in the first few months, and covid is very much back on the rise, and RSV is becoming a huge problem. It’s okay to be very cautious with your baby’s health. Keeping them alive is your main job now.
This is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done and hope to ever do. When people said that, I kind of assumed they meant spiritually or ethically. No. It’s really hard on every level. It takes everything you’ve got, every day. And it’s completely, 100% worth it.