Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Parenting (page 1 of 2)

You Can’t Go Home Again

 

There is a cabin on a small lake in the forest in northern Michigan where I keep all my most vivid childhood memories. My family drove up there every summer (and occasional winters) from our home in the suburbs of Detroit, and I will always cherish those brief weeks off the grid, when we could leave normal life behind and spend our evenings watching campfires instead of TV screens.

This summer, I returned to Michigan for the first time in seven years and the nostalgia was almost overwhelming. A lot has happened in that time: I got a PhD, my wife and I moved across the country to Arizona, we bought a house, we settled into permanent jobs, we got a second dog, and after struggling with mild fertility issues, we had a son. He has grown from a preemie who had to spend the first twenty days of his life in the hospital learning to eat into a happy, healthy toddler who is obsessed with birds and books and will enthusiastically roar like a dinosaur on command.

It’s strange to visit my old stomping grounds with my young son. For me, every stump and rock and path and beaver lodge is a memory, and I can’t help but wonder what they will mean to him. How often will we be able to make the pilgrimage back to Michigan? When we visit, will he build his own fort in the forest and fashion wooden medieval weapons to defend it from unspecified foes? Will he have bonfires twenty feet tall and learn roast the perfect marshmallow over the coals? Will he pick wild blueberries and eat them in homemade pancakes? Will he learn to fall asleep to the haunting call of loons? Or will he be indifferent to it all, and wonder why Dad drags him to the north woods of Michigan instead of going on vacations to more interesting places?

I have always been a bit prone to nostalgia, but I’ve found that since becoming a parent, that desire to cling to the past has only gotten stronger. Children allow us to revisit our childhoods, and there’s a natural tendency to want to pass our cherished formative memories on to our kids. I grew up catching snakes and making swords out of sticks and riding four-wheelers through the north woods of Michigan, and so I want my son to have all of those experiences too.

This instinct to make my son’s childhood a highlight reel of my own extends beyond just the time spent Up North. My son is only 20 months old, but I have been debating when to introduce him to the stories that shaped me — Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Jurassic Park — since before he was born. I didn’t even know what Star Wars was until sixth grade, and I didn’t read The Hobbit until early high school. I know that delaying exposure to these stories is impossible in today’s world where geek culture and pop culture have become indistinguishable, but there’s a part of me that nevertheless wants his introduction to them to mirror my own. The fact that my son’s experience learning that Vader is Luke’s father or telling riddles in the dark with Gollum will be very different from mine makes me uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to explain.

As parents, it’s tempting to assume that our children will turn out just like us. When I picture my son in high school, I imagine him loving science, playing the trumpet in marching band, and spending his free time playing video games with friends. But I have to remind myself: that’s not him, that’s me. He might turn out like that, but he might not, and that’s ok.

Kids remind us of what it was like to be young, to experience everything for the first time, but the corollary is that they also remind us that we are not that young anymore. As the saying goes, “you can’t go home again.” The world moves on and it’s important that we as parents do too.

It is a frustrating fact of the human condition that those memories that we cherish, that form integral parts of ourselves, are uniquely ours. There’s the inevitable temptation to try to model our children’s lives on our own nostalgia, to pass on those intangible parts of ourselves like a baton in an intergenerational relay, as if somehow that will allow us to return to our lost youth, but it’s important to moderate that temptation. Yes, embrace the chance to remember your own childhood. Share what you love with your kids. Give them the opportunity to experience things that were important to you, but also respect your kids enough to let them be different, to find their own passions and make their own memories.

It’s important to remind ourselves that our goal as parents is not for our kids to live carbon copies of our lives, it is to help them live their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Thoughts on Separating Families at the Border

I don’t know what words I can write here that haven’t already been said. I just know I need to write about this because if I don’t, it will consume me. If you’re sick of hearing about this, I understand. You don’t need to read this, but I need to write it.

It is now the policy of The United States of America to forcibly separate children and babies from their parents when they cross the border without documentation. It is not a law. It is a deliberate decision made by the Trump administration in order to shift the Overton Window for the immigration debate and extract concessions to get funding for an idiotic wall on our southern border, to solve a nonexistent problem. This outrageous shift in policy is abetted by Republicans in Congress who have been conspicuously quiet, because they know their base are a bunch of racists who quail at the sight of someone with dark skin, or who speaks a language other than English.

What is even more infuriating is that the Administration, after very publicly announcing that they were making the choice to adopt this “zero tolerance” policy, is now claiming that this is somehow the fault of Democrats, and that the Administration is just “enforcing the law”. And to top it all off, they’re trying to hide behind the bible as they do it.

First of all, if you think that Jesus would be in favor of shattering desperate families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, then you have been seriously misinterpreting the bible. Helping those who have the least is kind of a major theme.

Second of all, could we perhaps NOT base our policy decisions on a collection of barely coherent stories written by a bunch of hallucinating fanatics living in the desert a couple thousand years ago? Instead of pulling quotes from those often-contradictory stories to support whatever policy idea we prefer could we instead perhaps base our treatment of other human beings on the simple concept of empathy? Look, the golden rule appears in every major religion for a reason. Just treat others as you would want to be treated. Would you want your breastfeeding child to be taken away from you, never to be seen again? No? Then maybe rethink the fucking policy.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk a little bit about that excuse that destroying families is “enforcing the law”. It isn’t. But even if it were the law? Just because something is legal does not make it moral. Just because something is illegal does not make it immoral.

Let me repeat that for those in the back.

LEGAL ≠ MORAL

ILLEGAL ≠ IMMORAL

Undocumented immigrants are not amoral because they broke the law. Border patrol agents who are shipping children off to concentration camps are not acting morally because they believe they are following the law. (I should also note that many of these families are seeking asylum and voluntarily turn themselves in. This is NOT illegal.)

To add to the swirling soup of outrage and despair that this whole situation stirs up inside me, I know that this outrage I’m feeling? This impotent blog post I’m writing? It’s exactly the response the evil men responsible for this policy want me to have. These sociopaths know that this kind of cruelty will drive their opponents mad, so they can turn around and offer an immigration plan that halts the family separation policy as if that’s some sort of concession, and demand that in return we pay for a wall or some other idiotic policy that is worse than where we started. And it’s worth pointing out that “where we started” was already awful. We were already turning away people fleeing from war zones. People with terminal diseases seeking treatment. People who fled their homes because they were going to be murdered. We can’t lose sight of the fact that none of this is acceptable. We should welcome immigrants. Not only does it pay off in the long run, it’s also the right thing to do.

So I know I’m following the script perfectly by writing this post, by being performatively outraged on the internet so that my liberal friends can echo the sentiment and we can all whip ourselves into a froth about this. But what’s the alternative? Not be outraged by our country putting toddlers into prison camps? No. Sorry. If I’m not outraged by this, then I’m dead inside.

It is easy to look at the left these days and say “geez, you’re outraged about everything. Give it a rest.” Do you want to know why we’re outraged about everything? Because everything is outrageous right now. Do you want to know why people keep comparing the Republican party’s behavior to that of Nazis? It’s because they’re behaving like Nazis.

Father’s day is tomorrow. I had a nice introspective blog post about parenting that I was putting together. But right now, all I can think about are those fathers and mothers who have lost their children.

Imagine life in your home town, your home country, being so dangerous that the best choice available to you is to leave with nothing but the clothes on your back and your precious family, to travel vast distances at great risk to a country you know doesn’t particularly want you, based on the glimmer of hope that you might be able to get across the border and start a new life. There is a myth that, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to die about that country: that it is a land of opportunity where if you work hard you can make a good life for yourself and your family. You know the odds are slim, but you have nowhere else to turn.

But then you get to the border, and you’re intercepted by men with guns. They tell you that you’ve broken the law and you are going to jail. They tell you that your children cannot go with you. Or maybe they don’t even tell you. Maybe they just find some pretext to separate you, and then your children never return. You don’t even get to say goodbye. Your family is literally the only thing you have left in a world that has already been so cruel to you, and now your family has been destroyed too.

My son is 18 months old. He is innocent and full of joy. He toddles around making woofing sounds like a dog or pointing enthusiastically to birds out the window or bringing books over to me so he can climb up on my lap and read with me. All the clichés you hear about the love you feel as a parent are true. The love grows inside you until you think you might burst, that you can’t possibly contain it, and yet it keeps growing. It is so powerful it can be scary.

And so when I look at my son and feel that love, and then I think of someone taking my son away because I wanted him to have a chance at a safe life, I can hardly bear it. Just imagining what those parents are feeling, just conjuring the faintest shadow of what they must be going through, guts me. And then I think of what it must be like for the children. The confusion. The fear. I imagine my innocent son, living in a tent city, not seeing anyone he knows for months and months and months. It hurts me, but I cannot stop thinking about it.

I don’t have any hopeful message to end this on. I’ll just say this: Tomorrow is father’s day. Use it to cherish your family. Your safe and comfortable life. And then think about what you are going to do to fight the human rights abuse that is taking place on our border, and the people who make it possible. We need to get past the despair, harness the rage, and put it to work.

 

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

My Experience as a Stay-at-home Dad

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking time off of work and spending it at home with our 7.5 month old baby. I’ll continue to be mostly off for another couple of weeks (more on that “mostly” caveat later), but I have enough under my belt at this point that I thought it would be worth writing down some thoughts.

Most people, if they’re going to take time off, take it right after the baby is born, and I did take some time off then as well. But we decided early on that it made more sense for me to postpone some of my paternity leave until now. Erin was lucky enough to be able to be off work from when Shane was born in December until the end of July, so the idea is for me to take this time off now to ease the transition as she returns to work.

The fact that I’m able to take this much time off at all is pretty great. The family medical leave act (FMLA) requires employers to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in the 12 month period following the birth of a child, but it doesn’t require that leave to be paid which is absurd. The only other nations in the world that don’t provide any paid family leave at all are Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, I have accumulated enough sick leave and vacation time that I am able to take this time off without missing a paycheck, and my job is flexible enough that I can do this without causing major problems.

What I am doing is pretty unusual though. In the workaholic culture of the United States, and particularly the culture of science, it is not common for dads to take this much time off. Everyone I have told about this plan to take time off has been supportive, sometimes with with hints of jealousy, but I still feel the need to explain myself to everyone (including writing this blog post).

I hate that I feel guilty for taking this time, and that in explaining it, I feel the instinctive need to promise that I’m actually going to use this time to get some work done. Because heaven forbid that I would be so decadent as to take a month off for the sole purpose of spending time with my baby.

So, with that, let’s turn to the question of how my decadent month of child care is going.

First, the obvious: it’s great. Instead of just seeing my baby first thing in the morning, and then in the evening when both of us are tired and fussy, I get to spend all day with him. That’s interspersed with nap times when I can read a book, or get a little work done, or make dinner, or whatever else I want/need to do. We can go on little adventures, like taking the running stroller to Buffalo Park and going for a jog, or walking to the grocery store to get some ingredients for dinner. As a homebody who is content to just hang out in my house most of the time, this works well for me.

One thing I have noticed is how quickly I lose all track of time. Not that I don’t know what day it is, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to say what I actually did when. When did he last eat? How long were his naps? Did he go to sleep nicely last time or was it 45 minutes of screaming and crying? It all blurs together, making these questions surprisingly hard for me to answer. I actually went so far as to install a phone app to track feeding and nap times just so that I could verify that, yes, it has been 4 hours since the last bottle so that’s why he’s fussy. Taking care of a baby this age is repetitive: He is generally awake for about two hours, followed by a nap ranging from 45 minutes to a couple hours. In between naps, there are bottles, diaper changes, eating solid food, maybe a bath, and play time. When you add in at least 15 minutes (and sometimes much, much more) time spent getting him to calm down in preparation for nap time, you end up with a nearly endless cycle that blurs together.

I have also learned that I’m not very good at playing with babies this age. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but babies are pretty boring. I’ve always thought of myself as being good with kids, but babies are different. My go-to way of entertaining a baby is to read board books, but unlike younger babies who don’t really do much (and therefore make a fine book reading audience), 7 month old babies are interested in everything. This also means they aren’t generally interested in a single thing for very long. We’ll sit down to read some books, and after a couple pages, he’s fussing, wanting to gnaw the book or reaching for the dog, or looking at the colorful toy on the table. Also, this may come as a surprise to you, but books written for infants and toddlers are not particularly interesting for adults.

When books fail, there are always other toys. Dangling toys are always a hit, and things that crinkle or that feel nice to chew are also good. There’s peekaboo, or bouncing on my knee, and when in doubt I can usually make him crack up with tickles or a kiss-attack. My problem is that is seems like we can go through all of these options and then I check the time and only a few minutes have passed.

I’ve found that the best entertainment for everyone involved is actually food. We’re working on learning to eat finger foods, and putting Shane in his chair and placing a slice of peach or a stick of roasted sweet potato or a piece of banana on his tray to play with will keep him happy and entertained for quite a while. Meanwhile I get to play goalie, keeping him from sending his food off the edge of the tray, or retrieving fragments of food that have managed to bypass the bib and end up in his lap.

The hardest part about this has been self-inflicted and I knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it. I built up this time off as this mythical gap in my calendar during which I hoped to get all manner of things done, ranging from work that I haven’t had time to get to, to writing, to exercise, to home improvement projects. Of course, it turns out most of the day is taken up with caring for my baby (shocker, I know), leaving just nap time for all of this stuff to happen. By not fully disconnecting from work, I have lost quite a bit of that “free” time during naps to answering emails, or helping my summer student finish up her presentation and paper, or doing some work (but not enough to feel satisfied). I am ashamed to find myself impatient for the baby to go down for another nap so I can get more stuff done, but then when nap times come, I never get done what I want to, and so I end up frustrated.

If I was truly off of work, with no responsibilities that kept drawing me back in, I think this month would be more enjoyable. Instead, I have been trying to exist as some sort of Schrodinger’s dad, in a bizarre superposition of working and not working, which turns out to just make both the time off and the small amount of work accomplished feel less satisfying. I think next week I am going to try to do a better job of actually being “off” so that I can enjoy this time. The week after, Shane starts half-day daycare, and I can ease back into working.

I want to make it clear that I recognize how fortunate I am in having this time off to spend with my son. I always feel guilty and self-indulgent when I write blog posts like this, because I know that many people only wish they had lives easy enough to have the “problems” I write about on this blog. I don’t mean to be overly negative, but I think it is worthwhile to talk about parenting honestly, and I use writing here on the blog as a way to process thoughts that otherwise would just rattle around in my head. So, thanks for indulging me and reading this far.

Now, the baby is waking up from his morning nap, so I am off to have a fun day with my son!

 

Thoughts on Parenting: 6 months in

It’s hard to believe, but Shane is already 6 months old! With this arbitrary milestone, I thought this was as good a time as any to write a bit about how parenting is going, compared to how I expected it to be.

The first thing is that it’s easier and less exhausting than I was led to believe. All credit for this goes to Shane, who turns out to be a remarkably well-behaved baby. I know other parents will hate me for this, but he was sleeping through the night very early, and has generally been a pretty laid-back little dude. As he gets older he is actually getting worse at sleeping than he used to be, and tends to cry and get fussy more now that he is showing interest in the world around him. When he was a little baby, he hardly cried at all, and was mostly content to just snooze on my chest (a position we refer to as “snuggle mode”). Now, he wants to be sitting up and looking around, and really resists going into “snuggle mode” even if it’s what he needs.

My biggest apprehension about parenting before Shane was born was about the first few months, aka the “Fourth Trimester”. I was sure that I would not really like this “larval” phase: the baby is still basically a helpless fetus who can’t lift his head or interact with the world very much. I figured that as he grew and became more of a little person I’d like parenting more and more. Much to my surprise, I actually really liked those first few months. Newborns are easy to deal with since all they can do is eat, sleep and poop, and it’s great to just snuggle on the couch with a tiny sleepy baby. Also to my surprise, I am finding Shane more frustrating as he becomes more mature. Of course it is wonderful to see him learning to sit up, play with solid food, make babbling noises, and all the other milestones, but in the last couple of months he has also been in a sort of limbo: he is alert and interested enough that he is no longer content to just lay on the couch, but he can’t sit up on his own or entertain himself or communicate very well, so he and I both can get frustrated. I’m looking forward to when he can sit up on his own and we have taught him some basic baby signs so that he has options other than whining to communicate that he’s hungry or needs a new diaper.

One thing that has been surprising and disappointing is my own lack of patience when Shane is upset and I can’t seem to fix it. I pride myself on generally being a very patient person (sometimes to a fault), but when Shane is fussing and resisting everything that I try to comfort him, I lose my patience much faster than I’d like. It doesn’t help that a lot of the time I get to interact with him in the evening after work, so he and I are both tired. I’m also overly self-conscious about what I’ll call the “mommy does it better” syndrome. I try to be a good dad and do everything right, but sometimes he just wants mommy. It’s amazing how quickly and effectively an infant rejecting your attempts to comfort and care for him can hurt your feelings.

Finally, one of the hardest things about parenthood has been adjusting my time management. Even before Shane showed up, I struggled with finding time in the evening and weekend to do all the things that I wanted to do (or wanted to want to do). Now (and this is no surprise) it’s even harder. As you can tell by the frequency of my posts here on the blog, it’s hard to find a stretch of uninterrupted time to just sit and write. Turns out babies need constant attention! Who knew? Evenings basically consist of coming home from work, eating dinner, giving baby a bottle, having him pass out on me, and then watching TV while trapped on the couch. Which is fine, and certainly more relaxed than most parents are able to be, but I still have the delusion that it’d be nice to spend some time on writing, or on political stuff, or on putting together a photo book of last year’s vacation, or the million other hobbies and other tasks that I want to do with my “free time” that never seem to get done. The worst part about this isn’t that I don’t get this stuff done (let’s be real, I didn’t live up to my own expectations of what I wanted to get done even before we had a baby), it’s the conflict between wanting to spend time with Shane and wanting some down time to myself to do stuff I want to do. Whichever one I choose, I feel guilty about not doing the other.

Another interesting aspect of parenting that I’ve noticed is that it seems to warp my perception of time. The last six months has been densely packed with milestones and life-changing events, but it also seems to have flown by in a heartbeat. I have no idea how it suddenly became July. Wasn’t it just February? From what I’ve heard from other parents, this is just the beginning. Tomorrow I’ll be blinking and wondering where the past 18 years went and how my kid can possibly be heading off to college.

Looking back at this post, it seems like I am mostly complaining about parenthood, so I want to conclude by saying: I love it. I have been looking forward to having kids for a while, and despite the challenges, it has been wonderful. Shane is a very easy baby, and watching him grow and learn and become more aware of the world around him makes me happier than I can express. Also, have you seen how cute he is? Multiple times a day, Erin and I just turn to each other and say “How is it even possible for him to be this cute?” Even though, as I said above, I’m looking forward to him being able to do things like sit up and communicate better, I know that as he grows, some things will get easier but other challenges will come with that. Babies change so fast, so mostly I’m trying to remember to savor every moment. I know that looking back, it will seem like the blink of an eye. So with that, I’m going to stop writing and go spend time with my baby.

 

My Baby Was Not Intelligently Designed

Baby is concerned about all of his design flaws.

The idea of intelligent design is silly, and has been thoroughly debunked by scientists with more patience than me, but now that I’m a dad, I have a new perspective on the idea. Instead of painstakingly giving examples of the independent evolution of the eye or calmly explaining that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we didn’t evolve from them, I have realized that all you need is a human infant to illustrate how far-fetched intelligent design is. Babies have a number of fundamental design flaws that conclusively prove that there was no Designer.

First of all, before we even get to babies themselves, let’s reflect on the fact that human childbirth is a horribly painful and dangerous undertaking for the mother, with death of the mother and/or child in childbirth disturbingly common before modern medicine. This is, needless to say, not a good starting place for those who argue that humans were perfectly engineered by God.

And then you have the babies themselves. The reason that childbirth is so difficult is that humans have large heads containing large brains. Our brains are what make us special. And yet, babies are born with holes in their skulls that don’t close for years, and necks that are too weak to even hold their heads up for months. It’s also quite common for newborn babies to require treatment for jaundice. Why? Because their livers aren’t mature enough to effectively remove the bilirubin in the blood formed by breaking down red blood cells. Too much bilirubin can cause brain damage. I’m just saying, if I were engineering an animal that was so reliant on brainpower, I think I’d try to do a better job of protecting the brain and spinal cord.

Then there is the issue of eating and digestion. As we learned when our boy was born 5 weeks early, babies who are born even slightly early often lack the coordination required to be able to nurse, swallow, and breathe in a good rhythm. You would think that swallowing and not choking would be high priorities, something built in as an instinct, but apparently these things take practice. We also learned while in the NICU waiting for our baby to learn to eat that often when babies begin to eat, their body diverts blood to the digestive system, which causes the oxygen levels in the rest of their body to drop. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that getting oxygen to the brain should be prioritized over digesting food in the belly, since the one can cause damage in seconds, the other takes hours or longer to cause a problem.

There’s also the spitting up issue. After managing to master the complex art of eating without choking or falling asleep or desaturating blood oxygen, you would think that the digestive system would be designed to keep the milk in the stomach.  It is not good at this! Slight pressure on the stomach, too much excitement, a stray air bubble, all can cause the stomach’s contents to erupt like a milky Vesuvius.

Finally, there is the fact that newborn babies are completely helpless. They don’t even figure out that they can control their own arms and legs for months. They can’t see more than a foot or so at first. As mentioned above, their heads are squishy and poorly attached, and it is more than a year before they can walk reliably. Human babies are just born way too soon, leaving the parents and other adult humans to care for what is essentially a still-developing fetus as it struggles to survive in the cold, harsh world outside until it is fully functional. To me, this seems like a fundamental design flaw.

I can easily explain all of these things based on an evolutionary perspective, but there are simply too many bad engineering choices for me to believe that someone intelligently designed human babies.

Parenthood: Month 1

We’re back at the hospital again. Yesterday we came in because Erin was having some contractions that felt different from the normal Braxton-Hicks that are expected at 35 weeks. They sent us home, telling her to relax and that these might go away or they might persist for another month. We were instructed to come back if they got “longer, stronger, closer together.” Sure enough, they intensified overnight, keeping both of us awake and miserable. So we’re back at the hospital again, first thing in the morning. We are fully expecting to be turned away again. I didn’t bother to pack a change of clothes or food in our hospital bag because this is surely another false alarm.

Our nurse today is younger and nicer than the one we had yesterday. She checks and Erin is 3 cm dilated. We are informed that the baby is coming today.

We try to digest this information as Erin is whisked to a delivery room. This was not the plan. It’s 5 weeks too early. We are told that most babies born at 35 weeks do fine. I was born at about 35 weeks and I was fine. But we’re still terrified. What if this is happening because something is wrong? What if he can’t breathe because he’s too early? At the same time, it’s thrilling. We’ve been waiting and preparing for this and now it’s finally happening! We get to meet our son. Today!


It’s early afternoon and the delivery room is in chaos. Erin is standing beside the bed, holding both my hands, doubled over with the pain of a contraction. The nurses are frantically changing the mattress on her bed, because somehow it had the wrong type of mattress and she’s about to get an epidural so they need to change it before she can’t stand. The anesthesiologist has wheeled his cart into the delivery room and is complaining about how they’ve moved everything compared to how it used to be in the old rooms.

The mattress is finally changed, Erin is instructed to sit just so, and then during another contraction the doctor inserts the epidural and starts the drip of pain killer. Half an hour later things have changed dramatically. The pain has faded, the anesthesiologist has left, and the nurses leave too. For the next few hours, Erin rests.


Evening, and the room is crowded again because the baby is about to make his appearance. The doctor is all suited up, a team of nurses from the special care nursery is standing by along with the regular nurses to check out our preemie.

One more push and the baby is out, he is lifted up and placed on Erin’s chest, and we are both massively relieved when he starts to cry. It’s not super strong or loud, but it’s a cry. The next little while is a blur of activity and emotion. At some point the doctor asks if I am ready to cut the cord. I am handed some surgical scissors and shown where to cut. I had been told the cord would be tougher than you think, so it is instead softer than I expected.

The doctor asks if we want to see the placenta. We say no, but she doesn’t hear us and shows us anyway. It’s a big bloody bag made of surprisingly large veins. They take it off to the lab to be tested (standard for preemies) and ask if we want it back. No, thank you, we do not.

They weigh the baby (our son!) and he is a respectable 5 lbs 11oz. Not bad! He is breathing, he’s a healthy weight, his temperature is good. We’re feeling relieved. He’s going to be ok. The final hurdle is getting him to eat. Erin tries for a while but he is too exhausted and doesn’t nurse. The nurses prick his heel and check his blood sugar. It’s too low for them to get a good reading. We’re going to NICU.


We are in NICU and my son (!) is sucking on my gloved finger. The nurses told me to dip it in sugar water and let him suck it as a distraction/pain relief while they try to put an IV in his tiny veins. They are having trouble. They have tried both hands with no luck. They’re back to the first hand, using a bright light to shine through his hand and find the vein. They finally give up and tell me that he will need to get an IV in the umbilical vein. Erin comes down at some point in a wheelchair to see the baby, but there’s not much room and they need room to work. She heads upstairs to rest.

The doctor comes over. I have to stand back because this is a sterile procedure. The doctor seems very disorganized, not knowing where things are, and the kit of supplies he is using is missing things. Assorted items are cast aside on the ground. He complains about how short the umbilical stump is and admonishes our ObGyn for leaving it so short. (I feel an irrational pang of guilt, since I cut the cord) But in the end the catheter is inserted, and baby gets the sugar he needs. After the procedure, the nurse apologizes for the doctor: he is very experienced but new to Flagstaff and still learning how things are done here. It’s been a few hours since the birth. It’s after midnight and I’m exhausted and there’s nothing more to do. I now have to leave my baby in a plastic box, connected to wires that read his pulse, his breathing, and his blood oxygen levels, along with the IV that is feeding him. I go upstairs and try to rest.


It’s been a couple of days, and after all of that, we are home and our baby is still at the hospital. This feels wrong on a visceral level. The dogs are happy to see us home, the house is just the same as it has always been, but it suddenly feels very lonely.

We are grateful for the flood of love and support that we’re getting on Facebook because we don’t have any local family and our baby is in the NICU instead of home in our arms.


We decide on the name Shane. Middle name is mom’s last name, last name matches mine. It feels good to finally settle on something after months of thinking about it, but it’s also very strange. Naming a human being is hard!


Christmas eve day, and we’re just about to leave the NICU to go home for lunch. Our jackets are already on when Shane wakes up and opens his eyes. Other than right after the birth, he’s had his eyes closed most of the time. We get our first chance to really look him in the eye. He’s beautiful, and it is heartbreaking to leave him.


It’s Christmas eve. Shane has been put on a “bili blanket” to treat newborn jaundice, a common problem. The glowing blue blanket makes it look like he is acquiring superpowers. A winter storm is blowing in, promising everyone in Flagstaff a white Christmas, and making it extra inconvenient for us to come in to see our baby. But we do of course. We complain about the storm but it’s also sort of nice to have a concrete way to demonstrate our love. We will not be prevented from visiting our baby by a little snow!

We have been moved to a roomier cubicle, right by the window, and so we spend Christmas eve in the dark, warm NICU with a view of colorful Christmas lights on the trees and snow coming down hard. Inside, we have the dim light of the ever-present monitors, showing us our baby’s vital stats. We sit there as a family and I read aloud from The Slow Regard of Silent Things and even though we’d rather be at home, everything seems right with the world.


The days begin to blur into one another. His IV gets swapped out for a feeding tube in his nose, which means he’s also allowed to wear clothes now, which is seriously adorable. His jaundice clears up and the light blanket is removed. He gets moved to a smaller crib, and back to our original, more cramped cubicle. Our lives are now scheduled around the feeding times and meeting times set by the hospital. Every day, we get in before 8 so that baby can eat at 8 and one of us can get an update from the NICU team. The euphoria of the first few days starts to wear off. We thought he would only be in the hospital for a few days but here we are, still at the hospital. I start to worry about health insurance, especially since it looks like his hospital stay will cross over into the new year, making us pay twice.

Shane’s oxygen levels also start to fluctuate. When he goes into a deep sleep they drift down, flirting with the 85% level which sets off the oxygen alarms. Sitting with our baby switches from being relaxing to nerve-wracking. Instead of looking at his peaceful face, my eyes are glued to that oxygen number, willing it to stay up.

One morning we are told that he may need to go on oxygen, which is a huge emotional blow. The number one thing I was worried about with a preemie was that he would have breathing trouble, and I thought we were past that once he was born and cried and breathed well immediately. That same morning, he does his best breast feeding yet, 19 minutes, but the nurse assumes he isn’t going to get a full feeding and pumps him full of a full meal with his feeding tube as well. She also refuses to weigh him before and after the breastfeeding to see how much milk he got. We are annoyed and distraught.

At rounds, we get a little more information about oxygen. Apparently babies sometimes need oxygen once they start having to digest larger meals because the digestive system uses more oxygen than they needed before, This makes absolutely no sense to me: why would the body prioritize digestion over proper blood oxygen levels? If having a full stomach causes his oxygen to dip, why the heck did the nurse just force feed him a second meal on top of the one he was already eating? But the nurses assure us that oxygen isn’t a big deal, that it’s very common at our elevation, and that if necessary he can come home on oxygen. Despite that, we’re quite upset. He’s supposed to be getting better. Requiring oxygen is not a sign of getting better.


It’s a few days later and we’re getting used to the oxygen. I am giving him a bottle, tilting it to give him a break every few sucks as we’ve been instructed, when he chokes. After a weak cough, he stops breathing. His oxygen levels drop and the alarm starts going off. Unlike other times that this has happened, his levels stay low. I am holding him in my arms and watching him turn blue and there is nothing I can do. Erin rushes to get a nurse, who turns up his oxygen and sits him up. He finally takes a breath and recovers. We give him the rest of his feeding through the tube and then head home for lunch.

I manage to keep it together until we are home, and then break down. I’ve never felt more scared and helpless than I did watching him go limp and change colors. I still desperately want him to come home, but now I’m also terrified. What if that had happened at home with no nurses nearby and no oxygen? Maybe I don’t want him to come home after all. I stay at home that afternoon and try to emotionally recover.


The next few days are up and down. Sometimes he does really well, other times he falls asleep after hardly eating anything. It’s a very confusing mix of emotions to feel all the love of having a new baby but also being angry at him for refusing to eat day after day (even though we know it’s not his fault). Sometimes the frustration is so strong I can barely handle sitting there and watching him ignore the milk he is being offered. Nurses try to make it better by joking “Get used to it, this is just a sample of how frustrating being a parent is.” But I hate it when they say that. This isn’t a behavior issue with an older kid. I actually feel pretty confident in my ability to handle things like that. This is a baby failing to fulfill biological necessities. This is brainstem-level behavior and he isn’t doing it and it is driving me crazy. I start to get paranoid that there is something developmentally wrong with him (and I am eternally grateful for the nurses and other support people who recognize this concern and repeatedly reassure me).


We are sitting, talking to the NICU social worker, whose job seems to be to ensure that the parents are ok and that when baby goes home the family will have a safe and supportive environment. Just as I am telling her about how my main complaint about the otherwise wonderful NICU care is that sometimes we are told something that, without context, seems pretty alarming (for example, the oxygen thing), a nurse comes over and listens to Shane’s heart and says that she hears a murmur. We get to panic about that for a little while until it is explained that they check for heart murmurs by default whenever a baby has to go on oxygen, and that it sounds minor but needs to be followed up with an ultrasound.

The next day, a giant futuristic-looking ultrasound machine appears, and we watch as they look at his heart and take lots of snapshots and recordings. Of course the tech can’t tell us anything, so it’s another day before we know the results: Shane has an ASD (atrial septal defect) and a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus). PDAs are present in all babies in-utero and tend to close on their own in most cases. ASDs are less common, but we are told his is small and also likely to close on its own. We are told they tend to get loudest right before they close which may be why it wasn’t detected before. If it doesn’t close on its own, it should be treatable without surgery.

I swing between being pretty upset about it and being philosophical about it: these defects were only detected because he was in the NICU and on oxygen. There’s a good chance that he could have grown up with them and nobody would have known. Many people don’t learn they have an ASD until they are middle aged and have a mini-stroke. It’s better to catch these things early so they can be monitored and treated.

But still, the last thing you want to hear is that your baby has a problem with his heart. One more apparent setback. One more complicated emotion to add to the mix.


Suddenly he’s doing better. He is weaned off of oxygen overnight on the 7th, and he eats reliably for two days in a row, is actually acting hungry when he wakes up, and suddenly the nurses are talking about going home! To go home he has to pass the “carseat challenge” which involves sitting in his car seat for at least 90 minutes with no oxygen issues.  He passes with no problems. We are told to go home and get some things, we will “room in” with him tonight and if all goes well, he can go home tomorrow.

The “rooming in” room is like a hospital version of a hotel room. Big, decent bed, private bathroom, but just down the hall from the NICU in case anything bad happens. We wheel him back in his crib and for the first time we have an (almost) cordless baby. The leads for the ECG and breathing monitors are still attached, but they just get tucked into his clothes. We can pick him up without having to worry about unplugging something from the wall! We have privacy and space to move around with our baby for the first time! One of the things that we notice most is how quiet it is. Three weeks in the special care nursery and we had stopped noticing the constant background hum of monitors and babies fussing and nurses and parents talking.

We settle in for our first night with our baby (still punctuated by nurses coming by to check him). We don’t sleep much, but it’s great because it means we’re done with the NICU.


And then we are home! After waiting so long it hardly seems real, but there’s our little boy in his own bassinet in our own bedroom. No wires attached, no oxygen tubes or feeding tubes. No monitors giving us a heart attack every few minutes. Just our baby. In our house!

We introduce him to the dogs. Renly is quietly excited, wagging and licking his face a few times. Pippin is oblivious, and responds the way he always does when we’re paying attention to him: by rolling over and showing us his tummy.

The first night is rough. When he is stirring and making noises, we worry that they’re noises of distress. When he is silent, we worry that he has stopped breathing. We don’t get much sleep. We realize we need some dim lights in the nursery. We realize we need a laundry hamper handy near the changing table.

It is amazing how relaxed life seems now that we don’t need to rush back and forth to the hospital multiple times a day.

Over the next couple weeks, we take Shane to his first pediatrician appointments, we get newborn pictures taken, we give him his first bath at home and his first infant massage. He gets to meet some friends, and my parents get to see him at home instead of at the hospital, trailing wires.


It’s the middle of the night. Nobody is sleeping. Why didn’t anyone tell us about the noises? Crying would be one thing, because then it’s clear that something is wrong, and you get up and fix it, but he hardly ever cries. Instead he spends most of the night squirming, kicking, straining, grunting, gurgling. All while apparently remaining asleep. He sounds like a little tauntaun and it’s driving us crazy. Is it gas pain? Does he think that straining and grunting will help with hunger? If so, how do we teach him that, no, they don’t?

We look online and this seems to be the norm for newborns. Nobody has a good solution for it. I don’t know who the heck coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” but it’s awfully misleading. I had assumed the sleep deprivation that people talk about was related to crying, not this weird grunting.

We understand now why all the warnings about SIDS are drilled into parents so forcefully, because it is awfully tempting to bring him into bed with us and let him sleep on our chests (the only position where he really seems to sleep quietly) while we sleep.


And now, as I write this, I have reluctantly started to ease myself back into work. I am extremely lucky that I’ve been able to take so much time off, but for some reason the world has not put itself on hold while I’ve been away and I need to get back. I find that my perspective has shifted. It’s awfully hard to care about esoteric questions about Mars when current events are so awful and I have a baby at home to take care of. Can’t I just be a stay-at-home Dad and snark about politics online for a living? No? And even though I’ve been off for a while, it feels like three weeks of my leave were stolen from me: I expected to spend all of my leave at home with my baby, not shuttling back and forth to the hospital, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a cramped cubicle, unable to enjoy my time with my baby because he won’t eat and his oxygen keeps dipping too low and because I’m stressing about what health insurance plan to choose to cover the likely $100,000 hospital bill headed my way.

I guess the lesson in all of this is that life doesn’t go as planned, and to be flexible and grateful for what you have. Because at the end of all of this, the only thing that matters is that my family is home and happy. We know that despite everything, we’ve been very lucky. Lucky that he is healthy, lucky that we could take time off of work, lucky that we live close to the hospital, lucky that we have health insurance, lucky that we live in a time when Shane could get the treatment he needed. We are incredibly grateful for the many excellent nurses who took care of him (and us).

Now we get to enjoy our new life with him, watching him grow and change every day, and figure out this next chapter in our lives.

A Letter to my Unborn Son

Hello son,

You are due to enter the world only a few days after the presidential inauguration in January.

I’m sorry.

This is not the world I wanted to greet you. Your mother and I were looking forward to welcoming you to a country electing its first woman president. An optimistic, forward-looking world in which toxic masculinity was finally, gradually, being eroded, and equality and love and truth and knowledge and ideas were valued. Instead, we have elected a man who is the personification of toxic masculinity. A living monument to misogyny and bigotry and hatred and fear and lies. A narcissistic demagogue whose temperament and ignorance puts the future of this country and the world at risk.

None of this was a secret. This was all made clear time and time again, but instead of electing the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history, more than half of this country saw this horrible man who brags about assaulting women, who insults war heroes and mocks the disabled, who was openly endorsed by the KKK and actual Nazis, and determined that he was just the man for the job. I am sickened.

I was blind. I did not know that our country was so very hateful.

We were supposed to be better than this.

Our family will be fine. We have all the privileges. We are white and educated and employed and financially secure. We don’t fear being murdered by the police, or rounded up for our religion, or losing our health insurance. But others do. Because a segment of this country could not abide the idea of a black man as president, and certainly wasn’t going to let a woman follow him in making history, lives will be ruined, families will be torn apart. People will die.

You will, mercifully, be too young to be aware of all this. But your mother and I will be aware, and even as our country is undoing decades of progress, we will be teaching you to be a good person. We will do our best to protect you from the hatred and bigotry. We will teach you to be loving and honest and curious and inclusive and kind, because the fight to reverse the damage that will be done to our nation in the next four years will last well into your adulthood.

Your mother and I, your family and our friends will all be fighting to change the disastrous course this election has set us on. You will be born in the eye of the storm, and the storm will be long. When you are old enough we will need your help to take the wheel and steer the course. It is not fair to place this burden on your generation, but we have no choice. I hope you will forgive us.

Love,

Dad

 

Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe

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A couple weeks ago, we took advantage of a long weekend to take a “babymoon” trip to the White Mountains. Some people do more extravagant babymoons, but we’ve done plenty of traveling over the years, so we were just looking for an easy trip to somewhere nearby so that we wouldn’t spend the long weekend doing chores and errands like we usually do. We rented a little cabin, did some hiking, went to a spa, ate good food, and generally tried to relax. For the drive out and back, we got an audiobook version of “Bringing Up Bebe” since we had heard so much about it’s revolutionary parenting advice. I was especially curious to see how the magical wisdom of French parenting would jive with my own parenting philosophy.

It turns out that they mesh pretty well. If I had to distill the book down into a few main points, they would be:

  • Kids do best when you set clear boundaries but allow them freedom within those boundaries.
  • Independence is a vital life skill that they need to start learning early on (avoid helicopter parenting).
  • Likewise with patience (avoid instant gratification).
  • Parents deserve to have a life (good parenting should not equate to suffering).
  • Kids are people and should be treated (and should behave) as such.

That’s basically it. The author tries to make these common-sense ideas sound amazing and revolutionary throughout the book, often by presenting herself as a bizarre caricature of a neurotic American mom and then contrasting with the perfect French moms. I found the sections where the book is actually giving parenting advice to be interesting, though not full of earth-shattering revelations, but I strongly disliked the chapters where the author talks about herself and her husband. The first chapter is very focused on them and their personalities and I came close to giving up on the book right then because they come across as so obnoxious. She portrays herself and her husband as unpleasant, self-centered people used to having things their own way. At one point she tries to make it sound like a major accomplishment that in France she learned to order “straight from the menu” at restaurants, as if there is some other place to order from. We actually had to pause the audiobook to figure out that all she meant was ordering the food without asking for special ingredient substitutions, changes, omissions, and other customizations. In other words, she learned to order food like a normal person and not be picky and obnoxious.

Later in the book, when the author’s first kid is a toddler and their twin sons have been born, there’s another almost intolerable chapter about the marital trouble that she and her husband had due to the stress of trying to take care of their three kids. And yeah, a toddler and newborn twins sounds crazy. But during this stressful time she and her husband had the help of FOUR NANNIES. I’m sorry, I have trouble feeling bad for someone who can’t cope with taking care of their kids and maintaining a civil relationship with their spouse with the help of FOUR nannies. Also, there’s a bit about their fertility “struggles” when trying for a second child that was hard to sympathize with, given the short period of time they had to wait (8 months), the fact that they already had one kid, the fact that she goes to an acupuncturist before going back to her doctor, and that in France the first 6 rounds of IVF are free.

But anyway, even though the author comes across as alternately awful and clueless, the book does have some useful advice. In particular, the chapter about sleep for infants was very interesting. Apparently French babies tend to be much better at sleeping through the night, even from relatively young ages. The secret to this is very simple: the parents don’t rush in immediately the moment the baby starts to cry. They wait a few minutes to give the baby the chance to fall back asleep on its own. The book cites a study (which I am frustratingly unable to find since I don’t have the text available to look it up by name) that found following a few simple steps (described here) including “the pause” led to 38% of infants sleeping through the night at 4 weeks, versus 7% whose parents didn’t follow these steps. At 8 weeks 100% of the babies were sleeping through the night, compared with 23% of the control group. So yeah, that seems useful to know.

There are quite a few other interesting ideas in the book, but for the most part they don’t really change my underlying parenting philosophy. Most of the book seems like common sense to me. If there’s any change it would be incorporating more of an explicit emphasis on independence and patience, which I sort of took for granted and didn’t spell out in my previous post, but which I agree are fundamentally important for kids to learn.

So that’s Bringing up Bebe! I’ll report back again after the next parenting book (and I’m open to suggestions!).

 

 

 

My Naïve Parenting Philosophy

With a baby on the way, my “to-read” list now includes a bunch of books on parenting. Likewise, we are starting to get parenting advice from people, and I imagine that will only increase as D-day approaches. Before I end up adrift in a sea of advice, I thought it would be fun to try to sum up my parenting philosophy as it stands right now. If nothing else, I imagine this will be hilarious to read in a year or two once I have some actual experience under my belt.

1. Kids are people

You know when you are on a long flight and there is some kid screaming his head off and everyone around is getting upset too? Whenever I’m in this situation, I like to remind myself that the emotions that kid is feeling are probably also being shared by every single other person in the plane. Tired, hungry, cramped, uncomfortable, bored, etc. We’re all feeling the same things. I always imagine, deep down inside every adult, there is a similar screaming kid.  I believe that kid never really goes away, he just gets buried under layers and layers of cognitive development and learned behavior. Those layers muffle the raw emotion that we’re all feeling as we suffer through the flight. As adults we know that this won’t last forever, that we have to do this, that it’s not socially appropriate to scream and cry.

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My point is this: kids and even babies are not some alien species with unfathomable needs and desires and emotions. They’re just small people who are still figuring things out. And there’s a lot to figure out! Why do babies cry so much? Well, wouldn’t you be frustrated and overwhelmed and upset if you were literally experiencing every single thing around you for the first time, and could not express yourself verbally, and could barely even control your arms and legs, let alone take care of yourself?  Why do toddlers throw tantrums? Well, for one thing, because tantrums often result in getting what they want. But also because they are feeling some strong emotion and they don’t know how to cope with it.

As a parent, my role is to help the kid figure all of this stuff out. Until the kid can communicate, this will mostly involve paying attention and figuring out what it is that is making them upset and solving the problem. Once they can communicate, this means helping them to understand. In our household “Because mom/dad said so” is not good enough. If I can’t articulate why a rule exists, then it’s not a very good rule is it? Kids are people, and I plan to respect my kid enough to be willing to explain why some behavior is not appropriate rather than just telling him to cut it out. I want him to listen to what I say because it makes sense, not because I’m bigger than him.

Of course, this is all well and good, but what about when the kid is just flipping out for no good reason? We’ve all seen those funny lists of pictures of crying kids captioned with the ridiculous reason they’re crying. They’re hilarious, but it’s important to remember that to those kids, whatever is happening is a big enough deal to warrant crying. So yeah, I may laugh when my kid loses it because he isn’t allowed to play with dog poop or because he has to wear a life jacket or because he can’t get the last cheerio on his spoon, but I’ll also acknowledge that what he is feeling is real and help him try to deal with that. And, crucially, I’ll try to remain calm even (especially) when he is not.

2. Kids are always learning

Related to my controversial theory that kids are human beings, deserving of respect, who are just trying to figure things out, the second major part of my parenting philosophy is that kids are always learning. People talk about “teachable moments” but in reality, childhood is just one long teachable moment. Learning is what we evolved to do. Cheetahs are good at running, dolphins are good at swimming, and humans are good at learning.

This means that, whether I like it or not, my kid is going to be constantly looking to me as an example. That’s just as true when I’m teaching him how to throw a baseball as it is when I am upset with him because he threw that baseball through a window. It means that how I handle work-life balance and how chores are shared in our house and what shows and movies we watch and what books we read will all be influencing him in big and small ways.  On the one hand, this sucks, because it means that as a parent you have to be “always on” and trying to set a good example. But on the other hand, it means you get to teach kids all sorts of cool stuff. I am looking forward to the period when the kid just asks “why” about everything. Partially, because as a scientist I can continue answering “why” questions for a lot longer than some people. But more importantly because I don’t want to just explain why, I want to help guide him through figuring things out, and I want to show him that even grown-ups don’t always know all the answers. Sometimes you have to look something up. More excitingly, sometimes the question you just asked doesn’t have an answer yet!

3. A good person needs to learn empathy

My goal as a parent, other than the fundamental goal of raising a happy and healthy kid, is to raise a good person. That’s why the final part of my parenting philosophy is empathy. To me, empathy is the fundamental trait that leads to all other good traits. There’s a reason the “golden rule” shows up in pretty much every major religion in some form or another. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s position and try to understand that they are fundamentally the same as you, no matter their circumstances or outward appearance, makes it a lot harder to harbor negative feelings or to judge their behavior. As the saying goes, it is impossible to hate someone once you understand them. When you get right down to it, if more people in the world embraced empathy, the world would be a much better place.

Because of this, I will be approaching parenting itself with a sense of empathy for my child (see item 1), and I will do what I can to help him develop empathy as he grows up. I am under no illusions here: empathy is hard, even for adults.  Kids can be extremely self-centered. Teaching my child to be an empathetic person will be a lifelong effort (I’m still working on it myself), but I will do my best to teach by example (see item 2) and encourage him to think about how he would feel if he were in others’ places, especially when it is most difficult to think about. I look forward to teaching my kid tons of things, but I’ll consider myself to be successful if he learns empathy.


So, there you have it. Those are the fundamentals of my parenting philosophy, based on zero experience actually raising a kid of my own. I know that, to paraphrase Eisenhower and many others, “No parenting plan survives first contact with a screaming toddler”, but I think it will be interesting to see what parts of this philosophy I’ll be able to stick with and which parts will evolve as I start to read advice books, get advice from family and friends, and finally, come face to face with the day to day challenges of parenting.

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