Parenting: Things I wish I could tell my past self

I have a baby who’s nearly 10 months old. I’ve been think­ing about what I’d like to be able to go back and tell my­self be­fore I em­barked on this jour­ney. I sus­pect that some of the differ­ences be­tween how I ex­pe­rienced it and what I had read in books cor­re­lates with ways that other effec­tive al­tru­ists might also ex­pe­rience things. I also gen­er­ally felt that find­ing de­cent no-non­sense in­for­ma­tion about par­ent­ing was hard, and that the sig­nal to noise ra­tio when googling for an­swers was pe­cu­liarly bad. Prob­a­bly the most use­ful ad­vice I got was from EA friends with kids. So I thought it might be use­ful to jot down some thoughts for other EAs likely to have kids soon (or hop­ing to sup­port oth­ers who are!).

Note that these are just my ex­pe­riences. I’ve been sur­prised how easy it is when it comes to moth­er­ing I hear ‘this is how I did it’ as ‘if you’re not do­ing the same you’re do­ing it wrong’. I mean no such im­pli­ca­tion! Your mileage may vary on all of the be­low.

Things I was sur­prised about:

Not chang­ing much as a per­son: The biggest un­cer­tainty I had start­ing out was how much my in­ter­ests and pri­ori­ties would change when I had a baby. Var­i­ous peo­ple I talked to con­fi­dently ex­pected they would sub­stan­tially change once the baby came along, for ex­am­ple that I would find be­ing at home look­ing af­ter a baby more in­ter­est­ing than it sounded in the ab­stract. A lot of the ad­vice I read on the in­ter­net like­wise in­di­cated that peo­ple tended to want more ma­ter­nity leave than they ex­pected, and to be more in­clined to go part time af­ter hav­ing chil­dren. For those rea­sons, I roughly planned to take 3 months of ma­ter­nity leave, but to be pre­pared for ac­tu­ally want­ing more leave. In the ac­tual event, I was re­ally sur­prised by how lit­tle my in­cli­na­tions changed. Far from want­ing more ma­ter­nity leave than I ex­pected, I was keen through­out to be in touch with my col­leagues and hear how things were go­ing in the office, and wanted to get back to do­ing bits of work re­ally quite soon af­ter hav­ing Leo. This seemed in marked con­trast with the other moth­ers I was meet­ing at baby groups, who had ex­pected to want to hear about what was hap­pen­ing in their offices, but ac­tu­ally weren’t at all in­ter­ested once the baby came along. I think I did too much as­sum­ing that when I had a baby I’d turn into a differ­ent kind of per­son, and not enough sim­ply think­ing about ‘given the kind of per­son I am, how do I ex­pect hav­ing a baby to in­ter­face with that?’. Also, I did too much look­ing at the av­er­age of how peo­ple change, rather than notic­ing that peo­ple re­act in widely differ­ing ways, which in­clude ‘not chang­ing much at all’. Over­all it’s rather a re­lief to feel I’m still the same per­son, but now with a cute small per­son to spend time with.

Find­ing child­care was harder than I ex­pected. When I got to it, I wanted to go back to work be­fore three months. My hus­band had com­mit­ted to finish­ing var­i­ous pieces of work be­fore start­ing pa­ter­nity leave (3 months in). For that rea­son, we were keen to ar­range some child care for Leo when he was younger than three months. That turned out to be more difficult than I ex­pected. Nurseries don’t tend to take kids that young and the agency we wrote to had trou­ble find­ing us some­one who would be short term (and took a while to get back to us at each step). We got a recom­men­da­tion for some­one on, which al­most worked out, ex­cept they found out their cur­rent con­tract pre­cluded them from also work­ing for us. The pro­cess also felt in­timi­dat­ing, at a time when we were already learn­ing a lot of new things, which slowed down how well we did at it. I think I should have ap­proached it more with the mind­set of ‘we need to hire some­one, and hiring is hard!’ than I did. I’d definitely have told my­self to start figur­ing out how I’d get child­care be­fore the baby was born, even if it was only so that it felt eas­ier to get started (eg know­ing which nurseries there were around, how long their wait­ing lists were, what web­sites I might use etc). We did end up be­ing very lucky to have fam­ily and friends help out though.

Breast­feed­ing is re­ally hard. I think I had a more challeng­ing time than av­er­age, but most of the peo­ple I’ve talked to seem to have found it pretty tough, and de­cid­edly more so than any books I’ve read let on. My nip­ples only prop­erly healed 4 months in, and be­fore that there were painful clogged ducts, pe­ri­ods of him scream­ing ev­ery time I tried to feed him, and an in­stance of him throw­ing up blood due to my nip­ple bleed­ing (which was a scary night in A&E, but thank­fully they were very quick to see us and re­as­sure us he was fine). I con­tinued, and am breast­feed­ing now, which I’m glad about. But I’d have preferred more fore­warn­ing that it could be pretty tough. One is­sue is that the peo­ple who are spe­cial­ists and help you out with it (lac­ta­tion con­sul­tants, breast­feed­ing sup­port and mid­wives) are heav­ily in­vested in mak­ing sure peo­ple con­tinue breast­feed­ing. Hence they seem keen to talk down the difficulty. I also found it hard to think ob­jec­tively about how im­por­tant it was to breast­feed, given that nar­ra­tive from health work­ers—it felt like some­thing the ex­perts were tel­ling me it was my duty to per­sist with re­gard­less of what hap­pened, rather than some­thing to weigh the benefits and costs of. (Though GPs seem much more bal­anced in their recom­men­da­tions.)

New things are in­timi­dat­ing. OK, that prob­a­bly shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. But some com­bi­na­tion of hor­mones and a very new situ­a­tion made a lot of things seem in­timi­dat­ing which I didn’t think should be. I was wor­ried about go­ing for a walk in the rain with Leo be­cause he seemed so frag­ile, wor­ried I would put him in the sling wrong and he might fall out, wor­ried about chang­ing his nappy while away from home and wor­ried about go­ing to a cafe with him with­out know­ing what I even thought could go wrong… It re­ally helped me to have friends around to do things with when I was do­ing things for the first time—to san­ity check the look of the sling, to go on a bus for the first time etc. I also ap­pre­ci­ated talk­ing to other moth­ers at baby groups and hear­ing their ex­pe­riences of find­ing things similarly in­timi­dat­ing, since a large part of me felt I was be­ing ridicu­lous about these un­speci­fied wor­ries.

Ba­bies put on weight spo­rad­i­cally. Leo put on weight very steadily and fast for the first 6 months (which was the point we in­tro­duced solid food), go­ing from around the 50th per­centile at birth to around 85th. Then he didn’t put on any for the next 3 months. That seemed alarm­ing to me, partly be­cause I strug­gled to find charts of ac­tual sam­ple growth tracks for ba­bies, as op­posed to charts of the av­er­age weights of ba­bies at differ­ent ages. None of my GP, health vis­i­tor and doc­tor friend were at all wor­ried given that he was happy and smiley and pick­ing up new tricks at the rate you’d ex­pect. Ob­vi­ously I’m not recom­mend­ing against talk­ing to health pro­fes­sion­als! I’m glad I did. But I would have liked to know in ad­vance that this was pretty nor­mal and ex­pected, be­cause it seemed pretty weird to me.

Also, ba­bies change tonnes, and not just in ex­pected ways. Eg one day hav­ing clothes changed is the worst thing ever, the next any at­ten­tion is good at­ten­tion, and then back.

Things I was glad I did:

  • Be­fore­hand: told my col­leagues about the preg­nancy im­me­di­ately. I did IVF, and my col­leagues knew about it the whole way through. This is definitely not for ev­ery­one, but I very much ap­pre­ci­ated hav­ing them root­ing for me, be­ing able to dis­cuss how I was feel­ing (phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally) and be­ing able to be open about why I needed time off when I had a mis­car­riage. I had some wor­ries that EAs would judge me be­cause hav­ing chil­dren is a waste of re­sources that could be more effi­ciently put to helping oth­ers, but that was definitely not a thing.

  • My hus­band and I slept in shifts for the first cou­ple of months, so that one of us was always awake with the baby, and we both got a solid 8 hours sleep. While I was asleep, Nic bot­tlefed Leo (though I woke up at least once per night to make sure my milk sup­ply didn’t dry up). I get pretty sad when I don’t get enough sleep, so I was re­ally glad we did this sys­tem. I was in the for­tu­nate po­si­tion that Nic has always quite liked be­ing awake at night though—it seems much more costly oth­er­wise.

  • We got proper light proof blinds for our room, so that Leo doesn’t wake up with the dawn. I far pre­fer hav­ing him sleep ~11pm to 9am, be­cause it means I get to see him in the evening and I don’t have to wake up early. Light proof blinds aren’t cheap, but Jeff Kauf­man and Ju­lia Wise made their own (and recom­mend that Black­out EZ is a com­mer­cial ver­sion which isn’t too ex­pen­sive).

  • One of my col­leagues is very in­sis­tent about ev­ery­one in the office get­ting enough ex­er­cise and sun­light, so I had re­ally in­ter­nal­ised ‘make sure you go for a walk ev­ery day re­gard­less’. I think I’d have been much less likely to do that oth­er­wise in the first cou­ple of weeks, and I think it was pretty im­por­tant for stay­ing happy.

  • I had a lot of friends over. Not just to come chat for an hour or two, but also some­times to ‘cowork’ for whole days (they’d work while I looked af­ter Leo, and in be­tween we’d eat, go for walks etc). That made a big differ­ence, be­cause I was sud­denly go­ing from be­ing in the office and sur­rounded by peo­ple all day to be­ing at home on my own while Nic was at work.

  • I made a ma­ter­nity leave han­dover plan to give oth­ers in the office a sense of my plans and prefer­ences, plus a clear idea of what things were whose re­spon­si­bil­ity while I was away. One of my friends had done an ex­cel­lent one, so I was able to bor­row a bunch from hers.

  • When I first came prop­erly back to work I felt a bit out of it and took some time to ad­just. I had ex­pected I might want to do things that were pretty flex­ible in terms of when to work, like work­ing on ways to im­prove ad­vis­ing rather than hav­ing calls. But in fact I find it eas­ier to con­cen­trate when I’m on calls, be­cause there’s a per­son in front of me to in­ter­act with, so I did a cou­ple of months of just coach­ing calls while I got back into the swing of things.

  • Buy things in ad­vance of need­ing them: I planned to breast­feed, but had got some for­mula and bot­tles just in case. In the mid­dle of the first night home when he wouldn’t stop cry­ing be­cause my milk hadn’t come in yet, I was re­ally pleased to be able to give him for­mula! (We con­tinued him hav­ing for­mula at night for a few weeks while I built up enough pumped breast milk.)

Things I wish I had done more of:

  • I re­ally like listen­ing to things while look­ing af­ter a baby, since it usu­ally re­quires con­tin­u­ous but not full at­ten­tion. Dur­ing ma­ter­nity leave I re­ally missed the sense of cog­ni­tive achieve­ment I get from work. So I would have liked to have spent a bit more time be­fore­hand think­ing about what au­dio­books and pod­casts I might like to listen to—both fun and ed­ify­ing—so that it was as easy as pos­si­ble to find some­thing I wanted to listen to.

  • Work out which friends I had who were keen to learn to look af­ter ba­bies: I had a cou­ple of friends vol­un­teer to look af­ter Leo for a few hours at a time who were con­sid­er­ing start­ing a fam­ily in the not too dis­tant fu­ture (or sim­ply liked ba­bies!) and wanted to get in some prac­tice. That worked out great for both of us. I could show them the ba­sics and then was in the house if they needed any­thing, but got some time to my­self. I wasn’t very proac­tive about it though, even though it was great. I think a lot of peo­ple are very diffi­dent about look­ing af­ter a baby (as I was!) - whereas my view was that I was to­tally wing­ing look­ing af­ter Leo, so my friend would be fine do­ing the same.

  • There are a lot of things to learn to use /​ do with a baby (How does the sling work? How about the car­rier for out­doors? The breast pump has like 100 parts!). I think I might have found it use­ful to have a go at more of these be­fore Leo was born, so that they felt less in­timi­dat­ing when I was do­ing them while hold­ing a baby, and I was less prone to putting off us­ing them.

Re­sources I en­joyed:

I haven’t been a fan of most of the par­ent­ing books and web­sites I’ve come across, but here are a few I like:

  • Emily Oster’s books are great. She wrote Ex­pect­ing Bet­ter and Crib­sheet. They ac­tu­ally ex­plain the ev­i­dence for differ­ent courses of ac­tion, so that you can work out how im­por­tant it is to do differ­ent things. She also has a glo­ri­ously laid back tone and the view that ev­ery­one makes differ­ent trade­offs, which I found a wel­come re­lief com­pared to a lot of opinionated re­sources (which of­ten point opinionat­edly in differ­ent di­rec­tions).

  • The Science of Mom cov­ers preg­nancy and ba­bies, and is similarly aiming to syn­the­sise the ev­i­dence.

  • Scott Alexan­der’s Biode­ter­mist’s Guide to Par­ent­ing was prob­a­bly the most rigor­ous dis­cus­sion of things like what to eat /​ avoid in preg­nancy that I found, in­clud­ing for ex­am­ple a dis­cus­sion of why the US puts vi­tamin A in all preg­nancy sup­ple­ments and the UK claims it’s im­por­tant to avoid vi­tamin A sup­ple­ments dur­ing preg­nancy.

  • Nic and I found Week by Week use­ful for ori­ent­ing our­selves and get­ting a sense for what was com­ing next, par­tic­u­larly in the first cou­ple of months when it felt like Leo changed in­cred­ibly fast.

  • Work Pump Re­peat had a bunch of con­crete use­ful tips for go­ing back to work while you’re breast­feed­ing, and en­joyed its no-non­sense style. Hear­ing other peo­ple’s ex­pe­rience of do­ing this also made me all the more grate­ful for my in­cred­ibly sup­port­ive work­place.

  • I listened to a bunch of One Bad Mother be­fore Leo was born. I re­ally like the hosts. It’s not try­ing to be par­tic­u­larly in­for­ma­tive, but it was nice to hear about lots of par­ent­ing ex­pe­riences since I don’t have many friends with kids.

Ran­dom things I’m glad I had /​ bought:

  • I ba­si­cally just wore slip on shoes for many months, be­cause I was always hold­ing a baby

  • Blue­tooth head­phones are great for hav­ing calls or listen­ing to things while play­ing with a baby

  • We found baby­grows way eas­ier than other clothes (and re­ally com­fortable), so he’s lived en­tirely in them so far.

  • Dummy clips are great: we spent a lot of time wash­ing dum­mies that fell on the floor ev­ery 2 min­utes, when we should have been clip­ping them to his clothes.

  • A proper dou­ble breast pump with a pump­ing bra, so that the whole thing takes less time and I could do things at the same time. For mod­esty while pump­ing (or breast­feed­ing), you can get a nurs­ing cover (also hilar­i­ously called a ‘hooter hider’ by Amer­i­cans)

  • Nut but­ters: my im­pres­sion is that there’s pretty good ev­i­dence these days that kids are less likely to be aller­gic to things they’ve eaten reg­u­larly be­fore age 1. Since nuts are chok­ing haz­ards, we’ve been giv­ing Leo var­i­ous nut but­ters (peanut, cashew, al­mond, hazelnut). (Note I don’t have any med­i­cal back­ground and this is ob­vi­ously not recom­mended if you are aller­gic to nuts your­self!)

  • Dim lights since we’re up of­ten at night and want it to be as easy as pos­si­ble for all of us to get back to sleep. I have a night light in the bath­room and an ad­justable bulb in our bed­room.

I’m grate­ful to Ju­lia Wise, Amy Labenz and Ber­nadette Young for the ex­cel­lent par­ent­ing ad­vice they’ve given me, Rob Wiblin for var­i­ous of the recom­men­da­tions men­tioned such as ad­justable light bulbs, and all of them for their sup­port.

I’d love to hear from other peo­ple what they’ve found use­ful (or not!) - whether re­sources, strate­gies or tips.