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 care.com, 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!)
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.