On Having a Baby

Jan 2024

 

 

“No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh, my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop. It’s not a question of choice.” 

– Marisa de los Santos, Author

 

“It’s right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains. It’s OK not to find it easy. Asking for help should not be seen as a sign of weakness.”

– Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge

 

My wife and I had our first child recently, a daughter. Or rather I should say my wife had our first child and I helped as best as I could. Which is to say quite little compared to the amount of effort the woman expends in the endeavour of procreation.

Most people we know ask us what it’s like to be new parents, particularly young parents by the standards of most of the people we know. My answer is always the same, “it’s equal parts fulfilment as fatigue.” A friend of mine, Nathan who’s also a father, puts it even more nicely, “the days are long but the months are short.”

That’s a good one line of what it’s like but there are a number of things about parenthood that are insightful and surprising that I wasn’t expecting that can make that answer more complete. Probably the biggest surprise is the role of technology, tools and technique in the reduction of parenting stress and child rearing.

I always thought that having a baby would be a very intuitive ancient natural thing since humans have been doing it for thousands of years. That I’d have a baby and an ancient switch would turn on in my brain and I’d just know how to care for my baby, but that’s not what happens. What happens is you learn that almost every facet of baby life has been improved by technology, tools and technique.

My parents had me only a couple decades ago but already almost everything they were taught as cutting edge has been provably found to be incorrect and improved upon by this generation. Things like babies sleeping in the same bed as the parents (which is now a huge risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)) to more benign things like swaddling being shown to be less effective than the new arms up sleep suits. Arms up is apparently more natural for the baby and allows them to suck on their hands to self soothe, creating a calmer baby who sleeps better.

This is all learned from trial and error incremental technology improvements. Which is the first insight. How much of it all is trial and error vs established knowledge. Nobody has any idea what they’re doing with their first baby and you’re learning it on the fly because all of a sudden you’re responsible for this new life. There’s no school you go to to learn, you have to learn by doing.

The second insight is how rapidly the bank of knowledge within our species gets outdated and improved upon. The 3 best baby books we read that became our go to bibles, The Discontented Little Baby by Dr Pamela Douglas, Cribsheet by Emily Oster and The Birth Book by Dr Stephen Tong – were published in 2014, 2019 and 2022 respectively. That’s all less than a decade ago.

Isn’t that incredible? Humans have been having babies for thousands of years but the best information from the best books we could find that helped us the most didn’t even exist a decade ago. The latter 2 only in the last 3 years. This is something that completely blew my mind and shows how fast the field is changing. The information is changing so rapidly that within a few years, everything is already outdated. In a field that I genuinely believed was timeless.

One of the reasons this took me by surprise is because of how many parents are self-proclaimed experts on parenting. Even professionals in unrelated fields. The world of baby and parenting advice, with the accompanying judgement, is seemingly endless. You receive a near constant barrage of lots of conflicting advice and opinions on almost every topic.

Everyone has an opinion and it’s not just from people, from doctors and social media and old wives tales. Because everyone does it, everyone is an expert. But actually because the information changes so rapidly, almost all of it by the time it gets to you is out of date and there are newer or better ways to do it.

One of the more helpful sections of the Discontented Little Baby was the chapter showing the connection between sleep and hunger. Baby sleep issues are more often than not baby hunger issues and can sometimes be fixed with overfeeding. I definitely sleep better when I’m really full and the same apparently works for my baby.

We had a bad sleeper then we started to give very large breast feeds followed by very large formula feeds. Suddenly we had a perfect angel who slept all night. Obviously all kids are different and your mileage may vary. But this was particularly insightful from the book, especially when half the doctors and parents we knew were telling us to let the baby cry it out to sleep train. Which may have worked for them.

Even the tools are changing rapidly. Baby tech is my new favourite field of items and it was completely blind to me before this. Most of the best tools we used and loved that made our life easier didn’t even exist a few years ago. Our 2 favourite tools are the Cubo Ai baby monitor, founded in 2017 and the Snoo Ai bassinet, founded in 2016. Both physically didn’t exist before then and are only a few years old.

The Cubo Ai is a baby monitor that includes a breathing and heart rate sensor. It gives me real time information on my daughter and so much piece of mind. It even interprets and notifies when a sheet has covered her face or she rolls over. But the real MVP is the Snoo smart bassinet, it’s an automatic rocking and soothing bassinet that rocks and soothes your baby back to sleep when they wake up. It even escalates the rocking and soothing as the baby gets distressed just like a human would do.

Sometimes in the early days the baby wakes up at night and just wants to be rocked and soothed back to sleep. The Snoo puts that on autopilot, turning on and off automatically when it thinks the baby needs it or when it hears the baby crying. I think the babies even prefer it because it’s on demand, that’s what happened to us at least. I can’t even imagine how much sleep the Snoo has given back to tired parents or how parents did night time rocking and soothing before the Snoo was invented only 7 years ago.

There was a beautiful moment once when I walked into the room and saw my daughter making intermittent loud squealing sounds. I couldn’t understand what she was doing until a second later the Snoo bassinet turned on and started rocking her. Then she stopped, gurgled and fell asleep. It hit me that my 2 month old daughter was using her voice to turn on and off her bassinet when she wanted to be soothed and rocked. She didn’t even need us.

That was one of the most joyful moments, seeing my 2 month old be empowered by using technology to make her own life easier and get it to do what she wanted. You haven’t seen technology at it’s finest until you’ve seen that happen. But also seeing a brand new human, who doesn’t know how to do anything, essentially learn how to program her bassinet to do what she wants.

The third major insight was how much the technology changes and how dangerous it all is. For most of human history child birth was the most deadly thing a human could do. If you track the number of women who have died in child birth over the course of our species it’s almost as much as every disease combined. Even today it is still one of the most dangerous things that happens in our world.

Estimates put it at 300,000 women die per year in childbirth. At the beginning of the century the rate was as high as 30 deaths per 1,000 women or 1 in 33 women, today it’s 0.1 death per 1,000 women or 1 in 10,000 women. That delta is the gains made by technology and medicine. In the Birth Book, Dr Stephen Tong talks about child birth as a technology and only now I really understand what he meant. The whole business of procreation as a species is full of danger. I used to think that war was the most dangerous thing we did as a species. But actually it’s child birth. War is a close second.

Throughout the entire pregnancy my daughter was breech which means she was upside down. This is one of the more dangerous child birth positions and through most of history, delivering a breach baby was fatal. For both baby and Mum. This really hit home that if we had lived in a different time in history, my wife would probably have died in child birth. But because of the age we live in, a Cesarean section was safer and done in 15 minutes with no lasting damage except for a small scar.

In fact today a scheduled C section delivery is significantly safer than even a natural delivery. We as a species improved upon biology to make it safer. It was so smooth that it actually shocked us a little bit. The C section went for all of 15 minutes. We showed up at 9am, the process was over and we had a baby by 9:15am. We were in recovery by 9:30am. It was so smooth that sometimes I wonder why any women goes through labour if they can avoid it. We have some friends that experienced over 30 hours of labour and then needed an emergency Cesarean anyway.

Of the women that survive birth, they’re often left with lasting debilitating injuries and trauma. The ABC in Australia ran a series called The Birth Project which estimate 1 in 3 women experience a traumatic birth with lasting injuries. This is in one of the wealthiest countries in the world with some of the best maternal and partum care. And even then the rate is so high. These are some of the top hospitals and doctors in the world. Knowing the blind spots and what can go wrong can really help prepare and avoid them.

I think most of this is due to information asymmetry, new parents don’t know what to ask for to reduce the chances of trauma. There are tons of little nuances about child birth that people just don’t know about. I think my favorite one is that often in labor, from the moment you ask for an epidural, you join a queue and it takes the hospital time to free up an anesthetist to actually do it. This can sometimes take hours. I had a friend ask for an epidural during her delivery and only get one 8 hours later because that’s how long it took to get a free anesthetist. So ask early. People just don’t know that. There are tons of little things like that.

Seeing new life come into the world gives you a new appreciation for life and how important it is to create it. In the last year I had quite a lot of personal tragedy. I had 5 close friends and 4 family members die quite tragically. This year I had a baby. Having those things happen so close together hit home the existential and biological imperative to create new life. Eventually everybody dies. Everyone you know and love dies someday so you have to create new life to replace the old life.

You need to make life to fill in the space of the people who are gone, including yourself someday. The number of dead people throughout history outnumbers the living by an order of 10 to 1. Estimates put it at 120 billion people who lived and died throughout time while today there are only 8 billion people alive. The world we’ve created is big and meant for people, almost everything we make as a species is for other people, so you need to make those people to fill it up with.

The fourth insight was how much technique comes into play with a new baby. All through my life I thought that most Mum’s had mastered a sort of magic to how they raised a baby. That it was some innate maternal instinct that they develop and turns on when a baby is born. I saw this when I’d watch my cousins put their screaming babies to sleep seemingly on command. But it isn’t magic, it’s just technique. They learned how to do it. Almost everything about baby raising is learning and applying best practices techniques.

When I learned to play tennis as a kid there’s a large focus on building stamina but also mastering technique. You can’t play tennis well if you haven’t got both. You can’t put top spin on the ball without the right hand grip and racquet arm motion. Raising a baby is a little bit like that. Wisdom has been passed on about what techniques produce the best results when facing the problems of a little one. Then it’s just running reps and practising to get really good. See one, do one, teach one.

Experienced parents don’t seem calm because they’re desensitised, at least for the most part, they’re genuinely better. The experience and practice leaves them with good technique that is effective. That’s why grandparents are generally so good at helping with babies and children. It’s not because they necessarily know any better, it’s because what the technique they do know, they’ve practised a lot and have mastered.

Babies are just a skill and with practice you can get better at it. It’s just about trying and failing until you get good. The stereotypical joke of the clueless Dad is just a person who hasn’t invested enough time into practising. They’ve run less reps at feeding and soothing and diapers and sleep put downs than the stereotypical Mum in that joke who has it all figured out. The other part of this is pattern recognition, learning to see the leading indicators of what you need to do.

Because just about everything about a baby is technique it means anyone can excel at babies if they’re prepared to put in the work. This is important because it means anyone can be an excellent parent. You just need to do 2 things. Have the temperament for trial and error, which means lots of failure and improvement. And be prepared to try a lot of times and run lots of reps where when it doesn’t work you have a screaming baby for hours while you’re tired. Not fun but also not impossible.

The fifth insight was the effect becoming a parent will have on your relationship. It doesn’t matter how happy a couple is, becoming new parents will be some of the trying and most difficult times for that couple. I’d heard before we had a baby that it would be challenging for the relationship and never really understood why, but now I do. It’s because of an effect that goes like this:

Imagine a relationship as a thick pane of glass. The happier and more solid the relationship, the thicker the glass. Within the glass are many little cracks that represent all the little problems the relationship has. Even the happiest couples will have some problems. What a baby does is add a giant weight onto that glass pane and all the existing cracks start to crack wider and they get bigger.

Some of this is because you’re not your best self, you’re fatigued and tired and sleep deprived all the time while raising this new baby who is helpless and depends on you for everything. That resentment and unhappiness is often taken out on each other. But also the weight is unexpectedly massive and doesn’t get easier for a very long time.

I have a deep respect for parents now, we all know this collective trauma that we all went through raising a baby. It’s one of the most selfless and noble things. But it is hard. It is very hard. The weight never comes off, it gets lighter as you get better at carrying it, but the weight is always there sitting on top of the relationship of this couple.

If you’re very unlucky the glass pane might have so many cracks that crack wider and the glass shatters altogether under the weight and is why a lot of marriages and relationships end after having kids. It’s because of the resentments and unhappiness that build up from having children together.

The glass pane breaks because the existing problems can’t cope with the extra weight. It’s like taking on an extremely difficult time consuming project together that has no end date in sight. There’s no off button once it starts. There’s no redo. There’s no take backs. It’s just weight and it goes forever.

But it’s bigger than weight. My daughter’s entire world exists within the boundaries of my relationship with my wife. So that relationship isn’t just between you both anymore, it’s the ground upon which my daughters whole universe is built on. If we have a fight, it might be small to us, but her whole world will shake. So you need to make the foundations of it stronger and sturdier. Be more forgiving and let more go and be more anti fragile.

Some of it is society’s failings. Society isn’t well structured to support new parents. Basic things like how little leave fathers are entitled to (often 2 weeks – 4 weeks compared to upto a year for mothers) to how expensive housing is and the cost of living is. Family’s today need at least one source of income at all times to meet their basic survival and shelter needs. That means at least one parent always has to be working.

In ancient times, there was a village mentality. A village of family members would help raise a new baby and the weight was then spread across more hands. Less weight was on the parents. This doesn’t really exist anymore. Most people are largely on their own for most of parenting. Because as the world became smaller, distances became easier to traverse and families don’t necessarily live near their support networks anymore.

Everything about a baby is a resource management and capacity allocation problem. Time, money, capacity, bandwidth, emotions. Coupled with near constant problem solving. How a couple figures out how to allocate and replenish the finite resources they have is the crux of successful baby and life juggling. And just about nobody gets it right because the baby is constantly changing. But you try your best.

This is why I think new parents should try to automate as much as possible. Hire cleaners, order Uber eats, engage nannies and babysitters, dog walkers if you have pets, negotiate longer leave at work, do whatever you need to take other types of weight off to free up capacity. Increasing capacity is the most important thing in the early difficult periods. But that puts financial stress if there’s already only one income.

One partner working full time and the other working in the house full time has its own set of challenges. I genuinely think the amount of post partum depression is directly tied to how much leave the working parent gets. If they are home for longer, the unit is stronger and there’s more help together.

I think a society that wanted to support parents would give both partners a year off, let them both be home for a year with their newborn. Babies don’t suddenly become easier after a month like the way current leave is allocated. In fact, I’d say from birth they don’t become easier until they’re about 6 months old.

Carrying the weight of a baby by one person who stays at home while the other works is a recipe for burnout – for both people. Part of that is because the working partner comes home tired from working all day. The home partner expects the working partner to come home and be helpful and they aren’t and so they never get a break. That’s a common pattern I’ve seen.

A lot of the struggle about new parent life is the mental game. The anxiety and worry that accompanies suddenly being responsible for the survival of another human and constantly benchmarking your child to see if they’re growing correctly. It’s a mental toll that it exacts constantly. A great line I heard that I think should be told to all new parents is that: “worrying about the problem is usually worse than the problem.”

Some of it I think is personal failings. There’s an expectation mismanagement. People have high expectations on what becoming a parent is like. It’s given the Disney treatment where it seems like a happy process. It definitely has its happy moments, you love this new baby with your heart and soul. But in reality most of the time it’s 2 tired, burnt out individuals who are at their worst for most of the first 6 months. If you expect that, it might make the process easier.

A very good friend of mine describes it as like going to war for 6 months. If you expect the first 6 months to be as hard as a war you’ll be less disappointed when it is like that. Waking up every 2 hours for months on end will feel like the longest most miserable battle you’ve undertaken. Prolonged sleep deprivation is literally torture but you undergo it willingly because you love this baby. So I like that analogy, it captures the physical and mental exhaustion.

A lot of the reason the mental aspect is so hard in particular is learning to readjust to the new identity that comes with being a parent. The old you is well and truly gone and is replaced by new parent you. A lot of that identity loss is hard to deal with and to come to terms with this new identity is hard.

Suddenly there isn’t enough time for the things and activities and people that you once loved that made you feel like you. Your time literally disappears but also your bandwidth. There is little room for the things that you need as a human.

For a time with all the deaths happening in my life it felt like I was constantly going to funerals after my daughter was born. Normally this would have left me grieving for a long time. But when you have a child, there’s no room for that grief. She needs me to wake up and change her diaper and get her breakfast ready. You just have to keep going and you can’t really stop.

One of the unexpected parts of this new identity is how much you unconsciously revert back to gender roles. I’m a big feminist. I believe in a meritocracy and egalitarianism where anyone can do anything and there are no defined gender roles. Women can do anything men can do and vice versa. They should have equal rights and responsibilities across the board.

But after you have a baby, only one of you can breast feed. Only one of you could biologically have the baby. New babies like to breast feed to soothe sometimes and I physically can’t do that so you reach the limitations of your gender. Since one person is breast feeding, the baby can start to prefer that parent because they’re also the food and the soothing, so suddenly as the male you feel very much like you need to earn more money to support the family.

Suddenly all the equality goes out the window and you end up being forced into gender roles you may not want and there’s isn’t anything you can do about it. Negotiating workloads that are loaded with gender limitations is incredibly tense and charged at the best of times, let alone when you’re sleep deprived and burnt out. It is kindling for very heated conflict and disagreement. The best most humorous advice we got here is to always try to remember that the parents are on the same team. The baby is the enemy.

The only respite from this is actually other parents. Other parents who understand. When you become a parent suddenly you join the secret world of parents. Other people who understand intimately what you just went through and experienced all the same problems. It’s almost like a pseudo therapy and advice group when a bunch of new parents get together with each other. The ability to talk about the problems to other people who understand helps with alleviating the mental load of the weight.

It’s only other parents who really understand. The gap between parents and non-parents is the widest gap I’ve ever seen and I was completely oblivious to it before I became one. A non parent who wants to go somewhere can just go there. But a parent has to organise diaper bags and prams and food and time it to nap schedules. The act of doing anything is now a high stakes game of how much screaming can you tolerate if this doesn’t go perfectly.

My wife and I are currently at the point where we actively have to ask ourselves, is the event we’re about to go to worth not sleeping tonight? Because we have to get our daughter in and out and in bed otherwise the wheels get completely derailed. We do it if it’s for a wedding or a birthday. If it’s for a dinner so a friend can vent about their coworker problems, that doesn’t make the cut anymore.

I think some of the reason for that is that the severity of problem hierarchy changes. A friend who had a breakup used to be something I’d drop everything for and be there for them. But everyone is going to survive in that scenario. But the realm of baby problems is on a normal day you can discover your child is allergic to eggs or chokes on some broccoli and has to be rushed to hospital. So the scale of problems changes and low severity problems just melt away into the background because you literally don’t have time for them.

It’s hard to see issues the same way when something depends on you for survival. That is jarring for all your friendships and relationships and work. Because your schedule becomes deeply inflexible and your tolerance falls off a cliff. You’d think your tolerance would increase dealing with baby problems all day but it does the opposite. It makes you less tolerant, anything that doesn’t result in death doesn’t even register sometimes.

This has a reverse effect when it comes to work. At least for me. I became much more productive. Because your time splinters in different directions as the baby needs you, work time is dedicated work time. If I get 2 hours for work, I have to make the most of those 2 hours because I may not get that time again. If there’s work left, it just won’t get done.

So work that sometimes would take 8 hours now gets done in 2. So you become super productive for those 2 hours and ruthlessly time allocate to avoid distractions and prioritise only the most important work. This suddenly makes me feel like every time I do work it’s really important work.

Those are all the key insights from our new baby girl. It’s a roller coaster, one of the hardest but the best thing we’ve ever done. Very few things in life make you feel fulfilled at your core but becoming a parent is fulfilling on a deeply soul full level. You feel like your heart and soul is full. Sometimes the best part of my day is when my little girl, who has no teeth, just smiles at me.

Seeing me is the happiest part of her life. From her perspective, she has no idea if I’m doing anything right or wrong. As far as she’s concerned I’m the best parent there ever was. Something I would tell myself during particularly difficult periods was you only do this 2 or 3 times in your whole life. So when it’s hard right now, if you have 2 kids, you’re almost 50% of the way through this experience in your whole life.

Plus they don’t know any better. From the perspective of the kid, you’re doing amazing. When it happens, even with all the work, you wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s a big burden but also a big responsibility. My wife and I literally are making up the rules of her reality. I get to literally craft what existence means for her.

What the rules and systems of life are as she understands it. Those decisions will leave footprints. In her traumas and value systems and beliefs. Plus everything that ever was is new for her. Every movie I’ve ever seen is new to her. Every fact I know is new for her. So in a sense it’s like getting to do life over again through the perspective of this new person who is a blank slate and loves you unconditionally.