Nine months of parenting
It’s now been over nine months since N. was born. Back when she turned six months old, it felt like we had passed a milestone: more than half a year, survived both by her, and by us, her parents. I wanted then to write down some observations about this time, and things I have noticed about myself in my new role as a father. It ended up taking me over three months to write this post.
It’s no secret that parenting is hard, but I don’t think any of the books I’ve read, or any of the conversations I’ve had, have fully prepared me for how difficult these first few months can sometimes be. Simple things — resting, getting work done, taking care of our home and of ourselves — become laborious, and, through attrition, exhaustion sets in. Many times since N.’s birth, both my wife and I reached levels of fatigue way beyond what we had experienced previously, getting through our days powered by stress hormones and, in my case, multiple coffees.
The main thing is, at the beginning you know nothing, and everything is overwhelming. You’ve: never changed a nappy, never soothed a baby to sleep, have no idea what a good latch looks like in breastfeeding, or how to support your partner through the many ordeals she’s going through, never done the million of other things that you suddenly need to do to help this tiny, vulnerable new human survive and thrive. We had to adapt. We learned, we took it all in, we did the best we could, we experimented and failed over and over again, and we constantly wished we could’ve done better. But we did do, no matter how imperfectly, and N. grew and thrived, and after a while a certain sense of competency set in, where we no longer feared for the fundamental, survival-related things, but could focus more on taking stock and settling into this new life.
This is not to say that things are not extraordinarily overwhelming at times. Tingyi and I both get pulled way outside our window of capacity, and it can sometimes be really, really hard to find in ourselves the strength to respond to whatever N. throws at us in a welcoming, positive, even nurturing manner. When we are in this mode, it can also be difficult to see that our partner is struggling just as much as we are, and it’s easy to feel isolated and defeated, unable to function. It brings me no small amount of pride that, unfailingly, we’ve managed to dig deeper, and manage to handle whatever this was anyway, for the most part by finding a way to put our heads and hearts together, and to collaborate.
After N.’s birth — and through the pregnancy that preceded it — I noticed changes in how I respond to the world, in what’s important to me and what has become secondary.
One of the most obvious changes was a significant shift in my range of flexibility. It’s not that the range has expanded — or contracted — wildly; instead I found it has shifted laterally, in a manner of speaking. I became, when out and about with N., much less tolerant of noise, crowds, unwanted physical closeness, and unwanted interactions (with extra irritation at people smoking nearby). While I used to be able to ignore these things, they now grate on my nerves with a wholly unfamiliar visceral quality that makes it difficult to shrug off as I previously would have. On the opposite end of the range of flexibility, I became much more easy-going when it comes to unpredictability. I have (for the most part) let go of the importance I used to assign to plans, schedules, projects, and of the need for control that came with it. The reality of life with an infant is that you have no choice: either you relax into the natural, at times chaotic, flow of things, or you’re bound to have a very bad time.
The gist of it is this: I find myself presenting a harder shell and firmer boundaries to the outside world, while making myself softer towards the inside, towards the family. The root of this softness is in a protectiveness that started growing in me when we first found out about our pregnancy, and has only compounded after N.’s birth. There’s been a million moments that made my heart ache and demanded I do more to protect this new life and the cocoon around it, and changes have happened accordingly, some organically and some through deliberate work.
One such change is that I’ve lost interest in activities such as going out, partying, drinking alcohol, buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff, and in general activities aiming to, for the lack of a better expression, “trying to fill a void”. My interest in socialising remains, but rather than being indiscriminately open to opportunities, I am much more careful with what I allow myself to say “yes” to.
On the other hand, I’ve become more interested in building foundations for lasting things, and in investing in them, even at the cost of discomfort in the present moment. Positive and nurturing habits and values, financial health and wealth, sustainable work and growing businesses, better relationships built on healthier foundations, are all topics that were appealing to me on an abstract level before, and that are at the centre of my interests now.
This shift in interests means that I have become more selective and deliberate with how I choose to use my time, although how much of this has been a conscious decision and how much has been forced by circumstances, I cannot be certain. I feel that the net effect is positive, however, as this deliberateness is something I have struggled to find for a large part of my life.
From the moment we found out about the pregnancy, I decided for myself that I wanted to be present for my new family. For me, this meant being available for my daughter and my wife during the day.
I am in the extraordinarily privileged position of being able to do so: I’ve been working from home for years, and I have exceptionally understanding and supportive teammates and a flexible schedule that enables me to work asynchronously at odd hours. I am grateful for this privilege, and I do, at times, feel like I’m stretching the goodwill I’ve previously accumulated.
Despite all this, me being able to get any work done at home at all is in large part enabled by the labour Tingyi (who is on maternity leave) puts in every day by taking care of N. and of our home while I need to focus or attend meetings. Without the work she puts in, it feels impossible to have a baby, and to be able to work from home, a situation that is compounded by us lacking a support network here in London.
My day job is as a software engineer, and long stretches of focus time are an essential requirement of this line of work. Finding those has been a challenge while being present for my family during the day, but thanks to the flexibility my job allows me, I am most often able to have the majority of that time in the evenings, after N. has settled down for the night. Daytime, by contrast, is dedicated to planning, meetings, and smaller tasks that fill up those shorter stretches of time that would previously get invariably swallowed by procrastination.1
As a life-long procrastinator, I am happy to report that this is an area of my life that has improved dramatically after N.’s birth. The reason is simple: available time has been reduced to the bare minimum, and if I do not optimise my use of what time is left, I cannot hope to accomplish even the fundamentals of being a functioning adult.2 This is not to say that procrastination doesn’t happen anymore, but when it does, I treat it as a warning signal: I am likely exhausted and urgently need rest, or something else is wrong and needs my attention.
All in all, attention and effort are limited resources, and there is an uneasy balancing act playing out daily between being there for my family and getting work done. I readily recognise that even having this problem is a huge privilege in itself, and am grateful for having the opportunity to experiment with finding the right balance.
This post would not be complete if I failed to mention the joys that I experience daily in our life with N. And these joys are many:
The feeling of N. falling asleep in my arms. No matter how that happens, no matter if she spent the whole hour previously struggling and screaming and pushing me away, the moment she snuggles in and her breath steadies, a wave of calm, warmth, and happiness washes over me. A precious moment, each time.
There is endless joy to be found in many interactions we have as a family. The way N. responds to what happens around her is often delightful in the simplicity, openness, and kindness she demonstrates, be it when smiling at strangers at a coffeeshop, or when trying a new food — cautiously having a taste, scrunching up her face from the unexpected sourness, then giving us a big smile and trying again. It’s a cliché that watching babies has a lot to teach us about being present, engaged, and free, but it’s one that I found to be quite true.
Speaking of smiling, her smiles are an absolute delight! She is a baby who loves to smile, and who laughs much more than she cries. We are very lucky in that.
There is a bittersweet joy to be found in N. reaching new milestones, as well. It is bittersweet because a new behaviour sometimes means the end of an existing way of doing things, and as exciting and joyful as it is to see her grow stronger, more confident, and develop new abilities, we often miss her when she was much smaller. We will miss the current her just as much, soon enough.
But one of the most joyful things to me, what really gets my heart singing, is witnessing N. interacting with her mum. Often, we would be hanging out together, and just as soon as Tingyi enters the room, N. literally squeals with absolute, unadulterated delight. She reaches out to her mum, laughing, responds with all-out positivity to anything Tingyi might offer, and generally radiates happiness. Tingyi sometimes says that this is because N. is looking forward to being fed, but I’ve witnessed this happen far outside of feeding times. Each time this happens, I melt. Pure joy, heretofore unknown.
This pure joy is well deserved: N. has been lucky with her mum. Tingyi has been all-in on motherhood from the day we found out about the pregnancy. She has consistently put N. first in all her decisions, from straightforward things such as choosing what to eat, to difficult problems like navigating complex relationships with family members. This commitment has paid off, and the bond mother and daughter developed at times feels like magic to me. An example of such magic that often comes to mind is when N. was about four months old, and was uncomfortable and restless from gas trapped in her belly. While I was entirely clueless on how to help my daughter, Tingyi knew from the very beginning what the problem could be, how to approach it — massaging her belly, helping her to pass gas or to burp — and was able to successfully relieve N.’s suffering.
I feel privileged and grateful to be a part of this family, and I’m looking forward to what the next months and years will bring. Shortly after N. was born, a friend wrote to me that we’re “only 3 weeks old as parents”, advising us to be kind and tolerant with each other as we learn the ropes. This has stuck with me. We, as parents, are nine months old now, barely taking the first steps out of the door on this path. I hope that we will continue to find the strength to surrender to the remarkable experience that is parenting, and I wish both of us endurance and understanding on this journey.
At the time of publishing, I have now dramatically changed my schedule to adapt to N.’s evolving sleeping patterns: I now wake up around 4:30 in the morning and have a core focus time between 5:00 and 8:00. ↩
It will be interesting to see if this habit keeps up in the future, as it gets easier to manage our schedule. ↩