Parenting: Things I wish I could tell my past self

post by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-12T14:22:01.038Z · EA · GW · 23 comments


  Things I was surprised about:
  Things I was glad I did:
  Things I wish I had done more of:
  Resources I enjoyed: 
  Random things I’m glad I had / bought:

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:

Things I wish I had done more of:

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:

Random things I’m glad I had / bought:

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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jason Schukraft · 2020-09-15T01:36:51.315Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As the parent of two young children, I was really pleased to see this post on the EA Forum.

I'll echo the bit about the importance of having support networks. Parenting is really hard in unexpected ways, and having other parents with whom to share your strange hardships is really comforting. (I have so many potty training horror stories that only other parents could possibly appreciate.)

That said, I also think it's really important to cultivate a support network of non-parent friends. It's pretty easy (at least for me, especially when I was a stay-home-dad for 18 months) to let your kids become your whole identity. It's sometimes a relief to talk about anything but my kids,  just to remind myself that I'm an independent human with his own thoughts and interests.

In addition to being full of misinformation and pseudo-science, many parenting books also give the false impression that once you reach certain milestones, parenting magically becomes super easy. I remember being convinced that as soon as my kids could sleep through the night, my job was pretty much done. In reality, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. I don't wake up in the middle of the night anymore, but the sheer willpower that a 3-year-old can display when he doesn't want to get dressed for the day is draining in its own unique way.

Contra Michelle's experience, I did change a bit as a person, sometimes in surprising ways. (For instance, before I had kids I would watch sports for hours on the weekend, and my subjective well-being rose and fell with the fortunes of my favorite teams. For whatever reason, I've now completely lost interest in sports, and for the life of me, can't remember why I spent all those hours glued to the TV.)

One last thing, in case it's not obvious: parenting can be incredibly rewarding. Earlier this year my 5-year-old daughter donated, of her own volition and without pressure from me, a portion of her allowance to Evidence Action's Deworm the World Initiative. The pride I felt is pretty close to indescribable. (Obviously I helped her pick the charity, based on her goal to "help kids who aren't as lucky as I am.")

Replies from: Michelle_Hutchinson, Alexander_Berger
comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-15T09:56:26.752Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing! Your experience about losing interest in sports is really interesting. I wonder whether part of what's going on is my baby still only being 10 months. I look forward to knowing what the coming years will bring!

comment by Alexander_Berger · 2020-09-16T19:12:40.051Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Re your last paragraph, I just wanted to drop @jefftk's (IMO) amazing post here:

Replies from: Jason Schukraft
comment by Jason Schukraft · 2020-09-17T01:13:42.135Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that post is fantastic!

comment by kokotajlod · 2020-09-14T13:50:08.278Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this. For my part, I have a daughter who is almost 1 year old now. I endorse / also experienced pretty much everything you describe here, e.g. I didn't change much as a person either.

The sleeping in shifts thing sounds good. I wish we had done something like that. Instead, I just did all the night feedings, and also took care of the baby for most of the day most days until we had childcare. It sucked. I was constantly sleep-deprived for six months or so, and I still don't get as much sleep as I used to.

Taking leave is super important. Neither I nor my wife took leave; I just worked less hard on my dissertation and other responsibilities. (Well, my wife took one week off from her classes, but she had to make it up later.) My productivity crashed, and I became unhappy trying to do too many things at once without sleep.

We stopped breastfeeding after three months because my wife had to study for exams. I thought that it wouldn't be too hard to get the baby back to breast afterwards. I was wrong; we never got the baby back to breast and had to pump thereafter.

Replies from: Michelle_Hutchinson
comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-15T09:55:24.537Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This sounds so intense. I have no idea how you guys handled not taking leave while looking after a newborn. Great work getting through all that!

How frustrating to not be able to get back to breastfeeding when she was hoping to and doing a bunch of pumping instead.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2020-10-01T19:46:29.106Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much for this post! It's one of these posts that gives the community a more community like feel which is nice.

To share my experience: I have two kids, they are 10 and 3.5. What I would tell my younger self before my first kid mostly revolves around "slack", everything else went very well! I think my predictions around what having a kid would be like were mostly pretty decent and mentally preparing for a lot of challenges paid off.

But one thing I did not fully account for is how having slack for my future plans matters and how having a child would reduce the amount of slack I had a lot. Slack would have been most relevant in case I wanted to change my future plans which I did not expect to change much (this is more of a young person error). I did not properly budget for opportunities opening up/maybe changing my mind. E.g. it had not occurred to me that going to university abroad might be a better option than in my home country, but that would have been very difficult with a child.

I think my predictions and mindset were actually more off before my second child. I think I was much less mentally prepared for challenges and did not budget for them in the same way as I had before my first child. Some of that was due to underestimating how different children can be and how much your experience can differ between different children. I had heard this from other parents, but did not really want it to be true, surely I knew what was up after one child already? As it turned out, my experiences were pretty different with both my children - with my first, sleep had never been that big of a deal, my second still does not quite properly sleep through the night at the age of 3.5 years. However, taking care of my second during daylight hours has been a lot easier than with my first, I didn't realise babies could be so easy!

Not mentally (and practically) preparing for challenges the same way for my second as I had before my first was partially the same mistake, but deserves its own mention. I find it a bit tricky to say how 'wrong' that was however, would I actually want to let my younger self before my second child know about the challenges I had? I was more engaged with wishful thinking, but babies are hard work, and maybe parents need a bit of wishful thinking to actually be willing to have another one. Otherwise hyperbolic discounting would stop them.

This is also the way I feel now - I'm hoping to have a third child soon-ish, but pretend to myself that everything will be easy peasy, because my tendency to hyperbolically discount might deter me. Deluding myself might just be correct.

I don't think I changed much as a person due to having children.

comment by Abby Hoskin (AbbyBabby) · 2020-09-18T03:56:32.824Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with absolutely everything you've written, Michelle!

Something that I wish I had internalized a bit more was the negative impact of baby induced sleep deprivation. Everybody tells you that you'll miss sleep after you have a baby, but I still think I was unprepared for what that meant. It's really hard to describe the psychological torture of not getting to sleep for more than 3 hours in a row for months on end. We did sleeping shifts too, but because of breastfeeding and supersonic mommy hearing, I feel like I still woke up every 2-3 hours when Lizzie cried. There's a video recording of me talking about current events a couple of months after Lizzie was born, and I HAVE NO MEMORY OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS EXPERIENCE. Watching my zonked out zombie self on camera really drove home how much the sleep deprivation changed me.

This essay sums it up pretty well:

comment by AlexanderSaeri · 2020-09-13T22:35:24.537Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I really appreciate this, Michelle. I'm glad to see this kind of piece on the EA forum.

comment by Margaret Jay · 2020-09-19T07:56:54.676Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As a Melbourne GP I echo both the need for support networks and the comment that breast feeding is not straightforward.

One book for breastfeeding that I think is very practical and offers realistic help for a number of scenarios is the Discontented Baby Book, written by a Queensland GP. I wish I had had it when I could not breast feed my first child. (But managed easily with my second- go figure).

(I have no connection with it by way of declaration- just read it and recommend it to patients)

Replies from: Michelle_Hutchinson
comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-19T11:52:20.373Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the recommendation!

comment by kdbscott · 2020-09-15T23:50:59.302Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for putting this together Michelle, and congrats! Would love to see something like annual updates :)

comment by ruthgrace · 2020-09-16T00:18:10.996Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have a 17 month old! Something that really helps me have the right mindset is to think about what the point of having a baby is for me, and that's to enjoy the baby. Not to try to force him to be whatever way or optimize for anything.

Other parents, I have a question for you... Are you having issues with sleep? I find that since I had my son, I've been getting sleep deprivation related insomnia, which really kills my productivity/mood/etc for a couple days each month. Anyone had this issue and found a way to fix it?

Replies from: Jason Schukraft
comment by Jason Schukraft · 2020-09-16T01:19:53.870Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Ruth,

Unfortunately, I don't have an answer, but I just wanted to tell you that you're not alone! My wife and I both struggled with sleep deprivation for a long time. Our two kids didn't consistently sleep through the night until ~21 months. I became pretty good at stealing a 20 minute nap whenever the opportunity presented itself, but other than that, I didn't find a solution...

Replies from: ruthgrace
comment by ruthgrace · 2020-09-16T13:04:48.962Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's nice to know it's not just me! I'll keep experimenting to see if I can improve things...

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2020-09-23T20:54:42.531Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

116 Karma? This is a very successful post. Perhaps parenting advice is undersupplied in EA? Or there is a disconnect between how much people want kids and how much it feels acceptable to talk about it.

Note: I want to have children.

This suggests to me that if there were more effective ways to maintain ones job and have children etc, then childraising advice could be a pretty effective cause. 5% more output from the median EA parents for the time when their kids are young would be a huge win.

(As an aside, I'm currently reading Caplan's "selfish reasons to have kids", which I would recommend)

comment by Larks · 2020-09-16T15:29:55.674Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
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).

Our paediatrician recommended this for people using bottles. It contains powdered peanut, cows milk and egg that you can add to their bottle once a day to help prevent allergies. At the beginning you titrate up, adding one food at a time, and then the packets switch to maintenance.

Replies from: Michelle_Hutchinson
comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-19T11:54:17.023Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This looks great, thank you!

comment by Ian · 2021-03-16T16:59:52.046Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This post is really heartening as a soon-to-be dad!

Would you mind sharing more information on the logistics of your sleep shifts? 

Eight hours a night sounds wonderful -- especially in comparison to everything else I've read about babies and sleep.

comment by katiesjung · 2022-12-18T00:49:06.099Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I can't argue! This is all true! I wish during my first pregnancy , double electric breast pump was invented!

comment by spreadlove5683 · 2022-03-06T19:42:10.800Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not familiar with Emily Oster's works, or very knowledgable about this subject, but this Redditor seems to be deep in the subject of the scientific literature around daycare, and he/she disagree's with Emily Oster's opinions on daycare/childcare recommendations. See and also and then he has also made a post on the slatestarcodex subreddit which I haven't linked to.

comment by mikbp · 2022-02-23T23:16:54.284Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Nice post. We do something similar to the sleep shifts but in synch. If you have enough space, it is worth having a second bed or a sofa large enough for a person to sleep with the baby in a separate room. Then, one of the couple can sleep with the baby and take care of its needs while the other one sleeps more or less unperturbed. You can change roles as it fits you. At the beginning, while the baby doesn't need much milk it is quite easy to pump the amount needed for the night. For us, after ~2 months this was impractical.

What we now (week 13) do is that usually I sleep with the baby and when he gets hungry I go to the bedroom so that my partner feeds him. When they have finished, I take the baby back so that my partner can sleep again more or less undisturbed for a couple of hours more. Then, when the baby gets hungry and it is 5:30 or later, we (baby and me) stay in the bedroom and my partner takes care of the baby from then on. Often i only have to wake her twice in one night. My partner can sleep much better and when I need to recover, she takes care of the baby for a night.

comment by loan face · 2021-10-18T08:58:39.660Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with absolutely everything you've written, Michelle!

Something that I wish I had internalized a bit more was the negative impact of baby induced sleep deprivation. Everybody tells you that you'll miss sleep after you have a baby, but I still think I was unprepared for what that meant. It's really hard to describe the psychological torture of not getting to sleep for more than 3 hours in a row for months on end. We did sleeping shifts too, but because of breastfeeding and supersonic mommy hearing, I feel like I still woke up every 2-3 hours when Lizzie cried. There's a video recording of me talking about current events a couple of months after Lizzie was born, and I HAVE NO MEMORY OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS EXPERIENCE. Watching my zonked out zombie self on camera really drove home how much the sleep deprivation changed me.

Have a look at this article it sums up perfectly.