Parenthood and the Missing Guardrails

When I was fresh out of college, I worked a six-month stint as a waiter in a mediocre German restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was one of ten or so jobs that I tried out during that short, intense, what-the-hell-should-I-do-with-my-life interval that all liberal arts majors experience upon graduation. (And yes, grad school did come next.)

If you know me even slightly, you’d find Lou-as-waiter amusing. I’m, well, slow — both kinetically and cognitively. Family and friends —people who purportedly love and respect me—call me “Louthargic” to my face. I’m also a bit disorganized, and my balance ain’t great.

So yeah, I’m not your ideal waiter material. And the headwaitress, Annika, knew it. Reaching the four table threshold would set sail to my flail, and Annika would yell “Go faster — you’ve GOT to go FASTER!”. She certainly managed to get my adrenalin flowing, but my brain would just channel it into further fluster rather than the smooth quickness and fluid efficiency she’d assumed her repeated screams would yield.

Here’s the odd thing: as crappy a waiter as I was, I was in demand. I had many regulars who requested to be seated in my section. (MY section, not Annika’s.) And dammit, they loved me.

Not because I was a good waiter, but because I was spectacularly funny. I’d crack jokes rapid fire. I’d poke fun at patrons and make them laugh at themselves. I’d poke fun at my own ineptness. And for extra credit, I’d entertain them with risky beer-pouring shows involving hefeweizen beers and tall, inverted glasses—which would often conclude with a soaked waiter.

I was enjoying myself immensely, and they were too. Quite a few assumed I was one of the comedians from the upstairs comedy club who’d come down to put them on.

I’m not sure I’ve been so comfortable in my own skin ever since.

I’d like to rediscover that extra-fun Lou, so for the past 30 years, I’ve been trying to figure out what came over me when I waited tables. And all I can tell you is this: the guardrails were close together.

When waiters and patrons interact, the roles are well-defined and the constraints are quite narrow. Once they’re apparent, you can do whatever you want—or get away with—inside them. I had no idea that limitations—clear roles and requirements—could be so liberating (although I’m sure that a zillion people have written about it—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi probably covers it in Flow).

I’ve since identified all kinds of settings where I flailed due to poorly defined constraints—often in contexts where I was too inexperienced to perceive them (e.g., moderating a conference panel, running a team, or consulting for C-level folks). Lately, thanks to considering each situation’s constraints, I’ve enjoyed a few more successes, though none approaching that of being Ann Arbor, Michigan’s leading waiter/comedian. The more I see the guardrails, the happier I am.

If you think I’m now going to pivot to some grand theory of the role of constraints in UX or IA or some such, well… womp womp. The topic has already been addressed by many people far more qualified than I.

Instead, I’m going to explain to you why so many of us—myself, for certain—feel like we are completely inadequate as parents.

I don’t mean to say we’re bad parents—but even reasonably successful parents can still find themselves feeling like absolute crap far more often than they should. We feel ineffective, ineffectual, and generally lacking the wherewithal to do what’s right by our kids and ourselves.

I think we flail because, with kids, there ain’t no guardrails:

  1. We lack good models for how we should play our roles, and cultural changes over the generations complicate things further. Even if your parents were great role models, well, you’re not them. And your kids aren’t you. Completely different people in completely different times.
  2. The requirements—what we expect from each other, as parents and children—are, by definition, negotiable. As they should be. Your kids are supposed to constantly push the envelope, push your buttons, and demand greater autonomy. How else will they grow?
  3. And flow? Forget about it. Your kids are constantly morphing into something new. Forget about guardrails — what you see are goalposts, and they’re constantly being moved by those cheating little bastards. So you expect to someday feel truly at ease as a parent? Fool’s errand.

Let’s face it: while parenting is at the core of our species’ survival, oddly it’s also one of life’s edge cases. You’re never going to perfect it, you’ll never be able to do it with your eyes closed, and your moments of comfort and confidence and ease can only be short-lived.

And speaking of edge cases, kids are the ultimate. Put aside, for a moment, their uniqueness and weirdness as individuals. Instead, consider their uniqueness and weirdness as a collective whole—a species, if you will. It becomes clear that they are NOT the same species as adults. Indeed, they’re beautiful, complicated, wily, and somewhat humanoid. But the sooner we acknowledge that they’re a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT INTELLIGENT LIFE FORM, the sooner parenting will begin to make sense. Stop trying to expect those little aliens to behave like humans; they can’t help who they are or what strange planet they came from.

While I hope you might find some value here, I’m clearly writing this for the guy who wishes he could always have been a funny waiter when his kids were around. I’ve finally realized that I can’t—I can only try my hardest and hope for the a smile and an occasional laugh.

And I’m putting this here as a reminder: I should never, EVER hold myself to an impossible, unattainable standard—one where no guardrails are present. Raising kids just isn’t the sort of thing you eventually figure out, once and for all. Like pouring a frosty hefeweizen.

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