Reflections on becoming a parent
Our son Marco is seven months old. My wife and I are, to say the least, smitten. We are also unbelievably lucky to not only have had a healthy baby, but to live a very cushy life in San Francisco, with the means to surround ourselves with incredible help to make the transition into parenthood as smooth as possible. So this post is, to say the least, incredibly biased — read at your own risk. Still, even for us, making the leap into parenthood was scary.
As I said to a friend, there are few decisions we actively make as adults that are as irreversible and life altering as having a baby (the only other ones I could think of were criminal). When I talked to countless friends about the decision, the cryptic take away always ended up being something like: “It’s the best, but your life is going to be wrecked!!”
And so while we leapt, we were scared. Now that I’ve had seven months to adjust and internalize, a few reflections on the journey thus far that I find myself sharing, recognizing that becoming a parent is an intensely personal experience, and there truly is no single experience:
The delight of unpredictability.
Part of what makes having a kid so scary is the exact reason why it has been so remarkable: You throw a bomb on the predictability of your life.
As we age, the trajectory of our lives becomes more and more known. When you were a baby, the aperture of possible paths for your life is broadest. The first narrowing of those possibilities is forced upon you by your context — to whom and where you are born; your race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc..
Then as life progresses, those possibilities continue to narrow. It turns out you’re not so great at math, so being an astronaut is out, or you can’t carry a tune to save your life, so there goes being a pop star. And as the aperture of your life narrows, the variance in your choices decreases to a place where a feeling almost of predictability can settle in… you’ll go to school, get a job, get married. If you’re lucky, you’ll get old and eventually, I hate to break it to you… you’ll die. Sure, you don’t know exactly what each of these will look like, and maybe you’ll choose not to get married, or to get married 2x! or to go backpacking in Cambodia on a vacation you never would have dreamed you‘d do. But the variance in those steps is increasingly bounded, both by external pressures like the realities of your station in life and the practical limitations of your day-to-day life, and then from within by your sense of self.
When you have a baby, everything changes. Suddenly, you have a new being omnipresent in your life, and you have no idea who they are. Will your child be a chef? a race car driver? a surgeon? kind? funny? curious? caring? extroverted or introverted? The possibilities feel endless. And so in an instant, you go from having an increasingly predictable life where you subconsciously or not resisted the passage of time and the narrowing of possibilities it represented, to a life where there is this wonderful mystery you get to uncover day by day which is “Who is my child?” What will it be like when he starts to put together his first sentences, to express his personality? What does he think about? What will his interests be? What will his life be?
I can’t wait to discover that for Marco, and therefore I can’t wait to live. I hunger deeply for each day. Of course, you don’t need to have a child to feel this way — there are countless ways to nurture this feeling. But for me, it was becoming a parent that gave me the gift of experiencing anew the immense joy and deep gratitude of saying yes to every new day. I’d forgotten that. Now, when Marco does something new, the unpredictability of it absolutely delights us. And he has so many firsts ahead of him! Before Marco, people would tell me that life has more meaning when you become a parent, and I feel that now, but it’s not at all what I thought people meant.
Happiness through substitution.
On one of my favorite podcasts, Invest Like the Best, the host Patrick O’Shaughnessy and Nikhil Kalghatgi discuss a project where Nikhil interviewed people on their secrets to happiness. One insight he discovered was that sometimes greater happiness comes from substituting something we thought made us happy for something else. He gives an example of a morning routine he used to love — going to his favorite coffee shop, getting his favorite drink. He thought it made him happy. And then one day he and his girlfriend realize that they aren’t seeing enough of each other. So they decided that rather than try to have quality time in the evening, they would get breakfast together every morning. Nikhil was initially resistant because he loved his routine, but when they started doing it, he realized that breakfast with his partner made him so much happier, and the thing he thought was making him happy (getting his favorite drink every morning), was actually in the way of this bigger happiness.
For me, this is becoming a parent. Before we became parents, Christine and I feared the early mornings of babyland, not being able to laze around on the weekends, the missed date nights or last-minute adventures, the inability to pour ourselves into our work. Now, at 6:03am when Marco wakes up an hour earlier than we wish he would, we practically race each other to his bedroom to greet him for the day. Lazy mornings? Good riddance. For us, they don’t compare to seeing Marco smile up at us from his crib.
The sobering post script for me at least is that becoming a parent is a heavy responsibility, in different ways than I had imagined. Before Marco, I dwelled on the every day responsibilities — the extra expenses, the consumed time. These are considerable (this is what people meant when they told me your life gets wrecked!), but enough has been written on this topic so I won’t dwell on them. As everyone told me, you’ll make it work.
The responsibility I didn’t anticipate as much is the existential one: You brought someone you absolutely adore into the world, and you have no idea what world you brought them into.
Thinking about climate change pulls me into a dark, heavy place, wondering whether it was an ethical decision to have Marco, what Marco’s life will be, what we can or should be doing to best prepare him, to best help our planet.
To state the obvious, the decision to have a child is a whopper. I worried too much about the lost time, the bomb we were going to throw on our lives, and not enough on the heaviness I’d feel from looking at this person I adore more than anything in the world, and wondering what his future will look like. I hope it’s a happy one.