A member of our investing team learned a ton of lessons in the "hair-raising" weeks after his son was born.
While it may not be as exotic a story as some of the past Wandering Fools reports have been, in mid-December my wife and I fulfilled our basic genetic duty and embarked on what promises to be the craziest (in all the connotations of that word) journey of our lives – attempting to successfully raise a tiny human being.
As I spent the past several weeks in a sleep-deprived, hair-raising, awe-inspiring, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants whirlwind that included a major family holiday, and all the things that go along with that, a few coherent thoughts about my early experience as a first-time parent floated through my head, and I was present enough to write a few of them down.
If you squint really hard, or read this bleary-eyed at 2:30 in the morning, they might even apply to investing.
Read all the books. They won’t help, but do it anyway.
The more hard lessons you can learn vicariously rather than through your own hard experience, the better. – Charlie Munger
Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth. – Mike Tyson
Raising children is something that’s been going on for quite a while, and lots of people are pretty sure they know the best way to do it. That means there are piles of parenting books out there.
A quick Amazon search for “parenting for dad” brings up almost 12,000 hits.
In the build-up to my child’s arrival – my wife and I chose to not learn whether we had a boy or a girl before birth – I read innumerable articles about pregnancy and what size fruit my child was in various weeks of development.
I also tore through four books on being a new dad. One I stole from my cousin, and the other three were recommended or gifted to us from other parents. We also got three copies of a DVD that supposedly ensures my baby will be the happiest on the block – although I question the claim if everyone else in the world is seemingly watching the same videos.
After devouring that peer-tested summer reading list, and drawing from my experiences growing up, having been the third oldest of 30-some siblings and cousins in a pretty closely-knit family, I was armed and ready for what was to come.
I knew babies have no regard for modern conventions like day and night, and I knew my wife and I wouldn’t have a full night’s sleep for approximately the next four years. I knew they go through diapers like Joey Chestnut goes through hot dog buns. I knew my child would attempt to drench me in every bodily fluid possible – and probably some non-bodily ones, too. I knew you can’t reason with babies, and they can only give you vague hints about what they want or need. (Never play charades with a baby.) I knew of the horror stories of babies who scream for hours on end.
I knew all the scared-straight stuff, and I was prepared.
Except that I wasn’t. Book learnin’ has its place in the world, but the second that brand-new human bursts into the world, all your “preparation” is about as useful as top-of-the-line camping gear in the middle of a forest fire.
Sleep deprivation + fear + previously unknown love + high-pitched noises = brain fail.
There is no way around it. Unless you’re one of those parents who give birth to a unicorn baby (metaphorically speaking!) who never cries and immediately knows how to sleep all night and feeds effortlessly and comes pre-programmed to use the toilet, you are going to find yourself putting your car keys in the microwave and trying to put a pair of pants on over your baby’s head at some point.
The baby twilight zone
Time is an artificial construct. Perhaps not time itself, but our shared human concept of time. Hours, minutes, days, weeks, months – all are arbitrary and meaningless in the world of a new baby.
Bedtime? What’s that?
Babies don’t have circadian rhythms, so sleep is just as good at 10:30 a.m. as it is at 10:30 p.m., and being awake from 1 to 3 a.m. isn’t weird. They don’t really care about day and night. Their waking cycle means they get a taste of both — kind of the twist cone of celestial lighting.
If that doesn’t work for you, the parent, too bad.
Thanks to the combination of my employer’s generous vacation policy and the normal quiet period around the year-end holidays, I was witness to the true extent of a baby’s “clock.”
Hours didn’t mean anything, and when hours don’t mean anything, days don’t mean anything. All that matters is when my son is hungry. That’s when he eats. And when he sleeps, we sleep. Circadian rhythms be damned.
It is truly disorienting at first. Your body and mind want some sort of structure. Certain things are supposed to take place in a certain order between meals. That’s how the world works. But not this brave new world.
Eventually it makes sense – or you’re broken down to the point where you accept it. And I was definitely enabled by 24-hour grocery stores and pharmacies.
Similarly, all those developmental milestones you read about in that pile of books I told you to read? Don’t carve them in stone.
They’re necessarily vague to begin with, but when you’re dealing with a creature who is literally doubling his conscious time on this planet by the day and week, determining what is supposed to happen by what date is far more art than science.
If your kid isn’t sitting up on his own by six months, it doesn’t mean anything. He could do it the next day, and all systems would be go. Or your prodigy could be sitting up at 100 days. Probably doesn’t guarantee a professional sports career, though.
Babies progress at their own pace, and, again, we’re dealing with such a small timeframe that variance measured in weeks is mostly irrelevant.
People who are really good at their jobs make you feel smart. Or at least they don’t make you feel dumb.
Jargon and technical terms don’t make you sound smart. They make you sound like a condescending, arrogant jerk.
If you can take a complicated process and explain it in a manner that makes a layperson feel as if you respect him or her, rather than as if you’re doing him or her a favor, then you clearly know what you’re talking about. The applicable term in medicine is “bedside manner.”
The medical profession is full of scientific terms and complex cause-effect relationships. First-time pregnancy kicks the complexity up a notch, so good bedside manner is imminently important during that wonderful, terrifying experience.
My wife and I were fortunate to have an amazing set of doctors and nurses through the whole pregnancy. The few hiccups we experienced were clearly explained to us as many times as was necessary for us to grasp the situation. The reduction in stress was invaluable, and I can’t thank our medical team enough for all they did – and the manner in which they did it.
Keep a journal
Many people tried to prepare me for this experience with the phrase “Long days, short years.”
I’m still not a month in, but I think I understand, keeping in mind how much I’ve been humbled already: Even while your kid sleeps 15 to 20 hours a day, there is so much happening that you can’t help losing track of things.
I’ve never been much of a photo guy, but I plan to test the limits of the cloud as I attempt to document my child’s life.
Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes words have a unique value, so I’m also trying to write down experiences.
Someday, when the whirlwind has passed, I’m going to want to look back at everything that was flying by me.
Have a great partner
I can’t imagine doing this alone. I’ve got a newfound respect for all those single parents out there, and my love and admiration for my wife is growing deeper, sleepless night by sleepless night.
Going one-on-one with a baby is a terrible proposition. Like, Danny DeVito against Lebron James in a game of pickup basketball terrible. And in case you’re confused, your baby is Lebron is this scenario. You are completely outmatched, and whatever skills you may have are the wrong ones.
Having a great partner is invaluable. You are going to need your partner’s strength and endurance to help you make it through those sleepless nights. You will need his or her support when that wave of terror strikes as you take your baby home for the first time. You are going to rely on your partner to do basic human things for you. You will be very grateful when he or she offers to watch the baby while you take a shower. You will count on your partner to take pictures and tell stories to keep you filled in for the times you can’t be around.
And you’re also going to need all those quirky differences you’ve come to love about your partner, because babies are inconstant. What worked to appease them yesterday isn’t going to work tomorrow. Being able to rely on someone who rocks the baby at a slightly different angle and/or pace can make a huge difference.
Good luck. You’ll need it. And it’ll be amazing.
I recognize that I undermined my attempt at sharing wisdom with the first section of this piece, so I thank you for reading this far.
My life with my new son has had its challenges, but the good moments make up for most of the fatigue. We’re still early in this journey and already there are times when I want to go back to the way things were a year ago, but they are fleeting.
I’m excited for the milestones, whenever they actually come, and to see my son develop his own personality. I’m also terrified of those things – I’m not looking forward to the day he’s able to talk back to me.
People say you can only improve by going beyond your comfort zone and accepting the fear that comes with a new challenge. If that is true, my son is going to make me the best I’ve ever been. I can only hope that’s good enough.