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What’s Surprised Me About Parenthood

Two and a half years in, I wanted to reflect on some of my top surprises of parenthood. TLDR highs are higher and lows are lower than expected.

What we investigated

In evaluating the decision to have a child, we tried to consider as much as possible. We approached it as an active choice rather than a default conclusion and had many spirited debates in the decade of marriage before we brought our daughter Zoe into the world. Not only did we interview our friends who had made choices either way, but we also explored forums like r/childfree and op-eds from people who had made the choice against.

Financial impact

The most obvious challenge to having a child is the financial one. How much does it cost to raise a child in the best and worst case? I built a spreadsheet taking a well-padded estimate of the total cost of raising our child to the age of 21. We compared that against our finances to discuss what the impact to our lifestyle was. Unsurprisingly, the biggest drivers of cost in this model are childcare and education.

Lifestyle impact

We talked about the changes and constraints to our lifestyle once we had a family. It’s difficult different to travel with a child, the schedule of childcare especially in the early years is demanding, and it erects more barriers to some dreams that I’ve had like spending a year abroad. Was I open to accepting this tradeoff?

Emotional impact

We spent a lot of time discussing how the emotional weight of parenthood would affect us. One of the primary concerns (which proved out) is the worry and focus tax. One of our friends sent us this Paul Graham essay that while isn’t about parenting captures the issue. How much does this prevent us from being effective at our other goals?

The surprises about parenthood

Reflecting on the last two and a half years, here are the biggest surprises.

Surprise 1: The sheer amount of planning to execute childcare and enrichment

  • What I Thought: Childcare is a well-understood process that costs money and some effort.
  • Actual: There is hunger games level of planning and logistics due to local market economics.

I am still a little shocked by the difficulty to identify, evaluate and secure childcare. Maybe this is a symptom of the Bay Area, pandemic times, and my optimizer brain, but the effort is huge. Childcare is a hyper-local services marketplace and it’s hard to evaluate quality. The first challenge was even finding providers. Like most parents, I don’t want to drive more than 10-15 minutes out of their way because with traffic that’s an additional hour of commute. Finding and mapping all centers and trying to understand their unique characteristics was not as easy as I thought.

Let’s say that I’m not even trying to optimize for a great childcare solution. As a working parent, having a childcare solution is not optional. Finding any spot in any daycare center requires research and pre-planning because openings are so rare. So what if in addition I’m trying to find an optimal solution for Zoe? The waiting lists are outrageous, sometimes years long. We started signing Zoe up for daycare waiting lists when we were pregnant, and there are several places where we haven’t heard back. There is a well-known preschool that many consider one of “the best” and I know of examples where people have enacted elaborate strategies of donations and extreme networking to get their child in. This applies not only to schools, but enrichment programs like finding dance or swim classes.

Surprise 2: Parenthood unlocked a whole new level of relating to others

  • What I Thought: I know my close friends and colleagues with kids well.
  • Actual: I was experiencing a filtered version of themselves that didn’t include one of the most important aspects of their life.

After we shared the child news, a very old friend exclaimed, ‘I’m so excited you’re going to be parents! I’m going to be able to be closer friends with you!’ He shared that kids are one of his most top of mind topics but he consciously filters himself to not bore the non-parents, so he would have a more authentic relationship with us. In addition to this, kids introduce friction in social gatherings where parents often have to step out to take care of the child. While parents implicitly understand that, non-parents don’t.

I’ve understood since then how different parent-life truly is. And the positive corollary to this is that it’s opened up a whole new way of relating to other parent friends. The way their eyes light up as they talk about the small successes and challenges of their family life is incredible. Sometimes it comes as a shock to realize how little of their lives they shared before.

Surprise 3: The Chaos Bomb that is a child

  • What I Thought: The time impact for children was just additional tasks and schedules.
  • Actual: Children are inflexible chaos bombs that make schedules very difficult.

I have not slept in past 7am for past two and a half years. I can count the number of late evening dinners out on a single hand. Pre-child, the practice of staying up to late to socialize, introspect, work, or otherwise chase my flow was really a core part of how I worked. I would just sleep in the next day to make up for a late night. I didn’t truly internalize that going on a long run, late night dinners, taking trips, sleeping in was going to get massively more complicated. As much as I try to stick to a routine, my schedule gets blown on on a regular basis.

Obviously your mileage will vary. Lots of people manage to sleep in and go out, but the difficulty of this was surprising to me.

Surprise 4: “Your world goes from black and white to technicolor”

  • What I Thought: We had a reasonable understanding of the social and emotional impact of parenthood.
  • Actual: There is an experience to parenthood that isn’t possible to know before you experience it.

When we did our social learning interviews with friends, one of them said, “your world goes from black and white to technicolor and you never realized what you’d missed out on until it was there.” It is so spot on. While we had a good sense of the financial and social impact, the ability to truly understood the experience of parenthood is hard to understand without experiencing.

What I could not accurately value is the depths of highs and lows, and the intensity of emotions it unlocked. It’s just a surprise. I know it is different to everyone, but as far as life experiences go, it’s a really unique one for me that was described several times but never fully internalized.

Embracing the journey

I am squarely in the camp that kids are not for everyone. Not everyone should have or needs to have this experience. However, I’ve been embracing this journey now that we are on it. Zoe is growing up so fast that I’m being pulled along to adapt and grow alongside her. I’m sure in a few more years, I’m going to be surprised all over again by a whole different set of things.