Reflecting on 1 year of being a parent
Looking back on the surprisingly easy, hard, and beautiful.
Our daughter is turning 1 in a few days and I wanted to sit down and reflect on how our first year of being her parents have gone. What turned out to be surprisingly difficult, and what, easy?
Getting Charlotte insured under my family health insurance plan in Germany. Her visits to the paediatrician have been covered since, and it gives me invaluable peace of mind to know that whatever illness may befall her (touch wood), we will be able to get her treatment.
Charlotte and our dog Brownie coexisted okay right from the get-go. By that I mean that they ignored each other for many months and while Brownie displayed signs of jealousy in the early months, he never did anything remotely aggressive or terrible to her, and vice versa. That's good enough for me! Now that Charlotte's about to turn one, she's been warming up to him more, stroking his fur occasionally. He's probably also taught her to be calm around animals in general. I like to think that that composure may be the first step toward loving animals later.
Sleep training was actually surprisingly easy once you’ve learned the techniques from a friend (thanks, Gillian!). The hardest part might have been having to time her sleep and wake her up before she wanted to wake up. But in the end, it was worth every premature awakening, because we had predictability back in our schedules. I think it's also worthwhile imbuing a sense of rhythm and structure in her life. It seems that we are creatures of routine right from birth. That's something to think about.
Juggling a job search with being present during my first block of parental leave. It's the classic "if I put in the time now to land this job, we'll have more income and can provide better with less stress later on" argument that parents, especially dads like to make. Having a dad who went down that slippery slope, I was very careful not to think that earning more money would automatically enrich our daughter's and our lives. But I discussed it with my wife, and in this case, we agreed I should try and she supported me in preparing for a series of job interviews, and I eventually landed a role at Shopify that I was and still am very happy about because they pay well, have a great working culture, and are working towards a mission I can get behind (Make Commerce Better for Everyone) - more on that in another post. Pulling something straight from one of my notes to illustrate my mood at the time:
Could not sleep at all. For all 6 hours in bed when it was quiet, my mind just kept on going on and on about the interviews to come. Anxious, maybe. I think this is a good sign because it means I'm on to something I care about deeply, but I also need to tame the urge to spend all my time now trying to land this job. Charlotte is only 3 weeks old and I should be there for her and Mei.
Another surprisingly hard thing? Cutting a baby's fingernails. Don't use a nail clipper and cut off a sliver of her thumb like I did when she was a little over a month old. (That wound has since healed and is no longer visible... phew.) Save yourself the immense guilt and do your baby a favour - get one of these battery-powered rotary tools to file off the fingernails. They work 10 times better for reducing a baby's soft fingernails.
When I went to New York City for a work trip in May, I came home with Covid and had to isolate myself in our apartment. I knew I could either compromise their health by continuing to help out around the house, or I could isolate and leave all the work to my wife. In the end, for 10 days, I stayed in our bedroom while my wife looked after Charlotte all by herself by day and slept on the living room couch by night. She also cooked meals for me because I couldn't risk using the kitchen and spreading Covid. It was a difficult time for my wife and I felt terrible. Just terrible! I was lying in bed watching Netflix while she was effectively wearing the shoes of a single parent. This arrangement was only a hard call because Charlotte was around and Covid's long-term implications on one's health were still impossible to know. Had it been just my wife and me, I'm relatively certain that we would have taken the isolation more lightly.
Navigating bureaucracy in a foreign country can be a PITA. Charlotte's name couldn't be accepted by the Berlin birth registry office, so her birth certificate was issued with several months delay, which held up her citizenship application back home. The problem? The birth registrar thought Charlotte had three last names. In Singapore, it's common for Chinese people to have names that look like this: John Tan Li Ming. Which is the last name? Tan. What would John's first name be, then? John Li Ming. Yep, it's confusing, I get it, and I don't blame the registrar for being confused. I just wanted to put it on the record that cultural differences can sometimes be a pain in the butt. We later bought a campervan and had to stay within Germany because Charlotte hadn't gotten her Singapore citizenship yet. Such were the ramifications of something so simple yet understandably perplexing! For fun, here's an excerpt from the email that finally revealed what was the confusion on the part of the birth registrar's office:
"Für die Familiennamensführung liegen mir zur Prüfung keine ausreichenden Informationen des singapurischen Rechts vor. Es heißt dort für die chinesische Volksgruppe nur: "Das eheliche Kind erhält bei der Geburt den Namen des Vaters." Der Vater hat 4 Namen?! Erhält das Kind also alle oder darf ein Name ausgewählt werden oder darf nur ein bestimmter Name gewählt werden?"
(In English) "For the family name management I do not have sufficient information of the Singaporean law for the examination. It says there for the Chinese ethnic group only: "The legitimate child receives the name of the father at birth." The father has 4 names?! So does the child receive all of them or may one name be chosen or may only one particular name be chosen?"
Another surprisingly hard thing is dealing with the recurring situation where my already rare personal time gets impinged upon by Charlotte waking up from a nap or a sleep earlier than expected. It's one of the harder things about being a parent for me, for personal time is what I need to get my inner life in order.
Breastfeeding was also surprisingly hard. You'd be forgiven for thinking as I did, that breastfeeding involved the breasts and the baby, right? What's hard about breastfeeding apart from, perhaps, teaching the baby to latch? Well... it turns out that the mother needs to teach her body to produce enough milk to meet the baby's growing demands by waking up in the middle of the night to pump milk. This meant that even though you've successfully sleep-trained your baby and she can sleep 12 hours every night, the mother has to wake up twice, disrupting her nightly sleep, sit up in the dark and put a pump on her breasts for 20-30 minutes each time. This went on for months! My wife's sleep quality was terrible and while she didn't let that affect her mood, I could always tell that she was deeply tired. Balancing the baby's nutritional needs with mummy's health, we agreed to stop breastfeeding after around 9 months. I've found formula milk to be much less of a hassle.
Having two girls in my life. Nuff’ said there!
I didn't manage to establish a strong connection with Charlotte in the first 2 months of her life. If you've had a baby before, perhaps you felt the same. Babies are not very interactive early in their lives. They're like tofu that you need to keep in one piece, moist in some places and dry in others, that ultimately doesn't talk or even smile much at you despite your best attempts at being entertaining. But one day right around the 2-month mark:
I cried out of nowhere because Charlotte interacted with me on a level like never before - she was responding to me! I still don't understand what about it made me weep like I was the baby, but it felt amazing. It felt like pure love. To my right were Mei and Brownie and that made this one of the sweetest unexpected moments of my life so far. I'll remember this for a long time.
From then on, we had a connection.
The next surprisingly beautiful thing — Charlotte seems to have taken a liking toward books! I'm very happy about this because it means that she is that much less likely to feel lonely as she grows up. Books (adventures) will always be on her bookshelf. What's been surprisingly beautiful about this is that she now likes to pick up one of her books, raise it such that it points at me or my wife, and let out an unintelligible word that most likely means, "can we read this?" I'd then sit down next to her, take the book, and she would climb into my lap and sit facing the book, ready for the story. Among the books she's familiar with she would anticipate each page turn and yell or do something that has to do with that page's contents. Like, there's a page in The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds where unconfident Vashti takes a marker and jabs it onto a blank piece of paper, creating her first work of art; whenever I turn to that page, she would slap her tiny hand onto the page to perform what Vashti was about to perform inside the page! Tender as it is that she sits on my lap while we read together, what's beautiful about these moments is knowing that Charlotte already has a wonderful imagination.
On this note of inculcating a reading habit, I have to do a shout-out to Sarah Miller, a writer and
teacher IT professional (edit on 8 Sep 2022: I made a mistake about Sarah’s job!) who publishes a newsletter that is always a delight to read and replenishes my queue of books to get for Charlotte. Check out her Can we Read? newsletter if you haven't!
Sleep training. As a direct result of sleep training Charlotte, we've been able to sleep through the night (except for middle-of-the-night breast pumping) since Charlotte was around 4 months old. I recall interviewing at a company where the director of engineering told me when he realised I had recently become a parent, that he didn't sleep more than three hours at a time for the first 16 months of his first child's life. I'm not exaggerating, but I think if I were still not sleeping more than three hours at a time, I wouldn't be writing this newsletter, my relationship would suffer, and my outlook toward parenting would not be half this cheery.
Moving to a bigger apartment when Charlotte was around 3 months old. This made it possible for her to have her room and provided her with more space around the apartment to crawl around and do things, all without making us feel like we were living in a minefield. There's still a lot of tidying up after her, but that is manageable.
Not spending a dime on new clothes and toys. This may not be possible if we lived elsewhere, so we're very thankful that Berlin has a huge community of givers who are also parents. We've also been the beneficiary of hand-me-downs from a few Singaporean friends (Gillian! Greg!) and family. I think we've saved at least 2-3 thousand euros at this point. Whenever we do spend money on clothes or toys, it's to buy them secondhand. When you're saving money like this, you're actually earning time with your kid.
Buying a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device and setting up and familiarising ourselves with using it before Charlotte was born. I was prompted to get one of these after reading Derek Sivers' call for technology independence, especially when it comes to priceless things like our memories in digital form. Both my wife and my phones upload our images and videos to this NAS automatically when we launch the accompanying app - et voila! - our precious photos of the first year of life with Charlotte are backed up to two 4TB hard drives (one is used as a copy for backup) that sit in our home. I've also set up an AWS S3 Glacier bucket for keeping a backup of these in the cloud.
Uploading a post on my private Instagram account almost every day. Whenever we feel like jogging our memory of what happened when, or what has happened at all (time warps memories), we can just turn to my Instagram account and scroll through the feed to reminisce and enjoy. This takes me between 10-40 minutes for each post, which on the longer end feels like too much time, so I try to challenge myself to finish within 15 minutes. Here's what it looks like (it's private, so don't bother trying to follow the account!):
I hope this was readable — it really was a reflection on my part and I might not have painted colours into the pictures I was drawing. Have questions about being a parent? Ask away! Either post a comment so other readers can chime in, or send me an email reply and I’ll respond to you in private.