Coding Horror

programming and human factors

On Parenthood

Our son was born March 12th, 2009. He's a little over two and a half years old. Now, I am the wussiest wuss to ever wuss up the joint, so take everything I'm about to say with a grain of salt – but choosing to become a parent is the hardest thing I have ever done. By far. Everything else pales in comparison.

My feelings on this matter are complex. I made a graph. You know, for the children.


That one percent makes all the difference.

It's difficult to explain children to people who don't yet have children, because becoming a parent is an intensely personal experience. Every child is different. Every parent is different. Every culture has their own way of doing things. The experience is fundamentally different for every new parent in the world, yet children are the one universally shared thing that binds our giant collective chain letter of human beings together, regardless of nationality and language. How do you explain the unexplainable?

Well, having children changes you. Jonathan Coulton likens it to becoming a vampire.

I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling – I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it’s not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that’s how it was for me. At any rate, it’s complicated.

Maybe tongue in cheek, but not that far from the truth, honestly. Your children, they ruin everything in the nicest way.

Before Henry was born, I remembered Scott Hanselman writing this odd blurb about being a parent:

You think you love you wife when you marry her. Then you have a baby and you realize you'd throw your wife yourself under a bus to save your baby. You can't love something more.

Nuts to that, I thought. Hanselman's crazy. Well, obviously he doesn't love his wife as much as I love mine. Sniff. Babies, whatever, sure, they're super cute on calendars, just like puppies and kittens. Then I had a baby. And by God, he was right. I wouldn't just throw myself under a bus for my baby, I'd happily throw my wife under that bus too – without the slightest hesitation. What the hell just happened to me?

As an adult, you may think you've roughly mapped the continent of love and relationships. You've loved your parents, a few of your friends, eventually a significant other. You have some tentative cartography to work with from your explorations. You form ideas about what love is, its borders and boundaries. Then you have a child, look up to the sky, and suddenly understand that those bright dots in the sky are whole other galaxies.

You can't possibly know the enormity of the feelings you will have for your children. It is absolutely fucking terrifying.

When I am holding Henry and I tickle him, I can feel him laughing all the way to his toes. And I realize, my God, I had forgotten, I had completely forgotten how unbelievably, inexplicably wonderful it is that any of us exist at all. Here I am with this tiny, warm body so close to me, breathing so fast he can barely catch up, sharing his newfound joy of simply being alive with me. The sublime joy of this moment, and all the other milestones – the first smile, the first laugh, the first "dada" or "mama", the first kiss, the first time you hold hands. The highs are so incredibly high that you'll get vertigo and wonder if you can ever reach that feeling again. But you peak ever higher and higher, with dizzying regularity. Being a new parent is both terrifying and exhilarating, a constant rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows.

It's also a history lesson. The first four years of your life. Do you remember them? What's your earliest memory? It is fascinating watching your child claw their way up the developmental ladder from baby to toddler to child. All this stuff we take for granted, but your baby will painstakingly work their way through trial and error: eating, moving, walking, talking. Arms and legs, how the hell do they work? Turns out, we human beings are kind of amazing animals. There's no better way to understand just how amazing humans are than the front row seat a child gives you to observe it all unfold from scratch each and every day, from literal square zero. Children give the first four years of your life back to you.

I wasn't sure how to explain meeting new people to Henry, so I decided to just tell him we've met a new "friend" every time. Now, understand that this is not at all the way I view the world. I'm extremely wary of strangers, and of new people in general with their agendas and biases and opinions. I've been burned too many times. But Henry is open to every person he meets by default. Each new person is worth greeting, worth meeting as a new experience, as a fellow human being. Henry taught me, without even trying to, that I've been doing it all wrong. I realized that I'm afraid of other people, and it's only my own fear preventing me from opening up, even a little, to new people that I meet. I really should view every new person I meet as a potential friend. I'm not quite there yet; it's still a work in progress. But with Henry's help, I think I can. I had absolutely no idea my child would end up teaching me as much as I'm teaching him.

Having a child is a lot like running a marathon. An incredible challenge, but a worthwhile and transformative experience. It leaves you feeling like you truly accomplished something for all that effort. After all, you've created something kind of amazing: a person.

Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.

Charlotte: It's scary.

Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.

Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.

Bob: Your life, as you know it... is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk, and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

It's scary and it's wonderful in equal measure. So why not have another baby? Or so we thought.


Turns out, we're having two babies. Both are girls, due in mid-February 2012.

I've been told several times that you should never be crazy enough to let the children outnumber you. I hope to ultimately win the War of the Lady Babies, but when it comes to children, I think all anyone can ever realistically hope for is a peaceful surrender.

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Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: