On having kids

Posted on
Cover image for On having kids

Lately I’ve seen more content about childrearing crop up, perhaps due to a Baader–Meinhof phenomenon1. Hacker News has surfaced a few intelligent discussions on the topic over time, and these back-and-forths are sometimes more interesting than the articles they link to.

Now, you might wonder, why compile other people’s opinions about having children, especially on a technical blog? Well, primarily because I want to. After undergoing psychotherapy and adult self-parenting, the ‘baby fever‘ started kicking in me. However, not wanting to be drawn to such a complex choice by mere genetic drive, I sought to put together some thoughts about it. And for the most part, I found that getting opinions from highly-educated, successful adults made it all the more gripping.

You see — without wanting to be elitist —, learning about how a senior IC2 or manager in the tech scene feels about having kids is slightly more valuable for me. It’s not that a software engineer or UX researcher will have a more critical view on parenting. And yet, putting myself in the shoes of someone in a similar role as mine’s is easier. In my after-work hours my brain is thoroughly depleted, so it is perhaps more informative to know about the parenting activities of someone in a similar situation.

“Having Kids”

The origin of all this kerfuffle was Paul Graham’s “Having Kids” article3, which generated 863 comments on Hacker News4. It’s not everyday that HN’s creator talks about parenting5, and it seems to be a topic worthy of causing some agitation.

The original article has plenty of interesting bits in itself, and begins with the sentence “[b]efore I had kids, I was afraid of having kids.” Mr. Graham goes on to explain that his views on parenting changed after having his first child:

What changed, of course, is that I had kids. Something I dreaded turned out to be wonderful.

Partly, and I won’t deny it, this is because of serious chemical changes that happened almost instantly when our first child was born. It was like someone flipped a switch. I suddenly felt protective not just toward our child, but toward all children.

— Paul Graham, “Having Kids”

Given my own wanting to be a father, his article ends up reading rather nicely. Paul sprinkles some motivational dust all over it, though admittedly that might also be due to his higher-privilege position: after all, a struggling middle-class family will having different pressures than a fairly well-off one. Note that, at the end of the article, Paul admits he might have been especially lucky. To cut things short, I’ll quote directly my favorite bits from his article:

What I didn’t notice, because they tend to be much quieter, were all the great moments parents had with kids. (…) one of the great things about having kids is that there are so many times when you feel there is nowhere else you’d rather be, and nothing else you’d rather be doing. You don’t have to be doing anything special. You could just be going somewhere together, or putting them to bed, or pushing them on the swings at the park. But you wouldn’t trade these moments for anything.


[My mother] said that one reason she liked having us was that we’d been interesting to talk to. That took me by surprise when I had kids. You don’t just love them. They become your friends too. They’re really interesting. (…) There are of course times that are pure drudgery. Or worse still, terror. Having kids is one of those intense types of experience that are hard to imagine unless you’ve had them.


[W]hat kind of wimpy ambition do you have if it won’t survive having kids? Do you have so little to spare? (…) I remember perfectly well what life was like before. Well enough to miss some things a lot, like the ability to take off for some other country at a moment’s notice. That was so great. Why did I never do that? See what I did there? The fact is, most of the freedom I had before kids, I never used. (…) I had plenty of happy times before I had kids. But if I count up happy moments, not just potential happiness but actual happy moments, there are more after kids than before.

— Paul Graham, “Having Kids”

A summary of the discussion

While “Having Kids” is a great read in itself, the discussion was an eye-opener. Whether you approach parenting with rose-tinted glasses or the torpor of ‘wimpy ambition’, it might be helpful to simply accrue more knowledge about the topic. I’m not suggesting you research childrearing for a decade, but don’t jump into it blindly either. That was, perhaps, my takeaway from all those opinions: be deliberate, be conscious of how it’s going to change your life.

[M]y kids are 2 and 4 and so far it’s been 4 years of no life, no freelance clients, almost no learning/hobbies, just 35-40 hours a week of working as much as I can at the office and then everything is about the kids. Until everyone goes to bed, then maybe I can think about something interesting to work on for a couple hours before sleeping well less than 7 hours of healthy sleep.

It gets better (…) The 12 year old is sitting in my bedroom, reading. The 9 year old is playing games. I’m coding on personal projects, and my wife is in the basement making blankets. We have an entire day of just all doing whatever we want. (…) the point is that you do get your time back, once the kids are old enough to have some independence and interests of their own. I’d recommend just enjoying being a parent while they are young. They need you at this age. Play with them, read to them, and all that.

[M]ine are 3 and 5 now and it’s already starting to get better massively. Having them so close to each other makes for some extremely hard first 2-3 years, but then they can actually relate to each other one and play together, which works out nicely. Kids tend to be cutest from 3-5, so sit back and enjoy as much as you can, the time will come back.

Once a kid gets to school, magic happens. I mean it.

  • They get tired from learning stuff. And the teachers know how to deal with them.
  • They learn how to behave in a group. They start having actual friends.
  • You get a bunch of friends who are in the same situation as you, and you can use their kids to cancel out yours. (AKA playdates)
  • Having friends in the same boat will help your confidence a lot. They can help you directly with the kids, plus some of them will have older kids too, and they can tell you it gets better.

A string of replies:

  • Why did you decide to have kids? This is a serious question.
  • It makes your life meaningful in a way nothing else can.
  • Politely disagree. I feel like one should already have found a way to make their life meaningful before having a kid. Having a child just adds to it, changes the nature of that meaningfulness, enhances it (…).
  • Nope. You should find a way to be happy. Meaning is irrelevant although most people find meaning in responsibility.

My kids (and I’m sure yours) are such amazing people. I love them so much. But I fear I have lost the ability to care about or love myself. We do finally have a great house to raise them in after many nights of back breaking labor done after coding all day. I know so many people have it so much harder than me. Which makes it feel wrong to feel so broken. But there it is. I’ll probably delete this post out of shame but if you read it maybe you’ll know you’re not alone.

Give them space, teach them to be bored on their own.

Having young kids is like working 80 hour weeks. (…) Plus you spend a lot more time keeping house, on top of it. Most people don’t have much left to give working those kinds of hours. Personally, I’ve had to dramatically cut back on hobbies and keeping up with various media (…).

My kids are 8 and 11 now. I just spent the past hour working on my book while they puttered around doing. [H]onestly I don’t know what they were doing. For me, the toddler years were the nadir in terms of having my own time. Babies sleep enough to give you some time. Older kids are independent enough. But toddlers, man, it’s like living with a pair of destructive monkeys that you’re legally forbidden to cage. It will get better.

[Y]our kids will need a lot of low value time from you as they get older. They need rides to sports, rides to class, they need direction on chores. At a certain point, you’ll realize that self care, so playfully bandied about by zoomers and millennials will literally become a life-or-death priority. You’ll have to make decisions about your time that are best guided by clear knowledge of your values.

I’m a bit surprised by this turn of events. I’d advise folks that are younger to recognize that this is a long process. Make sure you invest time early in figuring out your values, and start investing in them as soon as you have established your foundation. The teens are a time where your parenting gets complex. It may be less physically demanding, but you’ll likely spend a lot of time asking yourself if you are making the best choices possible.

I only have one kid, but after becoming a parent I’m possibly more productive than before. I’ve managed to do as much or more learning and work on side projects than without kids. And I readily confess this point was a big fear of mine.

The key for me was learning to actually manage time better. The challenges of having a kid have made me see how little time for other things I have now, which in turn made me manage that time better. Previously, I’d fall into the trap of ”there’s so much time” that I could easily waste it. (…)

Yes, there are periods where that doesn’t work. There can be three days where I have less than an hour combined to myself. Or some nights of such bad sleep that my creativity is at a zero. Speaking of sleep, I also made a habit of sleeping more after having a kid, and honestly it’s a productivity booster. (…) Having the right day job definitely helps. I’m very lucky in that my commute is fifteen minutes door-to-door, and that I have a quiet working environment.

Even in the best case, you have to give up some things - I haven’t seen a full length movie in two years, rarely watch any series, and it sure takes me longer to get through a book. But at least in my experience, becoming a parent doesn’t have to mean putting all learning and personal/freelance projects on hold for a few years.

This is something nobody can answer for you. Kids are all different. Some are low maintenance, some are extremely high maintenance, and it’s a roll of the dice as to what you can expect.

  1. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) states that “once something has been noticed then every instance of that thing is noticed” (Wikipedia).
  2. IC — Individual Contributor — is a common way to refer to employees outside of a management track, or at least someone mainly engaged in hands-on (actual) work.
  3. Having Kids, by Paul Graham
  4. Hacker News thread about the “Having Kids” article.
  5. Paul Graham is, among other things, one of the co-founders of Y Combinator and the creator of Hacker News.
Filipe CatraiaWritten by