With Father’s Day here, maybe it’s a good idea to talk about parenting Taboos. Parents Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman (I guess she didn’t take his last name–maybe that’s another taboo) gave an interesting Ted Talk (episode 3 available on Netflix) where they discussed parenting taboos. I created a transcript, and here’s what they had to say.
Alisa, “So this is where our story begins, the dramatic moment of the birth of our first son, Decklin, obviously a really profound moment. It changed out lives in many ways. It also changed our life in many unexpected ways, and those unexpected ways we later reflected on, that eventually spawned a business idea between the two of us, and a year later we launched Babble[.com], a website for parents.”
Rufus, “Now I think of our story as starting a few years earlier.”
Alisa, “That’s true.”
Rufus, “You may remember we fell head over heels in love.”
Alisa, “We did.”
Rufus, “We were at the time running a very different kind of website. It was a website called Nerve.com, which was–that tagline was ‘literate smut.’ It was in theory and hopefully in practice a smart online magazine about sex and culture.”
Alisa, “It spawned a dating site, but you can understand the jokes that we get. Sex begets babies. You follow instructions on Nerve and you should end up on Babble, which we did and we might launch a geriatric site as our third, we’ll see.”
Rufus, “But for us the continuity between Nerve and Babble was not just sort of the life stage thing, which is of course relevant, but it was really more about our desire to speak very honestly about subjects that people have difficulty speaking honestly about. It seems to us that when people start dissembling, people start lying about things, that’s when it gets really interesting, about the subject that we want to dive into. We’ve been surprised to learn as young parents that there are almost more taboos around parenting, than there are around sex.”
Alisa, “It’s true, so like we said, you know the early years were really wonderful, but they were also really difficult. We feel like some of that difficulty was because of this ‘false advertisement’ around parenting. You look at–we subscribe to a lot of magazines and did our homework, but really everywhere we were surrounded by images like this, and we kind of went into parenting expecting our lives to look like this. This sun was always streaming in, our children would never be crying, I would always be perfectly coiffed and well-rested. In fact, it was not like that at all.”
Rufus, “When we lowered the glossy parenting magazines that we were looking at with these beautiful images, and looked at the scene in our actual living room, it looked a little bit more like this. These are our three sons, and of course, they’re not always crying and screaming, but with three boys, there’s a decent probability that at least one of them will not be comporting himself exactly as he should.”
Alisa, “Yes, you can see where the disconnect was happening for us. We really felt like what we had kind of went in expecting, had nothing to do with what we were actually experiencing. So we decided that we really wanted to give it to parents straight. We really wanted to kind of let them understand what the realities of parenting were in an honest way.”
Rufus, “So today what we would love to do is share with you four parenting taboos, and of course there are many more than four things you can’t say about parenting, but we would like to share with you today four that are particularly relevant for us personally. So the first,
Taboo #1: You can’t say you didn’t fall in love with your baby in the very first minute.
I remember vividly sitting there in the hospital, we were in the process of giving birth to our first child…”
Alisa, “We, or I?”
Rufus, “Uh, I’m sorry. Misuse of the pronoun. Alisa was very generously in the process of giving birth to our first child…”
Alisa, “Thank you.”
Rufus, “and I was there with the catcher’s mitt, and I was there with my arms open. The nurse was coming at me with this beautiful, beautiful child, and I remember as she was approaching me the voices of friends saying, ‘the moment you put the baby in your hands, you will feel a sense of love that will come over you that is an order of magnitude more powerful than anything you have ever experienced in your entire life. So I was bracing myself for the moment, the baby was coming, and I was ready for this Mack Truck of love to just knock me off my feet. [Shows picture of Mack Truck.]
Instead, when the baby was placed in my hands, it was an extraordinary moment. This picture was literally a few seconds after the baby was placed in my hands and I brought him over, and you can see our eyes were glistening. I was overwhelmed with love and affection for my wife, with deep, deep gratitude that we had had what appeared to be a healthy child, and it was also kind of surreal. I mean I had to check the tags. I was incredulous. Are you sure this is our child? This is all quite remarkable.
But what I felt toward the child at that moment was deep affection, but nothing what I feel like now, 5 years later. So we’ve done something here that it heretical. We have charted our love for our child over time. This, as you know, is an act of heresy. You’re not allowed to chart love. The reason you’re not allowed to chart love is because we think of love as a binary thing. You’re either in love, or you’re not in love. And I think that in the reality, love is a process, and I think that the problem with thinking that love as something that’s binary is that love causes us to be unduly concerned that love is fraudulent or inadequate, or what have you. And I think I’m speaking here to the father’s experience, but I think a lot of men do go through this sense in the early months, maybe the first year that their emotional response is inadequate in some fashion.”
Alisa, “Well, I’m glad that Rufus is bringing this up because you can notice where he dips in the first year, where I think I was doing most of the work.
But we like to joke, in the first few months of our children’s life, he was Uncle Rufus.”
Rufus, “I’m a very affectionate uncle, very affectionate uncle.”
Alisa, “Yeah, and I often joke with Rufus when he comes home that I am not sure that he would actually be able to find our child in a lineup amongst other babies. So I actually threw a pop quiz onto Rufus.”
[Shows slide of 6 baby faces.]
Alisa, “I don’t want to embarrass him too much.”
Rufus, “That is not fair.”
Alisa, “But I am going to give him 3 seconds.”
Rufus, “It’s a trick question. He’s not up there, is he.”
Alisa, “Our 8 week old son is in here somewhere, and I want to see if Rufus can actually quickly identify…”
Rufus, “The far left.”
Alisa, “No!!!” (with emphasis, audience laughs. Both shake their heads in disgust.)
Rufus, “Cruel. Cruel.”
Alisa, “I’ll move onto
Taboo #2: You can’t talk about how lonely having a baby can be.”
I enjoyed being pregnant. I loved it. I felt incredibly connected to the community around me. I felt like everyone was participating in my pregnancy all around me, tracking it down until the actual due date. I felt like I was a vessel of the future of humanity. That kind of continued into the hospital. It was really exhilarating. I was showered with gifts and flowers and visitors. It was a really wonderful experience.
But when I got home, I suddenly felt very disconnected, and suddenly shut in, and kind of shut out. I was really surprised by those feelings. I didn’t expect it to be difficult, have sleepless nights, constant feedings, but I did not expect the feelings of isolation and loneliness I experienced. I was really surprised that no one had talked to me that I was going to be feeling this way.
I called my sister, whom I’m very close to and had three children, and I asked her, ‘why didn’t you tell me that I was going to feel this way, that I was going to feel incredibly isolated?’ And she said, I’ll never forget it, ‘It’s just not something you want to say to a mother that’s having a baby for the first time.'”
Rufus, “And of course we think it’s precisely what you really should be saying to mothers who have kids for the first time.” (audience applauds) This is of course one of the themes for us, that we think that candor and brutal honesty to us collectively being great parents.
It’s hard not to think that part of what leads to this sense of isolation is our modern world. So Alisa’s experience is not isolated. You see here 58% of mothers report feelings of loneliness. Of those, 67% are most lonely when kids are 0-5, probably really 0-2. In the process of preparing this, we looked at how some other cultures around the world deal with this period of time, because here in the western world, less than 50% of us live near our family members, which is part of why I think this is such a tough period. So to take one example among many, in southern India, there’s a practice known as jholabhari in which the pregnant woman, she’s 7 or 8 months pregnant, moves in with her mother and goes through a series of rituals and ceremonies, gives birth, and returns home to her nuclear family several months after the child is born. This is one of many ways we think other cultures offset this kind of lonely period.”
I’m going to stop here for now, and I’ll continue with part 2 later. What do you think of these taboos? Are Alisa and Rufus correct? What are some other parenting taboos that we don’t talk about?