You may be familiar with Ben and Erin Brooks—Ben is the author of the popular review website The Brooks Review, and Erin is the founder of Serephine, a small producer of hand-made bridal accessories. They’re also the parents of two small daughters, Sloane and Adrienne, a role to which they bring humor, insight, and warmth. Here’s some of what they had to say about sleeplessness, raising kind and confident kids, sleeplessness, and never sleeping.
TOM BIHN Crew: What was the rudest awakening you got when you had your first child? And what was the most unexpected good surprise?
ERIN BROOKS: The rudest awakening was probably actual awakenings! All. Night. Long. They tell you you’ll be exhausted, and up all night, but nothing can prepare you for that level of exhaustion that comes with recovering from childbirth, and tending to a newborn’s needs: nursing, burping, changing, spitting up, changing again, swaddling, rocking, singing, swaying, bouncing, and then starting it all over again 1.5 hours later. The most unexpected good surprise? There are so many! I never expected to have so much deep joy and pride in a person, for simple things like smiling, feeding herself, or clapping.
BEN BROOKS: There’s been so many rude awakenings I can’t pick out just one. I do remember one night where I was awoken at about 4:30 a.m. and never got back to sleep—that was unpleasant to say the least.
As for good surprises? Again, there are a lot, but keeping on the sleep theme, there have been a couple days where our first slept past 8:00 a.m. and it was Heaven.
TBC: What other sordid truths about parenting have you learned?
BB: It’s just impossible to get places on time. You have to give a lot of extra time to your planning if you even want to stand a chance. Having poop on your hands is no longer something that seems vile. Eating half finished food is far more normal than it should be. Yeah, at some point you just realize this is your life.
EB: That sometimes I can love them, but not like them very much. Usually it isn’t their fault, just like the sleep thing isn’t their fault. They’re just babies and kids, learning to live life, and I try to remember that. But, when my two year old hauls off and punches my nine month old, and then throws a screaming, floppy body tantrum for the fun of it in public…well, those moments aren’t my favorites and I can feel resentment swelling. Sometimes I yell, and then I loathe myself for it. There’s a lot of guilt and resentment built into parenting. But the good news is, it’s usually overridden by the joy.
TBC: What’s something you swore you would never do before having kids that you now do all the time—or more regularly than you’d like to admit?
BB: “Because I said so.” I hated it when my parents would give me that as a reason for their decision, and recently our oldest has hit the age where questions never stop. “Go do X” leads to “Why?”. After about 20–30 rounds in a day, I find myself saying: “Because I said so, that’s why.”
EB: Screen time! I thought for sure I wouldn’t let my kids watch TV until the recommended age of two, and even then, rarely. Well, our first screamed and screamed in the car, so we rigged an iPad up in the car so she could see it, to play movies on long car trips. At this point, both kids probably know how to work an iPad better than I do. TV is used sometimes to keep the kids in one place, so I can take a shower, or have a cup of coffee and sit down for a moment. Hey, a little Doc McStuffins and Sesame Street hasn’t hurt them!
TBC: What does a perfect day with your kids look like (“perfect” being relative, of course)?
BB: They eat without crying, we get out of the house and do something fun. They both take a long nap at the same time as each other. They don’t fight to go to bed. Basically the impossible day.
EB: The two year old has no potty accidents, they both not only nap, but nap well, they’re in good moods, and we giggle a lot.
TBC: Since having two daughters, have your perspectives on society, commerce, and/or gender roles changed? Has raising girls made you more critical about things that didn’t bother you before?
BB: Absolutely. I’m lucky in that my wife is very well-educated on societal roles, sexism, etc., because it is a scary place to raise two daughters. I honestly mean that too. I often wonder if my best course of action is to teach my daughters how to hack into things so that they might have a nuclear option when facing the level of sexism that our society turns such a blind eye to.
EB: Oh yes. I could go on and on about this. I consider myself a feminist, and always have, and have definitely noticed things before having children, especially personally, in the workplace. But when raising two girls—wow, is it obvious how differently boys and girls are still treated. It’s hard not to get angry when a little boy pushes my daughter out of her seat driving the dump truck at the children’s museum and onto the floor, and she’s crying and screaming, “no!” and his parents not only do nothing about it, but look at me and her and say “Let’s let the boys play with this for a while now.” This kind of behavior, this “boys will be boys” stuff, has got to change. I do my best to give my older daughter the calm words to use to stand up for herself, but she’s only two, and it’s hard.
TBC: A while ago, Ben wrote a post where he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it’s better to not be a jerk than to be a jerk. That observation seems applicable to raising kids: it’s better to raise not-jerks than jerks. What do you feel are the most important things you can teach them so they don’t become jerks or tolerate others’ jerkiness?
EB: I kind of started talking about this a little in the previous answer, but I think we just need to all take responsibility for teaching our children to be kind and use their words to communicate, as well as to be respectful of others. I think it’s important to call people on their bad behavior, and I think it’s important to model good behavior. I call my two year old on her bad behavior all the time, of course! I also apologize to her if I do something wrong, because I want her to learn that adults also make mistakes, and it’s important to admit them and apologize.
I want her to use her words to effectively stand up for herself: Recently, we were at a play place, and there is a little car that runs down a little slide thing. Only one child can use it at a time, so naturally, it’s the favorite toy in the place and the cause of many fights. My two year old, Sloane, was waiting patiently for her turn, which for that alone I was proud of her, and just as it was her turn, a much older boy hopped on and Sloane began to cry. His parents looked over and did nothing. So, I went over and said, “Sloane, you tell him ‘Excuse me, I’ve been waiting and it’s my turn now.’” She did, and the boy apologized and got up and let her have her turn. I was so proud, not only of Sloane’s ability to speak up for herself, but of the boy for respecting her when she did. Kids can learn this stuff; we just have to teach them, and model it for them.
BB: Two things come to mind. One: You have to lead by example. If you are kind that is what your children learn, but if you are a jerk that is also their example. Two: We recently watched an episode of The Newsroom and in it a character was talking with a law professor who teaches ethics. She said that she knew what he should tell all his students on the first day: “You all already know what is right and what is wrong.” As a parent I feel my job is to get my girls to trust their instinct for what is right and what is wrong. Of course, all of this is easier said than done.
TBC: What’s a cliché of parenthood that you’ve learned is actually true—and profoundly so?
BB: People always expect the sleep response, and though I get very little, I know plenty of parents who get more. I think the best cliché is that kids are exceedingly messy. Unbelievably messy.
EB: It goes by so quickly. It’s SO cliché, but man, it’s so true. I can’t believe how quickly they just aren’t babies anymore. And the weirdest part is how heartbreaking it is. It’s so exciting to see them learning and growing, but I have also cried putting away the too-small baby clothes.
TBC: Name a dream you have for your daughters: something you hope they’ll achieve, the sort of lives they’ll lead, the world they’ll inherit—anything.
BB: If you ask a young kid to dance, they dance. If you ask them to draw an owl, they draw an owl. But at some point in their life, they start saying things like “I can’t dance,” or “I can’t draw.” My hope is to never take that confidence away from them, to let them know that trying is doing in a lot of cases.
EB: I just pray that they find a sense of contentment, in whatever they do. I don’t care about their careers or vocations, but I want them to follow their hearts. I want them to be whole people outside, or inside, of romantic relationships. I want them to be life-long learners, always curious and filling their brains. I want them to be honest, confident, courageous, responsible, and most of all, I want them to be kind.