Alisa Volkman: So this is where our story begins — the dramatic moments of the birth of our first son, Declan. Obviously a really profound moment, and it changed our lives in many ways. It also changed our lives 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, a website for parents.
Rufus Griscom: Now I think of our story as starting a few years earlier. AV: That's true.
RG: You may remember, we fell head over heels in love.
AV: We did.
RG: We were at the time running a very different kind of website. It was a website called Nerve.com, the tagline of which was "literate smut." It was in theory, and hopefully in practice, a smart online magazine about sex and culture.
AV: That 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.
RG: But for us, the continuity between Nerve and Babble was not just 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. That's a subject that we want to dive into. And we've been surprised to find, as young parents, that there are almost more taboos around parenting than there are around sex.
AV: It's true. So like we said, the early years were really wonderful, but they were also really difficult. And we feel like some of that difficulty was because of this false advertisement around parenting. (Laughter) We subscribed to a lot of magazines, did our homework, but really everywhere you look around, we were surrounded by images like this. And we went into parenting expecting our lives to look like this. The sun was always streaming in, and our children would never be crying. I would always be perfectly coiffed and well rested, and in fact, it was not like that at all.
RG: When we lowered the glossy parenting magazine 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.
AV: Yes, you can see where the disconnect was happening for us. We really felt like what we went in expecting had nothing to do with what we were actually experiencing, and so we decided we really wanted to give it to parents straight. We really wanted to let them understand what the realities of parenting were in an honest way.
RG: 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 number one: 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.
AV: We, or I?
RG: I'm sorry. Misuse of the pronoun. Alisa was very generously in the process of giving birth to our first child — (AV: Thank you.) — and I was there with a 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 they put the baby in your hands, you will feel a sense of love that will come over you that is [on] an order of magnitude more powerful than anything you've 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. And instead, when the baby was placed in my hands, it was an extraordinary moment. This picture is from 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 what appeared to be a healthy child. And it was also, of course, surreal. I mean, I had to check the tags and make sure. I was incredulous, "Are you sure this is our child?" And this was all quite remarkable. But what I felt towards the child at that moment was deep affection, but nothing like what I feel for him now, five years later.
And so we've done something here that is heretical. We have charted our love for our child over time. (Laughter) 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. You love, or you don't love. And I think the reality is that love is a process, and I think the problem with thinking of love as something that's binary is that it causes us to be unduly concerned that love is fraudulent, or inadequate, or what have you. And I think I'm speaking obviously here to the father's experience. But I think a lot of men do go through this sense in the early months, maybe their first year, that their emotional response is inadequate in some fashion.
AV: Well, I'm glad Rufus is bringing this up, because you can notice where he dips in the first years where I think I was doing most of the work. But we like to joke, in the first few months of all of our children's lives, this is Uncle Rufus. (Laughter)
RG: I'm a very affectionate uncle, very affectionate uncle.
AV: Yes, and I often joke with Rufus when he comes home that I'm not sure he would actually be able to find our child in a line-up amongst other babies. So I actually threw a pop quiz here onto Rufus.
RG: Uh oh.
AV: I don't want to embarrass him too much. But I am going to give him three seconds.
RG: That is not fair. This is a trick question. He's not up there, is he?
AV: Our eight-week-old son is somewhere in here, and I want to see if Rufus can actually quickly identify him.
RG: The far left. AV: No!
AV: Nothing more to be said.
I'll move on to taboo number two. 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 till the actual due-date. I felt like I was a vessel of the future of humanity. That continued into the the hospital. It was really exhilarating. I was shower 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 shut out, and I was really surprised by those feelings. I did expect it to be difficult, have sleepless nights, constant feedings, but I did not expect the feelings of isolation and loneliness that I experienced, and I was really surprised that no one had talked to me, that I was going to be feeling this way. And I called my sister whom I'm very close to — and had three children — and I asked her, "Why didn't you tell me I was going to be feeling this way, that I was going to have these — feeling incredibly isolated?" And she said — I'll never forget — "It's just not something you want to say to a mother that's having a baby for the first time."
RG: And of course, we think it's precisely what you really should be saying to mothers who have kids for the first time. And that this, of course, one of the themes for us is that we think that candor and brutal honesty is critical to us collectively being great parents. And 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. So your 58 percent of mothers surveyed report feelings of loneliness. Of those, 67 percent are most lonely when their kids are zero to five — probably really zero to two. 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 percent of us live near our family members, which I think is part of why 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, when she's seven or eight months pregnant, moves in with her mother and goes through a series of rituals and ceremonies, give birth and returns home to her nuclear family several months after the child is born. And this is one of many ways that we think other cultures offset this kind of lonely period.
AV: So taboo number three: you can't talk about your miscarriage — but today I'll talk about mine. So after we had Declan, we kind of recalibrated our expectations. We thought we actually could go through this again and thought we knew what we would be up against. And we were grateful that I was able to get pregnant, and I soon learned that we were having a boy, and then when I was five months, we learned that we had lost our child. This is actually the last little image we have of him. And it was obviously a very difficult time — really painful. As I was working through that mourning process, I was amazed that I didn't want to see anybody. I really wanted to crawl into a hole, and I didn't really know how I was going to work my way back into my surrounding community. And I realize, I think, the way I was feeling that way, is on a really deep gut level, I was feeling a lot of shame and embarrassed, frankly, that, in some respects, I had failed at delivering what I'm genetically engineered to do. And of course, it made me question, if I wasn't able to have another child, what would that mean for my marriage, and just me as a woman. So it was a very difficult time. As I started working through it more, I started climbing out of that hole and talking with other people. I was really amazed by all the stories that started flooding in. People I interacted with daily, worked with, was friends with, family members that I had known a long time, had never shared with me their own stories. And I just remember feeling all these stories came out of the woodwork, and I felt like I happened upon this secret society of women that I now was a part of, which was reassuring and also really concerning. And I think, miscarriage is an invisible loss. There's not really a lot of community support around it. There's really no ceremony, rituals, or rites. And I think, with a death, you have a funeral, you celebrate the life, and there's a lot of community support, and it's something women don't have with miscarriage.
RG: Which is too bad because, of course, it's a very common and very traumatic experience. Fifteen to 20 percent of all pregnancies result in miscarriage, and I find this astounding. In a survey, 74 percent of women said that miscarriage, they felt, was partly their fault, which is awful. And astoundingly, 22 percent said they would hide a miscarriage from their spouse.
So taboo number four: you can't say that your average happiness has declined since having a child. The party line is that every single aspect of my life has just gotten dramatically better ever since I participated in the miracle that is childbirth and family. I'll never forget, I remember vividly to this day, our first son, Declan, was nine months old, and I was sitting there on the couch, and I was reading Daniel Gilbert's wonderful book, "Stumbling on Happiness." And I got about two-thirds of the way through, and there was a chart on the right-hand side — on the right-hand page — that we've labeled here "The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for a New Parent." This chart is comprised of four completely independent studies. Basically, there's this precipitous drop of marital satisfaction, which is closely aligned, we all know, with broader happiness, that doesn't rise again until your first child goes to college. So I'm sitting here looking at the next two decades of my life, this chasm of happiness that we're driving our proverbial convertible straight into. We were despondent.
AV: So you can imagine, I mean again, the first few months were difficult, but we'd come out of it, and were really shocked to see this study. So we really wanted to take a deeper look at it in hopes that we would find a silver lining.
RG: And that's when it's great to be running a website for parents, because we got this incredible reporter to go and interview all the scientists who conducted these four studies. We said, something is wrong here. There's something missing from these studies. It can't possibly be that bad. So Liz Mitchell did a wonderful job with this piece, and she interviewed four scientists, and she also interviewed Daniel Gilbert, and we did indeed find a silver lining. So this is our guess as to what this baseline of average happiness arguably looks like throughout life. Average happiness is, of course, inadequate, because it doesn't speak to the moment-by-moment experience, and so this is what we think it looks like when you layer in moment-to-moment experience. And so we all remember as children, the tiniest little thing — and we see it on the faces of our children — the teeniest little thing can just rocket them to these heights of just utter adulation, and then the next teeniest little thing can cause them just to plummet to the depths of despair. And it's just extraordinary to watch, and we remember it ourselves. And then, of course, as you get older, it's almost like age is a form of lithium.
As you get older, you become more stable. And part of what happens, I think, in your '20s and '30s, is you start to learn to hedge your happiness. You start to realize that "Hey, I could go to this live music event and have an utterly transforming experience that will cover my entire body with goosebumps, but it's more likely that I'll feel claustrophobic and I won't be able to get a beer. So I'm not going to go. I've got a good stereo at home. So, I'm not going to go." So your average happiness goes up, but you lose those transcendent moments.
AV: Yeah, and then you have your first child, and then you really resubmit yourself to these highs and lows — the highs being the first steps, the first smile, your child reading to you for the first time — the lows being, our house, any time from six to seven every night. But you realize you resubmit yourself to losing control in a really wonderful way, which we think provides a lot of meaning to our lives and is quite gratifying.
RG: And so in effect, we trade average happiness. We trade the sort of security and safety of a certain level of contentment for these transcendent moments. So where does that leave the two of us as a family with our three little boys in the thick of all this? There's another factor in our case. We have violated yet another taboo in our own lives, and this is a bonus taboo.
AV: A quick bonus taboo for you, that we should not be working together, especially with three children — and we are.
RG: And we had reservations about this on the front end. Everybody knows, you should absolutely not work with your spouse. In fact, when we first went out to raise money to start Babble, the venture capitalists said, "We categorically don't invest in companies founded by husbands and wives, because there's an extra point of failure. It's a bad idea. Don't do it." And we obviously went forward. We did. We raised the money, and we're thrilled that we did, because in this phase of one's life, the incredibly scarce resource is time. And if you're really passionate about what you do every day — which we are — and you're also passionate about your relationship, this is the only way we know how to do it. And so the final question that we would ask is: can we collectively bend that happiness chart upwards? It's great that we have these transcendent moments of joy, but they're sometimes pretty quick. And so how about that average baseline of happiness? Can we move that up a little bit?
AV: And we kind of feel that the happiness gap, which we talked about, is really the result of walking into parenting — and really any long-term partnership for that matter — with the wrong expectations. And if you have the right expectations and expectation management, we feel like it's going to be a pretty gratifying experience.
RG: And so this is what — And we think that a lot of parents, when you get in there — in our case anyway — you pack your bags for a trip to Europe, and you're really excited to go. Get out of the airplane, it turns out you're trekking in Nepal. And trekking in Nepal is an extraordinary experience, particularly if you pack your bags properly and you know what you're getting in for and you're psyched. So the point of all this for us today is not just hopefully honesty for the sake of honesty, but a hope that by being more honest and candid about these experiences, that we can all collectively bend that happiness baseline up a little bit.
RG + AV: Thank you.