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Lessons Learned From a First-Time Dad (and Scientist)

When my wife became pregnant, a first for both of us, I was confident that I would fare better than most other first-time dads. I was one of seven kids and have always been around babies, and enjoyed it.
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When my wife became pregnant, a first for both of us, I was confident that I would fare better than most other first-time dads. I was one of seven kids and have always been around babies, and enjoyed it. I was happily married, a bit older than the average dad (44) with an established career that not only afforded flexibility, but also (I thought logically but naively) offered training and experience that would enhance my ability to be a good parent: I am a scientist.

I received my first hint that the laboratory of real life might not be so logical from my wife's obstetrician at the first-trimester appointment. I must have raised a red flag. I was in "scientist" mode asking questions about probabilities and the state of current medical research.

"Do yourself a favor," our obstetrician said. "Avoid the Internet. Don't read too many books or comb through scientific papers on pregnancy." She advised that she would oversee and manage the proper testing, guidance, scheduling, and overall care. It was the best medical advice I ever received and perhaps the only one I followed with such rigor from pregnancy and through my son's first year.

My greatest challenge was resisting my instincts to interpret the daily experiments to reveal new knowledge about this unknown entity, my son.

In the lab, we carefully design experiments that attempt to pinpoint the effects of a single variable (like only varying the pH but not pH and temperature), cautious to avoid any bias, and ultimately prove to ourselves that we did a good job. We would include controls (that is, do nothing), replicates (do the experiment multiple times), and include enough experimental results that we don't have to tango with the "dreaded" small sample size. That is, we have enough results that are statistically robust. Good scientists are great skeptics so we design experiments to avoid any uncertainty.

With our son, the experiments were so poorly designed. Trying to get him to stop crying, we had multiple independent variables, no replicates, and no controls. When he did stop crying, I would want to know which was the key variable. Was it the gripe water, the new lullaby, exhaustion, distraction, or did some unknown variable -- a pebble in his diaper perhaps -- just unknowingly work itself out?

If we could isolate the key variable, we could rely on it again. But every event was singular. Did the lullaby that was so successfully soothing yesterday not work this time because I sung it instead of my wife? There I went again, investigating new variables.

It took a while, but eventually I acquiesced to the lesson that simply rectifying the problem, so we could all get some sleep, superseded my quest for cause and effect.

And then there were the old wives tales. How do you politely ask a family member the scientific basis for rubbing a mixture of save, household products on my son's skin when he was not feeling well? Where was that published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature? How long do you rub it in and how long do you keep it on? I learned to identify that a little mixture caused no harm. And if it worked, it worked.

This may sound strange, but my experience was like getting a smartphone for the first time, never cracking the instruction manual, and just intuitively learning and constantly being amazed, surprised and frustrated. And once you think you mastered or understand the baby, a new app or upgrade occurs.

Science provides an ever-expanding opportunity to be amazed, humbled, explore the unknowns in nature, and try to make sense of it. But one of the most natural things in the world, having a baby, is not a science.

Aside from my fluency in the metric system, I divorced my scientific training from my parenting. I eventually stopped being a scientist and became just a dad.