Infancy 1, Engineers 0


I’m an engineer.  My husband is an engineer.   We have business cards and job titles that confirm this, so it must be true.

As such, we approach problem solving like many other engineers do: Define the problem in clear terms.   Set expectations of what ought to be happening instead.   Drill down and observe closely.  Pay attention to your gut instinct, but find solid evidence to back it up.   Research possible solutions and look at what others have done in similar situations.  And especially, make sure you have a reliable, repeatable way to reproduce the problem, so that when you come up with a solution you can be sure it’s working as expected.

It didn’t take very long to discover that this approach goes right out the window when it comes to solving parenting problems.  Especially parenting problems that pertain to brand-new infants fresh from the cabbage patch.

Our son, like all babies, fussed and cried.  We’d try something.  It wouldn’t work.  We’d try something else.  Aha!  Problem solved.  But before long he’d be fussy again.   No worries, we know how to solve that one now, right?  Ha!  Frequently, what had worked the night before no longer worked tonight.  We’d run through the standard checklist of Hungry? Tired? Needs changing? Needs cuddling? and more often than we liked, we’d run right off the end of the list into the abyss of What The Heck Do We Do NOW?

Oh, I did plenty of research.  I had a few oft-recommended parenting books that I flipped through when I had moments of free time.  I was used to solving problems by paging through documentation online and in hard-copy form, so I reverted to what had worked for me in the past.  There’s just one small problem to this approach: unlike software programs, babies aren’t consistent.  They don’t roll out from a factory all identically stamped with a verified set of bits.  What works to solve one family’s problem doesn’t necessarily apply to the next-door neighbor; heck, what works for one sibling might just be anathema to the next!  Our little nubbins didn’t care what those books said was supposed to please babies.  After all, he wasn’t some hypothetical book baby; he was HIMSELF.

When our son was 4 weeks old, I got a NursingKnowHow email with the subject line “Why does your baby cry?”  I clicked that one so fast I could have broken my mouse button.  The first line of the email simply said, “Your baby cries because he’s a baby.”  It was a vague non-answer designed to lead into the rest of the article, but something in that sentence resonated with us.  Maybe it was the confirmation that it wasn’t user error on the part of us parents; maybe the reassurance that what seemed like inexplicable behavior was, in fact, perfectly within design parameters.  It didn’t matter, because at last we had a reason (of sorts) behind the randomness.  For two sleep-deprived people stumbling into the wilds of parenting after spending decades in safe, predictable engineering environments, a reason was as good as a multi-volume reference set.

In the months that followed, an amazing thing happened.  We learned to trust ourselves and our parenting instincts.  We discovered that there are lots of books out there written by child-rearing experts, but there are only two people who are experts on how to raise this particular Kiddo.  And while I still do research for particularly perplexing problems, I’ve found that a better approach is to read the books once or twice, then set them aside and cherry-pick the advice that makes most sense for our family and our situation.  It makes for an interesting mishmash at times, but so far it seems to be working out for all three of us.  Soft science for the win!

Back in those early months, we coped by finding a new catch phrase: “You can’t debug a baby.”  It didn’t solve the problem of why our son was crying, but it did remind us that this child was not just another software engineering problem, and that the processes we were accustomed to using weren’t necessarily the best fit for this situation.  We’ve held onto that phrase as Kiddo has grown into a toddler and started down the tedious path of temper tantrums and nonsensical (to us) whims.  Sometimes we’ll ask, “What are you, ONE?” as a way of reminding ourselves that what he’s doing is perfectly age-appropriate.  It’s our job as parents to figure out how to handle it, even if that means scrapping the previous tried-and-true fix and starting over – something not often recommended in our day jobs.


Author: Jessica Wallace

I'm a wife, mother, and software engineer living near Seattle, Washington. I like doing competitive puzzle events like the MIT Mystery Hunt and The Game. I've recently started learning a bit about candymaking, much to the delight of my husband, friends, and co-workers.

2 thoughts on “Infancy 1, Engineers 0

  1. Heh — thank you for posting this. XD It’s the sort of idea that I think Chris and I are both going to need beaten into our heads repeatedly until we ‘get’ it.

    Chris’ reaction to this post, btw? “If it’s really true that you can’t debug a baby… man, we’re in for an adventure, aren’t we.” XD

  2. I’m a technical project manager with a new baby. I am shocked by how poor the technology is for troubleshooting the crying. Even, just the technology for communicating or understanding the crying cause.

    We know the age of the universe and what’s in a puddle on mars, but we don’t know if there is gas in a baby’s intestine?

    Even with a ridiculous amount of books and products around this issues, I feel like so much more is yet to be created.

    I can support, not debuggin a baby, but I also see it simply as a communication or data-gathering problem.

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