Is it Worse to Be a Not-So-Handyman or a Guilt-Ridden Dad?

Have you seen the size of my tool belt?

“Because then I would feel like an asshole!”

Let’s rewind…

My wife and I were having a discussion recently about whether or not we should anchor our daughter’s dresser to the wall. This discussion came up after a facebook warning video showing a dresser falling on two young boys was shared on my wife’s news feed.

It was a scary enough video for us to re-evaluate how safe and toddler-proof our new house was for our 16-month-old daughter. Having seen her survive enough bumps to the head and having probably too much confidence in her self-preservation and intelligence, I brushed it off as not being necessary.

She’s a smart kid, she would know better than to climb up something that big… I thought, about the same child who had learned to climb an iron spiral staircase by herself before the age of one.

As this conversation progressed, however, it became clear there were other reasons why I was avoiding following through on anchoring her dresser. I admitted to my wife that not only did I not think it was that important, but that I actually didn’t know how to do it. As simple as it sounded to learn, I didn’t feel up to figuring it out.

“Why didn’t you just say that? I’m sure we could pay a handyman to do it.” — my wife.
“Because then I would feel like an asshole…” is what immediately came out of my mouth.

What I meant was that I would feel like a bad dad. In either scenario, I either don’t care enough to learn how to anchor a large piece of furniture to protect my daughter’s safety, or I have to pay some other more handy person to take care of a seemingly simple task.

This bad dad (or sometimes bad husband) guilt has held me back from starting, or finishing, a lot of home improvement projects. I’ve had mixed success fixing everything from light bulb fixtures to leaky faucets to installing backsplashes.

I have had considerably more success when working with my wife on projects like installing new floors or building dreaded Ikea furniture. In both cases, though, my anxiety built and built as it felt like the project wasn’t coming out well or the problem wasn’t fixed at all (looking at you blinking closet light bulb.)

Now every new problem or project that is brought up, even something so simple as anchoring furniture to the wall, I basically just avoid to prevent the anxiety and guilt from setting in.

This is not healthy! – This is me putting on my therapist hat…

Guilt is not a particularly helpful emotion, especially when it is not confronted in a productive way. What I mean is that when you go through life avoiding people, opportunities, or projects because you don’t want to feel the anticipatory anxiety (before) or the possible guilt (after) said interaction with that person, opportunity, or project, you miss out on a lot. Or worse, I put my daughter in danger because I don’t want to admit to these uncomfortable feelings about a (probably simple) project.

So what to do with this unhelpful guilt then?

Guilt can be helpful when it is confronted productively. In my case, that might look like acknowledging how I feel about the project to my wife so we can constructively identify a solution to the problem, instead of avoiding it altogether.

If I still feel guilty, I can apologize to her for putting this and so many other past projects off, and express my willingness to try again in the future. Or, I can just accept that I am not a handyman, and pay someone to do these types of tasks for us. After all, when the project is done by an expert, it saves me the anxiety of wanting it to be perfect and the time I would have to spend learning what to do and how to do it.

This has been a learning process for me. I am comfortable with emotions, but not so with a hammer in my hand. That’s okay! The sooner I accept it, the sooner I can focus on the things I’m actually good at and enjoy, like teaching my daughter how to climb, err, I mean read!

How Baseball Broke a Bad Parenting Pattern

I was not only present in this moment for him; I craved it to validate my fatherhood.

Down two runs with two outs and the bases loaded in the last inning, my son stepped to the plate. Aedan’s “Mudville” moment weighed on me the minute he dug his cleats in the batter’s box. He would either make the final out, or be swarmed by teammates after a clutch hit to win the game. I peered through the chain-link barrier separating me from where he stood, knees bent, wagging bat pointed skyward. I watched him embrace his challenge, ready to accept either outcome.
Dents formed in my fingers as I squeezed the fence and fixed my gaze on him, hopeful he would not freeze in the moment. I longed to be in the box with him and whisper it would be no failure to make the final out. I believed the only regrettable outcome would be not trying for fear of a negative outcome. A game-winning hit ranked second behind staring the moment down without blinking.
Custodial fathers might have taken such a moment for granted, but distance created a need for me to savor every detail. Divorce rendered me bereft of good night kisses, rides to school, and glances into Aedan’s eyes as he recounted his day, so I imprinted every nuance into memory. I was not only present in this moment for him; I craved it to validate my fatherhood.
As I experienced a blend of excitement and angst, memories of my brief little league experience tainted the moment. The steel fence on my field separated me from dads of other kids while apathy kept my dad in bed. It was my misfortune early morning games started too soon after last call, and he was unaware his absence shredded my confidence.
On Saturday mornings my dad festered in the stench of the previous night’s excesses while I caved to fear five blocks away. I managed one hit in a two-season career truncated by futility and was out of baseball forever by age ten. In the field, I prayed the ball never found me, but it found me often enough, and errors forced coaches to stick me in right field, the Siberia of little league baseball. At the plate my bat stayed glued to my shoulder, and after I struck out, I moped toward disappointed teammates, my dragged bat leaving a trail in the dirt.
Unattached relationships between fathers and sons are generational in my family. My grandfather deprived my dad of love, choosing booze over his son. I knew my father loved me better than his dad loved him, and as I aged, I learned he loved me the best way he knew how. When I was a new dad, I behaved likewise, and paid a steep price. I was younger, absorbed by ego, and convinced there were moments to waste. Divorce taught me a lesson about abused privileges, and in its aftermath, I learned my flaws were not innate, but had been passed on to me from my father who also learned them. When I recognized our family pattern, I was haunted by the possibility I could teach similar behaviors to my son, and made a promise to myself I would break the pattern.
Aedan worked the count full, and I swelled with pride even when he fouled off a pitch. I muted cheers, and smiled when he glanced my way, desperate to spare him feelings of desertion. Whether he took a pitch down the middle, or swung and missed, I wanted him to know I was present. I often fantasized about my dad walking me to our beige Chevy; arm around me, offering to take me for ice cream in victory or defeat. Instead, I walked home with teammates, and listened to them brag about their highlights. Because I never had a standout moment to share with my father, I welcomed his poverty of questions about my games.
On the sixth pitch he saw, Aedan swung with helmet shifting force, and lined the ball inside the third base line. My scream startled other parents, but excitement shielded me from embarrassment. Hanging from the fence, I watched him race toward first base, wide-eyed, raising dirt clouds with each stride as runners on second and third raced toward home, and he reached first where he stopped and looked my way. I touched my heart with my index finger and pointed at him; he smiled back, and then turned to watch the winning run score.
When the deciding run crossed home, I stormed the field and squeezed Aedan as teammates pushed through me for hugs and high fives. When the excitement waned and the crowd disbursed, we walked to our car bound at the hip, and I wrapped my arm around him.
How does it feel to be the hero? Did you feel the vibration of the bat through your arms?
He could not spit answers before a new question burst from me.
In our car, I showed him the ball and explained how I found it at home plate after the game. It is the most valuable piece of memorabilia I own, and I keep it in my glove compartment. If Aedan ever doubts himself, I can show him the ball. When I feel distance diminishes my role as his dad, the ball reminds me of my necessity in his life.
After my little league failures, fear of failure kept me from organized sports, but my son is not afraid to try, nor is he afraid to fail. It is success in itself, and eclipses my achievements the way dads hope sons do. I look forward to the day he gets to watch his own bat-wagging child, untainted by melancholic memories.  
As a child I blamed my dad because I assumed dads were born knowing how to be dadly. My errors as a father reminded me how wrong I was, and I realized how hard it is to teach lessons we never learned. In retrospect, my father and I have both made incremental improvements, and we had to fight hard to do so. Looking forward, I believe Aedan will follow suit, and he will be the dad who kills our curse, and starts a new trend of fathers who will never mourn lost opportunities.

How I Used A / B Testing to Hack My Kids

“I wonder how we can get them to sleep more.”This simple thought, expressed by my wife, not even a question, became a challenge to me. Enter A/B testing.

“I wonder how we can get them to sleep more.”

This simple thought, expressed by my wife, not even a question, became a challenge to me. My engineer mind took this as a problem to be solved, and when a software developer sees a problem, they devise tests. Luckily, I knew the perfect system for testing out some ideas in a controlled and measurable setting. And with twins, testing would be even easier. Welcome to parenting, A/B testing style.

A/B testing is used all over the web. You likely encounter it dozens, if not hundreds of times a day, without even noticing it. All the big tech companies do it, using it as a tool to test the performance of ideas and measure them.

Google is famous for testing 41 shades of blue for search results. Designers allegedly couldn’t decide which of two shades to use, so they tested 41 in total to see which led to the more users clicking on the results.

Facebook tests different experiences within the feed constantly. Amazon even changes around the buy buttons and cart layouts fairly often. You may notice these if you ever log in from a new computer or see a friend using a site that looks subtly different from yours.

A/B testing is used to test one or more “treatments” or experiments over a “control” or the existing experience. A metric is measured, usually based on a user action such as a click through or “conversion” with a baseline against the control.

For the Google example, they might test the likelihood of users clicking through to at least one result with the different shade. After a statistically significant period of time, often a week or two, whichever experience has a better rate will be chosen as the winner and becomes the new control.

Where this gets really complicated is when multiple experiments are run at the same time or when the percentage of users is not equally split. Here a complicated knowledge of statistics is needed. Or the use of any of the many powerful testing tools available. At Audible and Amazon, we test experiences like this all the time. It’s the best way to see how users actually behave as often what users say they will do and what they do can be slightly different.

At Audible and Amazon, we test experiences like this all the time. It’s the best way to see how users actually behave, as often, what users say they will do and what they do can be slightly different.

Charting results
I decided to use this method of testing with the boys to see if we could increase the most important metric in the house, as anyone with 10-week old children, especially twins, knows: sleep times. Using one of the boys as a control and the other as the treatment – nevermind the fact that no one would describe any part of our lives right now with the words “control” or “treatment” – I tested several theories about length of sleep, baselined against the control.

In any experiment, accurate measurement and data tracking are critical. Often a success metric is chosen due to the availability of data or measurability. You don’t want to be trying to measure something that takes longer to measure than it does to change the test or test input. Luckily measuring sleep is about as easy as it gets.

When they wake up at night, we just write it down. This is exactly what we’ve been doing since the day they were born as the nurses at the hospital instructed us. We’ve gone through several notebooks already, but it’s so easy to track. For this, we even started importing the data into a spreadsheet to see the impact more visually.

Big Data
First, we tested increasing the amount given at the feeding immediately before bedtime. Instead of the normal four ounces, we tried five, then six. To prevent bias from one child, we alternated who was the test and who was the control since they seem to be on alternating cycles. While one child had a larger evening feeding, the other would stay at four ounces. The result: inconclusive.
Both children seemed to start increasing length of sleep anyway during this period. They both slept almost the exact same length of time as well. There was one night where an increased feeding correlated with a record 5.5 hour stretch of sleep, but one data point is insignificant in this dataset.
It was also hard to continue testing this as anything beyond five ounces had a high likelihood of being spit out a few minutes after eating.

Next was a secret whispered about in the dark corners of parent blogs around the web and passed from parent to fellow parent, at least in my office, gripe water. Ok maybe it isn’t that much of a secret, but it took us a while to try it. Supposedly this mix of herbs and spices, as opposed to KFC’s blend, would settle stomachs from reflux and gas, especially overnight, resulting in longer sleep.

After a week of testing, we found it did actually help with reflux, especially spit ups, and though we didn’t track individual burps or farts, seemed to reduce them as well. The length of sleep was not impacted much, though. We did see a small increase on average, between 20 and 30 minutes, but again this may have been natural increases due to age.

No reflux equals a happy baby

After gripe water, which became the new control, we tested an extra feeding before bed. The boys were starting to do this naturally on their own, anyway, and we had been trying to prevent it. However, it seemed like an opportunity ripe for testing, so we gave it a shot. Many children will “cluster” feed before bed, with a second feeding only a short time after the previous one. We did this feeding about 1.5 to 2 hours after the previous, compared to 3 hours normally. In this feeding, we tried 4 ounces compared with the 4–5 they normally take during daytime feedings. Sometimes they would refuse to take more than 3. Of all the experiments, this seemed to work best. We saw increases in up to an extra hour of sleep as a result, though often not until a few days into the experiment, apparently this takes time to affect sleep patterns. A good lesson for A/B tests is that sometimes there is a several day adjustment period while people figure out the new treatment and adjust. It’s important to capture both the adjustment period results and the post-adjustment ones, though. Apple has famously neglected the adjustment period on several product launches, notably maps.

Last, we tested keeping them awake longer during the day. Our hypothesis was that they would therefore, be more tired at night and would sleep longer as a result. This may have been slightly true, we saw minor increases in length of sleep, but we didn’t account for the stress and exhaustion it would cause by keeping them awake and making them unhappy. It also took significantly longer to get them to settle down and sleep at night as they were overtired and fussy. The lesson for testing: don’t sacrifice other metrics for a small gain in one.

You can’t make me sleep!

Many of these tests were inconclusive. This is largely due to the sample size. With a sample population like Facebook, tests can be done in small segments and achieve statistical significance very quickly. With twins, it’s hard to know what is a real result and what is personality or natural progression. In order to more accurately test, we may need to increase the sample size. Triplets would come in handy for this. Maybe someone else’s triplets though, we are definitely not ready for that!

This also shows the importance of the test, measure, iterate process. Though several of the methods didn’t show large improvements, put together they may. By using the treatment as the control when it outperforms the control, small improvements get stacked. By continuing to try new things quickly and moving on, it’s easy to come up with new ideas to try. You don’t need to move the mountain, just move little handfuls of dirt over a long time. With this approach to parenting, the boys can continuously grow as well. And with luck, so will our sanity, well-being, and lives as parents.

This piece was originally published on Dad On The Run.