Google Is My Co-Parent

What Slate’s senior tech writer learned in his first four weeks of parenting.

Will Oremus on paternity leave.
Will Oremus (left).

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Photo by Thinkstock.

Senior technology writer Will Oremus just returned to work after four weeks of paternity leave. Can you hold an iPad while changing a diaper? Does Will even still know what technology is? He and his editor Jonathan L. Fischer discuss.

Jonathan L. Fischer: Will, welcome back from paternity leave! Do your eyes remember what a screen is?

Will Oremus: My phone has been getting a workout. Laptop, not so much.

Fischer: Since we’re here to discuss your technological habits and what toll parenthood has taken on them—and, maybe, what toll they take on parenthood!—can you tell me a bit about how you used technology on a day-to-day basis before your son, Ansel, was born?

Oremus: At work, I spend all day on my laptop. Mornings, nights, and weekends, I try to stay off it as much as I can, so that I can be a real person instead of an avatar. But I end up taking more frequent peeks at my phone than I’d care to admit, even to myself most of the time. And then when I wash the dishes I prop up my iPad by the sink and watch baseball. That is literally the only consistent use I have ever found for an iPad. (If anyone knows of others, please do let me know.)

Anyway, to give you an idea of how glued I am to the computer on an average workday, my wife told me she was in labor via Gchat. I have mixed feelings about Uber, but it was shift-change time for the taxis, so I dialed up an UberX from my phone as I rushed out of the office and rushed to meet my wife at the hospital. (She took a cab.)

Fischer: As I recall, you filed a story that night!

Oremus: That’s right! I was right on deadline when I got the fateful Gchat, so I slung together the last few paragraphs on my phone in the back of the Uber and sent them to you.

Post-baby, I took four weeks off of work, and my laptop fell into disuse pretty quickly. It demands a level of attention that I was never able to summon in the presence of a newborn. Also, lap space was in short supply.

I did have this romantic notion that I’d unplug altogether and just focus on being present with my son. That went out the window pretty quickly.

Fischer: Because of work?

Oremus: More due to cluelessness about parenting and that new parent paranoia that grips you every time your baby does something unexpected. You can only detain the nurses at the hospital with your stupid questions for so long before they have to go see other patients.

So I found myself Googling parenting questions. Constantly. The Google app on my phone became like our third co-parent. The doctors explicitly tell you not to do this. They talk about “Dr. Google” and how it will scare you unnecessarily and give you wrong information, and I’m sure they’re right, but I actually found that it calmed me down almost every time.

Fischer: What was one such scenario?

Oremus: Oh man, the list of questions I asked Google in the first few weeks could be a post of its own. My wife and I were happily fawning over our baby when I idly stroked his head and noticed to my chagrin that there was a big soft spot right in the center of his skull. Like, there was no skull there! I was momentarily convinced my baby was missing half of his head and the doctors had somehow overlooked it.

Thankfully, a top Google result for “baby head soft spot” is the Wikipedia page for fontanelle, which is the name for the totally normal soft spots that every baby has in his or her skull, where it just hasn’t fused yet. Phew. Thanks, Dr. Google!

Fischer: Were you able to keep up with technology coverage while you were out? Are you blissfully ignorant of reactions to the Apple Watch?

Oremus: So blissfully ignorant. What happened? Did billionaires camp out for days to secure the $17,000 gold ones? Have we already moved on to the backlash to the backlash?

The funny thing is that I never really thought I’d have much use for a smartwatch, because come on, how hard is it to pull your phone out of your pocket? But when you have a baby, it turns out it’s actually really hard!

Fischer: Huh! The parenting case for the Apple Watch. Or better yet, the parenting case for Google Glass?

Oremus: Ha! Yeah, believe it or not, that was actually one of the use cases Google emphasized to me when it was trying to convince me that Glass really was a good idea, back before Google itself realized it wasn’t that good an idea. You could shoot video and pictures of your kid while having your hands free to play with him.

In the absence of wearables, my computing habits have been mostly reduced to torturous efforts to withdraw my phone from my pocket to check the news or the sports scores without waking the precariously sleeping baby on my lap, or worse, dropping him.

Oh, and looking up song lyrics. When you have to sing your baby to sleep six times a day, you run up rather quickly against the limits of your mental baby-song catalogue. So in the last few days I’ve expanded my repertoire to include “What a Wonderful World,” “Rainbow Connection,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and at least half of “This Land Is Your Land,” which comes in handy because there are so many damn verses that you don’t get tired of them as fast. I also tried “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but my wife complained that it’s too sad and it’s going to make our baby sulky.

My wife uses the iPad while nursing, that seems to work well. Hey, there it is, the elusive second use case for the iPad!

Fischer: This may be a loaded question, but: Do you have a parenting philosophy toward technology yet? When will Ansel get an email address?

Oremus: An email address! First I’d like to see him get rudimentary control over his own limbs and bowels.

I think our attitude toward tech with regard to Ansel will probably evolve pretty organically out of the constant collisions between principle and expedience. Ideally I’d like him to grow up understanding that the best of life does not take place on a screen. As far as screen-time quotas, though, I don’t know. I feel like those reinforce the idea that virtual reality is the reward you get for suffering through the rest of the day. It shouldn’t be a forbidden fruit.

But what do I know? He’s 4½ weeks old, so I’m not going to judge parents who have been through a lot more than I have and have come to the conclusion that limiting screen time is the way to go.

I guess I just don’t think technology is evil or that a little exposure to television or Facebook or an iPad game is going to hopelessly corrupt an otherwise good kid. And I’m not a privacy absolutist, although I do plan to be circumspect about it until he reaches some semblance of an age of consent. For instance, we might post photos of him on Facebook (although we haven’t so far, which I think sets us apart from most parents of our generation), but if we do we’re not going to tag him in them. Let him decide when he’s older whether he’s OK with surveillance cameras being able to pick him out of a crowd via face recognition and pull up his file on someone’s screen.

Fischer: Luckily, when anyone Googles him, this article will be behind a paywall! Anyway, what’s the state of your Netflix queue?

Oremus: Even more than TV or movies, the medium we’ve rediscovered since becoming parents is the radio. Not even podcasts, just the actual old-school radio, antenna and all. There’s nothing better than late-night NPR for keeping yourself awake while you’re trying to soothe the baby back to sleep at 4 a.m. Reruns of the Leonard Lopate Show: the true killer app for new parents.