TEDWomen 2010

Rufus Griscom + Alisa Volkman: Let's talk parenting taboos

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Babble.com publishers Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, in a lively tag-team, expose 4 facts that parents never, ever admit -- and why they should. Funny and honest, for parents and nonparents alike.

- Website co-founders
Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman co-founded Babble, a website for parents. He’s the CEO, she’s the VP of sales strategy and brand development, and they have three sons. Full bio

Alisa Volkman: So this is where our story begins --
00:18
the dramatic moments of the birth
00:21
of our first son, Declan.
00:23
Obviously a really profound moment,
00:25
and it changed our lives in many ways.
00:27
It also changed our lives in many unexpected ways,
00:29
and those unexpected ways we later reflected on,
00:31
that eventually spawned a business idea between the two of us,
00:34
and a year later, we launched Babble,
00:36
a website for parents.
00:38
Rufus Griscom: Now I think of our story
00:40
as starting a few years earlier. AV: That's true.
00:42
RG: You may remember, we fell head over heels in love.
00:45
AV: We did.
00:48
RG: We were at the time running a very different kind of website.
00:50
It was a website called Nerve.com,
00:52
the tagline of which was "literate smut."
00:54
It was in theory, and hopefully in practice,
00:57
a smart online magazine
01:00
about sex and culture.
01:02
AV: That spawned a dating site.
01:05
But you can understand the jokes that we get. Sex begets babies.
01:08
You follow instructions on Nerve and you should end up on Babble,
01:10
which we did.
01:13
And we might launch a geriatric site as our third. We'll see.
01:15
RG: But for us, the continuity between Nerve and Babble
01:19
was not just the life stage thing,
01:22
which is, of course, relevant,
01:24
but it was really more about
01:26
our desire to speak very honestly
01:28
about subjects that people have difficulty speaking honestly about.
01:30
It seems to us that
01:33
when people start dissembling, people start lying about things,
01:35
that's when it gets really interesting.
01:38
That's a subject that we want to dive into.
01:40
And we've been surprised to find, as young parents,
01:42
that there are almost more taboos around parenting
01:44
than there are around sex.
01:47
AV: It's true. So like we said,
01:49
the early years were really wonderful,
01:51
but they were also really difficult.
01:53
And we feel like some of that difficulty
01:55
was because of this false advertisement around parenting.
01:57
(Laughter)
02:00
We subscribed to a lot of magazines, did our homework,
02:02
but really everywhere you look around, we were surrounded by images like this.
02:05
And we went into parenting
02:08
expecting our lives to look like this.
02:10
The sun was always streaming in, and our children would never be crying.
02:12
I would always be perfectly coiffed and well rested,
02:15
and in fact, it was not like that at all.
02:19
RG: When we lowered the glossy parenting magazine
02:21
that we were looking at, with these beautiful images,
02:24
and looked at the scene in our actual living room,
02:26
it looked a little bit more like this.
02:28
These are our three sons.
02:30
And of course, they're not always crying and screaming,
02:32
but with three boys, there's a decent probability
02:34
that at least one of them will not be comporting himself
02:36
exactly as he should.
02:38
AV: Yes, you can see where the disconnect was happening for us.
02:40
We really felt like what we went in expecting
02:43
had nothing to do with what we were actually experiencing,
02:46
and so we decided we really wanted to give it to parents straight.
02:49
We really wanted to let them understand
02:52
what the realities of parenting were in an honest way.
02:55
RG: So today, what we would love to do
02:58
is share with you four parenting taboos.
03:00
And of course, there are many more than four things
03:03
you can't say about parenting,
03:05
but we would like to share with you today
03:07
four that are particularly relevant for us personally.
03:09
So the first, taboo number one:
03:12
you can't say you didn't fall in love with your baby
03:15
in the very first minute.
03:18
I remember vividly, sitting there in the hospital.
03:20
We were in the process of giving birth to our first child.
03:23
AV: We, or I?
03:26
RG: I'm sorry.
03:28
Misuse of the pronoun.
03:30
Alisa was very generously in the process
03:32
of giving birth to our first child -- (AV: Thank you.)
03:34
-- and I was there with a catcher's mitt.
03:36
And I was there with my arms open.
03:38
The nurse was coming at me
03:40
with this beautiful, beautiful child,
03:42
and I remember, as she was approaching me,
03:44
the voices of friends saying,
03:46
"The moment they put the baby in your hands,
03:49
you will feel a sense of love that will come over you
03:51
that is [on] an order of magnitude more powerful
03:54
than anything you've ever experienced in your entire life."
03:56
So I was bracing myself for the moment.
03:59
The baby was coming,
04:01
and I was ready for this Mack truck of love
04:03
to just knock me off my feet.
04:05
And instead, when the baby was placed in my hands,
04:08
it was an extraordinary moment.
04:11
This picture is from literally a few seconds after
04:13
the baby was placed in my hands and I brought him over.
04:16
And you can see, our eyes were glistening.
04:19
I was overwhelmed with love and affection for my wife,
04:21
with deep, deep gratitude
04:24
that we had what appeared to be a healthy child.
04:26
And it was also, of course, surreal.
04:28
I mean, I had to check the tags and make sure.
04:30
I was incredulous, "Are you sure this is our child?"
04:32
And this was all quite remarkable.
04:34
But what I felt towards the child at that moment was deep affection,
04:37
but nothing like what I feel for him now, five years later.
04:40
And so we've done something here
04:43
that is heretical.
04:45
We have charted
04:47
our love for our child over time.
04:50
(Laughter)
04:53
This, as you know, is an act of heresy.
04:55
You're not allowed to chart love.
04:58
The reason you're not allowed to chart love
05:00
is because we think of love as a binary thing.
05:02
You're either in love, or you're not in love.
05:04
You love, or you don't love.
05:06
And I think the reality is that love is a process,
05:08
and I think the problem with thinking of love
05:11
as something that's binary
05:13
is that it causes us
05:15
to be unduly concerned
05:17
that love is fraudulent, or inadequate, or what have you.
05:19
And I think I'm speaking obviously here to the father's experience.
05:22
But I think a lot of men do go through this sense
05:25
in the early months, maybe their first year,
05:27
that their emotional response is inadequate in some fashion.
05:30
AV: Well, I'm glad Rufus is bringing this up,
05:33
because you can notice where he dips in the first years
05:35
where I think I was doing most of the work.
05:38
But we like to joke,
05:41
in the first few months of all of our children's lives,
05:43
this is Uncle Rufus.
05:45
(Laughter)
05:47
RG: I'm a very affectionate uncle, very affectionate uncle.
05:49
AV: Yes, and I often joke with Rufus when he comes home
05:51
that I'm not sure he would actually be able to find our child in a line-up
05:54
amongst other babies.
05:57
So I actually threw a pop quiz here onto Rufus.
05:59
RG: Uh oh.
06:01
AV: I don't want to embarrass him too much. But I am going to give him three seconds.
06:03
RG: That is not fair. This is a trick question. He's not up there, is he?
06:06
AV: Our eight-week-old son is somewhere in here,
06:09
and I want to see if Rufus can actually quickly identify him.
06:12
RG: The far left. AV: No!
06:14
(Laughter)
06:16
RG: Cruel.
06:23
AV: Nothing more to be said.
06:25
(Laughter)
06:27
I'll move on to taboo number two.
06:29
You can't talk about how lonely having a baby can be.
06:31
I enjoyed being pregnant. I loved it.
06:34
I felt incredibly connected to the community around me.
06:36
I felt like everyone was participating in my pregnancy, all around me,
06:39
tracking it down till the actual due-date.
06:42
I felt like I was a vessel of the future of humanity.
06:46
That continued into the the hospital. It was really exhilarating.
06:49
I was shower with gifts and flowers and visitors.
06:52
It was a really wonderful experience,
06:55
but when I got home,
06:58
I suddenly felt very disconnected
07:00
and suddenly shut in and shut out,
07:02
and I was really surprised by those feelings.
07:05
I did expect it to be difficult,
07:07
have sleepless nights, constant feedings,
07:09
but I did not expect the feelings
07:11
of isolation and loneliness that I experienced,
07:13
and I was really surprised that no one had talked to me,
07:16
that I was going to be feeling this way.
07:18
And I called my sister
07:20
whom I'm very close to -- and had three children --
07:22
and I asked her, "Why didn't you tell me
07:25
I was going to be feeling this way,
07:27
that I was going to have these -- feeling incredibly isolated?"
07:29
And she said -- I'll never forget --
07:33
"It's just not something you want to say to a mother
07:35
that's having a baby for the first time."
07:37
RG: And of course, we think
07:40
it's precisely what you really should be saying
07:42
to mothers who have kids for the first time.
07:45
And that this, of course, one of the themes for us
07:48
is that we think
07:51
that candor and brutal honesty
07:53
is critical to us collectively
07:55
being great parents.
07:57
And it's hard not to think
07:59
that part of what leads to this sense of isolation
08:01
is our modern world.
08:03
So Alisa's experience is not isolated.
08:05
So your 58 percent of mothers surveyed
08:07
report feelings of loneliness.
08:09
Of those, 67 percent are most lonely
08:11
when their kids are zero to five -- probably really zero to two.
08:13
In the process of preparing this,
08:16
we looked at how some other cultures around the world
08:18
deal with this period of time,
08:20
because here in the Western world,
08:23
less than 50 percent of us live near our family members,
08:25
which I think is part of why this is such a tough period.
08:28
So to take one example among many:
08:31
in Southern India
08:33
there's a practice known as jholabhari,
08:35
in which the pregnant woman, when she's seven or eight months pregnant,
08:37
moves in with her mother
08:40
and goes through a series of rituals and ceremonies,
08:42
give birth and returns home to her nuclear family
08:44
several months after the child is born.
08:47
And this is one of many ways
08:49
that we think other cultures offset this kind of lonely period.
08:51
AV: So taboo number three:
08:54
you can't talk about your miscarriage -- but today I'll talk about mine.
08:56
So after we had Declan,
08:59
we kind of recalibrated our expectations.
09:01
We thought we actually could go through this again
09:03
and thought we knew what we would be up against.
09:06
And we were grateful that I was able to get pregnant,
09:09
and I soon learned that we were having a boy,
09:12
and then when I was five months,
09:14
we learned that we had lost our child.
09:16
This is actually the last little image we have of him.
09:18
And it was obviously a very difficult time --
09:22
really painful.
09:24
As I was working through that mourning process,
09:27
I was amazed that I didn't want to see anybody.
09:30
I really wanted to crawl into a hole,
09:33
and I didn't really know how I was going
09:36
to work my way back into my surrounding community.
09:38
And I realize, I think, the way I was feeling that way,
09:41
is on a really deep gut level,
09:44
I was feeling a lot of shame
09:46
and embarrassed, frankly,
09:49
that, in some respects, I had failed
09:51
at delivering what I'm genetically engineered to do.
09:53
And of course, it made me question,
09:56
if I wasn't able to have another child,
09:58
what would that mean for my marriage,
10:00
and just me as a woman.
10:02
So it was a very difficult time.
10:04
As I started working through it more,
10:06
I started climbing out of that hole and talking with other people.
10:08
I was really amazed
10:11
by all the stories that started flooding in.
10:13
People I interacted with daily,
10:15
worked with, was friends with,
10:17
family members that I had known a long time,
10:19
had never shared with me their own stories.
10:21
And I just remember feeling all these stories came out of the woodwork,
10:23
and I felt like I happened upon
10:26
this secret society of women that I now was a part of,
10:28
which was reassuring and also really concerning.
10:31
And I think,
10:35
miscarriage is an invisible loss.
10:37
There's not really a lot of community support around it.
10:39
There's really no ceremony,
10:41
rituals, or rites.
10:43
And I think, with a death, you have a funeral, you celebrate the life,
10:45
and there's a lot of community support,
10:48
and it's something women don't have with miscarriage.
10:50
RG: Which is too bad because, of course,
10:52
it's a very common and very traumatic experience.
10:54
Fifteen to 20 percent of all pregnancies result in miscarriage,
10:56
and I find this astounding.
10:59
In a survey, 74 percent of women said
11:01
that miscarriage, they felt, was partly their fault, which is awful.
11:03
And astoundingly, 22 percent
11:06
said they would hide a miscarriage from their spouse.
11:08
So taboo number four:
11:10
you can't say that your average happiness
11:12
has declined since having a child.
11:15
The party line is that every single aspect of my life
11:18
has just gotten dramatically better
11:21
ever since I participated
11:23
in the miracle that is childbirth and family.
11:25
I'll never forget, I remember vividly to this day,
11:29
our first son, Declan, was nine months old,
11:32
and I was sitting there on the couch,
11:35
and I was reading Daniel Gilbert's wonderful book, "Stumbling on Happiness."
11:37
And I got about two-thirds of the way through,
11:40
and there was a chart on the right-hand side --
11:42
on the right-hand page --
11:45
that we've labeled here
11:47
"The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable
11:49
for a New Parent."
11:51
This chart is comprised of four completely independent studies.
11:53
Basically, there's this precipitous drop
11:56
of marital satisfaction,
11:59
which is closely aligned, we all know, with broader happiness,
12:01
that doesn't rise again
12:04
until your first child goes to college.
12:06
So I'm sitting here looking at the next two decades of my life,
12:09
this chasm of happiness
12:12
that we're driving our proverbial convertible straight into.
12:14
We were despondent.
12:17
AV: So you can imagine, I mean again, the first few months were difficult,
12:20
but we'd come out of it,
12:22
and were really shocked to see this study.
12:24
So we really wanted to take a deeper look at it
12:26
in hopes that we would find a silver lining.
12:29
RG: And that's when it's great to be running a website for parents,
12:31
because we got this incredible reporter
12:33
to go and interview all the scientists
12:36
who conducted these four studies.
12:39
We said, something is wrong here.
12:41
There's something missing from these studies.
12:43
It can't possibly be that bad.
12:45
So Liz Mitchell did a wonderful job with this piece,
12:49
and she interviewed four scientists,
12:52
and she also interviewed Daniel Gilbert,
12:55
and we did indeed find a silver lining.
12:57
So this is our guess
12:59
as to what this baseline of average happiness
13:01
arguably looks like throughout life.
13:04
Average happiness is, of course, inadequate,
13:06
because it doesn't speak
13:08
to the moment-by-moment experience,
13:10
and so this is what we think it looks like
13:12
when you layer in
13:15
moment-to-moment experience.
13:17
And so we all remember as children,
13:20
the tiniest little thing -- and we see it on the faces of our children --
13:22
the teeniest little thing
13:25
can just rocket them to these heights
13:27
of just utter adulation,
13:29
and then the next teeniest little thing
13:31
can cause them just to plummet to the depths of despair.
13:33
And it's just extraordinary to watch, and we remember it ourselves.
13:35
And then, of course, as you get older,
13:38
it's almost like age is a form of lithium.
13:40
As you get older, you become more stable.
13:42
And part of what happens, I think, in your '20s and '30s,
13:45
is you start to learn to hedge your happiness.
13:48
You start to realize that
13:50
"Hey, I could go to this live music event
13:52
and have an utterly transforming experience
13:55
that will cover my entire body with goosebumps,
13:57
but it's more likely that I'll feel claustrophobic
14:00
and I won't be able to get a beer.
14:02
So I'm not going to go.
14:05
I've got a good stereo at home. So, I'm not going to go."
14:07
So your average happiness goes up,
14:10
but you lose those transcendent moments.
14:13
AV: Yeah, and then you have your first child,
14:15
and then you really resubmit yourself
14:18
to these highs and lows --
14:20
the highs being the first steps, the first smile,
14:22
your child reading to you for the first time --
14:25
the lows being, our house, any time from six to seven every night.
14:27
But you realize you resubmit yourself
14:32
to losing control in a really wonderful way,
14:34
which we think provides a lot of meaning to our lives
14:37
and is quite gratifying.
14:39
RG: And so in effect,
14:41
we trade average happiness.
14:43
We trade the sort of security and safety
14:45
of a certain level of contentment
14:47
for these transcendent moments.
14:49
So where does that leave the two of us
14:52
as a family with our three little boys
14:54
in the thick of all this?
14:56
There's another factor in our case.
14:58
We have violated yet another taboo
15:00
in our own lives,
15:02
and this is a bonus taboo.
15:04
AV: A quick bonus taboo for you, that we should not be working together,
15:07
especially with three children --
15:10
and we are.
15:12
RG: And we had reservations about this on the front end.
15:14
Everybody knows, you should absolutely not work with your spouse.
15:17
In fact, when we first went out to raise money to start Babble,
15:20
the venture capitalists said,
15:23
"We categorically don't invest
15:25
in companies founded by husbands and wives,
15:27
because there's an extra point of failure.
15:29
It's a bad idea. Don't do it."
15:31
And we obviously went forward. We did.
15:33
We raised the money, and we're thrilled that we did,
15:35
because in this phase of one's life,
15:38
the incredibly scarce resource is time.
15:40
And if you're really passionate about what you do every day -- which we are --
15:43
and you're also passionate about your relationship,
15:46
this is the only way we know how to do it.
15:48
And so the final question that we would ask is:
15:51
can we collectively bend that happiness chart upwards?
15:53
It's great that we have these transcendent moments of joy,
15:56
but they're sometimes pretty quick.
15:59
And so how about that average baseline of happiness?
16:02
Can we move that up a little bit?
16:05
AV: And we kind of feel that the happiness gap, which we talked about,
16:07
is really the result of walking into parenting --
16:10
and really any long-term partnership for that matter --
16:12
with the wrong expectations.
16:14
And if you have the right expectations and expectation management,
16:16
we feel like it's going to be a pretty gratifying experience.
16:19
RG: And so this is what --
16:22
And we think that a lot of parents,
16:24
when you get in there -- in our case anyway --
16:26
you pack your bags for a trip to Europe, and you're really excited to go.
16:28
Get out of the airplane,
16:31
it turns out you're trekking in Nepal.
16:33
And trekking in Nepal is an extraordinary experience,
16:35
particularly if you pack your bags properly
16:38
and you know what you're getting in for and you're psyched.
16:40
So the point of all this for us today
16:42
is not just hopefully honesty for the sake of honesty,
16:44
but a hope that by being more honest and candid about these experiences,
16:47
that we can all collectively
16:50
bend that happiness baseline up a little bit.
16:52
RG + AV: Thank you.
16:55
(Applause)
16:57

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About the Speaker:

Rufus Griscom + Alisa Volkman - Website co-founders
Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman co-founded Babble, a website for parents. He’s the CEO, she’s the VP of sales strategy and brand development, and they have three sons.

Why you should listen

Alisa Volkman co-founded Babble with her husband, Rufus Griscom, in December 2006, and has spent the past four years growing the site to attract more than 4 million parents a month. As VP of Sales Strategy and Brand Development, Volkman oversees design, influences product development, and creates and sells custom ad programs.

Griscom serves as Babble’s CEO. He was co-founder of the pathbreaking Nerve.com in 1997, as the website’s founding editor and CEO. In the decade that followed, Griscom grew Nerve Media into a profitable website and online dating business, in the process spinning off Spring Street Networks. He serves as an advisor to several New York-based internet companies. Volkman and Griscom have three sons, Declan, Grey and the brand-new Rye.

More profile about the speaker
Rufus Griscom + Alisa Volkman | Speaker | TED.com