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So You're Going To Be An Indie Parent
It seems like half the indie devs I know are having babies for the first time either basically right now or in the very near future. This is the "advice" I usually give based on our experience.
October 7, 2015
8 Min Read
I’ve been meaning to make some notes about what it’s like to be a fun-employed dad in a creative industry. Now’s as good a time as any I suppose. Also shoutouts to Kert Gartner, who’s talked about this stuff before too. Oh and my best friend haha, with a particular focus on moms in indie games.
So yea lately I feel like I’ve been having the same conversation over and over, which I don’t mind but always makes me think “hmm I should write this down.” This conversation starts like this: “We’re having our first child soon! We’re excited but sort of terrified. How does this work??”
The way it works is this: you are about to do the best work of your life. You are about to become fully realized in ways you never even imagined. Your understanding of what you are capable of, and what you and your partner are capable of together, is going to be sort of humbling and inspiring at the same time. You’re going to be filled with regret about all the time you wasted before this - you could have made 10x as many games instead of perfecting that Dark Souls speedrun - but then those are the experiences that made you who you are so deal with it. Dealing with that is good practice because dealing with things is what you are going to do now.
A quick assurance about output: I did the best work of my life only after our kids were born. It feels like we’re playing for keeps now. Time spent on the computer is The Real Deal. If you’re into that feeling, that sense that you are spending your time well, parenting is kind of a constant adrenaline high, spinning plates and juggling tasks at a level that would make champion League players take notice.
I think some people are able to do this naturally, without the pressure of oh shit what if I fail my growing family, but for us the external demands did change and also changed our perspective. On some level, at least for us, we’ve become Just Plain Better People. Demands will be made of your ability to empathize, to relate, to forgive, to be patient, to get up earlier, to focus more, to GIVE more. It’s easier than it sounds because in all likelihood you will WANT this, because this is what makes it work.
That said, there have been specific things where my expectations didn’t really align much with reality, that I would love to just note here, in case it overlaps with anyone else, or helps with those jittery 9 months before The Big Day.
Recreational video games, or recreational anythings really, are probably going to be a thing of the past, for you, for a few years. There will be some exceptions, but the way it’s worked for me is something like this: in any given day, I’ve got… maybe 16-18 hours of Being Awake Time. A chunk of that time is probably going to be dedicated to the aforementioned creative industry in which you choose to work because you’re a passionate idiot. A chunk of that time is going to go to just raw maintenance - fixing things, cleaning things, improving things (including yourself). A chunk of that time is going to go to family. A chunk of that time is going to go to… bleh let’s call it “media consumption”… but that includes movies, books, etc, as well as games. The hours in the day are going to be shorter, and you’re going to have to decide what to do with them. For us, spending our work time on games frequently means spending our recreational time with movies, TV, novels, and non-fiction books… and yes, sometimes games. But the all-night CS:GO servers and DotA2 marathons are probably not going to cut it.
And let’s be honest some weeks, the amount of recreation time you’re going to have at all is just not going to be much. Period. But every week is different.
And you’ll feel pretty good about this, because if it’s not obvious this is a CHOICE you are making now. This isn’t a situation of “ugh my family is taking away my video games”, it’s more like “oh man. i like this game but i don’t think i have time for a 7th hobby right now, I want to play blocks with my hilarious two year old instead.”
Will it suck to play Splatoon less? In some ways. But Splatoon will still be around when your kids go off to kindergarten in a few years, and you can play ALL MORNING while they’re at school. Suckers!!
You are going to have less wiggle room in general. This is kind of a catch-all term that we use for lots of things around here - schedules, mistakes, last minute meetings, visitors popping in, spontaneous appointments, sleeping in, budgets, monthly burn rates, and so on. This was a thing that I absolutely took for granted and despite not having any particularly rosy view of the future was legitimately surprised to see it disappear almost entirely, especially after child number two arrived.
This is the thing about things you take for granted though - you kind of can’t anticipate them disappearing because you don’t even know they’re there.
Anyways, for me it works like this now. Did you stay up too late last night? Too bad. You’re up at 7am anyways, and there’s no time to nap. That is Sleep Lost Forever. Don’t miss bedtime!
Impulse-purchased a bunch of stuff? Well, this makes groceries tricky, because the only other option is to take the kids out of preschool, which is about eleven different kinds of catastrophic.
Want to go out to eat? Figure it out as far in advance if you can. Babysitters have crazy schedules and you have to accommodate that if you want some of that sweet, sweet alone time.
Again this sounds kind of grim or scary, but most of the time it actually just feels like your schedule MATTERS now. Even simple things are significant and meaningful. You may find that it’s a lot easier to be honest about what you need and don’t need when push comes to shove.
If there are two of you, I cannot underestimate the value of mutual buy-in and planning. You’re a team. For the next twenty years you are running some kind of mutant hybrid boarding school / bed and breakfast / playground / nursery / thing called a “home” and just like in any other relationship if you make too many assumptions in an environment where we’ve already acknowledged there’s a lack of wiggle room then you are hurting your partner.
Don’t hurt your partner. Do your best to plan ahead, talk about the pros and cons, and agree to a way forward that addresses everyone’s concerns as much as possible. This process takes time, you need time to think and breathe in order to do this, and that’s hard even with a shared burden, but it’s worth it. Find a way to make it happen, it will pay off in the long run.
(Insert some metaphor here about investing in the right Starcraft structures early in the build order for that big late-game payoff.)
Last but not least, it’s gonna be fine. So, our brains do this thing that is totally out of our control and super helpful in most scenarios, but backfires sometimes, and it works something like this:
If you have a rough hour of your day, it doesn’t really shake you up. If you have a rough day, you might be disappointed and/or have double of bourbon before bed, but tomorrow’s another day. If you have a few rough days in a row, it can start to feel kind of desperate. What if this is how things are from now on? What if this is what the rest of your life is going to be like?
Should you get a new car? Would that help? What about a new job? What if we’re not cut out for parenting? What if we’re not cut out to be parents together?
Raising kids can be a daunting black box operation. You try lots of different things, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an observable effect at first. Even though the basic ‘rules’ of parenting are pretty much the same for everyone, every child is so incomprehensibly different in such fundamental ways that you will inevitably spend a lot of time goofing up. You will also spend a lot of time guessing right on the first try, but the mistakes will be easier to notice.
If you make a lot of mistakes for a few days in a row, which is literally inevitable, then you can get into this dark place, where you kind of automatically project the current mistake-heavy trough as the entire future landscape, when really you just have to hang in there for another day or two, make that next breakthrough, and get up above water again.
It’s gonna be fine.
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