A Numbers Game


I have always been a woman of words, so it came as something of a surprise how motherhood has made me fixated on numbers. And not necessarily in a good way. It seems to be a thing these days, a tendency: to tally, to count, to know where your children stand in one numerical line or other. A normal means of marking time and gauging development, for sure. But also, let’s be honest, a confidence booster in the face of the uncertain work of parenting that all is well and, in some instances, that all is better than well.

It started in the hospital, this obsession, when my first child was born. Actually, no, it started before that, with the ticking off of months then weeks then days until he arrived. 8 days late, but he was big and I was proud. An Apgar score of 9 after 1 minute, his hands and feet a dusky blue, but a perfect 10 after 5. 8 pounds 13 ounces, or as the cupped scale in the UK hospital told me: 4 kilograms precisely. I began to breastfeed him, watching the clock as I went, 25 minutes on one side, 10 minutes on the other. I couldn’t see how much was going in, so I counted what was coming out instead. How many pees today, how many poos? Let’s get him back on the scale. 75% for weight, 91% for height, we charted his growth intently that first year, the dots on the page stretching out like a broken constellation.

The next pregnancy was 1 baby, but the pregnancy after that was 2. I wasn’t gaining enough weight. The morning sickness was legion, turning me inside out, turning me green. 19 weeks it lasted, 19 weeks until I could peel the sea bands off my wrists, the skin there chafed and dappled where the pressure points sat. I started playing new number games, as the fear of prematurity took hold. How long could I carry them for? How big would they be? How much time in the NICU? 38 weeks. 38 weeks before they were cut from me. 6 pounds 14 ounces, that was twin number 1. Twin number 2 was 6 pounds 4 ounces. I’ll do the math for you, that’s 13 pounds 2 ounces altogether. 3 days in hospital, they never left my side.

Feeding 2 babies is an ordeal. Hour upon hour with a breast pump balanced on my knees. The whirring and the drip-drip-drip and the don’t waste a drop. Every day I counted how many ounces I pumped, how many millilitres, depending on which side of the bottle was facing forward. There were days when it cracked into the 100s. I siphoned off the milk, making sure the lines were even. So I knew how much they were getting, that they were getting the same, so I could make sure they would sleep. She slept through the night at 10 weeks old, 10 hours the first time, but then a dream feed at 10 p.m. and she was sleeping the full 12. He was up 2 times a night, but still managing a near 7-hour stretch.

With my babies, it was the high numbers that were good. Steady weight gains, long patches of sleep. When the babies became toddlers, it was the low numbers. The low numbers were good, because the earlier they could do something, the better. The less I had to worry. Son number 1 walked at 15.5 months, but son number 2 walked at 11. He also said his first true word at 11 months, but my daughter said hers at 10. It was actually 2 words, “all gone,” except she blended them to the tune of “ah-gah.” I counted their words, until I couldn’t count them anymore. And then I counted as they put them together, small edifices of syntax. By 2 years old, my first child could say a 7 word sentence: “I see a man riding a bike.” It seemed important and relevant at the time, 2 nouns, 2 verbs, 1 pronoun and partridge in a pear tree.

Son number 1 started school when he was almost 5. Son number 2 when he was 4.5, son number 3 will start, with his sister, when they are 5.5. The school years extend before us, with so many more numbers to bandy about. Test scores and reading ages, rankings and percentiles. The Apgar, it turns out, was only the beginning. Soon they will be measuring themselves, reporting back to me or not, how many birthday parties, how many first-place trophies, how many Facebook friends.

The desire to quantify experience is human. It goes back to the beginnings of time. The compulsion to quantify our children to the extent we do is far more recent. There is so much anxiety in modern parenting and there are so many yardsticks available to us, it’s no wonder we use the second to quell the first. We put our faith in weeks in utero and ounces fed and pounds gained and hours slept and words spoken and milestones hit on time because we want, desperately so, for our children to be healthy. And we want them to be special. These numbers are the ticket, the golden ticket of reassurance.

But they can also make us fret. The paradox of numbers is that they drive, at once, both reassurance and anxiety. We cling to them seeking the former, yet often inadvertently we end up with the latter. Normal is such a vast range. Normal is the petite baby who isn’t gaining weight at the pace of her pudgy playmates; normal is the quiet toddler who isn’t stringing his sentences together as eloquently as his brother; normal is the Kindergartener who doesn’t yet read, even though many of his classmates do. Numbers inspire ready comparisons and comparisons pave the way for competition. Competition can be healthy. It can also be harmful.

I understand why numbers matter for children, as problem spotters as much as pats on the back. I understand it all too well. But sometimes I just want to stop counting.


Lauren Apfel is originally from New York, but now lives in Glasgow, Scotland (thanks to the Brit she married). A published classicist turned stay-at-home mom of four (including twins), Lauren thinks less about the Greeks these days and more about parenting, the tragedy and comedy alike. She writes regularly at www.omnimom.net. Connect with her on Facebook  and on Twitter.

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  • http://bloginhunglish.wordpress.com Zsofi

    I don’t remember being too much into numbers when Sam was born, but what I do remember is that during the first few weeks I was so exhausted that when I tried to calculate when the next feeding time would be — you know, just adding 3 to whatever hour of the day it was — I couldn’t do it and I had to actually count it out on my fingers. :-) Numbers, time… They all take over our lives!

  • http://a3bernstein@wordpress.com Ariel

    Oh, I can relate to this as I’m sure a lot of parents can! The focus on milestone and percentage numbers can drive you a little crazy until you somehow learn to let it go. Still working on letting it go at times :). Great post!

  • http://ninabadzin.com Nina

    This right here is something we all need to remember– for adults, too—> “Normal is such a vast range”

  • Elizabeth Catalano

    Totally relate to this. Plus those early fevers. How high before I called the doctor. And now she counts too. How many more bites of dinner before she can get up from her chair, and if she pees in the potty, will she ask for one or two M&Ms? Count on it!

  • Jessica

    Somehow we mostly managed to escape this…and given the anxiety I could feel rising as Iread the (well written!) essay I’m very glad we did. We got off the medical model of birth early with family practice doctors and midwives who focus on the person instead of the numbers. We homeschool(ed) in a manner that again looked at the person, not their relative standing; and my oldest is even getting ready to take off to a college that doesn’t do grades ;-). One of my children has had some health concerns that kept the numbers much more relevant, but we could make them only a part of the picture. It is possible in many respects to walk away from the quantification…It all depends on where we put our focus. Thank you for the reminder!