why i don’t like numbers

I have never liked numbers. Not even as a homeschooled kid, when my mom tried to trick me into enjoying math by introducing arithmetic in the form of fairies. (Plus was a happy fairy with a fat sack of jewels, Minus was always crying because her sack had a hole, etc.) I liked to draw the fairies, but I didn’t care how many jewels they each had and how the jewels might interact with other jewels. The cool thing about the jewels was that I figured out how to draw them in a way that made them appear to be sparkling. It took a while to master, but I got there.

Tangentially, I’ve always been into guys who were into numbers. Difference is exotic. Exotic is sexy. Math skill was like a suave accent—it suggested fluency in another realm, a place with mysterious, alluring customs.



The SAT was the first standardized test I ever took, and the night before I wrote a dark song about it. The day I got my results back, I wrote a poem about it. The poem was titled the number I’d gotten, and it was about how I didn’t want to be a number, I wanted to be a whole person. It was pretty melodramatic, but in general: When you try to make people into numbers, bad things happen. Or they’re already happening.

Bear thinks it’s practical sometimes. When we talk about whether or not we’d consider homeschooling Eden, he brings up testing—he thinks it’s often a good idea. I think because you have to learn to cope with failure and stay competitive and be unflinching in the face of regulation and seek to improve yourself in measurable ways. I’m not sure. It was nice to not be tested as a kid. I also enjoy not being tested as an adult. But I’m mostly fluffier than Bear about these things.


The other day I took Eden to the pediatrician and I was pretty proud because she was not crying the whole time, like at her last appointment. Actually, she smiled at the doctor. I wanted to talk about that. “Look! She’s smiling! Did you see that? She’s been doing that a lot. Every day, especially when she wakes up. I think that means that she is secretly happy, you know? Like, under the crying she’s this happy kid. It’s just waiting to surface and then she’ll probably always be happy. And she makes these little talk-y noises now…And she waves her arms! Did I mention she’s always waving her arms? It seems like she’s really developing a lot of abilities.”


(Eden waking up. Yes, sometimes I let her sleep in her clothes. Also I think I buy her boy clothes)

The pediatrician examined Eden and said she was doing really well. Then she printed out a chart that documented Eden’s development. Everything looked good except for one number. There was one very low number. And it corresponded with something every parent cares about.

I didn’t want to tell Bear, but then of course I did anyway. He started googling and seconds later came up with autism. I waved this idea away.

“Oh no! Late life spatial reasoning deficiencies!” he exclaimed dramatically, face down in his iphone.

I laughed.

“These numbers don’t even mean anything,” I said. “The doctor wasn’t even worried! She’s just a little baby!

But the next day, I began to see Eden a little differently. Was something disproportionate? Did she look a little off? A little defective? I squinted at her and tried a different angle. She’s fine. She’s fine! She looked adorable in her pink winter hat.


baby bear


But the number was stuck in my head. It had buried its sharp end like a tick and could not be cleanly removed.

Facts are important. I know this, of course. I am a big supporter of science. So I’m not at all saying we should walk around covering our ears and grinningly singing to ourselves in flagrant denial. Two of my friends have babies in intensive care units right now. I can’t comprehend anything about that—when I try I feel like my mind comes up short like Luke and Leia running away from the Storm Troopers onto that tiny ledge with the great mechanical gulf between them and the next doorway. I am writing this piece full of the heavy relief that comes from having a healthy baby when someone else’s isn’t. Thank god for facts and information that saves babies lives.

But then there are other facts—like the slight fluctuation in the numbers on the scale.  Like the failing grade I got in college when a TA wanted to teach me a lesson. Like all of the little persistent ways we measure each other and ourselves. It’s too easy to put too much meaning into these things. It’s hard, once you see a bad number, to unsee it. The way we’re often quick to forget compliments and yet the insults play forever on sickening repeat. It’s hard to keep negative information in the right context, especially when it comes in an official, standardized format.

Today a waiter convinced me to buy a bottle of crappy wine for too much money because I would get a chocolate croissant “for free.” Somehow, in the moment, he made it sound like a good deal. It’s embarrassing. I am bad at numbers. I’ve never liked them. I should work on it.

But since I was a little kid, drawing complex fairies with sparkling jewels, I’ve refused to believe that numbers define intelligence. And I keep learning.

I know now that I don’t want to see any more charts. I just want to look at my daughter and see how she waves her arms over her head with excitement and smiles when she wakes up and makes little emphatic gurgly sounds and looks right into my eyes and isn’t even always crying anymore. That’s progress. That’s amazing. And that’s all I need to know right now.


happy at doctor

(us at the doctor)

*  *  *

Do you remember feeling suddenly different after getting a bad number?

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in boots and leggings because it’s cool out and I get girly over fall fashion, at least to the extent that I am excited to wear boots with leggings again.


Kate on September 25th 2013 in fear, homeschooling, life, motherhood

27 Responses to “why i don’t like numbers”

  1. Katharine Lilley responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    First! At least now while I’m typing, anyway.

    I remember right after I had Emery, my third, a little over a year ago now, I had an ER visit due to sudden vision loss and numbness and tingling in my leg. I was terrified of a blood clot. I had just had a csection.

    They weighed me. I was a week postpartum. We don’t have a scale at home and I had felt really good and felt like I looked really good, my stomach was flattening, I could see my toes. But that number hit me like a a gust of wind blowing out a flame. All of the sudden I doubted what I thought I knew about myself. How could it be? And for a few moments in time that number was more important than why I was in the ER in the first place.

    That’s scary.

  2. San D responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    Thank goodness they didn’t have those kinds of tests when I was born! Our parents loved us to death and dealt with our being special the only way they knew how, with love and food! My husband is dyslexic, but only found out when he married me, the teacher, who was prepared for working with special education students. When I told him I thought he was, he was much relieved and it explained a lot. He then told his boss, who also was much relieved because it explained a lot. But up to that point, he just worked through it. We are much more than a number, but if we are given a “number” sometimes we live up to it, and don’t go beyond it, using the “number” as the box.

  3. Melanie S responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    I’ve been reading your blog for ages, but wanted to say YES, so much to this post! Not quite the same thing, but relates to letting testing define you, but I recently got over a genetic testing scare. My brother had done one of those internet genetic testing kits and it turned out he had the BRCA 1 gene. After finding that out, I had to get tested for that myself, but I was terrified about the results because of the impact it would have had on my life if I did have the gene. Luckily, 6 weeks after the test (it felt like forever!), I found out that I didn’t have the mutation! But, just from the level of anxiety I felt with the potential, I feel pretty sure that, had it been positive, that test result would definitely have been a defining force in my life. Maybe it’s the fact that as a homeschooler who didn’t get tested often, tests still give so much anxiety. (I was a wreck before the bar exam!)

    Also, that picture of Eden smiling is absolutely ADORABLE.

  4. Joe Cardillo responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    I was homeschooled and not a strong numbers person for a long time.

    Not that I’m crunching massive equations now, but I’ve gotten much better and I look at understanding the world in numbers as a valuable skill. But, causation and correlation are regularly misunderstood. Correlation is valuable but you truly cannot isolate success or failure based on one category or even a few (basically, true causation by limited variables is much rare than people think). Numbers, like humans, live in an ecosystem. When you consider that, it validates what sometimes is seen as the “soft sciences” which us think-y, creative types love so much.

    I don’t comment often, but really enjoy the blog. It’s awesome to see how your family is growing, and I like knowing there are people like you and Bear out there being good humans and raising a good human.

  5. Tammy responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    I don’t have kids, but it seems like a perfectly normal reaction to be concerned. Then you let it go. I’m sure you’ll have to do that a lot.. worry, then let it go.
    I know it’s not supposed to be about how she looks, but SHE IS TOTALLY ADORABLE!!! She’s at that perfect huggable size that I just love.
    You look incredibly happy and so does she. No number involved in that.

  6. Raven responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    I’m one of those weird wordsmiths who loves numbers. To me, math is a language and understanding it means understanding more about the basic workings of the universe. But as you’ve shown, some numbers are frightening, from standardized tests to blood tests. Your daughter will be fine. You’ll find ways to like numbers enough to teach her, whether you homeschool or send her to a formal school.

    And don’t change a thing about your buying habits. I bought clothes for both genders for my daughter (she’s always looked killer in a tailored suit), and I find girl’s clothes better suit my infant son. We should exchange wardrobe pieces we receive from well-meaning relatives. ;)

    If you’ve got the funds when she’s older (2T and up), check out Panachebox.

  7. deedee responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    I love this post! I hate numbers, too. Please enlighten me- what physical measurements are now being used as a possible indicator of autism? (Sounds like poppycock science to me! ;o) Eden is really a gem and I love, love, love how you seem to take any of the dfficulties in stride and with good humor.

  8. R responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Ah, but SOMEtimes, numbers can be really beautiful.

  9. Teresa responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 2:05 am #

    Parents often worry way out of proportion when their kids don’t achieve the ‘milestones’ in development. There are many variables. For example, I’ve heard about one person who never crawled but dragged herself all around the floor until she suddenly started to walk – much later than is considered normal. And who know why.

    Whenever I’ve seen parents being forceful with their kids trying to get them to achieve – potty or toilet training, for example – it always strikes me that what really concerns them is how other people will view their parenting skills.

    I don’t really know what the test is that your baby did badly on but she looks fine to me – absolutely gorgeous, in fact.

  10. Lyssa responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 7:52 am #

    I was homeschooled too, and can definitely say that testing wasn’t a positive experience for myself or any other homeschoolers that I knew! They were nothing more than a necessary evil to get into college. We don’t need external measures constantly threatening us for the good of our own developmental growth. We grow and change without tests based on our own abilities!

    *gets down off soapbox*

    Anyway, Eden is adorable : ) I understand the worrying about the numbers the doctor hands out. My daughter is 15 months and we go through the same thing.

  11. teegan responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 9:52 am #

    I love numbers. Testing, not so much (even though I was good at it in school). Sometimes when I think I really ought to buckle down and get a big girl job, I see myself teaching middle school math.

    And I know how you feel! Every time the ped wonders if he’s not gaining enough height or weight (he’s a little peanut, though Mark was smaller than he is as a baby), I get antsy. I love our doctor, but I’m always terrified she’ll find something horribly wrong with our parenting or with Thomas.

    That being said, Eden is completely adorable. I love the just-woke-up picture, especially the shirt!

  12. Haley responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 10:04 am #

    I’ll speak up as someone who is the opposite way: I love numbers, and I love testing! I realized quite young that doing well on a test earned me praise (99th percentile, how impressive!), and I’ve been good at figuring out standardized test questions, whether or not I know the material that they are trying to test on. But, this skill has nothing to do with real life! I’m in my first real adult job now, and I’m finding that teaching is much harder than answering a test about teaching, for example. You all with the soft skills are really much better prepared for much of life, in my opinion.

  13. Annie responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Word to all this! We have an almost-eight-month-old, and I can say that as they get older, you care about the “stats” less and less.

    Those first few months I remember being obsessed with the numbers. So many numbers. First it was those jaundice numbers, then weight, then the timing of breastfeeding sessions, then how much I was pumping, then how freaking big our little guy’s head was (and still is, to be honest…).

    It makes a big difference when you don’t have to go in for appointments as often. As much work as he is, it’s so much easier to enjoy him and all the funny things he does now that he’s more of a little person and less of a “collection of measurements.”

  14. Annie responded on 26 Sep 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    Oh, and PS- Eden gets the greatest expressions in those photos!

  15. Neeva responded on 27 Sep 2013 at 11:55 am #

    On the day we got home from the hospital, my son and I ‘failed’ the breastfeeding test, i.e. he didn’t drink anything between the weighings.
    Between that and a really bossy nurse we got so nervous, we bought a baby-scale first thing, so we could see if he was gaining weight. Didn’t help that he was small to begin with.

  16. Lynellekw responded on 27 Sep 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    I’m not particularly good with numbers. Never have been. Maths was the only subject I failed at school.

    BUT I always liked taking tests. Even the maths tests that I failed. I liked them enough that I entered science and maths and competitions because I enjoyed doing the exams. I remember someone coming to my school when I was about 8 to assess several kids for language skills, and begging my mother (who was the teacher) to let me do the test too (she asked the guy to test me also). I preferred exams to assignments all the way through school and university. I’m a bit weird like that.

    And also – the numbers they come up with in relation to child development don’t mean much in isolation. They’re only useful in the context of a series of numbers, and in combination with function and behaviour. The numbers help children who need extra help or therapy qualify for those services. At this point, one number alone isn’t even the littlest part of what defines Eden. :)

  17. Kande responded on 30 Sep 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    My favourite story of my daughter is when she came home from school with one of her report cards. She was only in grade school, a young grade, and it was the first report card of the year when they expect lower grades as the point of the year is to see progress (as if they could do everything perfectly right away then should be in a higher grade). Makes sense. But still, one area was a grade lower than every other area, so I questioned her about it. “So why do you have a “C” in this subject?”. Her response? “M’eh … at least it wasn’t a D!” and she cheerfully walked away.

    Of course grades and improvement in abilities are important in one sense. Of course I expect her to try her best and want to help her if she is trailing behind her peers.

    But there was something so honest – so refreshing – so (to this Type A school-work perfectionist) frickin’ amazing in her ability to take pleasure in her successes, to accept her weaknesses, and to choose to not be defined by a number – a grade – especially the one pointing out a supposed flaw – but instead be happy in just being who she was, knowing she tried her best, and moving on.

    Yes I did make sure she was indeed trying her best – and that she was able to keep up – and her grade did improve by year end.

    But her attitude – plus the fact that over the years it is very clear that her grades seem to correlate very well with the teaching skills and enthusiasm of her educators – help highlight why sometimes numbers aren’t nearly the full picture. Not at all. Of course be aware of outliers – one must ensure we aren’t glossing over real issues. But for the most part – just keep doing what you’re doing!

    I leave you with this quote, that thank God my kid has apparently learned all on her own: Comparison – is the thief of joy. (Theodore Roosevelt).

  18. Kate responded on 30 Sep 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    I LOVED this. Amazing story. Amazing kid.

  19. miliet responded on 30 Sep 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Somewhat tangential but those pictures are AWESOME! You seem to be radiating pride! XD

  20. sd responded on 01 Oct 2013 at 11:22 am #

    you guys are so cute and look so great! and you are looking pretty trim, i must say ;)
    i was sad before that your blog’s focus would be less on image and social issues and more on motherhood (i am 17 and not planning to be a mom any time soon!) but i really enjoy reading your posts still!
    you make me less scared of ever becoming a mother, like it’s something a selfish organism like myself could be capable of (eventually)
    and the whole autism thing is reminiscent of the fears we’ve had with my younger brother… mostly nothing to worry about, but it’s still scary!

  21. Stephanie responded on 02 Oct 2013 at 1:12 am #

    It is SO easy to let one thing strip away all the positives that we see and think about!

    I also wanted to say that Eden is so awesomely adorable and you both look so spunky and and beautiful at the dr office.

    To share, my daughter also cried all the time. “Colic” started on day 2 of life and was a daily part of our lives for over 10 months, to continue intermittently (along with reflux and, unfortunately, frequent vomitting for more than 5 years. I have yet to talk with a parent (in person) that really means “cries all the time” like I did. (I would hear– yeah we had a ‘little’ colic– and all I could think is how can you have just a little?!) I am certain that is wasn’t truly “all the time” but overall that is our memories of babyhood; BUT at 10 years old she is awesomely happy, content, creative, and a pure joy to spend my entire day with as we homeschool :) All that work and patience early on paid off!

  22. Kate responded on 02 Oct 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Do they develop these test just to make parents crazy? It’s hard enough keeping a little person alive as it is, good lord.

    Eden looks healthy and happy and loved and that is the only thing that can be measured right now. And you, lady, look that way too. Motherhood agrees with you just beautifully.

  23. Kate responded on 03 Oct 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    A “little” colic is funny.
    I like the idea of patience paying off. I keep noticing that so often parents seem to want to rush ahead or skip stages. I know I sometimes do. I’m thinking a lot about how maybe it’s OK to just wait things out and be patient.

  24. Kate responded on 03 Oct 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    thank you!! I mean, I blog. That’s SO self-involved. So yeah, there’s plenty of hope for you and anyone else who feels selfish at the moment :p

    I am a little worried about writing so much about being a mom, but then I’ve decided, what the hell, this is where I am right now so if I don’t write about it I will be writing about something I care about less instead, and then the writing won’t be as good. That’s what I tell myself, anyway…

  25. Raizel Rose responded on 15 Dec 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Hi Kate. I just want to say that I’m so glad that I recently came across your blog–I find it stimulating, funny, well-written and relatable! (We seem to have a lot in common, for we both enjoy writing, eating cake, children, and are both Jewish!) I found this post to be particularly relevant, especially since I am a first-year college student, and must constantly succumb to being labeled with silly numbers and letters. I have always been fascinated by the sociological implications of quantitative testing (testing seems more arbitrary than systematic, and labeling people with mere numbers seems to create unnecessary social barriers etc.). Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post!

    P.S. I also wrote a dark poem after I took a standardized test in high-school, and had TAs in my science classes this first semester who wanted to ‘teach me a lesson’ (which didn’t go all that well). Lastly, I just want to tell you that your little girl Eden is absolutely adorable, beautiful, and perfect the way she is. :)

  26. Kimi responded on 10 Feb 2014 at 12:05 am #

    Thank you, thank you very much that’s all I can say. :)

  27. Miguel Araujo responded on 01 Mar 2014 at 11:38 am #

    The numbers are good, but is ok i you do not like, i love the pic, good post