Live From My Prime Childbearing Years
Babies make me squeamish. I can’t figure out if the root of the problem is a strong lack of babysitting gigs throughout my middle- and high-school years, or if it goes back further, to the point at which some gene for maternal impulses failed to develop in the womb. And it is a problem, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like babies? Babies are soft and small and innocent and completely dependent on your tender care in exchange for their unconditional love. They’re like kittens and puppies except better because kittens and puppies can’t smile or laugh or grow up to be people.
We’re probably supposed to favor human young, evolutionarily speaking, but I’d rather have a ten-week-old beagle than a ten-week-old person any day. And I’d rather not volunteer to hold anyone’s infant, either. Not because I don’t know how – I know how. Cradle it close, support the head, and sway a little so it feels loved — or something. I’m not entirely clear on the logic of swaying, but that’s how it’s done. I’ve seen it.
But still, babies make me squeamish, and I’m not really sure what to do with the two-to-twelve set in general, either. Other girls enjoyed being around children as we were growing up, and they sought opportunities to do so, like watching the neighbors’ kids or a sibling or, in the case of one friend, volunteering to work in the nursery room at her church. All the kids in that room had to be reasonably dissatisfied with being at once separated from their parents and facing an hour of coloring in outlines of Jesus as entertainment. But Jenna loved it.
Why? She watched infants there, too, in a different room. These are people with no significant life experiences aside from their own birth, whose own names seem cartoonishly disproportionate to their size. What was so gratifying about holding a flabby, inarticulate creature prone to bouts of erratic limb-flailing that would spark a desire to spend so much time checking bottle temperatures and discarding soiled diapers? At five months, baby Stephan stares at the walls of his crib and plays silently with the brightly colored plastic shapes dangling above his head. But at twenty-five he’s become one of those people who leaves a quarter inch of milk at the bottom of the carton, sticks a new roll of toilet paper the wrong way on the dispenser, and then goes to work as a club promoter. You just can’t tell.
As for me, my parents’ neighborhood was full of empty nesters, and my mother didn’t have any friends with children much younger than her own, so, by default, I rarely had to babysit for anyone. I was frequently charged with watching my brothers, but, since we came of age in the Playstation era, that responsibility only meant an occasional glance into the living room to verify both were still sitting cross-legged in the stupefying glow of our television. And they were, so I went back to reading Time.
But it’s quite unlucky that I graduated from my prime babysitting years with little to no clue about the proper way to interact with small children because, at 22, I’m expected to know. It shouldn’t be awkward, meeting a seven-month-old (or a seven-year-old) but we really don’t have anything in common — we listen to different music, watch different shows, and eat different food. I don’t even remember being seven — months or years. And you can’t talk to infants, of course, aside from making some inane, speech-like noises at them. With the older children, there are limitations: I have to use simple words, sticking to simple subjects that their simple minds might grasp. What did you do today? Oh, you saw a dog? He was yellow? Wo-o-ow. It’s a little enchanting, seeing someone so easily amazed by such a pedestrian sighting as a Labrador retriever, but how do I match that? Today I saw a guy on a bike get hit by a car. No, I’m not sure if he was alright, yeah.
I guess I don’t get the hype. I don’t want to be a mother terribly much because I don’t want to spend nine months passing through various stages of misery, and I don’t want to host another organism, sharing things that I consume to sustain myself until it decides to come bursting out of the very worst possible orifice, and I don’t think babies smell sweet and powdery but more like wet towels that fell behind the washer a week ago, and I don’t want to wreak lasting damage on my bone structure, or to lose several years’ worth of sleep, or to be faced with the task of entertaining a person who thinks fun is smearing mashed sweet potato over his face and flinging it onto the wall like some drunken asshole, or to run after that person — for years, mind you — making sure he doesn’t put something in his mouth that doesn’t belong there, like a grasshopper, or do some other dumb sh-t that might get him killed.
It’s not the children’s fault, but they don’t know any better, and the police will blame you. Having a child means being responsible for the life of another human being who doesn’t even know how to be a human being. You have to keep somebody alive. Then in five years you let your kid play in the backyard and he eats a grasshopper and you find yourself in the emergency-room waiting area because he won’t stop throwing up. How did you get here, again?
And yet all kinds of women choose this fate — well-educated and not, rich and poor, married and single. They do it in spite of the fact that kids are generally sticky, as if they’ve just manhandled a PB&J and we didn’t even have that for lunch. Or in spite of the fact that kids do whatever they want, the fact that little boys will pee as you change their diaper and little girls might just take off all their clothes and run outside. There’s no dignity. Young children are primitive, impulsive little things, reminding me uncomfortably of the primeval role I was unwittingly born into, myself.
Lots of people have kids, and lots of people are great parents. Lots of women have babies — it happens. It has to happen. But I suspect that some of them take the responsibility too casually, almost as if it’s not an option at all.
“Of course I want kids some day!”
“We want three, and we think it’d be cute if their names all started with Y. There’s Yves, Yvonne…” A pause. “We’ll have to keep thinking.”
Once, a friend of my mother’s started talking to me about, “When you have a few of your own.” I corrected her with something about more women choosing to put off childbirth until later in life and that fewer women were doing it at all, choosing instead to focus on their careers. Once I read about a woman in Britain who had herself sterilized in order to lessen her carbon footprint, believing that one more person in the world would only result in more squandered natural resources.
“You say that now!” my mother’s friend said with a twinkle in her eye I found annoying. “But listen to yourself in 10 years. You’ll change your mind. You will.” I imagined a surgeon performing my hysterectomy right then and there just to spite Mrs. Schroeder, whose sons were in the process of trying to catch the family cat using sticks and a pool net.
It all looks very nice from the outside — creating small versions of yourself to feed with small spoons and dress in small clothes so you can do small things together like going to the park to feed ducks or watching the straight-to-DVD Little Mermaid VI repeatedly until the disc goes missing. Have the lives of people who are parents really reached a new level of fulfillment, jam-packed with sentimental moments, life lessons, warm chocolate-chip cookies? If I grow a human being, will I learn to love and live more deeply? Or do people who are parents just want to trick you – to believe the myth so you agree to watch their babies?
Because babies make me squeamish.
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