My friend Dan, who is my age -- which is to say much too old to be comparative shopping for Huggies and Pampers -- just had a baby. This is Dan's second wife and second family. He'd had two babies previously, during the Nixon administration, so it has been a while between spit-ups.
Courtney is 2 months old, and not yet sleeping through the night. And so, the other night, Dan found himself with a warm bottle in his hand at 4 a.m. as new fathers often do. "I was rocking her," he said, "and she was almost asleep, and I thought if I sang to her, that might do it. Then I realized the only song I know is 'Thunder Road.' "
Fortunately for new fathers and mothers up at 4 a.m., you can drink all the caffeinated coffee you want. No more of that whiny decaf. We're getting back to the serious, one-sip-and-you'll-feel-like-you-had- electroshock coffee. I'll bet there are some embarrassed faces at the research centers this week. No wonder the early studies showed you get heart disease from coffee. Most of the people tested were HEAVY SMOKERS! A few cups of coffee aren't going to hurt them. Heavy smokers are going to get heart disease even if they eat all the bean sprouts from here to Beijing. So what do these brilliant researchers say now, "Oops, I'm sorry"? Someday we're going to find out that sulfites and nitrites were actually good for us -- we were fools to have sworn off pastrami. Flossing! It'll turn out that's what really leads to heart attacks. Flossing! You can't trust research anymore. Didn't you love "20/20's" explanation for the faux Buckwheat: He really thought he was Buckwheat. Coming next week: Hitler.
Anyway, men being pigs, I asked Dan why he was doing the 4 a.m. feeding.
The first time around, in the Nixon administration, Dan's wife handled the 4 a.m. This was the standard arrangement in those last-gasp days of the single-income household, when men were the providers and women were the nurturers. It worked passably well for 5,000 years, until the invention of the summer home.
Now everyone works and everyone feeds.
Dan and Meg have arrived at a "changer" and "feeder" system. The "changer" is the preferable role, as you hand off to the "feeder," having amused the baby while the bottle is being prepared. As most men would, Dan has tried everything to become the permanent changer, a sort of DH of parenting. He has offered lame reasons like, "She drinks better with you," to inspired reasons like, "She's so beautiful and looks so much like you, that I weep when I feed her, and the salt from my tears will get in her mouth and cause colic." Needless to say, nothing has worked, which is what you get, I say, for marrying a Harvard woman.
All this talk about babies got me thinking about lies we tell ourselves about being parents -- like how we'd never give our children pacifiers. Pacifiers, yeeccchh! Not only do they look awful, but they'll push the kid's teeth out of line. And they only work for a few minutes, if you've got the Gerber Baby. The rest of us are trying to Black & Decker the pacifier into junior's mouth. "So he'll get braces, okay?"
And you swore you'd never smack your kid, right? Oh God, no, hit a child! Never. I'll reason with mine. I'll never resort to force. Which is fine, until you paint yourself into this corner:
"Okay, Billy, time for bed."
"Now's the time, Bill. Go to bed."
"I'm not going to ask you again, William."
"Look, Billy, you either go to bed now or I'm gonna crack you."
Whoops! Did I say that? Did I actually put myself in the put-up or shut-up position with a 4-year-old? Gaaaackkk! (This is why it's always better to use this last line: "Billy, if you don't go to bed right now, I'll kill the dog.")
Having had to smack the kid to save face, you now spend the next half-hour cozying up to him trying to convince him you aren't the monster you seemed when you gave him a zetz. "Can I make it up to you, son? Would ice cream help? C'mon, let's go get some ice cream. Tell you what, let's go to Paris and get some ice cream. We'll go to Paris, we'll get some ice cream. Your mom said you were annoying her, and I asked, 'What do you want me to do about it?' And she said something that sounded like, 'Spank him.' I thought it was spank. It could have been spahn-kee, a cold water fish they serve in Stockholm. Anyway, it hurt me more than it hurt you."
And is there anything quite as terrifying as having to discipline your kid in a public place? Which is, naturally, the only place they'll drop straight to the floor and begin howling, straight out of the last scene in "Carrie." It does no good to say to the people who have gathered around, "I didn't even touch him. Honest." My advice is to head for frozen foods and pretend it's somebody else's kid. Eventually, he'll either calm down or join the Army.
Scenes like this are why, when I take my children shopping, I only go to stores I don't care if I ever go back to again. Like a discount food warehouse. Who cares what your kids do there? You'll never see any of these shoppers again unless it's at a police lineup. The floor there, busted melons everywhere. It looks like Beirut after a thunderstorm. And above the din this is what you hear clear as a bell, the words you've come to say so often, though you swore you never would: "Because I said so."