I have several friends who are in the process of having babies. We’re all in that magical age range where the ticking of our biological clocks is louder than even the unreasonably loud concerts we attended not all that many years ago. From the time you hit your mid-20s, babies start falling from the sky, and in the steadiest of downpours, the babies fall for most of the next decade. The Christmas season is especially brutal because the arrival of Christmas cards with family photos is akin to having all of your friends stop by your house unexpectedly to show you pictures of their vacations — however happy you might be that your friends are doing well, it doesn’t make the toothpaste commercials passing for family photos any easier to swallow.
Since I found myself out in that falling rain, I’ve been struck by the oddity of the social obligations surrounding the birth of a baby. When your baby is born, you’ll spend a few days in the hospital losing all sense of day and night, sleeping on tufts of matted cotton fiber claiming to be a mattress, entertaining a parade of visitors, nurses, and doctors, each of whom seems to have a story or piece of advice about babies. You’ll retain about 15% of this information. Sometime during all of this, a “photographer” will come to your hospital room to take a picture of your kid that you can use for announcements, albums, or general narcissism. We’ve encountered two of these creatures, and though they came bearing expensive-looking cameras and a passing understanding of how to use them, the photos they took of our babies were no more impressive than anything I took with my phone. The “photographer” will pose your baby in myriad unnatural-looking poses* and then offer you a selection of horribly overpriced photo packages that you, in your hormone-fueled baby frenzy, will consider with more zeal than sense.
When you do get home, your first couple of weeks are an erratic experience of aborted naps, half-started routines, and all-around chaos. And yet, you are expected to send baby announcements to nearly everyone — family, friends, and even the doctor who was physically present when your kid came screaming onto the planet. One of the oddities of these announcements is that, along with the date and time of delivery, you’re expected to provide the weight of your baby, with bonus points for length and head circumference. There’s no good reason for this, and neither can anybody provide a satisfactory explanation as to why this expectation exists. Let’s take a break from social norms for a moment and examine this objectively.
If you’re not the baby’s immediate family, your interest in the baby is going to be remote to begin with. For just about everybody who doesn’t share some DNA with you, the date and maybe the time of delivery are probably all the information necessary to communicate that your friend or cousin or girlfriend’s sister has passed from the world of unbabied to babied. And yet, you will probably receive more than this. Why, parents, why? Do you think that any of your friends actually cares how much your kid weighs? Let’s face it, when we get these announcements, the only attention we pay to the vital statistics is whether they fall outside of whatever we consider to be an average or normal range. Otherwise, the numbers are meaningless. The most realistic explanation, to me, is that people like to compare their kids in the same way that children like to compare their baseball or Pokeman cards. These comparisons happen throughout parenthood, and it starts at the very moment of delivery, it seems. If you are not a parent and you receive an announcement, you have been initiated into a group of people who know almost everything there is to know about another human being. It’s actually a little creepy. There is no other time in a person’s life where his or her weight will be such public knowledge, and yet, people are literally sending postcards and letters with this information to anybody they think might care**.
So even after you’ve distributed your baby’s medical information to the general public, and the presents start coming in, you’re given a deadline to thank people. Obviously, your baby’s first few months are far too chaotic to offer the time to sit down and pen a thank-you note to even your closest friends or relatives, but by six months, society expects the job to be done. Interestingly, you’re given twice as much time to write thank-you notes after you get married, and that’s with no tiny humans screaming at you all day and night. These deadlines aren’t official, of course. No one will come to your house to take back his gift if you don’t get that thank-you note sent right away. But you still hear about this drop-dead date from your parents especially, but others in general.
During all of this are the questions from the well-meaning. People you encounter, sometimes even total strangers, will ask you all kinds of questions about your private life at home with your baby. Is he sleeping through the night? Has he started on solids yet? Is he eating ok? Are you nursing or bottle-feeding? If the doctor asks the same things, you can be pretty sure that the information you’ve requested is too personal. I understand that people are trying to be supportive, I guess, or at least to appear empathetic. But most new parents are too shell-shocked to realize that they can, politely, say, “It’s none of your damned business, Nosey McNoseyguy.” Except, you can’t say it politely enough. It’s expected that you’ll voluntarily offer up information about the sleep habits and eating habits of your very young child. Failing to do so is somehow excluding the asker, even a total stranger, from the fraternity of the informed. And woe be unto you who decides that the kind spinster at the pharmacy whom you’ve never met doesn’t need to know about your kid’s typical or atypical infanthood, for you shall receive a Look of Scorn and Deep Offense. You might even get yourself a, “Well, I was just trying to be nice.” No, you weren’t. You were trying to be nosey or, most likely, you were trying to create an opportunity for yourself to talk about your own experiences with newborns. I don’t care how your babies ate and slept any more than you care about mine. Let’s just drop the pretense, not-so-kindly spinster at the pharmacy I’ve never met.
And the touching and pinching. It’s astonishing how OK you are expected to be with other people, old women especially, who will without seeking or caring about permission, try to touch your baby, even while he’s sleeping. Saying, “He’s so cute!” as you reach your hand toward my kid’s face is not the same as permission, and it doesn’t make my any more ok with the fact that I’ve never met you and that you haven’t washed your hands or used hand sanitizer since you were probing the giant box of cantaloupes that the rest of the city has been examining as well. The greatest invention for babies I’ve ever come across is the carseat canopy which covers up the whole seat. Several of my friends joked that I didn’t actually have a baby because they never saw him for the canopy. It’s amazing what that one layer of protection affords. Nobody asks to peek under it, nobody tries to paw at it or poke it. You could probably smuggle cocaine across the border with it and just be waived along by the under-paid border patrol officer.
Though, in addition to “business or pleasure,” he still might ask you if your baby is sleeping through the night.
*Do you really think a 2-day old baby sleeps on its stomach with its head propped up on its hands? Do you know anyone who sleeps that way?
**”Care,” in this case, usually means “care enough to send a baby gift.”