Thursday, July 07, 2005

The first five minutes of every conversation...

So since my child was born, pretty much the first five minutes of every conversation I've had when we are out together goes like this:

Stranger: Cute baby. How old?
Me: Uh, [insert age. Currently it's "almost six months"]
Stranger: Wow, he's a whopper/big fella/bruiser/meatball/big 'un (yes, these are actual responses)
Me: Yes, he's a big boy. And very happy and very sweet!

Now, where the conversation goes from here varies. If I'm talking to someone in the generation before mine or someone who doesn't have a baby, they either a. tell me something about their (now grown) baby/niece/nephew/friend's baby or b. ask about whether he's sleeping through the night and whether he eats cereal yet.

If the person has a kid of his/her own, we usually have to do the So-at-what-age-did-he Tango. It's so strange. Normally, I'm just not that competitive--too much of a slacker for that--but when people say "Gosh, Jayden/Logan/Riley is just 12 weeks and is sleeping through the night" I feel like I can hear the opening strains of Carmen and clicking castanets as I fight the urge to snap back, "yes, Davis did that too...until about 16 weeks. Now he's up several times a night." It even makes me grit my teeth sometimes when my mother-in-law, God love her, pushes my husband's age of firsts back every time we trade stats. You know the drill: the perfect child slept through the night at 4 weeks, walked at 8 months, read at 2 years, and wrote a pilot for his own TV series atage 7. Apparently the only reason he's just now getting his PhD is because she made him wait so as not to make the other children in his preschool feel bad.

But this odd waltz we do, it's not only a competitive thing. In fact, most of the other mommies I meet apologize for whatever their good fortune is and kind of show their karmic hand a little, as in "Oh, I'm so sorry you're not getting any sleep, but hey, at least he's a good eater. I can barely get Madison/Jordan/Aidan to eat anything." We even downplay our ideologies: "Oh, yeah, I'm doing cloth diapers, but you know, I'm finding it's not as big a cost savings as I thought" or even joke about them: "Oh, we let Jacob/Brianna/Taylor cry it out, and who knows, he/she will probably move out of the house and get emancipated at 18."

But whether we're joking, apologizing, one-upping or being a martyr, we are always, in the backs of our minds, comparing. I think my friend Beth who has twins a month older than Davis keeps mum about some of Sam's and Nina's new accomplishments just so she doesn't have to hear me carry on about why Davis isn't doing whatever it is yet. And it's not just me--this is epidemic. On the forums at, for instance, one post will be about "why doesn't my kid do X yet?" and it will have fifteen replies, all variations on the "don't worry about it; all babies are different" theme. Every single piece of baby literature I have read, from whatever ideological camp, repeats this "every baby is different" mantra ad nauseum. So it's not like moms don't already know that comparing their infants to one another is futile; they do. But we do it anyway.

I wondered why for a long time as I thought about this post. In fact, I thought Very Ponderous Thoughts about this state of affairs and how it came to be. I thought, "perhaps are wrestling with our own mothers in the depths of our very psyches or we are seeking some pre-Oedipal affirmation from our fathers of our own worthiness to be mothers or we are reliving our childhoods through our children," but you know, I don't think that's it. Not for me, anyway: my parents are almost as rhapsodic about my childhood as my husband's parents are about his, and I remember it that way, too (only with more zits and fewer traffic violations). So I don't think it's necessarily a Psychiatric-Issues free-for-all.

I think for me that the answer is much simpler than that: I'm getting used to be identified and linked socially with a person who is not my husband. I guess because I'm cast in my Mommy role all the time anyway, I can just keep on playing the part; I know exactly what to say and am starting to get to the point where I don't even really have to think about it (unless you ask me how often Davis was up in the night the night before last. That requires Higher Math.) These conversations allow me to talk about one of my favorite topics, sometimes flirt with and compliment another baby (or have my own child admired), and talk to a human being who already has all his or her own teeth. (That last one is not to be underestimated after a day with an infant.)

In fact, when my husband was working a long day, I fully admit to sometimes going out just to attract such conversations; I felt like the Sally Field character in the movie Soap, who has her assistant pretend to be an adoring fan in order to attract crowds of admirers. It's pathetic to admit this, but on days when I've been particularly baby blues-y, I've been known to get my feelings hurt when people fail to even notice that I have a sweet baby (which happens often enough in this college town. My husband swears that half the young women who see Davis start muttering under their breath, trying to reassure themselves that they took the Pill that morning)! I am daily amazed at how much I identify myself with and through my son. Sometimes I'm even horrified: like this kid doesn't have enough on his plate, what with growing up with Bush in the White House? I should make it harder for him by linking my identity with his?

So I guess my point is that even for co-parenting, liberal, strong-woman feministas like myself, there's still a big part of me that's getting used to being identified as Davis's Mommy, and I find these conversations to be a way to remind myself that no matter how much I thought I'd fight identifying myself with my child (or would even have a choice as to whether I'd do so), I have fallen--irrevocably and usually quite cheerfully-- into doing just that.