Bringing up baby
Babies of the Baby Boomers. With goofy smiles and squinty eyes they greet me every morning from the refrigerator door as I get the milk for my coffee. They are the by-products of the Christmas card season--photo enclosures of the offspring born to our friends living all over the USA. I look at these pictures and I can't for the life of me recognize one of them. It's like some Kafka-esque collage assembled from missing children pictures off the side panels of a milk carton.
Actually, I enjoy getting the holiday snapshots. It's just that I prefer the portraits of the whole family. Not only does it help in identifying the children but it's somehow comforting to see that Charlie has gained a pound for every lost hair or Susie is now a blonde. But no, most of our friends treat additions to their family with a level of ceremony akin to that accorded a certain birth in Bethlehem. They assume Their Baby is recognizable without themselves as clues to the picture. One couple dressed their infant daughter as an angel, complete with wings. Some of the others, to tell you the truth, look like California Dancing Raisins.
Maybe it's all this New Age spirituality going on -- you know, celebrate the inner child and apparently, the outer child. My wife and I have had conversations with our parents who remain at a loss to explain how our generation has elevated baby-making to the Nobel Prize level of accomplishment.
Our folks say in their day it was all pretty simple: You got married and had kids. Then you reared and provided for them as best you could. And you tried to give your kids a sense of balance and not blow out of proportion each and every naturally- occurring event in a child's lifetime. Kids fall down and scrape knees, get some good grades and some poor ones.
They didn't worry much about which pre-school would ultimately lead to Princeton.
Our parents laugh when we tell them about all the birthday parties for one-year-olds to which we get invited. Clearly, these are opportunities for parents to congratulate themselves for reproducing -- as if it's not done about as often as McDonald's makes a hamburger. Even these couples will admit their toddler doesn't know what a birthday is. It's also an occasion to buy these children presents, since it's been only a year since the christening or bris gift and only 18 months since the shower present. It would be easier for me if the new parents we know simply signed up for automatic withdrawal from my checking account.
A few weeks after such an event, we get a thank-you note. Often this note is penned on the child's own stationery with his or her first name emblazoned on the front like CLOIE and written in a cutesy way as if the toddler scribed it herself : "Dear Uncle Robby and Aunt Liz, Thank you for the romper. The Velcro in the back makes it easy for Mommy to change me, etc.''
The thing about these parties is they take some sheen off the celebrations of parents who have real cause for thanks. My friends Kirsten and Randy recently rejoiced when their daughter Maggie had her first birthday. Maggie was born three months premature and weighed only a pound and a half when she came into the world. I've eaten lobsters bigger than that. After a rough start, she's doing fine now.
Another phenomenon at which our parents chuckle is the notion of "special time." This is an hour set aside by a parent to devote to one, usually the older, sibling. When I was a kid, special time meant waiting for my father to come home to introduce my backside to his hand -- like the time I pushed over the kitchen table in protest over being forced to eat vegetables.
Nowadays, this would be called performance art and would rate a mention in the Christmas newsletter.
I know one three-year-old who has two cars -- a miniature sport-utility vehicle and a tiny sports car. He drives his battery-powered vehicle to his next-door neighbor's house. I think he only takes the sports car when he has a hot date. It seems a bit much when there are kids down the road in Hartford or Bridgeport going to school hungry. Each of these pint-sized rides costs as much as Sally Struthers says will feed a whole classroom of Third World kids for a year (it looks as if Sally has been hoarding some of the donations to keep herself in Ring Dings so I'm not sure I can believe her).
Not all parents are so nutso about their kids. My sister has a sensible rule about birthday parties: The celebrant can invite over only as many friends as they are in age -- her six-year-old was allowed half a dozen. She won't use any kind of professional entertainment. She feels kids old enough to have a party are old enough to play among themselves.
Of course, every generation says the one succeeding them is pampered and overindulged. A far bigger problem is the kids who get too little too late. But sometimes I wonder if the problems of youth development about which we read in these pages --Attention Deficit Disorder, Ritalin kids, television addiction, classroom disobedience -- will appear in the futures of the tiny faces peering out from my refrigerator door because they got too much too soon.
May 12, 1998