The groom’s parents at this Ohio wedding, Larry and Maureen, are honest, modest Midwestern folk, the kind who eat lots of red meat and never say anything nasty about anyone. After a few glasses of ginger ale at the reception, Maureen’s tongue loosened, and she laid some baby wisdom on us. When she had her first child, little Jeffrey, she did all of the child rearing, as was the norm in 1960s Kansas City. One day, Maureen went grocery shopping, and left the baby with Larry for the first time. When she returned an hour later:
Larry was watching the Chiefs game.
The TV was up full blast.
Jeffrey was sitting at his father’s feet in a bouncy chair, wearing nothing but an undershirt and a dirty diaper that was on all wrong.
“There wasn’t one thing in that scene that I agreed with,” Maureen told us. She was enraged. But just as she was about to seize her child, the Chiefs happened to score a touchdown. Larry went nuts, and Jeffrey, confused at first, looked up at his father and smiled. When they made the extra point, Larry cheered. Jeffrey cheered. Maureen’s heart liquefied.
She learned, she told us, that there was no one correct way to raise a child. The baby’s relationship with his father was not the same as it was with her—nor did it need to be. It was their first father-son “moment,” and she had witnessed it.
The Chiefs still lost, of course.
* * *
At the wedding reception, one of the groomsmen, Chris (the guy who told me in Vegas that I would never be able to talk about anything but babies ever again) began to talk about babies. This time, Sarah and I took notes. We asked what kind of sleeper his daughter was, sleep being one of those subjects that Baby People can’t get enough of. It’s right up there with poo and Elmo.
“Eliza wasn’t sleeping much at first,” Chris said. “We had her on her back like we were supposed to, but she’d cry all night long, night after night. It was exhausting.” Then, one night, Chris put her on her stomach. Sarah and I exchanged a look. On her stomach? I half expected the SIDS Police to come busting into the reception hall and cart Chris off into the Ohio night for making such an admission.
Of course, the baby fell asleep immediately on her belly, and survived the night. From that point on, Chris and his wife put Eliza facedown in the crib, and it was smooth sailing. The whole family slept in blissful nine-hour stretches, rationalizing that it was less dangerous than being as tired as they’d been. But they decided not to tell their pediatrician. He’d have their heads if he found out.
On the next visit to the pediatrician, he held the baby for a few seconds and frowned. “Has this baby been sleeping on her stomach?” Chris and his wife turned red.
How had he known? Turns out Eliza didn’t have the usual baby bald spot on the back of her head that comes from back-sleeping. Then the doctor, to their surprise, shrugged and said something to the effect of, “Hey, whatever works.”
As far as I can tell, Eliza has suffered no ill effects from sleeping on her belly. She’s the most delightful kid you could ever imagine, and historically, healthy babies have slept in much weirder positions. This decade, it’s on their backs, in the past it was on their bellies; tomorrow it could be on their earlobes. The point here—again—seems to be that there’s more than one proper way to do things. To believe otherwise only creates hysterical parents.
Like I know what I’m talking about.
* * *
I generally don’t broach touchy-feely topics, though I don’t discourage Sarah from doing it. On the drive back from the wedding, I was paying more attention to the road when Sarah asked, “What do you think about all this?”
I immediately knew what “all this” was, because “all this” is all she thinks about. My response was something vague and lame, like, “I’m excited, but I’m scared.” When I looked over, she was visibly disappointed, and I wished that I had given it more thought. I put my hand on her belly and added, “I know one thing: You’re going to make a good mother.”
She shrugged and looked out the window. Of course she’d make a good mother: we both knew it. I have never seen anyone more at ease with a baby in her arms, or in a room full of children.
About a mile went by in silence. “Why, what are you thinking about all this?” I asked.
“Have you ever dreamed about being a father?”
“Of course. Always.”(Beyond imagining playing catch with my nameless, faceless son, not really.) “How about you?”
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for it,” Sarah said. “Being a mom is the culmination of everything for me. I’ve prepared for it since I was a little girl.”
“Sure. I spent a lot of time playing house with my stuffed animals. Burping my dolls, pretending I was a mother. I mean, having a baby is my life’s purpose.”
Life’s purpose? I didn’t know whether to kiss her or laugh. It was so melodramatic, but so touching, so true. And a perfect illustration of the difference between boys and girls: While Sarah was doing something practical that would help her later in life, I was climbing trees and picking fights and making noises with my armpit.
Nobody said anything for a while, then Sarah sank into her seat and closed her eyes for a nap. When I saw the speedometer, which clocked us at 92 miles per hour, I slowed down to a nice, steady 65. And I drove it that way all the way back to Chicago.