As my erstwhile colleagues can attest, I don’t like to talk to strangers. I am the person who wears headphones on the bus, sometimes even if my ipod is dead, just to avoid any unnecessary small talk. That’s how shy I am. Er, how shy I was, I guess. Now when I’m out, I usually have Chelsea with me, and so my casual-conversation-with-strangers-level has increased by, oh, at least 300 percent. I often can’t get out of the grocery store without at least one interaction. It’s the same conversation over and over, just like when I was pregnant, but for some reason, it’s much less annoying. Instead of some variation on “When are you due?” it begins with”How old is she?” After I answer that, I get “Is she a good baby?” and/or “Is she your first baby?”. On the face of it, these are terribly simple questions with equally simple answers: yes and yes. Yet the more I’ve thought about it—which is, granted, probably way, way too much—I’ve realized that these are actually very complicated questions. Or, at least, I feel complicated about my answers.
Take “Is she a good baby?”. I get this one most often from women old enough to be my grandmother. I think what they’re asking is whether she’s a relatively happy, healthy, “low-maintenance” baby—one who sleeps well, digests food easily, doesn’t fuss too much, or is easily placated when she does fuss. And Chelsea is all of these things, unless, I’ve discovered, she’s teething or over-tired. But even if she wasn’t all those things, if she was prone to projectile vomit, say, I wouldn’t call her a bad baby. Bad is one of those words that doesn’t really apply, I think, to tiny, pre-verbal beings. In fact, really, I feel uneasy applying the word ‘bad’ in this kind of over-arching, categorical way to a toddler…or an adult, even. A peach is either good or bad. Humans are more complex than that. Similarly, it’s always rubbed me the wrong way when someone says, of a parent whose kids have grown up but failed to succeed in the conventional sense of the word (get a good education, then a good job, place to live, blah blah) by a certain age that her kids didn’t “turn out”. A batch of muffins either “turns out” or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you can trace the failure directly back to some error on the part of the baker. There are no other variables, really, in the success or failure of a baked good that I can think of, barring a power outage mid-baking. A human being is also more complex than a muffin.
And then there’s “Is she your first baby?”. My problem with this one is that the word “first” implies that there will, or ought to be, more, and at the moment, the very idea of starting over again with another, brand-new person makes me hyperventilate a little. Before we had one, we talked about having two. But that was, well, before. Before we had any real sense of what it takes to raise a child. And we’re only five months in! I can practically hear the real parenting veterans, the grandmas and grandpas out there, laughing their heads off. I’m not ready to consider having another just yet and, well, who knows? I might never be ready. It took me a very long time to decide to have any.
The other problem I have with this question has to do with my level of confidence in my abilities as a mother, which fluctuates fairly wildly from day to day. That is, sometimes I wonder whether I’m being asked if she’s my first because I look like a total rookie. Because I have bags under my eyes, or baby cereal on my shirt. I’ve never been asked “is she your only child?” I suspect people just don’t say this, probably because it’s a bit hard to say the word ‘only’ in this context in a completely neutral tone of voice. You know, because only children always “turn out weird”. (Sigh.)