I am a mom.
Unlike a gaggle of my acquaintances, can’t say as I had wanted to become one since getting my very first doll, because by and large, I really didn’t like the critters. They never laughed at my jokes, never participated in keeping the play area clean, and for sure, they didn’t make good storytellers. They were a waste of puzzle-board-embroidery-gear-Lego-sets-fillable shelf space. And they INEVITABLY got between my cohorts and I.
Not that I held anything against fellow braided, ponytailed, combed-to-within-an-inch-of-our-lives, uniform-sporting twits going goo-goo over the latest trend in Amish chic or streetwalker anonymous, courtesy of Mattel (read: the whole flock of girls born within the same couple of years in our condo complex, and no, it wasn’t anything flowing through the brand new pipes, just the reality of life: a newly built condo → newly minted, fairly comfortable family moving in → and the baby makes three, or four, or. . . well, you get the idea).
But man, why did the ENTIRE flock consistently opt out of bowling, and books, and hula hoops when there was a new doll to be mock-fed, and mock-changed, and mock-disciplined, and mock-put-to-bed under a canopy of flowering jasmine?! I used to ask myself, the concept of X chromosome and genetic memory and societal conditioning largely lost on even a most dedicated seven-year old bookworm, were girls born instinctively knowing for every Barbie, and Martha, and little Cab-bitch Patch creep, there’s supposed to be a little mommy out there begging for the privilege to get a leg on those chores grownups eked out a living out of — if little Molochs they were doing them for weren’t a result of their own failed contraception methods? Masochism, a seven-year old bookworm would have said, but kudos for my parents’ criminal records, I wasn’t yet familiar with that term.
In the hot bone-dry months before my eighth birthday, I still hadn’t learned the meaning of the word, but I did find out there was something to be said for motherhood. Hey, hey, minds out of the gutter, kids, I didn’t set any Guinness Book records. No, I’m referring to the Summer of Baby, it a lifesize, heavy, realistically wrinkled, bald-headed infant-doll that swept my mind along with those of every self-disrespecting female in the city under the age of twelve and every carat of loose change out of Baby’s “grandparents”‘ wallets. Those lucky “grandparents”: within days, Baby became the area’s most glaring shortfall, and if the makers only demanded an arm, the speculators charged an additional leg and swore they just beggared themselves extending the discount.
Baby — not specifically MY Baby, I am not sorry to say, my parents having been singularly unable to find an altruistic speculator willing to ship his own brood to the poorhouse — needed to breastfeed (don’t ask, I THINK it came from one of us girls with a freshly popped-out brother), have his nappies changed, painstakingly burped, and at all hours of the day, have one of our cabal happily babysitting the little monster.
That’s when I learned to bite my nails counting minutes ’til one of my co-parents brought him in (as opposed to biting them for other various and sundry reasons), and prepare him a timely snack, and cater to the incessant demands that would have had a Tamagotchi pet shake its pixelated head region.
And that’s when I, also, learned not to take anything related to anyone’s care for Gospel. “Constant vigilance,” catechizes Harry Potter’s Alastor Moody, and he’s right. Boy, is he ever! You see, Baby could pee — and if you don’t think that’s important, you haven’t lived as a tween girl in the throes of her first toy obsession.
Baby, as stated previously, was as close to lifelike as six pounds of rubber with a pair of. . . well, baby-doll blues was likely to get twenty-odd years ago (yes, I am that old). It could drink, close and open its eyes, all its body parts moved — and for all it was gender-neutral, it could pee, authentically soaking everything through, JUST LIKE A REAL BABY. In Baby’s particular case, it really wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.
Which my grandmother didn’t appreciate. What she did appreciate was the sanctity of our new coverlet, the furry one, with plump stoned-looking deer frolicking in the foreground. It was a souvenir my dad brought my mom from one of his trips to the hinterlands, and at my grandmother’s insistence, it was ever only trotted out to impress the guests.
It so happened, that one day, it was. It was, also, the day one of my co-parents, Yulya, grudgingly dashed down eight flights of stairs to hand Baby to me.
“Did he eat?” inquired the reformed bookworm.
“Tea with milk and honey, plus raspberry jam. He had a sore throat.” Yes, Yulya took his temperature. Ditto his pulse. And no, he hadn’t yet gone number two (Baby had permanent constipation, but hope sprung eternal). He did, however, go number one.
“Gotta run, Mom’s been calling me to dinner so many times in the past ten minutes, like you wouldn’t believe. If I don’t see you tomorrow outside, that’s it, I’m like grounded ’til our next Grimm fairy tales recital.” (Ours was an intense German-emphasis school, and the teachers wouldn’t leave us alone even in the dog days of Baby.)
“But he did go OK? There was no blood in the pee?” (My grandfather had been a doctor.)
Having assured me that pee had been clear as glasses lined on our dining table for the big event, (and no, this description coupled with an earlier one of raspberry jam raised not a single red flag) Yulya ran off. Her mom really didn’t like waiting — while Yulya couldn’t tolerate relinquishing Baby to me until the appointed second. While I still can’t fathom our fascination with the dratted thing, I do understand that. It was a point of honor.
One-on-one with my duties, I trickled a spoonful of warm water down Baby’s gullet, rocked it — and under pressure inherent in playing good host, succumbed to every harried parent’s escape clause. Putting the little tyke to bed is beneficial, it isn’t abandoning it to properly attend to your callers. And you had to say this for Baby, if ever there was a sound sleeper, it was this one.
Carefully, so as not to startle the temperamental beast, I carried him over, placed him on the furry coverlet — and this being summer, only lightly covered him with my mom’s gauzy scarf, a gorgeous one, with iridescent lilies.
To make a long story short (oops, too late now) let’s say in an effort to keep it from turning into War and Peace, my dad came in at some point, pulled out his dress shoes off an upper shelf, and. . . well, he ain’t no Shaq, but he did manage to land them on top of the scarf.
I had been building up to it, but no, this wasn’t the explosive finale. The shoes found their lawful place on my dad’s feet, and while Baby started to copiously bleed, it was considerate enough to do so in silence.
The explosion came after, when I responsibly went to check on the thing — and gurgled just loudly enough to call the attention of the Nemesis. . . er, I meant to say, grandmother.
Yulya never did own up to not doing her best by our collective cross, and maybe she had, but the reservoir got too distended from our incessant use and didn’t completely empty itself the first time around (that, or it was a “miracle” along the lines of indigenous Florida-countryside Madonna tours). Most importantly for me, this was the day my Baby-slavery ended.
And most importantly yet, I hope I am a better mother myself, thanks to that coverlet and Yulya’s mom going all dictatorial on her daughter’s ass in defense of her chicken Kiev.
I hope, faced with someone telling me they fed my kid, I would be careful to check what, how much, and at what time (yes, there’s a story). I hope to have the presence of mind to ask why my son is staying quite this late for his church choir rehearsals (unfair example, yes, but there’s way too much crap being flung about this particular topic for it not to stick to my psyche just this one little bit, just enough to have me asking — and repeating — questions). I hope never to fail to demand my son’s hall monitor and teachers tell me exactly how many times he’s been on the receiving end of the stick-the-nerd-into-the-locker shtick — and how many the giving. And I hope to God not to have a patronizing hospital employee refusing to admit that selfsame son (to make up for its own snafu, no less) but if I did, to be hell of a lot more assertive about taking matters into my own hands than simply calling them up every few days pleading for help.
Other than Baby, I was a terrible, cuckoo-kind of mom to my dolls, but maybe the idea behind having them is not to imitate their unattainable figures or dress, but simply to use up our worst sorts of mistakes on them and then, come our own kids, do our best not to have too many repeats.
Lisa Gus is a poet, writer, medical researcher, wife, daugher and mother. Her work has appeared most recently in Helix and The New Yorker, and she is a producer of the Lombardi Street series. Visit her online at The Annointed Fig.