Other than having entire career fields in child care and pediatrics closed off to you, there are some milder awkward problems you have to face.
There's a condition called "not good with kids" that a lot of people don't seem to understand. It's got nothing to do with liking kids or not liking kids -- it's just being bad at something, like some people are bad at singing or cooking. It doesn't mean that they hate music or food, although sometimes it sure looks like it.
If you hand an otherwise healthy, happy baby to these people, the baby will immediately start bawling like she's been placed inside an iron maiden.
The torture device, not the band.
It's not like we non-baby people want to drive an innocent infant into a deep existential depression; it just happens, somehow. For some people, it's just inexperience, and they'll figure it out if they practice enough, but some unfortunate people are just stuck with this gene.
Other than having entire career fields in child care and pediatrics closed off to you, there are some milder awkward problems you have to face.
Despite the fact that there's a large segment of the population that just doesn't click with kids, these people refuse to believe such a phenomenon exists. There are only two groups of people in the world for them: kid people, and future kid people. Once the right set of events happens to you, you will magically become a kid person.
She's almost there, I can feel it!
They're ignoring the fact that some people can have their own children, love them and feel comfortable around them, and still feel awkward around anyone else's kids. If having your own kids isn't the magical trigger to make you interact easily with kids in general, I don't know what else you expect to do it.
Probably the worst thing is that when a parent of a new baby subscribes to this idea (that all non-baby people are just converts-in-waiting), they always seem to believe that their particular baby is going to be the trigger. Even if you tell them the last baby you held didn't stop screaming for a week and eventually had to be committed to a mental institution, they dismiss your protests and hand you the baby with a knowing smile, saying, "It'll be fine." Because regardless of whatever happened with other people's meaningless kids, nobody could hold little Jordan and look into his face and not have their heart melt.
I can't judge them for that. When I have a kid, I'm sure I'll believe that he is going to be president and a billionaire and cure cancer and fulfill some prophecy, and that anyone looking at him should be able to see it. That's just being a good parent.
Getty and Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
But it does make for a touchy situation for the non-baby person, because that's setting up some really high expectations. If you screw up and the baby starts crying, or you and the baby end up staring at each other in mutual silent terror as a tumbleweed rolls by, that kind of parent is going to be disappointed and might get a bad impression of you.
Again, I'm not talking about all parents, just the ones who are convinced that all people are really baby people deep down and that their baby can bring it out of anybody. In their disappointment, they might see you as a robot or a baby hater, which brings me to ...
These people acknowledge that non-baby people exist, but believe there must be something wrong with such people. They think that we deliberately hate children, or that we are robots who don't understand the concept of love.
Like a stupid-looking '50s robot, not even a sexy one or anything.
Really not nice.
But there's plenty of people who don't want kids of their own but appreciate parents and like or even love kids. And there's even some people who do want kids of their own (or have them already!) but just interact with anyone else's kids like they are an opposite sex schoolmate on the other side of the gym at a junior high dance.
The other misconception is that people who don't automatically click with children are like alien life forms who need basic human interaction explained to them. "I don't really know what to do with kids" apparently translates to "Most illogical! Why do you humans sacrifice your valuable resources for these dependent, useless creatures that serve no function? I am told that large eyes and a large head are hallmarks of a concept you call 'cute.' Please explain this concept to me!"
"DOES NOT COMPUTE"
I mean, come on. I am awkward with children, not retarded. And I'm not a robot, either. I grew up with parents who lost sleep over me, worked at miserable jobs to save money for my college and my house down payment and would willingly take a bullet for me. I've heard macho male friends happily sit down and play pretty pretty princess with their daughters. I get choked up and pissed off any time I hear about anyone harming a child.
Kids are great and deserve to be loved. Parent-child love is something special you won't fully understand unless you experience it yourself. I get that. I'm just saying that when I look at a baby's face, I want him to be safe, and I want him to be happy, but I have no idea what hand gestures or noises I should make to help with that.
The other panic-inducing moment is when you meet a friend or relative with a new baby and you're expected to say something about the baby. "I noticed you have a new baby," while honest and sincere, is usually not considered enough.
Also "If that isn't a baby, I don't know what is!"
As far as I can tell, there's two pretty safe things to go with for the average baby visitor. One is to say something about how cute the baby is, and one is to offer an opinion on which parent she looks like. The problem with these, for me, is that I am bad at lying.
I'm not saying the baby is ugly; I'm just saying that I don't know how to tell how cute a baby is any more than a tone-deaf person can tell you if something is off-key. Most babies -- especially newborns -- look very, very similar to me, and to many other people. And I'm not saying babies aren't cute in different, unique ways; I'm saying I can't tell, because I'm baby-deaf. If there was something different enough about the baby for me to notice, it probably wouldn't be something I would want to point out ("Is that a unibrow?" or "Why are his eyes pointing in different directions?").
"I notice your baby is a different race than both of you."
I'm happy to just go ahead and say that the baby is cute, because I'm sure she probably is, but like I said, I'm a bad liar, so I'm terrified the parents will find out and ... I don't know, not compliment my baby when I have one? I haven't thought it through; I'm just scared of people being mad at me.
The other lie I'm afraid of being caught out in is guessing who it looks like, because apparently there is a correct answer. When I saw my brother's baby, I said, "He really looks like Kevin!" because I thought that was a safe remark, and everyone just stared at me skeptically and said, "Really?" And then someone asked, "What part?" and I really started sweating. I mumbled something about the eyes, which was also wrong, because apparently his eyes really look like his mom's.
If he had Steve Buscemi eyes, THAT I would have been able to tell.
I'm not blaming them at all; it's probably very obvious and I did get it wrong. I have trouble recognizing actors if they change their hair, so I wouldn't put it past me to completely blank on a really obvious eye shape similarity.
Fortunately, most people I know are very forgiving about baby blunders (unless I say the baby looks like the mailman or something), but apparently there are some words that just set people off.
The most common postnatal faux pas that people are afraid of committing is misidentifying a boy as a girl, or vice versa. (The most common prenatal faux pas, of course, is misidentifying belly fat as a baby.)
I'm pretty sure this happened because one guy asked the other guy, "When's it due?"
Most parents understand that it's hard to tell at that age, especially when they mess with your mind by dressing the baby in yellow or putting a fake mustache and a dress on him/her. But some of them will bite your head off, and especially when you're talking to acquaintances or strangers, you have no idea if it's going to be one of those people.
Other parents can be really really particular about which phrases they will complain to the Internet about. Like apparently if you remark on how big the baby is getting, you are calling him a freakish monster?
Maybe that person's got her reasons for being upset at those phrases, maybe she's just heard them too many times, but I just feel like if I was talking to this person, I would want a lawyer with me.
"I suggest you go with 'Your baby is clearly of the gender you intend to present him or her as.'"
I know a lot of "baby people," and watching them handle a baby is like watching a well-oiled machine as the baby just slides effortlessly into their arms in a position perfect for studio photographs. The total time elapsed from "Let me hold him" to photo pose is about 1.5 seconds.
Easy as that.
When someone hands me a baby, he goes sideways, backwards, back around the other way and ends up clamped to my chest with his face smashed into my shoulder so he can't breathe. Someone fiddles with my hands, people give a lot of instructions along the lines of "No, put your hand under ... no your other hand," and finally when it's all done I look down at this awkwardly squashed kid who is staring at me like he can't believe anyone would hold a human baby this way.
"HELP ME! THIS LADY HAS NO IDEA WHAT SHE IS DOING!"
All the adults are being very polite and telling me I am doing a great job, but the baby sees through this bullshit. "You are the worst baby holder I have ever been held by," he is telling me with his dubious and mildly exasperated expression, with his chin jammed uncomfortably into his chest.
"Yeah ... I don't think you're doing this right."
In addition to the humiliation of a baby seeing through my facade, I'm also terrified of dropping him, or breaking his neck. Most people have heard that it's VERY IMPORTANT (capital letters included) to support a baby's head when holding him. It's true, it's important to support the baby's head (for the first few months), but I think a lot of inexperienced baby holders, when given the most important thing in someone's life, have this mental image that if they don't support the head at all times, it will snap right off and the baby will die instantaneously. Which, as you can imagine, puts this person in a state of sheer panic during the whole transfer.
I think my brother got a little tired of watching me take the baby like I was trying to switch a golden idol with a bag of sand, and told me, "He's not that fragile, you know." He's right. You can't toss around a baby like a basketball or anything, but babies past the early months can be handed casually from person to person without the Temple of Doom treatment.
As far as I know, babies cannot trigger boulder traps.
Still, my nephew is a little guy. I could easily snap him in half. And my brother's got a lot of pounds on me, so I'd probably be next. I don't think I want to take any chances.
Arguably the most awkward interaction for non-baby people isn't with the parents or other adults, but with the baby herself. Baby people are going to think this is ridiculous, because she's a baby! She doesn't know etiquette. She can't tell if you're blurting out the wrong thing. There's no one you should feel more free around!
"Come on. You can tell me anything."
I think that is a lot of what makes up a non-baby person, or at least a certain type of one. We're self-conscious with a slight paranoid edge and have this nagging feeling that other people are judging us. Even though we logically know that a baby can't judge people, we can't shake that weird vibe.
I don't live in a bubble, I know how people talk to babies -- talk about how cute they are, remark on what they're doing, make faces, smile, ask rhetorical questions ("What's that? You want your binky?"), wave brightly colored objects at them, whatever. Whenever I'm confronted with a baby, though, I usually end up saying something like "Hi." Which I suddenly realize is pretty stupid. Which makes me even more self-conscious. Then I nix everything else I think of saying and we just stare at each other like gunfighters at high noon.
"Your move, lady."
Sure, I could just start making silly faces and noises, but that usually goes even worse, because apparently I am a complete failure at silly faces, and the baby just stares straight at me with a look of severe disappointment. I know babies that young can't be judgmental, but everything about that face is saying, "Really? This is what you've got?" Any comedian knows the most chilling response to putting it all out there is cold, dead silence, and it can't be any more humiliating than when it comes from a baby.
"You're telling me this is your best material."
It doesn't get any better when they talk. I was recently tasked with occupying a friend's toddler for a half hour or so, and tried to draw things for him. Unfortunately, everything he wanted was a character from Thomas the Tank Engine, and (1) I don't know that series and (2) he can't quite make actual words yet. So he kept asking for "Go-da!" which at some times meant "Gordon" and at other times I think meant "Go there," and I think I was always doing the opposite of the one he wanted. So I got a lot of helpless stares, disappointed "no"s and resigned sighs from a two-and-a-half year old, which is as humbling as it gets.
Thomas And Friends
Apparently the problem was I was drawing a smokestack on Gordon.
By the time I handed him back to his mom, I was just glad that he hadn't burst into tears or fired me for my unprecedented incompetency. The half hour felt like it had been 10 hours of failing every simple request given to me by a toddler. I told his mom, who said, "Oh, I don't understand a thing he says, either."
So I don't know, man, maybe babies are disappointed in all of us, and we've just got to suck it up.
For more from Christina, check out 4 Recurring Myths We Apparently Really Want to Believe and The 5 Biggest Mistakes Women (Like Me!) Make On The Internet.
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