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Whelp Desk

A few questions for America’s least-nurturing baby expert

Whelp Desk
Photo by John Kachik (Illustration)
Hey, Dr. J! We’ve got a brand-new baby at our house! Now what?

I find that hard to believe, pal. In my experience, nobody with a brand-new baby has the energy to use exclamation points. But if you really do need a primer, I recommend my personally acclaimed 1998 decent-seller, Born in a Boxcar, Raised in a Drawer: How My Old Man’s Depression-Era Childhood Should Be Good Enough for Any Kid, still available as a signed first edition from several not-quite-dead-yet independent bookstores. Why can’t you buy this essential volume at the big chains? Pending litigation limits what I can divulge on that score, but let’s just say that when all this is over, some paranoid marketing suits at Pottery Barn Kids will be sucking extra hard on their gin-flavored pacifiers.

My husband and I have long been eco-consumers, but the birth of our daughter, Joss, has occasioned in us a redoubled commitment to environmental dedication. How can we ensure that her carbon footprint is as small as possible?

Ah, the ceremonial postpartum visit to the carbon foot-binder: a growing tradition for a certain species of Americanus comfortabilis. I could start by urging you to get rid of your GX 470 or your Pathfinder or your Navigator, but you wouldn’t, because you cling like a zebra mussel to the illusion of SUV safety hegemony. Besides, you need a big vehicle these days to accommodate the enormous displacement of the standard infant seat. When the wife and I installed our hand-me-down Graco in the back seat of our Ford Focus, we had to move the front passenger seat so far forward that the only member of our family it could have handled was our toddler. So now we take two cars everywhere we go.

I do have a couple of suggestions, however. First, lose the night-light in your child’s bedroom. There’s no such thing as an illuminated womb; an infant does not need a glowing SpongeBob or Dora to feel at home in the extra-uterine world. You can also use ambient light as a tranquilizing agent. My old man’s celebrated drawer/bassinet was situated in a pine dresser that stood on the north wall of room 526 in the Hotel Augeschwein, the one-time pride of old St. Paul’s behind-the-depot district. There were always rooms to be had at the ’Schwein, and the vacancy sign flashed all night outside the window—not unlike, one imagines, a soothing heartbeat in red neon.

Diapering offers another opportunity to luxuriate in the belief that you’re saving the planet. I’m not talking about cloth diapers vs. disposables; I’m talking about the wipes—specifically, the wipes warmer. This item, loosely derived from Crock-Pot technology, has become a standard fixture in nurseries nationwide. The operating principle is that under no circumstances can the nether parts of little Nevaeh or Crispin be cleansed at room temperature. No, the stack of damp wipes must be kept at a constant roasty-toasty temperature, so that no shock or shiver can taint the administration of routine hygiene. We are raising our children to expect every experience in life, no matter how mundane, to be pleasurable. Never mind the moral implications—think of the wasted energy. If every night-light and wipes warmer in Minnesota were unplugged today, we’d conserve enough power to run the new Twins stadium for a whole season.

Okay, I made that up, but you’ve got to figure it would be a lot of juice.

My wife gave birth to our first child yesterday, and within a few hours I was getting calls from my friends and hers, everybody wanting to know what I was getting her for a “push present.” Say what?

My heart goes out to you, you poor blind-sided chump. The push present involves a very simple quid pro quo: She pushes forth a miracle, you buy her a pair of diamond earrings. Or a piece of sculpture, a car, a second home—the New York Times ran quite a list of acceptable objets d’accouchement a few months back. If I were you, I would resist the pressure to shoot the moon on a post-labor bauble. There’s one push present that no red-blooded Minnesota woman can resist, and it just happens to be what I gave my wife after she delivered our first little tax deduction: a new bowling ball, extra sparkly. I managed to sneak it into the operating room, and immediately following the C-section, I presented it to her. She was speechless. You should have seen the tears.

I’m a successful entrepreneur in upper middle age with a beautiful young wife and a healthy baby girl. My life couldn’t be better, except for the fact that every time we’re out in public as a family, people take me for the grandpa. Have you got any advice for a man in my position?

As a matter of fact, Silver Fox, I do. Put a sock in it.

I’m not sure if this is a question or a comment, but here goes. Ever since my husband and I brought our son home from the hospital, all I can do is stare at him. I never would have thought, frankly, that a newborn baby, even my own, could hold my undivided attention for so long. I mean, they all look more or less the same, right? Mine looks like Don Rickles at times—a lot like Don Rickles, actually. At other times he looks like a fish, or my husband’s aunt, or E.T., or me in my awful fifth-grade school photo. My husband likes to say he looks a little too much like our doctor from the infertility clinic; I think that joke has just about worn itself out by now. Sometimes our son looks like what I think people must mean when they talk about angels. I don’t mean cutesy or icky-cherubic or anything to do with religion. I mean he looks like a creature who is of this earth but not entirely present in it; or not entirely present yet, anyway.

He looks back at me with such solemnity, such quiet eyes, and it kills me that only one of us will remember these moments. But it isn’t just the looking—it’s that plus the small weight of him on my lap, plus the tentative sounds he makes, plus the smell and feeling of his skin, plus so much else. I’ve read your book, the one about your “old man,” and I didn’t much care for it, but it strikes me that your dad’s mother must have had these same feelings, staring at him in his dresser drawer in the old hotel in St. Paul. She and every other parent that ever lived.


So my question—I guess there is one after all, and I know it will sound incredibly naive, Pollyanna-ish, unsophisticated, what have you, and maybe it’s my hormones talking, but I don’t care—my question is, How can anyone who’s ever held an infant for more than two seconds deliberately harm another person? Start a rumor, steal a parking space, stiff a waiter, sell an unsafe product, run a corrupt government, start a war? How can we do those things?
Nobody knows. I appreciate the book review. Any other questions?

At this writing, contributing editor Jeff Johnson has been the parent of a newborn baby for all of nine days.


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