Neglecting the baby.

Neglecting the baby.

Neglecting the baby.

Notes on fatherhood.
June 12 2002 11:27 AM

Neglecting the Baby

For the new father, something has to give.

The first rule of fatherhood is that if you don't see what the problem is, you are the problem. For most of the past couple of weeks I hadn't been able to see what the problem was. Everything had been going swimmingly. For the first time since the birth of my second child I was able to get back properly to work. My fear that my children would starve, or, at the very least, be forced to attend public school, was receding. The time I needed to earn a living had to come from someplace, of course, but it hadn't been obvious to me where in the family it should come from. Not from my wife, to whom I am addicted. Not from my eldest child, who has made it clear that she can't survive on one minute less of parental attention than she received before her sister was born. The only person who would be perfectly untroubled by my absence was the baby. Having worked up enough feeling for her that I could say honestly that I preferred having her around to not, I could now, in good conscience, neglect her.

Sure enough, by laying Dixie off on her mother and various baby sitters I was able to slip back into something like my old routine. By the end of last week I had a new book up and nearly running. All was well. And then her mother turned up in my office, with that look in her eye. I tried to head her off before she got started, by telling her just how secure I was making our family's finances. She was uninterested in the family's finances.

"You need to set aside time to spend with Dixie," she said.

"Oh," I said. "I've spent time with her."

"You just went an entire weekwithout seeing her."

"It's not like she knows."

"You know," she said. Which was true. Sort of.

"How often do you want me to see her?"

"I think you should have enough material about Dixie to sustain a biweekly Slate column," she said.

My first thought was: What kind of father is it who sees his child just enough to generate material for his column? My second thought was: my kind of father.

Dixie at the movies
Dixie at the movies(Digital images sponsored by RadioShack)
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In that spirit, but not only in that spirit, I took Dixie and her mother to the Parkway Theater in Oakland, to see Italian for Beginners. The Parkway Theater, the greatest invention since birth control, is a cinema that, on Monday nights, admits only people over the age of 18, and then only if they are accompanied by people under the age of 1. Sixty parents of 30 babies purchase their tickets, order their dinners, gather their glow-in-the-dark dinner claim-check numbers, and head into a theater. There, seated on deep plush sofas, infants howling mightily all around them, relaxed for the first time in a week, they wait placidly for their dinners to arrive and their movie to begin. It usually does this without much warning. There aren't any previews or ads at the Parkway. Whatever they're showing just starts right up.

Balancing act
Balancing act(Digital images sponsored by RadioShack)

Watching a movie with 30 babies is different than watching a movie without them. It's actually better, in some ways. The babies themselves, all piled up in one place like that, are themselves worth paying to see. They tend to howl all at once—say, when a character laughs raucously or a shot rings out in the night. They also tend to sleep all at once—say, when a character isn't laughing or a shot isn't ringing out. Occasionally, they even perform amazing tricks. Just before the movie began, for instance, a 6-month-old girl in the front row balanced herself in midair, with nothing for support but her father's unsteady palm. The whole crowd cheered.

The success of an evening at the Parkway turns on the movie. There are good movies to watch with babies and bad movies to watch with babies. Italian for Beginners, odd as it may sound to anyone who has seen it, turns out to be very nearly the perfect movie to watch with babies. It opens with a firm promise to be one of those bleak Scandinavian character pieces in which every character is either dying or despairing, or both. This came as good news for us, as it seemed unlikely in the extreme that any character would laugh or that any shots would ring out in the night. Nobody needed murdering in this one. Also, there's nothing like the misery of life as presented in Scandinavian art to remind the new parent that, no matter how bad he thinks he has it, some people have it even worse. Scandinavians.

Baby jamboree and feed
Baby jamboree and feed (Digital images sponsored by RadioShack)

Without Dixie I would have stewed in my seat, thoroughly pissed-off that that I had been conned by the cheery sounding title into sitting through an Ibsen drama. With Dixie I was pleased to have been conned.

But then something happened. Two things, actually. First, about midway through, a bleak Scandinavian character piece became a spoof on a bleak Scandinavian character piece. Everyone who needed to die died in a hurry, leaving the remaining characters to cope with their despair, unaided. And toward the end of the second act their quiet Nordic depression took a dangerous U-turn, as all at once they discovered, as if they were thinking an original thought, what Scandinavians have known for centuries: If you want to be happy in Scandinavia you have to go to Italy. The second thing that happened resulted directly from this shocking eruption of Scandinavian joie de vivre: Dixie woke up and began to holler.

The implicit rule at the Parkway is that you can let your baby cry and enjoy the show and no one will think any less of you. The Parkway offers the guilt-relieving sensation usually available only to smokers who find themselves surrounded by other smokers or to fat people who find themselves seated on airplanes with other fat people. But if before you arrive at the Parkway you have earned a reputation with your wife as a neglectful father this sensation is no longer so easily had. Instead, you must rise and walk around with your child until she is mollified. The final scenes of the movie I glimpsed only out of the corner of my eye. A happy Scandinavian remains, to me, an elusive sight.