Curbing My Inhibitionism
As my long-awaited pregnancy came to an end, I felt I was prepared for the next step. Despite ignoring every major parenting book and only handling one infant since my babysitting days, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the whole motherhood thing. I was ready for the sleep deprivation, the drastic reduction of personal time, and even the influx of giant primary-colored plastic contraptions. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the biggest parenting challenge of all: maintaining a constant level of fake enthusiasm.
I don’t know, maybe it’s a genetic thing. I am descended from Minnesota farmers. Norwegian ones, no less. We’re a quiet, pragmatic, non-demonstrative bunch. We don’t squeal, holler, kiss strangers, or do the wave. Our life goal is to avoid attention. When my father rode a ten-foot ladder off the roof and broke his arm, the first thing he did was put the ladder away so the neighbors wouldn’t notice anything was amiss. As a four-year-old, I quietly trudged barefoot through a snowy Christmas tree lot for a good fifty yards before anyone noticed that I’d stepped out of my boots. These are the ways of my people. It’s not that we don’t have feelings. We just don’t want anyone else to know about them.
So I was completely caught off guard when this tiny, gorgeous, overwhelmingly engaging little person came into my life. My daughter seems to have been born with the express goal of attracting attention. That alone was a surprise, but I’m certainly willing to accept that she steered clear of the fjord-ridden end of the gene pool. What was more difficult to manage, however, was the way that having a baby forced me out of my comfortable reserved demeanor and into the role of twenty-four-hour cheerleader. No one warned me that a newborn would require not only constant feeding, changing, and cuddling, but also a perpetually chipper mood.
I started off doing my best, because nothing says “I’m a worthless craphead” like being snarky to an infant, but after the first couple weeks, I started to feel like Crystal Meth Barbie. By the time my daughter was a month old, my head ached from all of the exaggerated expressions of joyfulness I’d contorted my under-exercised facial muscles into. I wanted to encourage her and show my approval of everything she did. Problem was, she very rarely actually did anything. I mean, let’s face it, newborns are like squishy overgrown sea monkeys. You stare at them all the time hoping they’ll do something interesting, but all they’re focused on is keeping their floppy little selves alive. And yet I kept on cooing and clucking and pouring all of my post-partum energy into appearing elated at her every move.
I knew there were developmental benefits to acting this way, but that didn’t make me any less self-conscious about it. I read a lot of studies that said it’s natural and beneficial for adults to take on a sing-songy, animated vocal tone around babies. What the studies don’t say is, natural or not, it sort of makes you feel like a tool. I also read that I should avoid seeming grossed out by anything that appears in my baby’s diaper, because, theoretically, shaming her about her bodily functions would be a hindrance to future potty training. I got on board, but honestly, I think she began to detect the sarcasm in my voice after the 435th time I opened up a stinky, mustard-loaded diaper and exclaimed “Look at that fabulousness!”
As my daughter got older and more responsive (or, as my husband would say, less binary), it became a little easier to keep up the unending extroversion. I still don’t think I totally got the hang of it, though. I realized one day that all the other babies her age knew how to clap. I assumed this meant that they spent a considerable amount of time with people who applaud them. And me? Not a clapper. I can barely express happiness with my face, let alone by getting my limbs involved. The baby getting older also meant getting out more, and I had to push back feeling like a vaudeville act every time I had to bouncewalk her through a restaurant or impersonate Grover in a crowded grocery store (“Now the tomatoes are near … now the parsley is far …”).
I took a detailed personality test once that said my children would enjoy embarrassing me in public because it would be so easy to do. I had no idea that it would start this early, though. The only thing that keeps me going some days is knowing that her spongy little brain is getting some perks out of my ridiculousness. I recently interviewed a big fancy psychologist who assured me that acting like a doofus was an important and valuable part of parenting. Well, she didn’t put it exactly like that, but that was the gist. Babies need big, affectionate, cartoonish interaction with their parents … or so I tell myself when I’m crawling around the living room floor making lemur noises. Dignified, restrained, Nordic lemur noises.