Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lessons from Health Baby

Health Baby has come to visit for the weekend. This computerized simulator is here to convince my son that parenthood should be postponed until he no longer values sleep or—really—any uninterrupted time to himself. Little JaKobe (as my son has named him) cries and fusses frequently. As soon as he starts, you rub a magnet over his chest to trigger a timer that tests how quickly you can figure out which of four things might be wrong with the little guy. Is he hungry? Does he need to be burped or rocked or changed?

JaKobe sleeps for hours (you can listen to him breathing), and then he eats like a locust until he tires out again and naps, saving up his energy for the wee hours of the morning. It’s good to see a little realism written into the program. When he needs a diaper change, he’ll scream piercingly until you rub the magnet in the new diaper across his little tush, at which point, he’ll instantly coo with contentment. (Isn’t that just exactly how it went for your babies?)

It’s funny to watch a teenage boy growing more and more panicked as he struggles to decipher the baby’s cries. “What’s wrong with you?” he pleads. I so remember asking that more than a few times in the years before my kids could tell me where it hurt. Health Baby is (as you might imagine) much easier than a real child, though. I babysat the little doll this afternoon as my son went to his job as a soccer ref, and it was reassuring to know that there was always an answer to the “what’s wrong” question. (I wonder what the neighbors thought when they walked by and saw me patting the little half-naked baby against my shoulder in the living room.)

But really, Health Baby could go a long way toward being more realistic. Those changed diapers are completely fragrance-free. I want little JaKobe to give my son a realistic, full-fledged messy blow-out. You know, the squishy yellow-brown smear that goes up the back, soaks through the onesie, and leaks all over your last pair of clean jeans.

As my son nonchalantly changes that magnetic diaper, I’d like JaKobe’s little anatomically correct penis to do what little boy parts do when you remove the diaper (they don’t just make these for the fun of it), and for him to realize that that’s going to be the closest he’ll get to a shower all day. So when his sweet “Health Wife” gets home at the end of the day, he might be standing there weeping just a little, with a yellow smear on his jeans and dried pee crusting in his hair.

I don’t know if I ever realized how much of parenthood would revolve around other people’s bodily functions. Of course I knew there’d be diapers, but I didn’t think about the fact that they’d still be in diapers when they were eating solid food. Or that corn doesn’t change in any noticeable way after it’s been eaten by a child, so that when it’s running down their leg at the park, you can clearly see last night’s dinner. And I didn’t know that some kids could be champion-grade pukers either, so prone to vomiting that a simple cough can set them off. As the real-life parent, you get to be the one wiping it off and washing it away, while at the same time comforting and kissing and loving the producer of all that stomach-churning goo.

More than just the absence of excrement, though, Health Baby falls short of reality in one very fundamental way. Baby JaKobe only has four reasons to cry. That’s it. My son knows that if he tries each remedy for a minute, one of them will eventually work. Every parent who’s ever spent a long, dark night walking the halls with a squalling baby—wondering what’s wrong, aching over the cries of the child, begging the little one for a clue—knows that sometimes babies just cry. Sometimes they can’t be consoled. Comforting a baby sure as heck doesn’t happen in the span of a four-minute countdown. And it doesn’t end on Monday. Real babies don’t get turned back in to the health teacher at the end of a long weekend.

Still, I’m pretty sure I won’t be babysitting for my son again any time soon. So, really, this is the best health assignment ever.

* For an update on the Health Baby experiment, see Health Baby Mea Culpa.

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