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Actual parenting a far cry from expectations

Having spent roughly 25 years as an observer of People with Children (PWCs), I had assembled a thorough, alphabetized and well-maintained mental catalog of things I knew I would never do when I joined their ranks.

I will never allow my living room to become a depository for toys, clothing and other baby-related paraphernalia, because it is a shared space that (theoretically, at least) is also intended for adult use, and besides, I don’t see why such a small person needs so much stuff anyway.

I will never spend hard-earned money on overpriced (but, admittedly, adoh-ubble) baby clothes, which will fit my child for three months at most and of which she will have absolutely no memory for the rest of her life.

I will never smell my infant child’s rear end in a public place and announce, “I think somebody just pooped!” (I don’t think this one really needs further justification.)

I will never write an opinion column talking about my kid, as though having a kid is an experience unique to me, and of which I possess unique insight that my audience awaits with breathless anticipation.

And so on. As you’ve no doubt deduced by now, I am, in fact, engaged in the process of breaking the last vow at this very moment.

Whether I’ve impinged on any (or all) of the first three, I’ll leave up to your imaginations. However, I will share that I also always told myself I’d never be one of the parents who thrills at their children’s rather mundane “accomplishments” — and expects others to feel the same — but just last week, I found myself yelling to my wife in the other room: “Honey, come quick! She’s making that cute gurgling sound again!”

Another one of the now laughably naïve things I swore I would never do in those Pollyanna days before I became a card-carrying PWC, was be one of those much-reviled parents who visits a dining establishment while in the company of a screaming infant.

You’ve all been there. It may have been at a local Chinese restaurant, or Mexican, or perhaps a fast-food joint for a quick bite, or even an Americana mainstay like Denny’s (the parents of screaming infants appear to have very diverse tastes).

You and your friends, or maybe a significant other, are preparing to enjoy what is most likely a rare night dining out, when you discover — much to your dismay — that your nearest table neighbor will be a human foghorn, a screaming, red-faced bundle of unreason and wiggling fury, whose tiny body is, apparently, comprised internally of nothing but lungs — with a small space reserved for the production of tears and drool.

Stereotypically, the parents do nothing, either because they passionately despise their fellow restaurant patrons (which is unlikely, but easy to imagine if you happen to be one of them) or because they know that spell from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1” that produces a sound-muffling force field around its casters.

Or maybe they just haven’t slept in a fortnight and have contracted temporary deafness as a side effect of post-traumatic stress.

At any rate, you can hear the baby, and it doesn’t sound like Beethoven. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t talk to the parents, unless you live in a world where saying, “Excuse me, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your kid sounds like an alley cat having a shootout with a banshee on a fighter jet in a hurricane, and it’d be great if you would do something about it” produces a positive response.

So, instead, you stay at your table, smiling awkwardly and pretending like you’re not sitting beside a shrieking maelstrom of human malcontentedness, not saying a word because you don’t want to look like a jerk who hates babies.

Over the past few months, I’ve become something of an expert on crying. In a 2012 study at the University of Oxford, researchers found that the cry of a baby — regardless of whether said baby shares any DNA with you or not — affects the human brain with a speed and intensity that few other known sounds can match.

None of the 28 participants in the study were parents, nor did they have any particular experience with children, but less than a second after hearing a baby’s cry, they all experienced a dramatic reaction that was registered by the researchers’ high-tech brain scanning equipment.

The participants also listened to the sounds of adults crying and animal distress — including that of dogs and cats — and none of them provoked the same response.

Though it’s fascinating to find experimental confirmation of the principle, it makes intuitive sense. Obviously, our species would not have lasted long in its more primitive days if the cries of our defenseless young were so soft and unobtrusive that we kept forgetting about them whenever they weren’t by our sides.

So, just in case being a parent weren’t stressful enough, now I get to live with the knowledge that, anytime my kid’s crying, I am subjecting the people around me to high-volume psychological torture.

Lovely. We haven’t yet committed this particular cardinal sin. We have, however, brought a screaming baby to church, a crowded beach and several friends’ houses, and we have a planned airplane ride later this month, about which our feelings lie somewhere between apprehension and mortal terror.

I’m sure we’ll be fine. Like millions of parents before us, we will survive the crying stage, hopefully, having endured as few as possible of those withering looks of disapproval from our fellow travelers and dinner guests.

But hey, if you happen to know that “Harry Potter” spell, feel free to share.



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