Babies Are StupidS

This is the baby's idea of a game: He keeps trying to throw himself off the couch, headfirst. It's completely intentional. I sit him upright, and he looks me in the eye, holds my gaze, grins—and then pitches over sideways. I grab him, reel him back in, and straighten him up, and he grins again and takes another dive.

He has already hit the floor once. I was in the kitchen, and he was next to his mother on the couch, and he suddenly decided to lunge toward his older brother, who was over at the dining table. What I heard was my wife's scream and a sickening hollow crunch. The crunch, we eventually figured out, was him clipping a half-empty Kleenex box as he tumbled onto a heap of stray couch pillows, from which he rolled harmlessly to the rug. After his surprise wore off, he apparently decided this all hadn't been so bad.

Why am I encouraging him to dive off the couch? This is a bad idea. But it's thrilling to be able to play any sort of game with this baby at all. Before he learned to do this, he was punching me in the face. At the time, that counted as amazing progress. Two or three weeks before that, he was punching himself in the face. That was amazing progress, too. He had been in a long—and suddenly victorious—struggle with his arms. We would click the wire arc of toys into the frame of his bouncy chair and he would stare at them, one arm half-lifted, concentrating as if he were an aspiring telepath trying to flip the little plastic zebra around with pure mind power. As far as he knew, he was. That what really moved the zebra was when he sent the brainwaves down his arm was a distinction far off over his horizons.

I had forgotten how incredibly stupid babies are, over the four years since we'd last had one. The previous baby had become a child, a wholly recognizable human being, someone you could have a conversation with. ("I gotta pee," he says. "So go pee," I say. And he goes to the bathroom and pees.) This ability to communicate seemed, when we didn't think very hard about it, to have been there all along. We had always understood each other, child and parents. We'd gotten more fluent about it over time, was all. His infancy, in retrospect, was a puzzle we had all solved, working together.

Not at all. As the due date for the second baby drew near, there had been signs that maybe I wasn't remembering things completely accurately. I began noticing the 9-month-old or 1-year-old babies around me, with their bulbous heads and vapid gazes, gabbling and staggering and pointing inarticulately at things. Oh, yes, we would need to go through that again, wouldn't we?

But then this baby arrived, and he was much, much stupider than that. His brother was born weeks early, tiny and puny, and so it had made sense that it took him a while to be able to do anything. But this one was a full-term baby, a sturdy eight-pounder, and he was unbelievably ignorant and helpless. He knew nothing, understood nothing. He was soft and warm, he had that going for him. His eyes were big and bright; his head was a handsome shape. And yet behind those eyes, or inside that head—a roaring void. For weeks, his mind consisted of one thought: "NIPPLE...? NIPPLE...? NIPPLE...?" I would hold him and he would nuzzle at me, blindly, trying to drink from my collarbone. He would bang his face against my chest over and over, with as much affection as a moth has for a windowpane.

A newborn baby has two moods: rage and satiation. It is a howling mass of appetites, and nothing more. There are no better parts inside it, waiting to be discovered. The humanity of the baby is a retroactive fiction, like the stories we tell ourselves about what happened while we went from possessing a disorderly 17-year-old brain to possessing a more well-structured 22-year-old brain. I learned things, I had illuminating experiences, I got wisdom and an education. It was all very intentional.

You can make the newborn baby angry, or you can appease it, if you can figure out how to appease it. That's all. Our baby would scream because its diaper was wet, wake up screaming because of that. He would scream when the diaper came off. I would give him a fresh diaper, and he would be screaming again a minute later, implacably. What now? Why? He had wet the new diaper already. (I had also forgotten how often babies pee.) Another change, more screaming, and then finally, lifted up, he would fall quiet, press his weight into my neck, relax. His bowels would empty, audibly.

Another fact about new babies: Thanks to their legs having been doubled back so tightly in the womb, when the diaper comes off, they flex their knees and their heels go right to their unwiped poopholes. (This was news to me. The preemie, who never got big enough to be crowded, didn't have this feature.)

Gradually—very, very gradually—as the baby ate and defecated and grew over the past five months, human aspects began showing up. He looked at people. He smiled. He made sounds that weren't screaming. He gained control of his limbs. Those formerly useless hands dart out now and mangle a magazine cover. Or rip the tab key off the computer. Or grab a fistful of adult food off a plate. He understands, clearly, what food is about, and he believes he has as much right to eat it as anyone else. At dinnertime, he's ready to join the human race.

Baby photo by Sergey Peterman/Shutterstock