Monday, June 18, 2007
Dudes and Diapers
A few weeks ago my wife and I had the crazy idea to schlepp Spot to Lower Manhattan for a good friend's wedding. Spot was a good sport about the whole thing, as usual, asking only that certain minimal physiological requirements be met in exchange for enduring the horrendous inconvenience of air travel and the occasionally horrendous experience of a wedding reception. He slept profoundly through both ceremony and reception, attired in a navy blazer, khaki pants, and a pacifier stuck in his mouth like a cork in a jug.
But the wedding is not the point; the point is that on the way back to Chicago, Spot had his first in-flight poop. It was bound to happen; Spot has been raking up firsts of this sort all along the way, and shows no signs of slowing down. While he doesn't seem to care much for the act of pooping in and of itself, he certainly enjoys the aftermath. He really, really loves it. I can understand the obvious satisfaction of getting cleaned up, and if he's as much of a psychotic neat-freak as his father, then perhaps this is an early manifestation of my legacy. But there's more to it than that. He's into the whole Gestalt. Dropping Spot onto the changing table - or whatever equivalent we've contrived for the moment - is like dosing him with an enormous happy pill. We've had some of our best times there. My wife has had the same experience. Pooping, family, and happiness; how much better (or Freudian) can things get?
Without getting into the probable sources of his pleasure, I know that for me "doing a diaper" has joined the family of certain other elementary procedures, like changing a flat tire, sewing a button, or whipping up a white sauce, that are the mark of a generally competent adult. But beyond that, it's just fun. How could it not be, when Spot gets that giggly smile on his face and then cantilevers his legs into frog position on the changing-table, all while the seat-belt sign is blinking and the turbulence gets nasty? "Come on old man," he's saying to me, "let's see you get that diaper on me this time!" I'm the one who freaks out, he just enjoys the show.
I managed to keep Spot from sliding into either the sink or the toilet, and one day he'll thank me for this, but as I picked him up I bumped his head against the curved bulkhead and this he refused to tolerate. Fortunately, the jet engines were handy and did a fine job of muffling the wails, allowing us to return to our seats just a few minutes later with no one the wiser.
"How'd it go?" asked the guy next to me, an affable MBA with all sorts of interesting things to say about affordable housing in New York. I told him how I bumped Spot on the curved bulkhead and he lit up with a boyish smile. "That's what I'll tell my wife," he said, with what my own father would describe as a shit-eating grin. "I'm too tall, I can't change the diaper in-flight because I can't do all that in the airplane restroom." He seemed satisfied, like he had found something he had been looking for. I have no doubt that this fellow had changed his fair share of diapers, but he seemed to also know that he was expected not to like it, and not to want to do it, because he was a man, and that if he found just the right excuse, the world would let him off the hook.
The diaper thing seems to run pretty deep, and I have a feeling that it lies at the root of our gendered conceptions of labor. Women handle small dependent things. Men control big impersonal things. Women are closer to the raw, men to the cooked. Or so it goes. Personally, I don't quite get it when our babysitter tells us that "most men don't like to change diapers," something that's been repeated to me over and over again, mostly by women, who are in a position to know. Since most men, I assume, understand the importance of consistently wiping their own asses, I'm not sure what accounts for the hesitation to wipe someone else's, especially that of one's offspring.
My wife recently shared a statistic with me, which I can't source but I'm sure the readers of this blog can, indicating that among adult caregivers of elderly parents, 38% are daughters, while only 7% are sons. If diapering represents an aversion to infant dependency, this statistic suggests that the aversion reemerges in the presence of elderly dependency at the far end of life's trajectory. Caregiving is feminized, whether it be for the young, the old, the sick or anyone else.
But culture is full of contradictions and capable of endless permutations. Diapering could conceivably go the route of national barrista competitions, where what had once been a menial service operation is transformed into an artisanal skill that is subject to expert appreciation on the basis of speed, technical, and artistic merit. Had such a panel of judges viewed my in-flight performance, I'm sure I would have wilted as they raised their placards: 8.5, 7, 6.5. After all, making the baby cry is the equivalent of falling on your rear-end during a triple axel turn in figure skating.