What are you doing to that child?
NINE months ago I ventured out on the streets of New York, test-piloting a stroller that carried our one-month old son, Charlie. I was a new mother . . . but I guess that was obvious.
A woman came up to us on the street and said, ''That child needs a hat. Why look, poor thing has no hair and he's out without a hat!'' I strolled farther, a bit shaken. A man spotted our little caravan and crossed the street to get a closer look. ''Babies need hats - their heads are so unprotected. You should never leave the house without one.''
When I arrived home I searched around for Charlie's hat. I laid it out on the counter and vowed never to make that mistake again. Taking him for a walk without a hat - what was I thinking of?!
The next day I packed us up, set up the stroller, and off we went again. Of course this time Charlie had his hat on. I was enjoying the freedom of the outside when a woman, barely glancing our way, remarked, ''Are you trying to boil that baby? He's probably sweltering in that hat.'' I stopped dead in my tracks and leaned over the carriage. I pleaded into the questioning eyes of Charlie to give that lady some signal that his mother was not as dumb as she seemed and actually he was quite happy in his hat.
This hat thing was obviously a controversial issue not settled simply by putting one on. So, never sure just how the wind would blow, I carried a hat with me on all of our walks and put it on and took it off as the advice dictated.
When Charlie grew out of androgynous coverings such as ''sacks'' and ''stretchies,'' I found that to wear or not to wear a hat was only the beginning of the clothes controversy.
''He should have something on his feet.'' That was the cry at two months. And , as I quickly found out, socks were not enough. ''Not in this cold weather.'' But then there were those who quaked with horror at the sight of baby shoes. ''You should never bind his feet at such a young age!''
In the summer months, when clothes became scant and unimportant, the comments shifted to new topics. His weight was always cause for pause. ''Dear, what are you feeding that child?! - you should dilute that formula he's drinking, it looks way too thick.'' And, ''no wonder he's so fat, if you let him sit in the stroller and eat cookies.'' I grabbed the cookies out of his clenched little fists, tugged the bottle from his mouth - maybe he was a bit fat.
But what should I do when it's 4 o'clock, I'm waiting in a checkout line in the supermarket, and Charlie starts to make shrieks that go in one ear, vibrate around for a bit, and then shoot you straight to the roof? ''Poor thing, he's starving, don't you have some little cracker or cookie he can munch on?'' comes the calm suggestion from the woman behind the register.
Last month my husband and I decided to try a new venture into the outside world with Charlie. We took him to a respectable restaurant. (By respectable I mean somewhere between the Waldorf and Wendy's.) I felt so proud as the three of us sat around the table chatting in punctuated single syllables, ''Da, Ma, Ba,'' etc., until our meal was served. But as I lifted my fork to start eating, I caught the surprised eye of Charlie. Oh, no, I had forgotten to bring any baby food for him! He seemed to realize this at the same instant I did and, while I paled, Charlie broke into his shrieks.
Determined not to panic, I cut my quiche in half and began to feed him. I smiled that the oversized fork and curdled eggs seemed just interesting novelties to Charlie - all part of this ''dining out'' experience.
But look out! The woman from the next table had gotten up and was headed in our direction. I knew she'd been watching us all along. And she must have picked up on something or things I was doing that needed immediate correction. I went through in my mind all the rules I might have violated: feeding a baby with a restaurant utensil; introducing a new food in the evening; insufficient clothing in an air-conditioned room.
''You know, I was just remarking to my husband how clever you mothers are today,'' she said, bending over to get a better look at what Charlie was eating. ''Now, we probably would have carted jars of baby food to the restaurant and look at this baby - why, he couldn't be happier eating quiche Lorraine - and goodness knows, it tastes better than 'Turkey and Vegetable Dinner.' ''
I smiled gratefully and sat back in my chair, savoring the compliment for a minute. The next bite of quiche Lorraine was served up to Charlie's waiting mouth with absolute confidence - maybe I was catching on.