I celebrated my 38th birthday recently. I received no presents or cards, I paid for dinner, and all attention focused on another guest. You see, I told everyone that I have everything I need, so why not just buy gifts for our baby daughter instead?
Call it a friendly takeover. "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," lamented the hero of T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The poet's vision of aging may have been different if he'd had kids. A firstborn child is a much surer tip-off that we have entered a life stage of lowered personal dignity.
Not that the signs of my new peripheral status aren't clear enough. When we first took the baby to visit my parents, my wife entered the house with our daughter while I gathered the bags. I tried to carry everything in one trip - and with a baby you have about the same amount of gear as
a team of climbers about to ascend the north face of Mount Everest.
Reaching the door, I, half-joking, called out: "Mom, your son is home, too!"
Mom glanced up, then refocused on her real pride and joy. My wife tells me that her comment was, "Oh. Now what about the baby? Did she travel well?"
It serves me right. As an only child, I've long wanted the spotlight of attention to be diverted, and now it has been. Lucky me.
I notice in daily life that the baby is now the star. When I tote her through supermarkets, young women smile and wink at her; store clerks ignore me and ask her what she wants. My colleagues seem to have lost interest in my latest project on ethnic conflict and preface all discussions with: "So, how's that beautiful baby doing?"
At home, 90 percent of conversation is about her. The first time we hired a baby sitter and hit the town for a romantic dinner, we consumed the entire meal discussing the merits of sippy cups with and without handles and the enigmatic lyrics of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
Obviously, for some folks this can be a problem. We know couples whose petulance when talking about their recent additions testifies to their irritation at having to give up a freer, fancier, self-centered lifestyle. We, however, have surrendered peacefully into the "cult of the baby."
Still, sometimes I experience a bit of Prufrockian unease at my displacement to a supporting role. Late on my birthday, my wife, sensing this, decided we should go out and buy me a present. Didn't I need another bookcase?
We returned home with a new dresser for the baby's room. It was the one we had been looking for, and it was on sale.
Probably a smart move. According to some projections, it will take about $1 million, including college tuition, to raise our daughter to middle-class maturity.
My wife has calculated that leaves us with about 17 cents to spend on ourselves in the next 20 years.
So my bookcase can wait. Maybe after Baby graduates from college?
David Perlmutter is an associate professor at Louisiana State University, but prefers the title "Da-Da."
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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor