Writer Gint Aras probes the odd phenomenon of babies attracting babes…to his wife’s amusement
Prior to having Kira, my first child, I used to imagine what attention a baby might attract in public. I was mostly curious but also mildly anxious.
I live in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb boasting good schools, beautiful parks and playgrounds, and a diverse culture of bookworms and patrons of the arts, things attractive to nerdy parents. Long before my wife had become pregnant, I had seen exhausted moms minding their own business in coffee shops or diners, a baby snoozing in a stroller, when a whole queue of strangers might form, each one poking in a head before offering two sentimental cents. An elderly woman has found the baby adorable. The empty-nesters cannot repress their nostalgia. A wired dad on his lunch break must announce that he has an infant the same age. And oh, what terror the nights have been! Crying, incessant crying. Colic! But sweet Moses, does the time fly. Just last Wednesday his daughter had been the size of a cantaloupe. Now—just in time for Halloween—she’s a pumpkin. Ha!
I noticed how pervasive the clichés of parenthood were: conversations between parents were more predictable than sitcom scripts. Were these clichés at all? Was I witnessing the small talk of the exhausted or something greater, a multi-tentacled and inescapable truth that choked all originality from the system? The talk of time flying, kids growing up so fast. One child looks like mom
while the other looks like dad (as if it should have been possible for one to look like Jane Crawford, the other Reverend Marvin Gaye, Sr.). The arguments over whose toes the baby had—were they aunt Caroline’s or grandpa Dave’s? It was bad enough that my wife had been guilt-tripped into a shower registry, but did family women really need to make a Russian doll of the cliché, suggest she set it in Target or Babies R’Us?
I expected to deal with this at family gatherings, but shouldn’t I deserve some peace when heading out to my local café? I have never handled small talk well, neither at work nor on a park bench. Would I fly off the handle, insult the gel-smeared head that poked itself into my daughter’s slumber? She’ll grow up so fast. I’ve heard. Enjoy her now because she’s gonna to be a teenager soon. Yes, true. She’s really very beautiful. Oh! Thank you. I hope you have a shotgun.
When my daughter was finally born and I took her out for the first walk, I was beaming with happiness. The anxious grump had all but disappeared, and I welcomed the smiles from strangers who would have normally paid me no attention. In fact, the odd ones were now those who caught notice of my sleeping baby but offered no gesture. Here we were, so happily radiant together, a father and his daughter. Yet this bastard just got his Americano and sat down next to us without even a glance.
I ended up in conversations with all sorts of strangers: men and women of every ethnicity and age, teenaged girls as well as drooling toddlers who’d wander over and babble Baby. If I ever brought my daughter to work, colleagues would give her little gifts. People on the subways were now helping me carry Kira’s stroller up and down stairs. In restaurants, entire parties moved from one table to another to offer me a more comfortable place. All of it shocked me. Even now, three years into parenthood, a second child in the family, I am not really used to it.
I am, however, used to people approaching me out of the blue. It quickly becomes normal. So I didn’t find it odd when, on a warm October afternoon, an attractive redhead—her German glasses, wool coat and cashmere scarf expensive even for Oak Park—crouched down beside the stroller and began cooing. “Oh. What a beautiful baby. An adorable child.”
Yes. Yes. And to repeat without stuttering, this was also an inexplicably attractive woman.
“What’s the baby’s name?”
“Oh, my God. Just adorable.”
We had the usual small talk. “Kira’s six months old. She’s sleeping pretty well.” But the woman didn’t waste much time before getting to her point. She stood up, gave me a very direct glance and, flashing an easy smile, asked me: “So, where’s mom?”
“Mom? Well, she’s at home.”
“I see.” She nodded and looked down at Kira once again. “You have a beautiful daughter. Congratulations.”
The woman walked toward the library and my eyes followed her for a good moment. I then strolled around the neighborhood wondering what had just happened. That smile stayed with me—it caused a buzz in my throat and loins. Had she meant to be coquettish? Why was I feeling awkward and naughty about this particular buzz in my loins?
At such moments, I usually tell my wife that I feel weird. “Hey, I got hit on today.”
“Yeah? Good for you.”
“No. It happened.”
“The café. This woman. She asked me, Where’s mom?”
My wife laughed. “What did she look like?”
I described her.
“You’re hilarious. She’s just curious. You wouldn’t think she’s hitting on you if she weren’t gorgeous.”
“No. I think she flashed a coquettish smile.”
Her laugh was now rising from deep in the diaphragm. “Good. Take the baby on more walks.”
I continued taking the baby on walks, just as I continued going to the café, and Kira continued attracting random people. Then, only days later, another striking beauty presented herself, this one younger, brunette, a stack of medical textbooks on her table. She made small talk about Kira’s cute hat and her snug sleeping bag. Then she flashed a smile and asked, “So…where’s mom?”
I made a point now to observe her smile, to memorize it, and I can say with confidence that a jury of homosexual Greeks would have skipped deliberation. Coquette! Frigid nuns would have pointed arthritic fingers: “That one’s making eyes.” Nabokov would have patted me on the back: Tell her your daughter’s mother died of typhus in Corfu.
But it could not be! An infant? Attracting beautiful women? A few weeks later it happened again, and the beauty asked me, again, “Where’s mom?” This was not friendly curiosity. It must have been my naked ring finger—my wife and I had been unable to afford rings before our wedding and finally never bothered with them. What other explanation could there be? At that time I had been horribly out of shape, clinically obese, a double chin. I was suffering from insomnia, usually looked exhausted, and despite any effort, my hair fell in ways that accentuated bald spots. In short, I was uglier than I had ever been in my life, and yet the sophisticated beauties of an affluent suburb were making inquiries. Nothing vaguely similar had ever happened when I was in college or living in Europe, and I never got it when I was alone. It only happened when I had Kira.
A period passed when the experiences seemed to have ended. I explained them away as weird karma or my own delusions. But soon a few more women flashed their smiles and asked for my wife’s whereabouts. I wish I could interview them because I’m at a loss—most women close to me, including my sister-in-law and wife, brush it off as blithe conversation, tell me I’m inflating things. I’m assuming these women had no kids of their own, for example. Perhaps they’re right. Because what could a single woman’s motivation be? If I said, My wife died of typhus in Corfu, would they ask for my number? Is it some weird fetish guys don’t know about (and should I tell my single friends to push strollers around the streets)? If I were really a single dad, would these women honestly want to involve themselves in my complicated life, help raise some other woman’s kid? Could they possibly assume I’d have very much spare time? If fathers are naturally attractive—if a man demonstrates his appeal simply by being a dad—do you make the leap to think he wants to father your kids just as well? After two kids, my wife and I are not interested in any more, either with each other or anyone else.
Since having kids, I have so often talked to exhausted moms of newborns, twins or rambunctious toddlers. I have looked into their strollers and started clichéd conversations. Yet I have never asked them to tell me where their partners were. It’s not because I lack curiosity. When you learn how difficult it is to raise kids, you wonder if it’s just as difficult for others, what their circumstances might be. But those circumstances are a private matter, and they explain the pervasive, completely safe clichés of parental camaraderie. I also have a feeling that an exhausted mom might take offense if some random guy started asking about her partner: was s/he near or far or dumped or dead? She might even ask me who I thought I was. Was it any of my business?