In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt faces his fears and buys a doll for his daughter, which gets him thinking about the stuff we accumulate as parents, the sacrifices we make as our lives change, and what makes us human.
We have been bogged down in baby stuff for months. Odd for a child whose birth forced us to reschedule the baby shower. (She’s been antisocial, we sometimes joke, from that moment on.)
Baby stuff. At first, you have a few set things, the things people tell you you need: a place for the baby to sleep, a place to change the diapers, a place to throw away the diapers, a place to set the baby down so that you can attempt to be who you used to be. Then you get the things you realize you need that no one told you you need: a bottle steamer, a baby-food maker, a mat to cover the hardwood floor, more and more effective ways to keep your baby clean or help her eat better or distract her for a moment so that you can attempt to get a break from who you now are. In the end you are overflowing: all the stuff the baby has grown out of and the new stuff you get when you fill the needs and move on to giving your child what she wants, and what you want for her, the zone where those two overlap for us being hundreds of books.
The house changes. You rearrange the furniture. You care most about keeping the baby places relatively germless; a mess is fine until it threatens her health. The house is always in what your wife calls “transition.”
Finally, you have so much stuff that you want to get rid of it, give it back or pass it on, make room for new stuff. But you are also attached, since there is where your daughter slept through the night for the first time, or there is where she sat up for the first time, or here is where you cleaned her butt.
We pile in the living room every piece of baby furniture we think we can do without. The baby watches her old new life reappear. She points and points. This is her latest skill—claiming ownership by the thread that connects her finger to her desire. She is still trying to figure out how this thread works, and why it doesn’t work all the time. She climbs into the Bumbo and her legs barely suck through the foam. It sticks to her hips as we try to lift her out. She lies down in the hammock where she used to sleep. She rocks herself in a vibrating chair she never used as a baby baby—that’s how we refer to her infancy now—a chair for which we never had the battery pack to make it move on its own.
When you want to throw something away—even for babies—that is when it explodes with meaning.
My friend from grad school shows up with her husband to take all this stuff away, and it is good to see her after so long, now about to go through the journey we went through. We talk baby bumps; she leaves pie; I help her husband pile the stuff in their car. As we transfer thing after thing, I watch his face change, like one of those outdoor movies flickering to life on a public wall. “I think things just got real,” he says. He says it again to his wife. Before they leave, they say it again. The things have made things real, and there is only more stuff to come.
A couple of weeks later, my parents drop off their car for the winter. They are moving to Florida. My mom has retired, at last, and they are migrating, birds of a feather, to the warmth of distant remembrance. They have already cleared out my childhood house. We are thankful for the car, for what is left. The baby is feeling more and more trapped, I think—or maybe project, with each day. Her body, our family, grows bigger while the space does not.
The next weekend, we drive out to the shopping outlets 45 minutes away. My clothes are ripped, worn through, years old. My wife’s wardrobe has gone through pregnancy. When my parents visited, my dad asked whether I went to work in my jeans with the hole in one knee. This after a joke about dying, prefaced gently with a warning that I might not like the punch line. I tried to bring up how our growing family is at a crossroads: the baby old enough now to need me to have a career, the novel revised again and off to agents, hopefully loyal ones this time, our life between old and new things, our time in this city overlong. But I spoke too softly, as always. When my parents left, the baby cried, as always, and we called to show them their impact.
At the outlets, we watch people clamor over brands, dressed to kill and willing to kill for dress. It is both off-putting and convincing. As if you want to dive into whatever lives they have, even though you might hate yourself for it. The outlets are a reminder of the life my wife left in Korea, Burberry and Tory Burch and Michael Kors. “Rich people,” I say with disdain, but it’s more like people who want to take on the trappings of the rich. These are the outlets, after all. We drove 45 minutes to get here.
We spend, of course, more than we can afford to spend. We spend the entire day. When it gets dark, we go to Cracker Barrel and I eat an entire plate of starch. There is also a little chicken. In the store attached to the restaurant, the baby picks up cars, then dolls. I find them like this, my wife and my daughter, holding several different fabric girls, different faces and clothes on the same basic model. When the baby chooses the Asian doll, an elderly white woman says, “That one looks just like you.” My fear of dolls is going into overdrive, but now it is met by a fear of being judged by what we are on the surface.
My wife says I am oversensitive. My sensitivity is made worse by the crippling fear that this cottony girl with a butterfly tattoo will wake in the middle of the night and kill me for having the thing it craves: humanity. Or maybe my fear is of the distance between human and not, of not always knowing where we stand, whether we are human or just more stuff. How much separates us? On occasion, my daughter will turn and point to me like she owns me, and she does. Dolls, whether this fear is rational or not (okay, not), are the one object I hate most in the world. And yet when my baby pulls her Asian doll away from the white woman bearing down on her, when this new doll becomes already something she wants to protect, I will gladly pay my own comfort for hers.