Ninety Minutes of Parenthood: An Idyll

It is nine o’clock at night. I’d really love to be asleep or, lacking that, curling up with my book in a hot bubble bath for a few minutes. But my husband, who is blessed with the responsibility of teaching 160 twelve-year-olds about Ancient Rome in the morning, is busy preparing an activity, and my eleven-month-old son is unhappy. He’s been a little fussy all day, but now that it is time for bed he’s weepy and can’t be distracted. He is fed, dry, warm, pajamaed, but still miserable. I’ve walked him, bounced him, nursed him, read to him, but still he cries.

I’m lying with him on my bed. The door to the master bathroom is open, and the light is on. My baby keeps pulling away from me to stare at or reach toward that glowing block of light. Sometimes when he’s in a foul mood he can be mollified by presenting him to Mirror Baby, so I pick him up and step toward the bathroom.

As we cross the threshold the tears stop. I can see in the mirror that his eyes are red and swollen, but now he’s grinning. The only problem is, he’s not looking at Mirror Baby. Instead, he’s looking past the mirror to the far end of the bathroom — at what, I’m not sure.

I bounce and talk to him for a few minutes, and when it seems that the storm has passed, take a step out of the bathroom. Instantly he is sobbing again, tears flowing, writhing and reaching past me back into the bathroom. I’m mystified. I offer him music, milk — nothing. He is inconsolable.

So I step back into the bathroom. Peace descends. He smiles. And yet once again Mirror Baby is shunned in favor of… the bathtub?

I look at the tub, then at my blotchy-faced baby boy. He is smiling and babbling as he reaches with one arm toward the tub, his eyes darting between it and one of his bath toys that has fallen to the floor and been forgotten.

“It’s nine o’clock,” I tell him, in case he cares. “Do you really want a bath? This much?

And heaven forgive me, but I’m weighing my desire to make him happy with my lack of desire to set up a bath, get him ready, supervise and bathe him, and clean up afterward. Surely he doesn’t really mean it. Surely we could put this off until tomorrow after work, when I’m not so tired, when I still have my contacts in, when I’m not already dressed and ready for bed.

I try persuading him. “You’re in your pajamas. We just changed your diaper. We’d have to redo all of it. And you hate being dried off. It’s cold in here, do you really want to get all wet?”

“Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit,” he replies, beaming and waving at the shower curtain.

So much for logic.

“Just so you know,” I tell him, “if you really want a bath, you’re going to have to wait in your bed until I get it ready. And you’re not going to like that.” To prove my point, I step out of the bathroom and toward his room. He immediately stretches himself out to his full length, locks every joint in his body, and wails until he can’t catch his breath. I steel myself and deposit my opinionated baby in his crib. He is red up to the edge of his mussed blond curls; even the wet whites of his eyes are bright pink. I can hear him bawling as I pull out the baby bath, set it up in the big tub, and begin running the water. I add some bubbles and his toys, get the temperature right, and set his despised towel on the toilet. Then I take the precaution of removing my pajama pants and placing my own towel close at hand.

When I return to his room, he looks up at me with the face of the hopeful betrayed.

I smile. “Okay then. You wanted a bath; a bath it is.”

He reaches up, and I lift him from his bed. His delight is radiating off him until I stop at the foot of the bed to remove his pajamas and diaper, at which point he realizes that he has reached a new low, that nothing else in his life has ever been so cruel as this moment, that he is this close to paradise and being denied once again, and it takes me three times as long as it ought to undress him because he won’t bend his knees or stop howling.

Finally he’s naked, and I scoop him up and carry him into the bathroom as quickly as I can. The second my bare feet hit the tile, the crying stops. His face is streaked with tears, but it is the face of perfect joy. I kneel down next to the bathtub and he pulls away from me, trying — for all that he can’t yet stand or walk unsupported — to climb over the side of the tub to get in. “Hold your horses,” I scold, get a better grip on him, and lift him into the water.

He smiles, sighs, reaches down under the water to assure himself that his new favorite toy (yes, that toy) is still where he left it, then digs through the bubbles until he finds his bath book. It’s about eight plastic pages long, each with a smiling cartoon dinosaur doing various dinosaurish things, and is one of my son’s most treasured possessions. He recognizes somehow that it is upside-down and rotates it, then opens to the page with the pink pterodactyl. He leans back in the bubbles, turns a page, and coos happily. Like mother, like son: looks like I wasn’t the only one who wanted a bath and a book tonight.

After he finishes reading and I’ve scrubbed everything from the neck down, he switches the book for a cube-shaped squirt toy. This is another favorite. He submerges it between his legs, squishing it with both hands, then raises it just above the water level so that he can see where the hole is. He’ll turn the toy around and around until the hole is aligned correctly, then squirts himself in the belly with it over and over, repeating the process several times. While he is looking down, I take the opportunity to wash his hair. As I’m rinsing his hair, he looks up at the wrong moment and gets a cupful of water to the face. For a moment it looks like his enchantment with the bath has come to a rapid end, but I pat his eyes dry and he returns to his toys.

He’s all clean now, but there is still water in the tub, which means that bathtime isn’t over. His facial expression changes from glee to grim determination, and I scoot back as far as I can from the side of the tub as the Great Kicking begins. He kicks and kicks with a singleness of purpose that seems a little bizarre on his sweet baby face. The sudsy water flies, first jumping just a few inches within the baby bath, and then leaping in great two-foot-tall tsunamis out of his bath, sloshing over the side of the big tub and onto the linoleum. I keep one hand on his back (he’s really rocking now and would kick himself right over if I didn’t) while mopping up water with the other. My glasses are spotted with water; my hair is wet. Only experience and finely honed powers of anticipation keep my shirt from getting drenched, but it soon begins to feel a little damp, too.

Splash! Splash! Splash! The only thing that makes him pause is when he manages to splash himself in the face; he doesn’t like that, but it isn’t enough to dissuade him. When the water hits him between the eyes, he stops and glowers a bit at his feet, as if to tell them not to do that again, and then returns to the task at hand. The water level in the baby bath drops rapidly. Almost no bubbles remain. One of his bath toys has been completely evicted, carried away in the wake of a particularly enthusiastic kick. “Yeeeeeeee!” he yells at one point, telling the faucet who’s boss, his excited voice echoing off the tile and no doubt waking the neighbors.

I’m trying to dry off my glasses enough to see as he splashes a big one right into my face. He laughs, amply avenged for the hair-rinsing incident.

Before long, he is victorious over the bath. The water is all but gone, kicked out of the baby bath and down the drain or into the bath mat. His skin is getting chilly and his hair is plastered down against his scalp, straight as a pin for the few minutes until it dries. I get his towel into position and apologize to him preemptively; he truly hates being toweled off. He is still smiling as I lift him out of the tub and into his towel, but I’ve no sooner wrapped it around him than he is looking me in the eyes, indignant, yelling.

“It’s hard to look suitably angry when you’re wrapped in a ducky towel,” I tell him, drying him off as quickly as possible. He complains at top volume as I re-diaper him, to the point that his daddy comes upstairs to see why I’m pulling off all the baby’s toenails. By some miracle of parental tag-teaming we get him back into his pajamas as he twists and turns. I forgo brushing his hair in favor of offering him some milk, figuring that crazy hair in the morning is a price we’re all happy to pay.

The milk does the trick. My exhausted boy snuggles into the crook of my arm and drinks his fill. I shift him out of my arms and onto the bed just long enough to set the bottle down, and he immediately rolls over onto his stomach and is fast asleep. When I carry him into his room at 10:30 and lay him down in his crib, he doesn’t stir and will sleep peacefully until morning.

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