A Pox On Me

January 10, 2007

Edits! Edits! Yonder, below!

WonderBaby has, happily, recovered from her pox. A few small red marks here and there, but otherwise back to normal.

Funny thing, pox. In archaic usage, the term sometimes referred to misfortune or calamity, and it certainly seemed to me to be exactly that when first the spots began to appear on the flawlessly butter-soft skin of my baby. My sweet, sweet baby was sick, uncomfortable and disfigured by countless angry sores – the very depth of calamity, to my anxious maternal mind. And yet perfect strangers – pharmacist, doctor, random persons at check-out counters – insisted to me that we were oh so lucky. Such a good time for her get chickenpox, they said. Best to get them as a baby. Get it over with! Avoid the vaccine!

Hurrah, I muttered weakly in response, clutching my poxy baby to my chest, fingers fluttering over the persistent sores scattered across the back of her sparsely-haired head. Hurrah for me, I thought. And, fuck you. In those moments, I found it hard to conceive of the pestilence as luck. In those moments, all that I could think was, my baby is sick and uncomfortable and has sores all over her tiny body and this is supposed to be a vacation and that, my friends, does not feel like luck to me.

Now that it’s over, of course, I can wax authoritative on the character of our luck – look at how nicely her pox have healed! How quickly! How fortunate are we that she will not have to go through this when she is older! And: how lucky we are that there will be one less terrifying needle, one less icky injection of yuck into her pristine, chubby little thigh! I can forget, now, how frustrated I was; I can forget how I winced in sympathetic discomfort as she rubbed her face furiously with her (mercifully plush) toy frog, I can forget how tears pricked my eyes when she woke in the night, moaning and whimpering, squirming in her itchy condition.

But what I cannot forget is this: that some people recoiled from her, turned away from her spotty, poxy aspect, averted their eyes from her disfigured countenance. We were travelling, we had no choice but to take her into public spaces for refuelling, for diaper changes, for fresh air. And when we stepped into such spaces, she would, as is her wont, wave furiously at all and sundry, calling, eh-oh, eh-oh, HI! Summoning attention, demanding smiles, reaching out into the world for More! More! Happy! Smiles! And! Waves! And although there was often some kind soul, some sympathetic parent or grandparent who understood, who recognized immediately her condition, and gaily waved and cooed back at my gregarious girl, there was, too, always someone else – too often, multiple someone else’s – who blinked and stared and then looked away, discomfited by the little face with the mask of red spots.

WonderBaby, unaware of the curious social dynamic unfurling around her, would keep waving and calling, until distracted by her sippy cup, or a crayon, or some four-legged creature that she would, invariably, and loudly and proudly, declare to be a cat. I, meanwhile, bit my tongue and pressed my fingernails into my palms to keep from shouting at these people: she’s a baby, she has chickenpox, you can’t catch it from a smile or a wave.

I bit my tongue.

Later, spending the New Year with good friends, I mentioned these uncomfortable moments. Oh! my dear friend exclaimed, a lesson in vanity! And I replied – echoing, if memory serves, her exclamation – yes!

She was right, I thought at the time. A lesson in vanity. She meant WonderBaby, of course; she meant that WonderBaby had had her first lesson in the limitations of charm, in the disappointment that vanity can wreak when it renders us (as it always does) vulnerable to the opinions of others. But when I thought about it later, I realized: this was not a lesson in vanity for WonderBaby. It was a lesson in vanity for me.

WonderBaby is a gregarious baby. She seeks social intercourse wherever she goes, and she usually finds it. But she’s no stranger to the turned shoulder, the averted eye: there are a great many disdainers of children in the big city, people upon whom the tremendous charms of a WonderBaby have no effect. She has waved furiously and futilely at many a Scrooge and many a Grinch on the subway, in the cafe, in the restaurant, in all of the public spaces that we frequent. And she has always, always, taken this rejection with an admirable aplomb: You don’t see me! Oh well! On to the next person! Hi! You! Eh-oh!

Hi! Cat!

I, of course, upon witnessing this, have many times cursed the child-haters under my breath for their shallowness of spirit (a shallowness of spirit that surely must attend such frigidity in the face of such innocent charm, no?) But I never took it personally; I can understand that some people don’t like children, are irritated by babies, piqued by kittens and puppies, etc, etc. Whatever. I did, however, take it personally when it seemed that my child was being rejected because of her appearance, because of some apparent disfigurement, because she didn’t look ‘right.’ It bothered me that some people were looking at her and thinking what is wrong with that baby? and not what an adorable baby! More than once, when we ventured out of our rental minivan, did I pull her cap down as far as it would go, down over her cheeks, so that the spots would be less visible. More than once did I insist to my husband that we not linger at this gas stop or that drive-thru, because WonderBaby was trying to be social and people were turning away and it was hurting my feelings.

The vanity being hurt was mine. I have grown accustomed to having an attractive baby, a quote-unquote normal baby, a baby with big eyes and a big smile who loves to laugh and smile and wave. I have grown accustomed to the oohs and aahs and coos and clucks of admiration. I have become a vain mother. And I am, I have to say, ashamed of myself for this.

WonderBaby didn’t care. Oh, sure, she would prefer that everyone and their dog (although she would call that dog a cat) respond to her greetings, to her invitations to chat and play, but she doesn’t take it personally when they don’t. What she seems to understand intuitively (I don’t know what follows to be perfectly true, but allow me the indulgence of speculation): that it’s about them, not her, if they don’t respond. She has not yet developed what Rousseau called amour propre – love of one’s own, in the sense of loving one’s own position/status/reputation viz. others. Vanity. WonderBaby still enjoys the happiness of pure amour de soi. She has not yet developed vanity; she loves only to be happy in herself, and being happy in herself is blissfully easy, as it requires nothing from the opinions of others. Love, be loved, live – that’s all.

So simple, so brilliant, so out of reach for a corrupt adult like myself, a woman who does indeed value the opinions of others, who measures so much of her own worth on the scale of such opinion. And, clearly, a mother who measures so much of her own maternal worth on the scale of such opinion. Which is, to some extent, unavoidable, I think, but still: how frivolous to have even an iota of that measure influenced by opinions about my daughter’s looks.

How vain. How dangerous.

I know that this issue is more complicated than I am presenting it here: I was reacting as much on the basis of my own vulnerability in the face of WonderBaby’s illness, my own fears about being persecuted (however quietly) for having a chickenpox-ridden baby out public (however unavoidable on my part), my own fierce desire to protect my weakened child from any measure of badness in the world. I was being a mother. But I wasn’t just being a mother – I was being a vain mother. I was, in those difficult, painful moments, viewing my daughter through the eyes of these small-souled strangers, these limited human beings who turn away from anything that is not pleasing, not normal (oh, the discomfort of asking myself, truthfully, whether I have so looked away!) In those moments, the vain mother in me saw only what they saw: the spots, only the spots. In those moments – however fleeting – I was blind to her pure, beautiful glow. And that makes me sad.

A mother should see only the glow. Only, ever, the glow.

Mothers – parents – should be blind to the apparent, superficial beauty of their children; they should be blinded by the glow of the true beauty of their children; they should see only this glow; this glow, and only this glow, illuminates what is truly lovely about every child, and casts opinion into shadow. We should do – I should do – but it’s hard. We are, after all, only human. We are, for that, always, in some measure, vain. The lesson, then?

Look for the glow, behold the glow – but invest in hats.

********

There are some great takes on the subject of love and beauty and parental vanity over at Mad Hatter’s place, and at Meg Fowler’s, too. Do check them out. And if you know of anyone else who has taken this subject, drop me a comment and let me know. I’m behind on my blog reading and am missing stuff all over the place, so help a girl out…

Speaking of which… apparently it’s, like, National Delurking Week and that means that you are contractually obliged (it’s in the fine print of the social contract, trust me) to delurk and say hello. I’ll get you started – HELLO! I’m Her Bad Mother! And you are…?

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    { 66 comments }

    Michele January 12, 2007 at 10:58 am

    I have twin boys who dont look at all alike. One twin has chubby cheeks, a dimple and HUGE light blue eyes – a regular Gerber baby. The other is skinny and wirey with a more angular face, and darker blue eyes – gorgeous, but not the textbook Gerber baby that his brother is. Strangers always gravitate toward Gerber-Baby and say how gorgeous he is and “Oh those eyes, that dimple. He’s a charmer!” and then look at other boy and say “Oh, he’s cute too, but THIS one.” (gesturing back toward Gerber)
    I really have to restrain myself from throttling them and holding them down to describe in great detail how thinner twin is equally gorgeous, with his twinkling dark blue eyes and mischeivious grin, the way his blonde hair curls just so and his lips are so deliciously pink and perfectly formed.
    They are STRANGERS, their opinions dont matter. But oh, they do.

    TB January 12, 2007 at 11:20 am

    This is a particularly close subject to my heart as I was raised with a sister who has a neurological disorder that manifests itself with both invisible symptoms in the form of cognitive delays and visible in the form of tumors on her skin.
    I have always been acutely aware of how people react to outward appearances of children due to this and I know you tend toward being your own worst critic, but I don’t necessarily think it’s vanity. Couldn’t it also be you reacting with sensitivity to those who would recoil or look away, knowing that YOUR child has a fleeting condition, while so many others have issues that they must live with every day for life? It pains me almost to a physical degree to see anyone look away from a child who has a disfigurement, however mild and I am sure it does you as well.

    denzylle January 12, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    … I’m Denzylle in London, UK. Hi there.

    velocibadgergirl January 12, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Hey! Hopped over from Life in the ‘shwa.

    Great post, and happy de-lurking week!

    PunditMom January 12, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Hi HBM, no lurking here! It’s me — PunditMom! ;)

    Thank you for this lovely post. We are such a beauty driven society.

    I usually feel free to agree with people when they tell me that R. is a beuatiful girl — since she’s adopted, she doesn’t have any of my genes, so there’s no subtle, self-congratulations on my part! What bothers me is those seem to be the only comments we get or, that I’ve noticed, adults give about children. R. (and all children) are so many other things.

    I don’t want R. to think she is “just” pretty, so sometimes if “we” get a compliment, I’ll say something like, “Thank you, and she’s a smart one (or good artist, etc.), too!” While R. beams, the speaker usually gives me a “What kind of weirdo are you” look. But I figure, what the hell — I’ve just made R.’s day!

    kathy in philadelphia, pa January 12, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Hi,

    De-lurking here. I’ve been reading you for awhile and have a few things to say:

    1) Wonderbaby is beautiful even with the pox. Even more so because her perfect little imperfect face tugs at your heartstrings.

    2) I have two boys, 10 and 7. They are very different in looks and personality, but both just as beautiful. Still, they drive me nuts sometimes and in my worst moments, I think, “I don’t know how anybody can think that having a baby is the greatest thing in the world. What was I thinking???” But then I remember the incredible love affair you have with your child the minute they’re born. It’s unlike any love you’ve ever experienced before, and you feel blessed to have it. I know that is how you feel and why you need to blog about it. Even after 10 sometimes frustrating years, I still feel it too. I digress. Back to their looks. They were cute babies and are adorable tweeners, but I worry about those awkward teen years. Having had acne growing up, I’m already scoping out dermatologists… Heck, a little vanity is a good thing!

    Kim January 12, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Delurking from Delaware!

    Hello and love the blog.

    MommyWithAttitude January 12, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    “Hurrah for me and fuck you”

    Bwahahahaha!!!!

    That’s funny, and I’m glad I didn’t address the pox before I read this post, speaking as a mother who had to break down and give the vaccine so her kid could get into kindergarten (I was so hoping he’d just “catch it” sometime!).

    But glad WB is feeling better and I thought she was just delightful to look at with or without pox.

    Ms. Huis Herself January 12, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Been reading for a while, but don’t know if I’ve commented before, so Happy De-Lurking Week to you!

    And my Pumpkin’s a friendly girl, too, as well as a cutie. Her favorite thing to do lately is to ask anybody who stops to chat with us, “What’s your name?”

    Much More Than A Mom January 12, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    I’m so glad she’s feeling better.

    Hello! I’m Nicole and I’m much more than a mom. But aren’t we all?

    Canucked-up mama January 12, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    I’m glad your girl is feeling better. She must have been miserably unhappy with the itchiness.

    Hello, I’m (the now de-lurked) Canucked-up mama. I love reading your blog – always interesting, insightful and well written.

    Great post. The world would be a much better place if more people focused on the glow.

    Anonymous January 13, 2007 at 2:30 am

    Delurking here. Glad WonderBaby is feeling better, though that vacation was probably less than restful.
    I understand why people are fearful of pox; varicella is an airborne disease, and toddlers aren’t good at covering their mouths or washing their hands. Of course, some adults aren’t either. Still sucks for WonderBaby.

    Stacy January 14, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Hi! From Stacy in Tampa.

    holli January 15, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I just wandered over here.. this was an amazing post. I really enjoyed it.

    I actually had a crazy woman who doesn’t like me send me a text message that said “a pox on your house.” So people apparently use the terms in today’s day and age. At least if you’re me!

    Wonderbaby is precious. People turn away from hacking children too. At least people with kids. Part of protecting your child from getting even more germs. That’s just a habit for me.

    But I love the conclusion that you came to about it being dangerous to take pride in the appearance of your child, to the point it becomes part of your own identity.

    Bethiclaus January 15, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    late on my commenting. Hi, anyway!

    megachick January 17, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    focus on the glow is a wonderful sentiment, but hard to remember sometimes. i have gotten caught up in people’s visible reactions to my daughter. it’s all “hi, how you doing?” until she takes off her hat. HELLO! whatever made her lose her hair (chemo) is not contagious! get a grip. fortunately, it doesn’t bother her one bit. unless someone thinks she’s a boy, then look out.

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