Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for his book Three Men in a Boat also penned a series of essays that are at times funny and at times deeply insightful.
Oh babies! Is there anything more delightful? More sublime? More…horrifying to comment on? Jerome takes us through the little indignities of being a bachelor man asked to interact with babies in his usual wit and style.
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
Oh, yes, I do—I know a lot about ’em. I was one myself once, though not long—not so long as my clothes. They were very long, I recollect, and always in my way when I wanted to kick. Why do babies have such yards of unnecessary clothing? It is not a riddle. I really want to know. I never could understand it. Is it that the parents are ashamed of the size of the child and wish to make believe that it is longer than it actually is? I asked a nurse once why it was. She said:
“Lor’, sir, they always have long clothes, bless their little hearts.”
And when I explained that her answer, although doing credit to her feelings, hardly disposed of my difficulty, she replied:
“Lor’, sir, you wouldn’t have ’em in short clothes, poor little dears?” And she said it in a tone that seemed to imply I had suggested some unmanly outrage.
Since than I have felt shy at making inquiries on the subject, and the reason—if reason there be—is still a mystery to me. But indeed, putting them in any clothes at all seems absurd to my mind. Goodness knows there is enough of dressing and undressing to be gone through in life without beginning it before we need; and one would think that people who live in bed might at all events be spared the torture. Why wake the poor little wretches up in the morning to take one lot of clothes off, fix another lot on, and put them to bed again, and then at night haul them out once more, merely to change everything back? And when all is done, what difference is there, I should like to know, between a baby’s night-shirt and the thing it wears in the day-time?
Very likely, however, I am only making myself ridiculous—I often do, so I am informed—and I will therefore say no more upon this matter of clothes, except only that it would be of great convenience if some fashion were adopted enabling you to tell a boy from a girl.
At present it is most awkward. Neither hair, dress, nor conversation affords the slightest clew, and you are left to guess. By some mysterious law of nature you invariably guess wrong, and are thereupon regarded by all the relatives and friends as a mixture of fool and knave, the enormity of alluding to a male babe as “she” being only equaled by the atrocity of referring to a female infant as “he”. Whichever sex the particular child in question happens not to belong to is considered as beneath contempt, and any mention of it is taken as a personal insult to the family.
And as you value your fair name do not attempt to get out of the difficulty by talking of “it.”
There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighborhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”
Your best plan is to address the article as “little angel.” The noun “angel” being of common gender suits the case admirably, and the epithet is sure of being favorably received. “Pet” or “beauty” are useful for variety’s sake, but “angel” is the term that brings you the greatest credit for sense and good-feeling. The word should be preceded by a short giggle and accompanied by as much smile as possible. And whatever you do, don’t forget to say that the child has got its father’s nose. This “fetches” the parents (if I may be allowed a vulgarism) more than anything. They will pretend to laugh at the idea at first and will say, “Oh, nonsense!” You must then get excited and insist that it is a fact. You need have no conscientious scruples on the subject, because the thing’s nose really does resemble its father’s—at all events quite as much as it does anything else in nature—being, as it is, a mere smudge.
Do not despise these hints, my friends. There may come a time when, with mamma on one side and grand mamma on the other, a group of admiring young ladies (not admiring you, though) behind, and a bald-headed dab of humanity in front, you will be extremely thankful for some idea of what to say. A man—an unmarried man, that is—is never seen to such disadvantage as when undergoing the ordeal of “seeing baby.” A cold shudder runs down his back at the bare proposal, and the sickly smile with which he says how delighted he shall be ought surely to move even a mother’s heart, unless, as I am inclined to believe, the whole proceeding is a mere device adopted by wives to discourage the visits of bachelor friends.
It is a cruel trick, though, whatever its excuse may be. The bell is rung and somebody sent to tell nurse to bring baby down. This is the signal for all the females present to commence talking “baby,” during which time you are left to your own sad thoughts and the speculations upon the practicability of suddenly recollecting an important engagement, and the likelihood of your being believed if you do. Just when you have concocted an absurdly implausible tale about a man outside, the door opens, and a tall, severe-looking woman enters, carrying what at first sight appears to be a particularly skinny bolster, with the feathers all at one end. Instinct, however, tells you that this is the baby, and you rise with a miserable attempt at appearing eager. When the first gush of feminine enthusiasm with which the object in question is received has died out, and the number of ladies talking at once has been reduced to the ordinary four or five, the circle of fluttering petticoats divides, and room is made for you to step forward. This you do with much the same air that you would walk into the dock at Bow Street, and then, feeling unutterably miserable, you stand solemnly staring at the child. There is dead silence, and you know that every one is waiting for you to speak. You try to think of something to say, but find, to your horror, that your reasoning faculties have left you. It is a moment of despair, and your evil genius, seizing the opportunity, suggests to you some of the most idiotic remarks that it is possible for a human being to perpetrate. Glancing round with an imbecile smile, you sniggeringly observe that “it hasn’t got much hair has it?” Nobody answers you for a minute, but at last the stately nurse says with much gravity:
“It is not customary for children five weeks old to have long hair.” Another silence follows this, and you feel you are being given a second chance, which you avail yourself of by inquiring if it can walk yet, or what they feed it on.
By this time you have got to be regarded as not quite right in your head, and pity is the only thing felt for you. The nurse, however, is determined that, insane or not, there shall be no shirking and that you shall go through your task to the end. In the tones of a high priestess directing some religious mystery she says, holding the bundle toward you:
“Take her in your arms, sir.” You are too crushed to offer any resistance and so meekly accept the burden. “Put your arm more down her middle, sir,” says the high-priestess, and then all step back and watch you intently as though you were going to do a trick with it.
What to do you know no more than you did what to say. It is certain something must be done, and the only thing that occurs to you is to heave the unhappy infant up and down to the accompaniment of “oopsee-daisy,” or some remark of equal intelligence. “I wouldn’t jig her, sir, if I were you,” says the nurse; “a very little upsets her.” You promptly decide not to jig her and sincerely hope that you have not gone too far already.
At this point the child itself, who has hitherto been regarding you with an expression of mingled horror and disgust, puts an end to the nonsense by beginning to yell at the top of its voice, at which the priestess rushes forward and snatches it from you with “There! there! there! What did ums do to ums?” “How very extraordinary!” you say pleasantly. “Whatever made it go off like that?” “Oh, why, you must have done something to her!” says the mother indignantly; “the child wouldn’t scream like that for nothing.” It is evident they think you have been running pins into it.
The brat is calmed at last, and would no doubt remain quiet enough, only some mischievous busybody points you out again with “Who’s this, baby?” and the intelligent child, recognizing you, howls louder than ever.
Whereupon some fat old lady remarks that “it’s strange how children take a dislike to any one.” “Oh, they know,” replies another mysteriously. “It’s a wonderful thing,” adds a third; and then everybody looks sideways at you, convinced you are a scoundrel of the blackest dye; and they glory in the beautiful idea that your true character, unguessed by your fellow-men, has been discovered by the untaught instinct of a little child.
Babies, though, with all their crimes and errors, are not without their use—not without use, surely, when they fill an empty heart; not without use when, at their call, sunbeams of love break through care-clouded faces; not without use when their little fingers press wrinkles into smiles.
Odd little people! They are the unconscious comedians of the world’s great stage. They supply the humor in life’s all-too-heavy drama. Each one, a small but determined opposition to the order of things in general, is forever doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the wrong place and in the wrong way. The nurse-girl who sent Jenny to see what Tommy and Totty were doing and “tell ’em they mustn’t” knew infantile nature. Give an average baby a fair chance, and if it doesn’t do something it oughtn’t to a doctor should be called in at once.
They have a genius for doing the most ridiculous things, and they do them in a grave, stoical manner that is irresistible. The business-like air with which two of them will join hands and proceed due east at a break-neck toddle, while an excitable big sister is roaring for them to follow her in a westerly direction, is most amusing—except, perhaps, for the big sister. They walk round a soldier, staring at his legs with the greatest curiosity, and poke him to see if he is real. They stoutly maintain, against all argument and much to the discomfort of the victim, that the bashful young man at the end of the ‘bus is “dadda.” A crowded street-corner suggests itself to their minds as a favorable spot for the discussion of family affairs at a shrill treble. When in the middle of crossing the road they are seized with a sudden impulse to dance, and the doorstep of a busy shop is the place they always select for sitting down and taking off their shoes.
When at home they find the biggest walking-stick in the house or an umbrella—open preferred-of much assistance in getting upstairs. They discover that they love Mary Ann at the precise moment when that faithful domestic is blackleading the stove, and nothing will relieve their feelings but to embrace her then and there. With regard to food, their favorite dishes are coke and cat’s meat. They nurse pussy upside down, and they show their affection for the dog by pulling his tail.
They are a deal of trouble, and they make a place untidy and they cost a lot of money to keep; but still you would not have the house without them. It would not be home without their noisy tongues and their mischief-making hands. Would not the rooms seem silent without their pattering feet, and might not you stray apart if no prattling voices called you together?
It should be so, and yet I have sometimes thought the tiny hand seemed as a wedge, dividing. It is a bearish task to quarrel with that purest of all human affections—that perfecting touch to a woman’s life—a mother’s love. It is a holy love, that we coarser-fibered men can hardly understand, and I would not be deemed to lack reverence for it when I say that surely it need not swallow up all other affection. The baby need not take your whole heart, like the rich man who walled up the desert well. Is there not another thirsty traveler standing by?
In your desire to be a good mother, do not forget to be a good wife. No need for all the thought and care to be only for one. Do not, whenever poor Edwin wants you to come out, answer indignantly, “What, and leave baby!” Do not spend all your evenings upstairs, and do not confine your conversation exclusively to whooping-cough and measles. My dear little woman, the child is not going to die every time it sneezes, the house is not bound to get burned down and the nurse run away with a soldier every time you go outside the front door; nor the cat sure to come and sit on the precious child’s chest the moment you leave the bedside. You worry yourself a good deal too much about that solitary chick, and you worry everybody else too. Try and think of your other duties, and your pretty face will not be always puckered into wrinkles, and there will be cheerfulness in the parlor as well as in the nursery. Think of your big baby a little. Dance him about a bit; call him pretty names; laugh at him now and then. It is only the first baby that takes up the whole of a woman’s time. Five or six do not require nearly so much attention as one. But before then the mischief has been done. A house where there seems no room for him and a wife too busy to think of him have lost their hold on that so unreasonable husband of yours, and he has learned to look elsewhere for comfort and companionship.
But there, there, there! I shall get myself the character of a baby-hater if I talk any more in this strain. And Heaven knows I am not one. Who could be, to look into the little innocent faces clustered in timid helplessness round those great gates that open down into the world?
The world—the small round world! what a vast mysterious place it must seem to baby eyes! What a trackless continent the back garden appears! What marvelous explorations they make in the cellar under the stairs! With what awe they gaze down the long street, wondering, like us bigger babies when we gaze up at the stars, where it all ends!
And down that longest street of all—that long, dim street of life that stretches out before them—what grave, old-fashioned looks they seem to cast! What pitiful, frightened looks sometimes! I saw a little mite sitting on a doorstep in a Soho slum one night, and I shall never forget the look that the gas-lamp showed me on its wizen face—a look of dull despair, as if from the squalid court the vista of its own squalid life had risen, ghostlike, and struck its heart dead with horror.
Poor little feet, just commencing the stony journey! We old travelers, far down the road, can only pause to wave a hand to you. You come out of the dark mist, and we, looking back, see you, so tiny in the distance, standing on the brow of the hill, your arms stretched out toward us. God speed you! We would stay and take your little hands in ours, but the murmur of the great sea is in our ears and we may not linger. We must hasten down, for the shadowy ships are waiting to spread their sable sails.