I'm at a total loss as to how one could parent without internet access. I mean, what did people do when their 9-month-old still hadn't cut a tooth before technology enabled them to perform a Google search on whether a disease exists in which people are born without the ability to grow teeth? Did they just stew quietly in their own fears about their baby living a life looking like Anna Nicole Smith's cousin Shelly? Because you can't bother your pediatrician all the time with this shit, lest he figure you for the total psycho freak that you are.
I blame Discovery Health channel for my fascination with abnormal anatomy. I live for documentary specials like The Woman with Half a Body, The World's Strongest Boy, Tree Man, Mermaid Girl (RIP), and particularly the Lori and Dori/Reba/George Schappell, conjoined twins attached at the face, one of whom is wheelchair-bound and also transgendered. When I got pregnant, my latent guilt for treating that kind of programming reared its ugly head; I feared that my karmic punishment would be to have a child with some kind of rare physical condition. And what if all the drugs I did in my 20s damaged my eggs?
So far, my kid is the picture of health, but occasionally I'll find myself staring at a part of her body like it's an exhibit at the Mütter Museum. Why are her toes all the same size? That can't be right! Better Google it. Phew, it's normal. OK, but this just seems like too many toes for one foot. One, two, three, four, five. Well, checks out. Alright then.
But medical oddities aside, I think second-hand hypochondria is natural for first-time parents. If you haven't been around infants until you have your own, you're plagued by the clumsiness of inexperience. When you have absolutely no concept of what's normal, everything seems kind of weird. It's like trying to grope your way through a dark room you've never been in—it's unfamiliar, so you never know what's going to trip you up. You err on the side of caution because that seems safest. Especially in this fear culture in which everything causes SIDS. (Recently looking through my own baby pictures, I paused when I saw one of me sleeping on my stomach in a crib with a drop-down side rail, bumpers, and a blanket, and wondered how I managed to survive that death trap.) But for new moms who aren't doctors or experts at infant development, there are so many opportunities for even the most laid-back of us to become so unnerved that you feel like your heart is going to fall out of your asshole.
For example, newborns do some crazy-ass scary 911-ish bullshit, like labored breathing. In the weeks following my daughter's birth, her sole function in this world was to simply exist. It didn't seem that hard of a task, lying around all day, eating and shitting her pants. But there were times when she sounded like she was really struggling just to stay alive, gasping for every breath like she was Tony Soprano climbing four flights of stairs. It was fucking frightening, but also a normal thing that babies do. I didn't know that before having one.
Books can be helpful. I guess I should've read them back when I had the free time when I was still pregnant, but I was so busy having daymares about the pain of childbirth and "tearing" that I kind of forgot to learn about babies. Also, books don't have a command F function. I don't have the time or the wits about me to scan page after page when I'm buggin' so hard I look like Marty Feldman.
But even if I did have the foresight to read up on infants before I had one, books only really work to assuage logical fears. Sometimes you just need to feed into your irrational thoughts because it's cathartic and makes you feel better. Like scratching an itch. A vaginal itch. It's embarrassing so you have to do it discreetly.
This is particularly true when it comes to certain developmental milestones. I'm always looking for hints that my daughter is a baby genius. It's so fucking obnoxious that I would never deign to discuss the matter with any other parents. Instead, I evaluate her behavior and then turn to the internet with my data. But it's really difficult tell if you have a smart baby because babies are stupid. You know, generally speaking. I mean, there are certain indications of intelligence, like object recognition and stuff. My daughter can do things like wave hello and goodbye and clap hands and share food. It's very cute and exciting and all, but I'm just saying: I'm not impressed. I tell her, "Talk to me when you learn to talk to me."
But at least I never thought she was disabled, like my husband did. Newborns are so undeveloped that it can be alarming. When they're so young, they're just grasping the most basic of their bodily functions. They look like they have no control of their limbs, which tend to randomly punch and kick at the air. With very little neck strength, their head movements are very jerky. Because their vision is still developing, their eyes tend to roll around. And they do some weird shit with their mouths, opening and closing them all crooked, lolling their tongues around. One day, my husband stared at her in consternation as she was being particularly spasmodic.
"Hey, that test they did for mental retardation when you were pregnant…did they test for everything?"
"What? The nuchal translucency? What!? She's fine!"
"Have you ever seen My Left Foot?" he asked in all seriousness.
"She does not have cerebral palsy!" I barked at him.
Of course, we still defer to the pediatrician when we think something is really seriously wrong. Like when my husband and I were wringing our hands over this blue thing that was between our daughter's eyes that we thought might be some kind of a tumor or a symptom of a disease. (It was a vein.) Or when the dried up portion of her umbilical cord fell off and bled and scared me into thinking that her new belly button had unraveled and her guts were slowly oozing out. (They weren't.) Or the time we made him watch a demo of our different soothing methods to make sure we weren't giving her shaken baby syndrome. (So far, so good!)
I actually consider myself a really easygoing mom. If anything, my brief freakouts serve more as a sick form of entertainment. Like grossing myself out by doing a Google image search on "skin tags" or reading the "talk" page of Kim Kardashian's Wikipedia entry.
The love I have for my child is primarily what compels me to dote on her, but there's also this, like, taciturn awareness lingering in the corners of my consciousness, reminding me that I will be held accountable if I fuck this up. Everybody—my parents, the internet, the government, etc.—knows I have this kid. I have to keep her alive and healthy or else I'll go to prison.
The good news, though, is that momentary irrationality aside, I'm confident that there is nothing wrong with my baby. It doesn't look like we'll be featured on Discovery Health any time soon. But she likes to eat envelopes, so keep an eye out for her on My Strange Addiction in 2029.
Image by Jim Cooke, baby photo via luckyraccoon/Shutterstock.