At the park, Tom and I took turns pushing Artie in the swing – his latest obsession – when a little girl wearing a periwinkle blue princess dress and floral sun hat came up to us.
“Excuse me,” she said, looking at us with big brown eyes. “After this baby is done in the swing, do you think I could play with him?”
Tom and I looked at each other, and then at this – our – baby, who had the stubborn look he gets when he’s in the swing, as though daring anyone to remove him from it.
“Uh,” I said. “Sure?”
“He just might not want to play with you,” Tom said.
The little girl assured us that it was no problem, that she was “very good with babies” since her younger brother was still a baby.
“I play with him all the time and he loves it. He can say ‘doggie,'” she said.
Babies, or young toddlers, as Artie is now, seem to be the favorite plaything of a certain type of older kid, especially girls, some still toddlers themselves. When Artie first started daycare, a handful of little girls swarmed him each morning when I dropped him off.
“It’s the baby! Baby Arthur!” they would shriek, arms wide for a hug or hands full of toys to push into his little hands.* He didn’t care for it then and still doesn’t now, as evident on the playground when the odd older kid comes and attempts a cuddle. He pushes them away with nary a sideways glance and quickly toddles away, usually toward the swings.
The parents of these friendly kids are always a bit embarrassed and task themselves with holding an immediate mini-lesson on consent: “Remember honey, we need to ask the baby first if he would like a cuddle.” And I can only laugh because it’s like asking a dog for permission to pet it when really, all the dog wants is a treat. These poor kids. Artie doesn’t want cuddles, but he’ll take a banana.
I didn’t doubt that the little girl was good with babies. She seemed precocious and was extremely articulate – or perhaps she possessed normal elocution for a five-year old girl but the bar these days, considering Artie’s grunting in various decibels and vague pointing, is low. She was also very patient, standing by with her hands behind her back as we pushed Artie, who showed no signs of wanting out of the swing.
Tom and I however were getting hot. Our upgraded playground, a godsend for the neighborhood parents who would otherwise be slowly going mad in small apartments, lacks the crucial element that separates the good from the great playgrounds: adequate sunshade, especially above the swings.
While we always position our darling boy’s back to the sun with his wide-brimmed hat angled to cover his neck, we are often stuck facing the sun as we slave away, pushing his lazy, swing-loving ass for what feels like hours. If sleep deprivation was the first stage of aging in parenthood, surely staring at the sun – in ozone-free Australia, no less – while pushing your kid in a swing is the second stage.
We got smart and turned to the little girl.
“Would you at least like to push him in the swing?”
“Oh yes,” she said, as though we’d never ask.
She pushed him gently with plump little hands, and a smile on her soft round face. Artie didn’t seem to care that we’d changed shifts. We stood awkwardly off to the side in the patchy shade of a young tree, totally ok with utilizing child labor for our child’s entertainment. What a little angel.
How old was she?
What was her name?
And where was the aforementioned baby brother of hers? And her parents? Throughout our exchange no one had come forth to claim her.
“He’s over there on the bench with my mum,” she said. Push, push.
I turned to see a small-framed woman in a billowing skirt, floppy sunhat and enormous sunglasses sitting in the shade with a little blonde boy just a bit bigger than Artie. She saw me and gave a small wave and a tired smile. She probably didn’t want to be at the park any more than we did but it was better than the alternative, which was letting your kids tear down the house.
I waved back, meaning that everything was fine. I didn’t want to disturb her from her peaceful spot in the shade, but we mothers feel lots of invisible pressures: to be present, to be involved, to be everywhere our kids are. I think she felt obliged to come over and make sure her daughter wasn’t bothering us too much.
She came over with the baby brother and took a seat on the other swing, her back to the sun. Her skin was like porcelain, very well taken care of.
“Cassie, are you bothering their baby?” She asked, not really interested in the answer. I didn’t blame her – it was all very boring sometimes.
“She’s not at all,” I said. “She’s great! We should have had a daughter five years ago.”
“Yes,” the woman sighed, the half smile again. “She’s mummy’s little helper.”
“My brother helps my mum with the washing,” Cassie said, and then looking at Artie, “I think he wants to get out.
We doubted this, but she was welcome to try. I moved to lift Artie out of the swing but Cassie had already put her arms out like a forklift under his arms and tried to lift. But she’d misread this baby’s drooping smile. He was wilting from the heat but what better breeze than from swinging? He grunted, then squealed, Artie-speak for “no.”
“I guess not,” she said, nonplussed and went back to pushing with a resigned patience, not unlike her mother’s. The smile returned to Artie’s beet-red face.
Cassie chattered. Did we know that she had made the bracelets hanging from her wrist, one with a small stuffed cat dangling from it like a charm? Push. She liked cats. Push. Her brother helps her mother with the washing, oh but she had already mentioned that. Push. And she also helped her mother with the washing.
If it weren’t for Artie, we probably wouldn’t be standing under the hot sun in the middle of the playground listening to a five-year old, however articulate, palavering her stream of consciousness. And if it weren’t for Artie, I doubt I’d appreciate the little girl as much as I did. I doubt I’d appreciate any other children as much as I do now.
I’d never been one to coo over babies or chase after toddlers, not even ones in my family. I loved my nieces and nephews enough, but found little joy in their shouty, frenetic toy-strewing company. I always preferred – and mostly still do – the company of adults whom I could talk to. If the kids were about, they mostly interrupted, slowed or entirely derailed conversations. A pat on the head, a gift from baby Gap, that was about as warm as I got. Tom is more or less the same.
I could never muster the enthusiasm, the energetic eyebrows, the brilliant smiles, and high-pitched exclamations (“Wow! You’re amazing!” “Could you show me again?” “That’s a great question! Let’s find out together!” “Let’s play a game!”) that might have made me a favorite Auntie that certain kid-oriented people can put on whenever a child is present. And I still can’t. I spent so long being a kid wanting to grow up that once adulthood arrived I saw no reason to revisit those I left behind.
But all those annoying people who go on and on about how wonderful kids are, especially the younger ones – how authentic and pure, how direct (sometimes to a fault) and innocent, how present they are in each moment? They’re right.
Having one of my own has made me look at children in a whole new light, mostly because I spend a lot of time looking at Artie, and the kids around him. I obviously favor my own child but observing Artie’s quirks and tics, relishing his laughs and smiles, and seeing him around other kids who despite being around the same age can be as different as a hot water and ice, I can now find something, many things, to appreciate in all children. Even the ones who, objectively, aren’t that cute (I met one baby who was a dead ringer for Chucky but she cooed and smiled every time I made eye contact and it was actually pretty damn cute).
They’re little walking, talking packages of personality and energy, and sometimes – not all the time – a lot more interesting than I ever gave them credit for. They’re also much more determined than I’ve been in a long, long time. Just watch Artie grab my legs and moan until I give him a bite of my yogurt. Just watch him make a beeline for and then cling to the swing, any swing, even the ones meant for big kids. Even the ones with a kid already in it.
Every minute of every day they work hard to get what they want, be it a toy, snack, or a bit of playtime with a stranger’s baby. It’s admirable. It throws into relief many of my own shortcomings.
The sun was lower but still bearing down. Neither Cassie nor Artie showed any signs of wanting to leave, but Cassie’s mom stood up.
“It’s time to go home, Cassie. Say goodbye to the nice baby.”
If Cassie was disappointed that this baby – our baby – turned out to be a mega swing bum, she didn’t show it. Instead, she gave him a few gentle last pushes and said goodbye.
“Maybe he could come to the park again tomorrow and I could play with him tomorrow.”
“We’re here all the time,” I said. “We’d be very happy to see you again. Thank you so much for pushing him on the swing for so long!”
“Oh you’re welcome,” she said. She gave Artie a wave and she ran to take her mother’s hand.
Tom and I looked at Artie, who frowned now that the swing was slowing. He wondered who would pick up the slack. We braced ourselves for his imminent whinging as we readied to leave the park, looking longingly at Cassie’s diminishing figure in the afternoon sun.
“What a great kid,” we both said in unison.
*I’m currently reading World War Z and I imagine this to be a cuter version of a zombie attack.