Sunday, November 19, 2006

Olivia: Social Lubricant

When you're shy and a bit awkward, you master a number of tactics for the avoidance of everyday interactions. Don't want to talk to the middle-aged businessman sitting next to you on the plane? Bury your pointy nose in a book. Uncomfortable when a saleswoman asks if you need anything? Mumble, "Just looking, thanks," and keep your head down. Stand around awkwardly at business events? Find a corner and hope someone you know decides to join you.

These tactics--so effective for so many years--are completely unworkable now, for the simple fact that we're walking around with a bright-eyed baby. We are, much to my astonishment, always visible. It's like we've been dipped in chartreuse day-glo ink and made to walk around under a perpetual spotlight.

I knew Olivia would be a bit of an attraction for friends and family, but I was unprepaed for the onslaught of attention from distant acquaintances and absolute strangers. I had a taste of this when visibly pregnant, with the inquiries about due dates and morning sickness, but now? It doesn't stop. And I'm discovering something that surprises me mightily: I love it.

I love having something to talk about with people I would ordinarily clam up around. I love being able to fall back on a bottomless well of topics like night wakings, eating, personality, growth, clothes, caregivers, carseats and teething. I never run out of things to say, never find myself staring, doe-like, into the headlights of social paralysis.

I don't know how long this will last--Olivia is at her most approachable right now, I think, as she is too young to fear, or greatly annoy, strangers. She just smiles, reaches out a grubby hand and, as of a couple of days ago, waves to them, stiff-wristed, like a slow-motion QEII.

Co-workers come by to see her pictures; the CEO shared the details of his four-year experiment in co-sleeping. My boss, generally gruff, said we should buy a pack-and-play for the office, since she was clearly such a hit. When giving a much-dreaded company presentation a few days ago, my screensaver--not unpredictably, a picture of Olivia--popped up, and a collective Aww went up from the audience, cutting through my public-speaking terror better than any Dale Carnegie course could have done.

It seems like there is a general goodwill toward babies and, by extension, their parents. Perhaps it's a sense of parental kinship: those with children can picture what we're going through, the challenges and delights. Perhaps it's just that babies are universally aww-producing in their cuteness, engendering a desire to protect and entertain them. Whatever it is, I find it surprising, and surprisingly moving.

Coming back from a conference in Phoenix on Friday, the elderly woman on the hotel shuttle played peek-a-boo with Olivia and told us all about her daughter's youngest; the businessman in our aisle talked to us for a solid half hour about the best way to prevent earaches. The restaurant hostess, in her broken English, recounted stories of her son growing up with extended family in a small house in Florence, and how American babies should have a whole community looking after them to make up for the missing grandmothers and aunts and uncles and cousins. And that's what it feels like: that there is this whole community looking out for her, even if transiently, and from somthing of a distance. Like the bald, tattoed biker at our Southwest gate who picked up an unnoticed plastic brad near her hand. "You don't really want to eat that, even if you think you do," he said, while giving us a wink. Or the teenaged boy who saw me coming and held open the door while I pushed the stroller through. Or the wealthy woman who found Olivia's stuffed kangaroo and ran, high heels clacking, to catch us before we disappeared into an elevator. It is a beautiful feeling to be included in this baby halo, and to project our appreciation back.

Aside from a variety of allergies, my doughy legs and Jeff's sense of direction, the thing we fear Olivia will inherit from us is our shyness. But maybe this new baby-induced outgoing-ness will help us to set a better example for her. She deserves our best efforts, and has even opened the door for us. We owe it to her to keep on going, even when we can no longer ride her coattails.


Blogger Dee said...

Oh, I love moments like the ones you're encountering. Sadly, for us, they seem to have worn down a bit as J gets know, the trying toddler times and all. Yes, we are there already. But she's still a delight and we ride her coattails as well.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fear the same with our children - both my husband and I are shy/reserved and I've always hoped I'd have children that were more outgoing (and confident!) So far we have one introvert, one extrovert and one we're not so sure about!

6:07 AM  
Blogger elle said...

Yes, we get that too. We joke that now we know what Jennifer Aniston feels like. It's weird. But also wonderful. And we live in NYC - 8 million people, lots of whom, especially in our nabe, are babies. It's amazing.

8:36 PM  
Blogger smashedpea said...

For us it's died down now that the Doodlebum is 17 months old. She's still friendly, waves at everyone and says "Hidebeebeebeeee!" to pretty much everyone - but the attention has definitely died down.

But we're pretty sure she's not the kind of introvert both her parents are. Ahem.

12:20 PM  

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