Revisited: Working with babies

Everybody stop what you’re doing! There’s a baby in the office!

I’m not talking about that maturity-challenged assistant manager who seems to be eternally stuck in pre-K. I’m talking about the straight-up, hard-core, full-bore baby, the kind who was physically borne into the world sometime within the last year. The kind of newborn who is so adorable that everybody in the workplace has to stop what they’re doing — regardless of the urgency — and come admire the fact that before humans can be big, they have to be little.

You say you’re in charge of directing jumbo jets to land at a major international airport? Surely you can break away from the radar screen for a minute; he’s so cute in his little sailor outfit. You’re a 911 emergency operator with a suicide threat on the phone? Tell the distressed caller to stop by central dispatch as soon as possible to get a look at this charmer. In the midst of robbing a bank teller at gunpoint? You should be ashamed of yourself — you might startle the baby.

In most cases, these infants didn’t just wander in off the street of their own volition. Typically, they had to be carried into the office, usually by a parent who works with you, or by their spouse (unless it’s one of them fancy walkin’ babies). The new parent has been monopolizing the breakroom conversation about his or her ability to procreate since this Max or Emma or whatever you call ‘em was merely a splotch of cells on the sonogram. Now they feel compelled to offer physical proof that their time off from work was spent bearing live young. Maybe it’s some kind of human resources requirement.

Now I don’t intend to come off as a curmudgeon who casually trashes toddlers. I’m actually a big fan of babies. As I’ve written in this blog before, I believe that children are our future and that, by transitive property, babies are our children’s future. We need to take care that they’re raised up properly, with all the values critical to a civilized society, and with as few missing limbs as possible. Part of the socialization process has to involve meeting with strangers and projecting a variety of protein spills at them. It’s how you interact with your boss, and it’s how your child will have to interact with his.

When we have a newborn stopping by my workplace, I’m always eager to join in the scene, smiling and cooing with the best of them. I’d even be glad to hold the baby for a while, if I could wrestle him or her away from the women who are beside themselves with excitement. It’s been too long since I got to cradle my young son in my arms, and I honestly miss the wiggling heft of the young child. It would also represent the rare chance to be less creepy than my fellow employees if I were not among those asking “is it okay if I steal him?”

I think I remember the basics of elementary tot handling. If they’re really young, you keep them horizontal, with the head in the crook of one elbow, the feet in the crook of the other, and the mouth as far from your breast as you can. If they’re slightly older – as distinguished by the fact that you can tell what sex they are, or perhaps they’re wearing a watch – they can be held in a more upright position. These are sometimes called “hip babies” in the parlance of my small Southern town, not because they are “cool” or otherwise “with it,” but because you sit them on the outer edge of your pelvis.

I also learned an early lesson about the wisdom of not holding the baby by its head. To this day, I remember the psychological trauma of an incident from my early childhood where I was called on to admire the new member of our neighbor’s family. I resorted to interaction practices I knew best from my own home, which were those I’d had with our dog, Augie. I patted the baby on the head.

Bad move. There’s this thing called the “fontanelle,” and it’s very much different from another feature I knew from 1950s Miami, the “Fontainebleau” resort hotel. The fontanelle is the area on the top of the infant’s head where the skull is not yet completely formed. If you touch it, the plates of bone will shift to the side, lava will erupt and brain damage will ensue. At least, that’s what I was led to believe. I was worried for days that I had severely disturbed the development of this young child and, sure enough, he beat me up a decade later.

Probably one of the best things about babies, aside from their portability, is that they’re not terribly discriminating in their dealings with other people. You could be Mother Teresa or you could be Hitler; it’s all the same to them. (In fact, they might even prefer Hitler, considering how much his moustache resembled a kitty). Still, I try to do what I can to impress them because, more than anything else, I want to be liked.

The whole “goo-goo, ga-ga” gibberish is not really something they relate to, and they’re more likely to think you’re patronizing them than trying for any type of meaningful dialog. Likewise, an adult-style conversation starter like “hot enough for you?” or “how ’bout them Cowboys?” tends to go over their soft little heads. Smiling and waving are good, or at least it seems to make the parent happy. When you’re meeting them in an office setting, though, there’s not a lot more you can do to entertain them. Makeshift amusements like staplers and push-pins are rarely a good idea. The last time we had a visiting baby, I offered her the prospectus supplement I had just finished proofreading which seemed to make her happy, at least until she turned to the “Risk Factors” section. A rolled-up ball of paper, a dangling string or a can of Red Bull (unopened) can also provide pleasant diversions.

Above all else, it’s important to remember that the experience of encountering a crowd of strange, contorted faces in an alien environment can be overwhelming. I’ve gotten used to it after thirty-some years in the workforce, but an infant is still adjusting to even the most basic stimuli. Make your movements slow, your speech patterns sing-song, and don’t expect too much. It’s not really all that different from working with grown-up fellow employees on an everyday basis.

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