American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland

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9780345465047: American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland

Part memoir, part journalism, part history, part downright strange and hilarious, American Parent takes readers on a unique tour of the world of new mothers and fathers. As Sam Apple embarks on his own journey into parenthood, he decides to put his background in journalism to good use by talking to a wide range of experts. Along the way, Apple visits with the mohel who circumcised him, enters a trance with a childbirth hypnotist, goes on a stakeout with a nanny spy, and attends a lecture on Botox for new mothers. Apple is full of questions, and none is left unexplored: Is the Lamaze method a Stalinist plot? (Yes.) Are newborns really fetuses that are born too soon? (Sort of.) Is there a universal theory that can explain the origins of circumcision in many diverse cultures? (Maybe.) Does it sting when you pour baby shampoo into your own eyes? (Big-time!)

And yet for all the unusual twists in this story–at one point Apple fantasizes about a father losing his mind and refusing to remove his BabyBjörn–the strangest twist of all might be that at its core American Parent is a deeply serious and personal book about the way emotionally vulnerable and confused new parents can get lost in the increasingly complex labyrinth of baby products, classes, and fads.

Parenthood is the oldest subject of all. In American Parent, Sam Apple makes it feel entirely new.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Sam Apple is a graduate of the creative nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University. He is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd, which was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Apple’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Financial Times, and ESPN The Magazine. He lives with his wife and family in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Parents and Products


The Rise of the Baby Industrial Complex

Babies have a lot going for them. Their big eyes and fat cheeks are cute. Their skin is soft. They will laugh at just about any joke so long as you slap your head and fall down at the end of it.

It’s no surprise, then, that parents have always wanted to give nice things to their babies—even the earliest human civilizations had rag dolls and other simple toys. What’s surprising is the amount of money that new mothers and fathers in America now spend. Nothing in the history of parenthood compares to it. Part of the spending increase can be traced to the growth of the upscale baby products industry. Rich parents are now buying $15,000 handcrafted cribs and $1,200 Italian leather diaper bags with faux-fur-trimmed changing pads. Some of them are even scenting their babies with $53 bottles of baby cologne. But it’s not just the rich. It’s all of us. Revenue from the sale of baby products has almost tripled since the mid-1990s, and the average American child now receives seventy new toys a year.

I had my formal introduction into what journalists and bloggers have begun to refer to as “the baby industrial complex” during the second trimester of Jennifer’s pregnancy. Jennifer’s parents were in town, and the four of us had gone together to buybuy Baby, the chain of baby superstores that has become famous for its overwhelming selection—some locations have more than twenty thousand products for sale.

I had mixed feelings about the shopping trip. There’s a Jewish superstition against buying things for a baby before the birth, and I was in no mood to take chances. But I was also in no mood to interfere with all of the hard work Jennifer was doing to prepare for our son’s arrival. Prior to the pregnancy, Jennifer and I had been living as similar a life to the homeless as a middle-class couple with a comfortable apartment can manage. We have both always been diligent and organized at work, but we left that diligence and organization at the door when we returned home. We cobbled our meals together at the last minute and ate them standing up in the kitchen. If the pantry was empty and it was cold out, a dinner might consist of nothing but a spoonful of peanut butter dolloped onto whatever stray food item we were lucky enough to dig up behind the expired cans of soup. And then there was the pile of junk next to our bed. At first it was a small pile, but over time it grew so high that we began to refer to it as “Mount Saint Junkmore” and then simply as “Mount Saint.” After a while Mount Saint became part of our lives, as though we were powerless to remove it. I even began to take pleasure in searching through it for lost treasures.

I knew that we would have to change our slovenly ways before the baby arrived, but during the first months of Jennifer’s pregnancy, I spent most of my time thinking about all of the things I needed to do rather than doing them. Jennifer, meanwhile, was undergoing a dramatic transformation. To my great surprise and confusion, she began to clean even when we were not expecting guests. She bought curtains for our windows and a small soap dispenser for the bathroom. She made lists of items we would need for the baby and more lists of items we would need to get rid of before the baby arrived.

The new hyperorganized Jennifer bothered me when I first noticed her. I feared I was losing the idiosyncratic Jennifer I’d always known and loved, the Jennifer who had once unthinkingly walked into a college classroom eating beets out of a jar with her hands, the Jennifer who, in the middle of law school at the University of Pennsylvania, had decided to write a long work of nonfiction about colonial impersonators and then spent a semester hanging around an obese Ben Franklin look-alike.

It took me a few months to realize that my fears about Jennifer were misplaced, that there is no contradiction between quirkiness and cleanliness. And when this insight sunk in, I also realized that the new rational side of Jennifer wasn’t so new. At work as an advertising attorney, Jennifer picked apart misleading product claims every day. And when I was dumb enough to argue with her, Jennifer picked apart my own logic with equal ease. The linear-thinking Jennifer could be frustrating at times, for example, when she would explain why one of the inventions I had dreamed up would never work. (Apparently there will never be a market for edible Frisbees that serve both as activity and postactivity snack.) But I’ve also always found it comforting to share my life with someone so grounded. If I am a helium balloon, then Jennifer is both the helium that sets me afloat and the string that keeps me tethered to the earth.

And so when Jennifer said that it was time to go shopping for the baby, I didn’t protest. I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed by the experience—having a breakdown at a baby superstore is now a rite of passage for new American parents—and buybuy Baby did not disappoint. A friend had given Jennifer a list of items we might need during the baby’s first weeks and the list was full of products I would never have thought to buy. I had read that the baby would have a scab where the umbilical cord had been cut, but I had no idea that we needed cotton balls and rubbing alcohol for cleaning the scab. I knew that we would need onesies—the legless leotards with snaps at the crotch that have become the official uniform of the American newborn—but I did not know that we would need both short-sleeved and long-sleeved onesies or that the long-sleeved onesies should also have mittenlike extensions to prevent our baby from clawing his own face. I knew that we would need wet wipes, but I would never have imagined that we would also need dry wipes for the first weeks, when our baby’s tush would apparently be so exquisitely sensitive that chemically moistened wipes would pose too great a risk. I knew that we would need a small crib, or co-sleeper, so that the baby could sleep next to our bed, but I am almost certain that I could have spent a week in the store without having ever realized that we would also need small sheets for the co-sleeper.

It took us a solid hour to exhaust all of the items on our list, and our list was just the beginning. We bought baby-safe soap and baby-safe detergent and baby-safe stain removers. We picked out a U-shaped pillow that, though marketed as a device to help floorbound newborns prop themselves up on their arms, appeared to be little more than an unusually expensive neck rest. Then we picked out a second somewhat larger U-shaped pillow that, though marketed as a pillow for the baby to rest on while breastfeeding, appeared to be little more than an even more expensive neck rest.

I wasn’t entirely convinced that we needed all of the items in our cart, particularly the baby toiletries, which have turned into a booming business in recent years—drugstore sales of such items rose 14 percent between 2005 and 2006 alone. But at the time, I was too anxious to question whether normal soap could really be so dangerous. And the line between need and want is murky. At one point—I think it may have been shortly after we picked out the second U-shaped pillow—it occurred to me that, if we really wanted to be resourceful, we didn’t have to buy anything: I could sew cloth diapers from my old sweatpants and cut washable wipes from old sheets. If I wanted the wipes warmed, I could moisten them with hot water, or hold them over an open flame. If I wanted an infant bathtub, I could line a cardboard box with a plastic garbage bag. Even pacifiers were probably excessive in a world scattered with smooth stones.

Because we didn’t own a car, the one item we could not do without was a stroller. Some of the strollers at buybuy Baby looked like what I’d always thought of as a stroller: They had small plastic frames and four small wheels that looked entirely sufficient for the job of wheeling around a baby. But many of the strollers looked nothing like the strollers of my imagination: These strollers were twice as big as the others. They had shiny metal frames and wheels so tall and thick that immigrants who spot them for the first time probably assume that American parents engage in competitive off-road baby racing.

After speaking with a salesman about the prices and functions of the different models, Jennifer and I settled on a Maclaren, a solid, lightweight stroller, by no means cheap at two hundred and fifty dollars, but less than half as expensive as some of the other models.

Jennifer’s parents had been generous enough to offer to pay for our stroller, and I was about to thank them when my father-in-law turned back to the salesman. “Just for the heck of it, let’s see one of those,” he said, pointing to one of the shiny monster-wheel strollers a few feet away.

My father-in-law was pointing to a Bugaboo, a popular brand of Dutch strollers—sometimes referred to as “stroller utility vehicles”—that has become almost synonymous with parental excess. The Bugaboo is to the Maclaren what the Lexus is to the Toyota Camry. It’s a nicer item, but you pay the extra money more for the way it makes you feel about yourself than for the improved quality—or, at least, that was my impression when I had first heard about the Bugaboo months earlier.

Our stroller salesman was also a professional actor—I later spotted him on an episode of Law & Order—and he was good at what he did. “Oh, so you wanna see a Bugaboo?” he said, shooting us an “Are you sure you can really handle one of those?” look.

We followed the salesman over to the display model where he smiled at us and then began removing and changing stroller parts so rapidly that soon the Bugaboo no longer seemed like a stroller at all ...

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