I recently spent an hour and a half alone with my niece Lila–no competent adult supervising–on the dangerous streets of Manhattan. She survived. Both of us survived, in fact. This I see as a tremendous accomplishment.
The secret I suspect I share with many other first-time aunts and uncles is that we are paralyzed with fear. We are supposed to be people you can trust with your baby, but we have no idea what we are doing. I had never even seen a real baby up close until I met Lila. The first thing I said to my wife when we left the hospital, after visiting our hours-old niece, was that I was surprised she wasn’t making more eye contact. And even having expressed this preposterously idiotic reaction to meeting a newborn baby for the first time, I was still trusted to wheel her around a crowded city for 90 minutes–alone.
To the strangers on the street we just looked like a man wheeling a baby, peacefully sleeping in her stroller. But in my mind, I was a character in a live-action video game who must navigate this cart on wheels, avoiding strangers, parking meters, high curbs, and potholes, at the same time keeping the baby from waking up. For the first 35 minutes, I sailed through level after level. I found a quiet side street (bonus points), a building with a small courtyard in front, with some benches and trees, and a few intersecting paved pathways. We went in circles for a while, until I spied an evil villain–okay, a guy taking a cigarette break. Perhaps 50 feet away from us, but even 50 feet away–and outdoors–I was not going to expose my niece’s lungs to any dangers I could avoid. So we were done with the courtyard. And that’s where the trouble started.
As I raced to get away–colliding with a friendly but slow-moving and slightly confused dog–I got a little too cocky. Lila’s been asleep this whole time, I thought–I guess she’ll sleep through anything. The overconfidence effect. I decided we should go to CVS. Come on, it was cold outside. I wasn’t wearing three blankets and a wool body suit like my tiny passenger. While battling with the door–how exactly do you get a stroller through a non-automatic door without three hands?–we were still for perhaps eight seconds. Then she woke up. Uh oh.
She looked at me, confused. “This isn’t mommy,” I assume she was thinking. “I sort of recognize this guy, but I’m skeptical.” I watched her closely. I decided to play it cool. If she sensed fear, I knew I’d be in trouble. I didn’t overdo it with the eye contact, gave her a quick smile, kept it subtle. I figured I could distract her. I found a building exterior made of mirrors, and for 10 minutes we rolled back and forth. “Ooh, mirrors,” I kept saying to her, lacking other conversation prompts. “Ooh, shiny, right?” Was I expecting a reply? From mirrors, we moved to a ramp. “Up the ramp… and down the ramp.” Lila remained content. Or at least confused. “This person wheeling me is clearly not very intelligent,” I imagined she was thinking. “But he seems to love this ramp. I’d better stay calm, since I’m obviously the one who’s going to have to be in charge if there’s an emergency. I just hope he knows how to unbuckle the seatbelt.”
And then, suddenly, out of nowhere–I saw it coming in slow-motion, the eyes, the mouth, the nostrils flaring. I desperately tried making a funny face. She wasn’t interested. I pulled out my phone, showing her a photo of herself–usually a winning tactic. It bought me 10 seconds, maybe. A grandmotherly woman passed and said, “She looks unhappy!” No kidding! I looked in the diaper bag. I don’t know what I was looking for. An instruction book? I was immediately stricken with fear: “I am wheeling a crying baby. What if someone thinks I did something to her? What will I tell the police if they come after me?” If she’s wet, I don’t know how to change her. If she’s hungry, I don’t know how to feed her. I offered her my finger to grab. Not an effective tactic. A stranger looked at me like I was a terrible human being. I rocked the stroller back and forth. Five minutes felt like five hours. Five days, even. And then, my phone rings. Her mother–just a few feet away.
“Oh, she missed you! We missed you. I missed you. She was great, until five minutes ago. Here, she’s crying–fix her!” We had a lovely 85 minutes and a very loud final five. I love my niece. But it’s good to be the uncle, and know that you can give her back.