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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Babies

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Babies

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


Oh, yes, I do--I know a lot about 'em. I was one myself once, though
not long--not so long as my clothes. They were very long, I
recollect, and always in my way when I wanted to kick. Why do babies
have such yards of unnecessary clothing? It is not a riddle. I
really want to know. I never could understand it. Is it that the
parents are ashamed of the size of the child and wish to make believe
that it is longer than it actually is? I asked a nurse once why it
was. She said:

"Lor', sir, they always have long clothes, bless their little hearts."

And when I explained that her answer, although doing credit to her
feelings, hardly disposed of my difficulty, she replied:

"Lor', sir, you wouldn't have 'em in short clothes, poor little
dears?" And she said it in a tone that seemed to imply I had
suggested some unmanly outrage.

Since than I have felt shy at making inquiries on the subject, and the
reason--if reason there be--is still a mystery to me. But indeed,
putting them in any clothes at all seems absurd to my mind. Goodness
knows there is enough of dressing and undressing to be gone through in
life without beginning it before we need; and one would think that
people who live in bed might at all events be spared the torture. Why
wake the poor little wretches up in the morning to take one lot of
clothes off, fix another lot on, and put them to bed again, and then
at night haul them out once more, merely to change everything back?
And when all is done, what difference is there, I should like to know,
between a baby's night-shirt and the thing it wears in the day-time?

Very likely, however, I am only making myself ridiculous--I often do,
so I am informed--and I will therefore say no more upon this matter of
clothes, except only that it would be of great convenience if some
fashion were adopted enabling you to tell a boy from a girl.

At present it is most awkward. Neither hair, dress, nor conversation
affords the slightest clew, and you are left to guess. By some
mysterious law of nature you invariably guess wrong, and are thereupon
regarded by all the relatives and friends as a mixture of fool and
knave, the enormity of alluding to a male babe as "she" being only
equaled by the atrocity of referring to a female infant as "he".
Whichever sex the particular child in question happens not to belong
to is considered as beneath contempt, and any mention of it is taken
as a personal insult to the family.

And as you value your fair name do not attempt to get out of the
difficulty by talking of "it."

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame.
By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward
depositing their bodies in the water companies' reservoir, you will
gain much unpopularity in the neighborhood of your crime, and even
robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the
vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of
scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you,
let a young mother hear you call dear baby "it."

Your best plan is to address the article as "little angel." The noun
"angel" being of common gender suits the case admirably, and the
epithet is sure of being favorably received. "Pet" or "beauty" are
useful for variety's sake, but "angel" is the term that brings you the
greatest credit for sense and good-feeling. The word should be
preceded by a short giggle and accompanied by as much smile as
possible. And whatever you do, don't forget to say that the child has
got its father's nose. This "fetches" the parents (if I may be
allowed a vulgarism) more than anything. They will pretend to laugh
at the idea at first and will say, "Oh, nonsense!" You must then get
excited and insist that it is a fact. You need have no conscientious
scruples on the subject, because the thing's nose really does resemble
its father's--at all events quite as much as it does anything else in
nature--being, as it is, a mere smudge.

Do not despise these hints, my friends. There may come a time when,
with mamma on one side and grand mamma on the other, a group of
admiring young ladies (not admiring you, though) behind, and a
bald-headed dab of humanity in front, you will be extremely thankful
for some idea of what to say. A man--an unmarried man, that is--is
never seen to such disadvantage as when undergoing the ordeal of
"seeing baby." A cold shudder runs down his back at the bare
proposal, and the sickly smile with which he says how delighted he
shall be ought surely to move even a mother's heart, unless, as I am
inclined to believe, the whole proceeding is a mere device adopted by
wives to discourage the visits of bachelor friends.

It is a cruel trick, though, whatever its excuse may be. The bell is
rung and somebody sent to tell nurse to bring baby down. This is the
signal for all the females present to commence talking "baby," during
which time you are left to your own sad thoughts and the speculations
upon the practicability of suddenly recollecting an important
engagement, and the likelihood of your being believed if you do. Just
when you have concocted an absurdly implausible tale about a man
outside, the door opens, and a tall, severe-looking woman enters,
carrying what at first sight appears to be a particularly skinny
bolster, with the feathers all at one end. Instinct, however, tells
you that this is the baby, and you rise with a miserable attempt at
appearing eager. When the first gush of feminine enthusiasm with
which the object in question is received has died out, and the number
of ladies talking at once has been reduced to the ordinary four or
five, the circle of fluttering petticoats divides, and room is made
for you to step forward. This you do with much the same air that you
would walk into the dock at Bow Street, and then, feeling unutterably
miserable, you stand solemnly staring at the child. There is dead
silence, and you know that every one is waiting for you to speak. You
try to think of something to say, but find, to your horror, that your
reasoning faculties have left you. It is a moment of despair, and
your evil genius, seizing the opportunity, suggests to you some of the
most idiotic remarks that it is possible for a human being to
perpetrate. Glancing round with an imbecile smile, you sniggeringly
observe that "it hasn't got much hair has it?" Nobody answers you for
a minute, but at last the stately nurse says with much gravity:

"It is not customary for children five weeks old to have long hair."
Another silence follows this, and you feel you are being given a
second chance, which you avail yourself of by inquiring if it can walk
yet, or what they feed it on.

By this time you have got to be regarded as not quite right in your
head, and pity is the only thing felt for you. The nurse, however, is
determined that, insane or not, there shall be no shirking and that
you shall go through your task to the end. In the tones of a high
priestess directing some religious mystery she says, holding the
bundle toward you:

"Take her in your arms, sir." You are too crushed to offer any
resistance and so meekly accept the burden. "Put your arm more down
her middle, sir," says the high-priestess, and then all step back and
watch you intently as though you were going to do a trick with it.

What to do you know no more than you did what to say. It is certain
something must be done, and the only thing that occurs to you is to
heave the unhappy infant up and down to the accompaniment of
"oopsee-daisy," or some remark of equal intelligence. "I wouldn't jig
her, sir, if I were you," says the nurse; "a very little upsets her."
You promptly decide not to jig her and sincerely hope that you have
not gone too far already.

At this point the child itself, who has hitherto been regarding you
with an expression of mingled horror and disgust, puts an end to the
nonsense by beginning to yell at the top of its voice, at which the
priestess rushes forward and snatches it from you with "There! there!
there! What did ums do to ums?" "How very extraordinary!" you say
pleasantly. "Whatever made it go off like that?" "Oh, why, you must
have done something to her!" says the mother indignantly; "the child
wouldn't scream like that for nothing." It is evident they think you
have been running pins into it.

The brat is calmed at last, and would no doubt remain quiet enough,
only some mischievous busybody points you out again with "Who's this,
baby?" and the intelligent child, recognizing you, howls louder than

Whereupon some fat old lady remarks that "it's strange how children
take a dislike to any one." "Oh, they know," replies another
mysteriously. "It's a wonderful thing," adds a third; and then
everybody looks sideways at you, convinced you are a scoundrel of the
blackest dye; and they glory in the beautiful idea that your true
character, unguessed by your fellow-men, has been discovered by the
untaught instinct of a little child.

Babies, though, with all their crimes and errors, are not without
their use--not without use, surely, when they fill an empty heart; not
without use when, at their call, sunbeams of love break through
care-clouded faces; not without use when their little fingers press
wrinkles into smiles.

Odd little people! They are the unconscious comedians of the world's
great stage. They supply the humor in life's all-too-heavy drama.
Each one, a small but determined opposition to the order of things in
general, is forever doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the
wrong place and in the wrong way. The nurse-girl who sent Jenny to
see what Tommy and Totty were doing and "tell 'em they mustn't" knew
infantile nature. Give an average baby a fair chance, and if it
doesn't do something it oughtn't to a doctor should be called in at

They have a genius for doing the most ridiculous things, and they do
them in a grave, stoical manner that is irresistible. The
business-like air with which two of them will join hands and proceed
due east at a break-neck toddle, while an excitable big sister is
roaring for them to follow her in a westerly direction, is most
amusing--except, perhaps, for the big sister. They walk round a
soldier, staring at his legs with the greatest curiosity, and poke him
to see if he is real. They stoutly maintain, against all argument and
much to the discomfort of the victim, that the bashful young man at
the end of the 'bus is "dadda." A crowded street-corner suggests
itself to their minds as a favorable spot for the discussion of family
affairs at a shrill treble. When in the middle of crossing the road
they are seized with a sudden impulse to dance, and the doorstep of a
busy shop is the place they always select for sitting down and taking
off their shoes.

When at home they find the biggest walking-stick in the house or an
umbrella--open preferred-of much assistance in getting upstairs. They
discover that they love Mary Ann at the precise moment when that
faithful domestic is blackleading the stove, and nothing will relieve
their feelings but to embrace her then and there. With regard to
food, their favorite dishes are coke and cat's meat. They nurse pussy
upside down, and they show their affection for the dog by pulling his

They are a deal of trouble, and they make a place untidy and they cost
a lot of money to keep; but still you would not have the house without
them. It would not be home without their noisy tongues and their
mischief-making hands. Would not the rooms seem silent without their
pattering feet, and might not you stray apart if no prattling voices
called you together?

It should be so, and yet I have sometimes thought the tiny hand seemed
as a wedge, dividing. It is a bearish task to quarrel with that
purest of all human affections--that perfecting touch to a woman's
life--a mother's love. It is a holy love, that we coarser-fibered men
can hardly understand, and I would not be deemed to lack reverence for
it when I say that surely it need not swallow up all other affection.
The baby need not take your whole heart, like the rich man who walled
up the desert well. Is there not another thirsty traveler standing

In your desire to be a good mother, do not forget to be a good wife.
No need for all the thought and care to be only for one. Do not,
whenever poor Edwin wants you to come out, answer indignantly, "What,
and leave baby!" Do not spend all your evenings upstairs, and do not
confine your conversation exclusively to whooping-cough and measles.
My dear little woman, the child is not going to die every time it
sneezes, the house is not bound to get burned down and the nurse run
away with a soldier every time you go outside the front door; nor the
cat sure to come and sit on the precious child's chest the moment you
leave the bedside. You worry yourself a good deal too much about that
solitary chick, and you worry everybody else too. Try and think of
your other duties, and your pretty face will not be always puckered
into wrinkles, and there will be cheerfulness in the parlor as well as
in the nursery. Think of your big baby a little. Dance him about a
bit; call him pretty names; laugh at him now and then. It is only the
first baby that takes up the whole of a woman's time. Five or six do
not require nearly so much attention as one. But before then the
mischief has been done. A house where there seems no room for him and
a wife too busy to think of him have lost their hold on that so
unreasonable husband of yours, and he has learned to look elsewhere
for comfort and companionship.

But there, there, there! I shall get myself the character of a
baby-hater if I talk any more in this strain. And Heaven knows I am
not one. Who could be, to look into the little innocent faces
clustered in timid helplessness round those great gates that open down
into the world?

The world--the small round world! what a vast mysterious place it must
seem to baby eyes! What a trackless continent the back garden
appears! What marvelous explorations they make in the cellar under
the stairs! With what awe they gaze down the long street, wondering,
like us bigger babies when we gaze up at the stars, where it all ends!

And down that longest street of all--that long, dim street of life
that stretches out before them--what grave, old-fashioned looks they
seem to cast! What pitiful, frightened looks sometimes! I saw a
little mite sitting on a doorstep in a Soho slum one night, and I
shall never forget the look that the gas-lamp showed me on its wizen
face--a look of dull despair, as if from the squalid court the vista
of its own squalid life had risen, ghostlike, and struck its heart
dead with horror.

Poor little feet, just commencing the stony journey! We old
travelers, far down the road, can only pause to wave a hand to you.
You come out of the dark mist, and we, looking back, see you, so tiny
in the distance, standing on the brow of the hill, your arms stretched
out toward us. God speed you! We would stay and take your little
hands in ours, but the murmur of the great sea is in our ears and we
may not linger. We must hasten down, for the shadowy ships are
waiting to spread their sable sails.

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