Slice of Life
In the beginning, the baby’s nails were so delicate I could just pick them off when they got too long, like peeling off a bit of tape stuck to a gift. When they firmed up I attempted scissors exactly once (terrifying) then moved on to using one of the tiny emery boards that came in a “baby grooming kit” we acquired somehow, the contents of which was all so miniature it was like they expected the baby to be grooming herself. An adult-woman-sized nail file was easier to maneuver but also more easily grabbed; I did my best but somehow wound up sharpening her nails at least as often as I filed them. More advanced technology was necessary. So I bought an electric buffer thingy, which soon became known as “the nail gun” when I couldn’t remember “buffer thingy,” and I deployed the accursed screen time.
For a while my one opinion on this subject was that most media for little kids looks and sound ghastly and I wanted to keep them out of my life for as long as possible, but otherwise, whatever, what’s the big deal? But then I had a baby and the baby became… aware. If it glows, she stares. She is entranced by the numbers on the washing machine; faces moving and talking on television send her into an ecstatic trance. Her eyes become wide and blank. If her body is moved away from the screen, her head swivels as if magnetized to it. Part of me always wants to whisk her away to a sunlit room full of hand-whittled wooden toys, and another part of me feels like I should give her some privacy, like I’m crashing her very successful first date with the new love of her life. Now my opinion is this: One day I want my child to enjoy watching movies and TV as much as I do — these are true fonts of joy in life, necessary respites from and portals back into the world! — but I want her to engage with that world in a three-dimensional way as often as possible for as long as possible before the pixels have their way with her. This seems fair? But also, she was slicing the hell out of that three dimensional world, in particular her face, my face, and my boobs. So I thought, well, I guess Our Planet seems chill.
And it was, for like the first ten minutes of episode one. The baby sat in my lap, hypnotized, while I ground away at her petite claws. “One day you’ll think it’s funny that those birds are called boobies,” I told her. No response; she was fully Attenborough-pilled. Next time, we picked up where we left off and, oops, here comes the thirsty baby flamingo tromping across the African salt pan, salt collecting on its feet in tragic little boots. And here are the wild dogs and the wildebeest calf. And here’s a collapsing glacier. She began to wiggle and flap. “Yeah, kind of a bummer, huh, babe?” I said, but she was unmoved by the tragedy and majesty of nature; she was just bored.
New plan! We went high-contrast. Old black-and-white Roger Corman movies on YouTube did the trick for a while, bits and pieces of Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not Of This Earth. Then more wiggling and flapping. Onto vintage Sesame Street! She grooved on theme song, but when Big Bird showed up she looked over her shoulder at me like, What the hell is this? “Acquired taste, maybe?” I said to excuse the most beloved TV show of all time. She grabbed the nail gun and shoved its spinning tip into her mouth, talons intact.
Next I suppose we could’ve escalated to Elmo, or even tried Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but at the time I thought: Enough. Done with chill, done with cool, done with nostalgia. Time for the hard shit.
I don’t even know how I came to know about Ms. Rachel. It was like I gave birth and suddenly there she was in my brain. She’s a forty-something-year-old white lady who sings songs and does language development exercises for little kids on her YouTube channel. She has a bright, happy face and a bright, happy voice and a bright, happy uniform: pink headband, pink t-shirt, blue denim overalls. Somehow, before I ever saw a single one of her videos, I saw videos of little kids watching her videos, and they were utterly rapt, like it was Baby Videodrome. Meanwhile, my own child’s eyes turn into big pulsing hearts at the sight of a Target self-checkout screen. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see her see Ms. Rachel. But also, her fingernails were dirty as a coal miner’s and my boobs looked like I’d been nursing a raccoon. I needed help.
“Okay, we’re going in,” I told the baby a few weeks ago. We settled onto the couch with the nail gun and I hit play on the first Ms. Rachel video YouTube served me. A mistake — it was a crossover episode with Blippi and Meekah. Somehow I already knew who Blippi was, too, and could guess that Meekah was part of his extended cinematic universe, though this knowledge did nothing to dull the sensation of my soul being roughly caressed by a microplane. “This is hell,” said Joe, passing through the living room. “We are in hell.” But the baby sat on my lap, still as a doll, elbows out, hands raised in surrender. She let me do a first pass on her nails, then a second, then her toes. I got in there so good I thought maybe I’d never have to do them again. I was wrong, of course, so a few days later it was back to Ms. Rachel — straight up, no Blippi, something called “Baby Learning 2,” as if any video on YouTube wouldn’t teach a baby something, but I was done making fun soon as this dear sweet woman appeared on the screen and said, “Hi! Hello! Can you say Mama? MA-ma! MA-ma!” and I could feel my child become ensorcelled.
So this is what we do now. Every few days we give ourselves over to Ms. Rachel. I hit play and this angel in a pink headband blasts us with her megawatt cheer, singing with puppets and dancing with cartoon animals, enunciating like a maniac, commanding and applauding her unseen infant army. (Joe leaves the room, bless his heart.) When I hit stop, the baby emerges from her stupor with her talons dulled once more and looks up at me like, Wait, who are you again? Maybe one day I’ll tell her about the dream I had where I realized I was out in public dressed like Ms. Rachel, and later in the dream realized I was becoming Ms. Rachel. “You know, my name is Ms. Rachel too, kind of,” I told her the other day. But she just lunged for the nail gun, totally unimpressed by her mother’s selfhood, just as she’s meant to be.
Thanks for reading Vanitas, a newsletter about life, death, and other dumb stuff. If you’d like, follow me on Instagram: @by_rachaelmaddux.
The painting is Madame Roulin and Her Baby, by Vincent van Gogh.