This Week in Short Fiction
Motherhood is an all-consuming thing. The sleepless nights, the endless diapers, the undying love, the absurd tasks that must be performed to ease a baby into nap time. But time and energy aren’t the only casualties of motherhood. In our culture, motherhood often demands one’s identity as well, consumes it whole as the woman becomes a public object for fawning over, for scrutinizing, for judging whether she measures up. In “Baby in a Bar” by Sara Jaffe at Catapult, one mother in a two-mother family takes her baby on a walk that begins normally but drags onwards, stretching for hours until it ends with mother and baby seeking refuge in a bar.
I brought my baby into a bar. It was the middle of the day. We’d been walking for hours as if pursued, and it had started to feel as if we wouldn’t stop until we slammed into something.
It is not clear at first, or ever, if the woman is actually being pursued by a literal person, but she is certainly being pursued by something, even if that something is her own fears and doubts. Our protagonist did not give birth to the baby—her wife did—and although this does not make the child any less hers, it does seem to complicate her vision of her own role in the family. Is she a mother, or something else?
When I was out walking with my baby and we passed other presumed parents with their babies, as I spoke audibly to my baby about the world, I didn’t know how the other parents saw me, or who they saw me as. Was I mother, father, “aunt,” nanny? Did I look the appropriate age to be a parent of this baby? Did the casualness of my clothing not match the pedigree of my stroller? Why was everybody so touched to see dads in the park with their babies on a Saturday morning, letting the moms sleep in?
She talks aloud to the baby, narrating the world as they walk, and raises her voice when other parents pass in order to “showcase [her] investment in communicating with [her] baby.” As she sits in the bar, she is hyperconscious of the location of the bartender and the direction of his gaze. Will he see her change the diaper on the table of the booth? Will he feel cheated when she feeds her son breast milk from home instead of spending money on milk from the bar? Should she leave the baby’s coat on or take it off? Zipped halfway up or all the way? Our protagonist is constantly aware of the appearance of things and always on the defensive, as if concerned that at any moment some authority will try to claim that her son is not hers, whether because she’s a lesbian, because she’s not the biological parent, because she’s not a good enough mother, or all three.
The story takes a surreal turn when a man Jaffe describes as looking like “a deflated Donald Trump” walks into the suddenly empty bar (lacking even the bartender), sits at the booth across the aisle, and questions whether or not the woman’s baby is hers. “He doesn’t look much like you, does he,” the man says. This man is our protagonist’s worst fear. Not only is he A) a man, and B) a Donald Trump look-alike, he is also C) questioning the parentage of her baby, her baby who she parents with another woman, her baby who is not biologically hers. This danger here is palpable as she explains that she has her baby’s birth certificate, as she protests He’s my baby, as the man sits coldly in judgment and demands that she prove it with a test.
“What’s his name?” the man asked. We so rarely used our baby’s real name, choosing instead from our endless list of cutely non-sequitured diminutives, names we used to call the cats. Still, I was as scared to lie as I was to tell the truth. I said my baby’s name. The man sat back down but kept his body angled toward us, as if he might stand again. “Call him,” he said.
“Call him?” I said.
“Go over there and call him.” He took a sip from a glass I hadn’t seen before.
“You mean, by his name?”
“By. His. Name.”
It’s a test normally reserved for dogs, to call and see if they’ll come, but the woman is scared of what will happen if she doesn’t do it, of what this man will do. She’s anxious to prove her baby is hers and afraid that she’s already committed a cardinal motherhood sin—she did bring her baby into a bar. So she gets out of her seat, walks halfway across the empty bar, and calls her baby’s name.
“Baby in a Bar” calls up the societal pressure placed on mothers to perform their motherhood in the “correct” way and the extra scrutiny placed on non-heteronormative families to meet and even exceed these expectations, as if demanding they make up for something. Is she talking to her baby enough? Is she feeding him the right foods? Is she exposing him to too much or too little brain stimulation? Is she performing her love in the correct and most beneficial-for-her-baby way? These doubts, forced on mothers by society, can gain too much power, can dictate otherwise natural decisions, can consume a woman’s identity whole. The protagonist of “Baby in a Bar” feels subsumed by the identity of “mother” even as she desperately tries to fit into it, to prove her motherhood to the world and to herself. But underneath all that, at the root of this woman, she only wants to be accepted, to be known.
This wasn’t the kind of bar I’d ordinarily go into. The people who worked and drank at the bars I ordinarily went to wouldn’t have expected to see me with a baby. Those were bars people went to to forget they had parents. In those scrappy, star-tarped worlds, babies didn’t exist. I said to my baby, “I was never exactly a regular.” I was regular enough to be recognized, but not enough to be known by name. “Do you know my name?” I asked my baby.