My daughter D swipes her finger across my phone. A face lights up; her head turns in. She asks to look at family pictures. She likes to take some of her own—mostly shots of the floor or ceiling. Increasingly, she is able to capture her face, turning her nose up with her thumb, becoming pig. This morning: tortilla stomach money smell. Eggs with peppers and bacon wrapped in a tortilla with spicy guacamole. The face of inner space dried on baby food all over the place. Hot mucky residue under the cabinet’s lips. Children slamming their yams all over everything. Two bags of garbage, sticky lip-gloss, food stained, food trained all over their stuck noses. Husband calls: “ex-say onrning-may?”
But before this, the baby wakes before it is light. I give her a bottle and we lie down on the couch. Everyone is asleep, but she won’t settle back like she sometimes does. It’s 4:00 a.m. She keeps shifting around and I only got four hours last night. I slide the Baby Einstein’s DVD into the slot of the machine. The disc features Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies” playing while paintings by Vincent Van Gogh appear and fade into toy trains, lava lamps, a Newton’s Cradle, a plasma globe, and various wind-up toys, moving, chugging, pushing across a white gallery space. As I watch, Medusa is turning me to stone. There is no pain. The purple tentacles of her hair pulse rhythmically. Or this is not Medusa at all, but a sea star regenerating its limbs in the quickest way, invented and patented by Nikola Tesla as Incandescent Electric Light. Single filaments become thick, thin, brighter, dimmer. I close my eyes. Is she watching? Enough. She is eighteen months.
This is the story of how we, my husband and I, are overcome in a puddle of our own circumstance, by the light of the television, a medium-hot witness to certain historical facts: a blended family with two children ten years apart, two full-time jobs, one looming PhD dissertation.
Onscreen: an organic multiplication of wax bubbles issues from the bottom. The blood vessels of Bird in Space revealed. The patterns created are not fractal but bulbous, melted, diaphanous, neon in texture not color. If you take the cap off a lava lamp, fill a turkey baster with the hot liquid, and then squirt it into a glass of cold water, you can have for yourself a plastic ejaculation, contained in another colorless liquid. If you heat up the glass bottle of a lava lamp on the stove, it will explode. The shards punctured the heart of one man who tried this, and he died. Each of the bubbles wants to be its own thought. New ones from down deep can’t be kept from forming.
I know there is a fridge in my home, but I don’t remember how I know that this is a fridge. The milk goes in the milk goes out. How does my daughter, just now coming into language, understand the images put before her? What’s the difference between rocking her in front of the lava lamp that lights her bedroom or the lava lamp that lights the screen in the living room?
Primitive, primordial, my daughter sucking at my breast. Breastfeeding is my first consumer purchase as a mother, but I don’t know it yet. She weans early. Her object of permanence becomes a pink quilt that my great aunt made for my mother when I was born. Though nearly thirty-five years old, it’s retained some of its puff and fluff. It came with a small matching pillow, which she also sometimes uses for her baby dolls, sometimes for herself.
What is accomplishing itself?
Breastfeeding failed. All my memories fail.
The Baby Einstein DVDs were given to me before my daughter was born. I didn’t think anything of them at the time, except maybe, “We won’t be using those.” But then we used those. Founded in 1997, the Baby Einstein Company produces and sells a line of multimedia products and toys for infants and toddlers. Launched by a mom named Julie Clark, who financed and produced the first video in her basement with her husband, it went on to become a multimillion dollar company. The content of the DVDs includes classical music played while paintings and moving toys create arresting visual displays. In some videos poems are read as letters of the alphabet appear. The company’s name, for many, suggested these videos were intended to enhance a baby’s knowledge. A few years earlier, in 1993, a set of research findings commonly referred to as the Mozart Effect was shown to increase a listener’s spatial-temporal reasoning. While the results of the study only reported increase ability in spatial-temporal reasoning, they were popularly interpreted as boosting the listener’s IQ. Perhaps the most popular books and products generalizing these findings was also published in 1997 by Don Campbell: The Mozart Effect: Awakening Your Child’s Mind, Health, and Creativity with Music. The Baby Einstein Company was well-positioned to benefit from the burgeoning fad.
In 1998, the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, apportioned state funds in the budget to make sure every child in the state received a classical music CD. George W. Bush mentioned Julie Aigner-Clark and Baby Einstein Company in his 2007 State of the Union address and Aigner-Clark was in attendance.
D and I read books until they fall apart, until I have them memorized. She finishes the end rhymes of all the books we read each night and gives vivid performances—she loves singing them, yelling them, dancing them. I’ve lined the walls of her bedroom with shelves that hold hundreds of books.
I offer her Duplos, baby dolls. Her sister offers miniature Calico Critters sans small parts. Her cousins: their discarded Hot Wheels and dump trucks. Most often she is wandering around the house with a piece of string, singing a song to herself, crouching behind the couch to wrap up a baby doll, or an orange from the kitchen that stands for baby doll, singing, still, to some imaginary friend she is playing with, not me.
The books, the dolls, wear the “patina of generations,” as Susan Sontag called it. Sesame Street bookplates, my own shaky handwritten name Sharpied into the covers. The dolls once my own: dirty, soft at the joints from play. There is Bradley, Cynthia, Amy. Cynthia is the knock-off Cabbage Patch in the group, which I played with less, and actually remember bemoaning receiving at Christmas. Since I wasn’t happy about it, my mother made a birth certificate for Cynthia and offered to sign her butt; I declined. Authentic or not—D does not to notice or care about my own preferences, the brands that outlined my imaginative life and seemed to determine the dressing, feeding, rocking, tea partying of my youth. As D and her sister E play, I suddenly go from having 1.5 children to eight. D demands I cuddle her and her babies. Apparently, I am their mother, too. So I rub their plastic heads and lay them down to nap. It is painful to watch her pulling and pushing and maiming these plastic and cloth objects made into shapes that resemble small humans. It is here I realize I have always been a mother. These were the objects I cared for while imagining my own children.
In time, D becomes a user of the remote. Does she make her own world or simply use it? For her, television is Netflix. She has never seen a commercial, until I realize, the shows themselves are the commercials. In addition to selling a line of actual toys, Baby Einstein promotes the child consumer as a well-rounded genius. The videos are a televised Waldorf education, a bubble-rapped package of capitalistic gadgetry and arts appreciation. The success of the company showcases our willingness to privatize our children’s public education with our discretionary funds, foreshadowing school choice. If there is no distinction between show and commercial, ethics and entertainment, what kind of distinctions, if any, exists between her imaginary play, her consumer life, and our reality?
Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.
This quote by Paul Valery begins Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Valery is reveling in the reproduction’s possibilities and abilities to expand circumstances for enjoying art. Alternatively, Benjamin was concerned about the work of art losing value when mass-produced. The manner in which the object is copied “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”
A tremendous shattering of tradition: D learns to make music by pushing one button. D learns food is made by defrosting a package in the freezer. She asks: “How was I built? Who built me? Did you and Daddy use hammer and nails?”
Before the mp3 there was the CD, before the CD there was the cassette, before the cassette there was the 8-track, before the 8-track there was the record, before the record there were player pianos, before player pianos there were pianos and organs and sheet music and hands. What prejudices do I hold regarding the format my information comes packaged in? How do those prejudices inspire the guilt and anxiety I feel about the objects and texts I put before my daughters to view, listen, and read?
Talked to S last night, but mostly I felt angry the whole time because he was falling asleep. I’m still angry that I didn’t end the conversation sooner, but when I got up this morning, I felt well rested. My journal documents the physical exhaustion and the emotional sorrow as I attempt, it seems, almost every night to talk to my husband after the kids go to bed. He falls asleep mid-sentence or we fight. What we are good at is watching television together and (sometimes later, squeezing in a conversation about it over dinner). The blue light adjusts our circadian rhythms; it’s never just one episode. As we blow through Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire, I realize that watching other people’s problems distracts us from our own, creates space for the two of us that exists separate from a daily life bogged with chores. It is the fun we can afford financially, physically, emotionally.
We wake and brew various hot, dark liquids. We head off, unbreakfasted, but with the kids’ teeth brushed and clothes on, into a twelve-hour work day on little less than five hours of sleep each night.
My journal goes on, showcasing an almost-obsession with my own productivity as a writer. My anxiety that I’ll never be anything more than a mother trapped by the paradox that it is motherhood itself that has sharpened my desire to write, and given me a story to tell. I have this gorgeous, sacred baby in my home and I have lost the memory, if I ever had one, that something much more profound is accomplishing itself in my presence. I lament, and often, the real boredom I experience in watching D play. Other moms seem to take their children out more—the park, the Children’s Museum, play dates. We barely make it to and from work and daycare each day, both of us exhausted by the preparations required to get out the door and the singular focus we assume in front of our “toys.”
Yet, I’m reveling in the way the television’s luxurious light pulls things into focus: my midlife marriage, my children. I’m skeptical that it stunts my child’s imagination or her language development, has it has made her a consumer far too early? If so, maybe that’s a more complicated position than what it first seems. Stephen Kline, a psychologist who studies children’s media and culture, articulates some of my instincts:
The merchants and marketers of children’s goods have always paid more diligent attention than educationists to children’s active imaginations and incidental cultural interests [… ]In their research they have used much more discursive methods that provide more insight into children’s emotional and social perceptions, the love of stories, strong attachments to goods, vivid imaginations and a lively fantasy life lie at the heart of children’s conversations and leisure preoccupations.
School is years away, but already as I watch her watch, as I watch her learn, my new thoughts develop as if in a lava lamp. When the lamp is off these thoughts freeze, rot, and disappear.