Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The baby in the drawer

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Over the last year or so, my wife and I have been gradually selling or giving away our old baby stuff, most of which has languished in the basement ever since our daughter outgrew it. One item was the bassinet that was secured to the side of our bed when Beatrix was a newborn, which we sold over the summer to a local family that was expecting a child in October. A few weeks ago, my wife received a frantic message from the mother, saying that their baby was home from the hospital and that they couldn’t unfold the bassinet. She asked if I could come over the next day to help them figure it out, and while I wasn’t sure how helpful I could be—I’ve probably set it up it a total of two times, the last of which was years ago—I agreed to do what I could. Before I left, I asked my wife to look up some online tutorials, one of which contained the useful advice that the top bars of the frame had to be locked in place in order for the ones at the bottom to stay rigid. We passed the tip along to the couple, who responded, reasonably enough, that they couldn’t think straight with a new baby in the house. The next morning, I drove over, took a look at the bassinet, and locked the bars in the right order. It took me a total of thirty seconds. The mom thanked me, and I left. It was the best possible outcome, since it allowed me to feel like I’d performed a good deed with minimal trouble on my part. And besides, as I had told my wife the night before, I had a backup plan if we couldn’t get it to work: “They can always put the baby in a drawer.”

I wasn’t kidding, either. Before Beatrix was born, I decided to read all of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and I don’t mean the most recent version—I somehow settled on the 1957 edition, which I’d picked up somewhere or other. (My reasoning probably had something to do with the notion that it might contain useful advice that had dropped out of circulation.) In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I read it from cover to cover and promptly forgot most of it, which was no doubt for the best. But I still remember a passage in the section “A Place to Sleep,” in which Dr. Spock writes:

You may want to get a beautiful bassinet, lined with silk. But the baby doesn’t care. All he needs is sides to keep him from rolling out, and something soft but firm in the bottom for a mattress. A crib, a clothes or market basket, a box or bureau drawer, will do.

I’m pretty sure that this was where I first encountered these lines, although I later realized that they’re also quoted in one of my favorite books about creativity, Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s Adhocism, where they appear emphatically on the very last page. Adhocism is billed as the art of “tackling problems at once, using the materials at hand,” and Jencks and Silver seem to be implying that it can be inculcated literally from the cradle.

And I’ve often wondered whether Dr. Spock was just making a rhetorical point, and how many young parents actually put their babies in drawers. I found a reference to it in a lecture, “Only Connect,” that P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, gave in the early sixties at the Library of Congress. Travers recalled of her father:

Even his maxims came from Ireland. “Never put a baby in a drawer,” was one of them. But who would ever do such a thing? Even if he saw a doll in a drawer, he would pluck it out, saying “Remember Parnell!” We had never ever heard of Parnell, and I had to wait to make the connection till I read a life of him a few years ago. Soon after he was born his mother, called away on some pretext, put him down quickly and came back to discover that her baby had disappeared. She looked everywhere, servants searched the house, gardeners rummaged in the shrubberies—no sign of Charles Stewart Parnell. I hope I’m not inventing it, but I think the police, too, were sent for. And while they were once more searching the nursery a mewling little sound came from the bureau. And there was Charles Stewart, six weeks old and at his last gasp because his mother, absentmindedly dumping him into an open drawer had, also absentmindedly, shut it! I am sure my father knew this story. Where else could the maxim have come from?

But the fact that Parnell’s mother could “absentmindedly” stick him in a drawer implies that it was something that at least the Irish took for granted in the nineteenth century.

The advice persists, in slightly revised form, in the most recent edition of Dr. Spock’s book: “A cardboard box or a drawer with a firm, tight-fitting pad also works well for the first couple of months.” And I recently found a discussion thread from just two years ago on the official What to Expect website titled “Newborn sleeping in dresser drawer instead of bassinet.” The poster writes: “So my husband’s entire family…all think that it’s okay to have the baby sleep in the empty dresser drawer for the first month instead of using a bassinet. They all did that with their children. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?” Most of the respondents evidently agreed, although some pointed out that a drawer and a bassinet are essentially the same thing, and one wrote: “When I read this title it made me laugh and think of my grandma. She put all her kids in a drawer too. I think it was a generation thing. I also think it was cheaper than a bassinet.” The italics are mine—I’m delighted by the image of a mother putting “all her kids” in a drawer, whether she was inspired by Dr. Spock or not. Nowadays, we’re more likely to consider placing a baby in a cardboard box, like the sensible Finns, which neatly combines all the virtues of simplicity, frugality, good design, and an image that is ready for Instagram. A drawer still feels vaguely disreputable, perhaps because of our collective memory of Kearney’s son on The Simpsons. But that might be why I love it. A baby in a drawer is pragmatism at its unglamorous but beautiful best, and an early acknowledgement of how little we need to be happy and safe. I never put my daughter in one. But I sometimes wish that I had.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2017 at 9:02 am

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