I don’t know where this video mania came from. I have no videos of my own first year and I am fairly certain that no one is pining for them. I have not once wondered about the scene of my first bath. I have no hidden longing to see footage of six-month-old self spitting up pureed peas.
But if the urge to take the videos surprised me, I was even more surprised to find myself watching them. Isaac suffered from colic during his first months and my wife Jennifer and I were so exhausted by his crying that we could hardly stand by the time we put him to sleep at night. And yet, in the two or three hours we had before Isaac was due to wake up screaming again, we would gaze at videos of him as though we had never seen anything so fascinating.
Isaac does almost nothing in these early videos, and no bit of this nothingness went unappreciated.
“Did you see the way the corner of his mouth sort of moved?!”
“I swear I think he’s starting to notice his mobile!”
We were masochists, hopelessly in love with our ten-pound tormentor. But our joy notwithstanding, our baby video addiction wasn’t without its stressful moments. Realizing how selfish it was to keep a three-minute clip of Isaac lying motionless on his changing table all to myself, I decided to put a few of the videos on YouTube.
Jennifer was concerned. “What if pedophiles watch the videos of him in his diaper?”
I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I learned pedophiles had naked videos of me as a baby. It didn’t seem so bad.
“As long as we don’t know about it, I don’t think it matters,” I said.
“It matters,” Jennifer said.
I looked into other options for sharing the videos, but the files were too large to email and using YouTube’s privacy setting would have created problems for my technology-challenged relatives.
Jennifer and I went back and forth until we arrived at a compromise. We would put the videos in a YouTube category the pedophiles would never search and tag them with non-baby words like “backgammon” and “potato salad.”
This seemed a fine solution but left us to debate which YouTube categories a pedophile would be least likely to explore. “Pets and Animals”? “Autos and Vehicles”? It was hard to know.
We chose “Pets and Animals.” It’s hard to be sure if we successfully eluded the pedophiles, but if there really are pedophiles looking for babies online, they have plenty of others to choose from. In trying to figure out what do with my Isaac videos, I discovered the obvious: babies are taking over Web video. To cite one wildly unscientific bit of evidence, a video search for baby on Google brings up close to 600,000 hits; sex, a measly 250,000.
On YouTube, you can find a video of a baby doing just about anything. There are babies breakdancing and babies eating tacos. There are babies playing golf (surprisingly well) and babies playing Frisbee (predictably poorly). There are dozens of videos of babies sucking lemons, and, if you don’t have time to watch them all, there is also a video montage of babies sucking lemons. If you prefer your infant suffering drawn out a bit more, you can search “tantrums” and choose from a long list of screaming fits.
I could have guessed that YouTube would be overrun with baby videos, but watching the videos was another thing. Almost as soon I started watching, one salient fact jumped out at me: a lot of the baby videos were just like my baby videos. The babies, doughy and drenched in drool, were doing more or less the same things: pawing at the air, laughing hysterically at decidedly unfunny things, clapping in celebration of nothing in particular.
After looking around for a few minutes, I found nearly identical replicas of many of my videos: babies banging I also came to see something humanizing in watching other people’s baby videos on YouTube.Isaac’s very same Light and Sound drum with Isaac’s very same uncoordinated abandon; babies bouncing in Isaac’s very same Fisher-Price Deluxe Jumperoo with the very same look of borderline psychotic glee.
And it’s not just the babies that seem the same. The parents in many of the videos are replicas of Jennifer and me. They “yeaaaahh” and clap and peek-a-boo and “Where’s Mommy’s nose?” exactly like we do.
Even more unnerving, the similarities are just as evident when you’re watching videos of babies in other countries. The Korean and Mexican parents make the same bulging eyes, air-filled cheek faces at their babies as their American counterparts, and their babies laugh and pop their cheeks just as reliably.
At first, I didn’t like watching my life played out in a Korean living room. The illusion of individuality is comforting. Sesame Street taught me that we are all special in our own way, and I would like to think that it’s true. I would like to think that I am the only father who bangs his head against a Fisher Price Deluxe Jumperoo to get a laugh. But, thanks to YouTube, I know that this is not the case. Probably I am not even the only father who entertains his baby with improvised salsa moves to his own rendition of The Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” (although I think I probably am the only one who inexplicably substitutes the word “tuchus” for “body” as in “Come on shake your tuchus baby/ Do the Conga”).
Still, if it was humbling to recognize my ordinariness, as I thought about it more, I also came to see something humanizing in watching other people’s baby videos on YouTube. It’s always easier to empathize when you can imagine yourself as the Other. And, now that YouTube allows us to watch everyone’s once private home videos, you no longer need much of an imagination. At least when it comes to the parents of babies, one thing is now certain: the Other is just as in love and just as dorky as you.
“What attachment theory essentially says is that being loved matters – and, more, that it matters who loves us and whom we love in return,” writes Blum. “It’s not just a matter of the warm body holding the bottle. It’s not object love at all; we love specific people and we need them to love us back. And in the case of the child’s tie to the mother, it matters that the mother loves that baby and that the baby knows it.”
As Bowlby’s theory grew in fame, the attention of researchers, including Bowlby himself, moved away from the extreme cases of neglected infants to the attachment needs of babies in more normal environments. After all, if the absence of a mother had such a profound effect on a child, it seemed likely that the day-to-day differences in the maternal care could also affect psychological development.
In 1963, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who had worked with Bowlby in the ’50s, took the next step in attachment research. After a year of observing twenty-six mothers and their babies and then conducting a laboratory experiment in which she watched how the babies responded to being left alone and then reunited with their mothers, Ainsworth concluded that some babies were more attached than others. The securely attached infants, as she called them, were more confident and more willing to explore the environment around them in their mothers’ presence. Other researchers following Ainsworth’s lead would demonstrate that securely attached babies would show the same self-assuredness years later.
So, what made for a secure baby? Was Ainsworth just observing inborn personality traits? During her year of observation, Ainsworth had watched the mothers as closely as the babies, watched which mothers hurried to their babies at the first sign of unhappiness and which let their babies cry. She kept track of how the mothers played with their babies – whether they were smiley and talkative or not – and how often they fed them. It turned out that all the doting made the difference. The most securely attached babies were the ones with the most attentive moms.
Ainsworth’s research had laid the groundwork for attachment parenting, a term later coined by Dr. William Sears. Attachment parenting simply takes the lessons of attachment theory to their logical extreme. And this is where we arrive back at the Zaky. Because if you believe in attachment theory (there is a now also a solid body of criticism of Bowlby, Harlow and Ainsworth), the claim that the Zaky can help your baby begins to sound at least plausible. Attachment theory was built upon experiments showing that young rhesus monkeys were comforted by terrycloth mothers. Perhaps for those moments when you can’t give your baby your own hand (the Zaky was invented by a mother of a premature baby who couldn’t stand not being able to hold her baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at night) a soft substitute hand really is the next best thing?
This isn’t to say that babies are fooled into thinking the Zaky is a parent’s hand. Attachment theory is certainly right about at least one thing: evolution designed babies to be extremely sensitive to human contact and for that very reason, no amount of warming and scenting is likely to make a baby mistake the Zaky’s soft fleece for skin. And, even if you want to give the Zaky the benefit of the doubt, there’s still the questions of whether the doll is superior to the rolled towels hospital nurses have long placed next to newborns to help them feel snug. A soft towel can also be scented and warmed.
There’s also a strange paradox surrounding the Zaky. It’s designed as a substitute for your own arm and yet stitched right onto the doll is a warning that says, ” THIS ZAKY IS NOT A TOY. Keep away from face. Supervise child while using it.”
Still, whatever its drawbacks, the Zaky’s foundation in attachment theory makes it more than just another bit of parenting weirdness.
And you can spank people with it!