The Corporate Parent

When I gave birth to my first daughter, I was in a hospital. Contraction-inducing pitocin was dripping into my veins, and I was hooked up to a monitor, featuring a jagged line graph which represented the force of each contraction. During heavy contractions, the jagged line spiked up towards the top of the screen and hovered there for the duration.

“Ooh, that was an intense one,” my helpful support team would murmur as they tracked the progress of my labor on the screen. Or: “Ooh, that one lasted a long time.”

“No kidding,” I thought to myself, not necessarily needing a news flash on the details of my labor — each detail of which was excruciatingly clear to me.

Not that I blame them. My support team endured fifteen hours at my bedside. Who can fault them for occasionally ignoring me and turning instead to consult the screen — a much calmer, less profane, and not-so-sweaty object of attention?

I remembered this long ago run-in with monitors, when I read recently about a new kind of monitor on the market — one that also promises to translate the profane and sweaty cries of a loved one into easy-to-grasp images blinking at you from a screen.

It’s the “WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer,” selling in the United States for $184.95, and it’s seductive for the same reason the monitor in the birthing room was.

Imagine the tired (brand new) parents are home and there are more vigils by bedsides (or cribsides as is now the case). Forget 15 hours at a time — a rather puny segment of time relative to what the new parents are now in for. It’s now day after day with never a break from tending to the new little being who is your child and whose face is sometimes contorted in various expressions, many of them puzzling. Being with the laboring mom now seems easy in comparison. It was simply a matter of gauging degrees of pain. There was the tearful, “I don’t know if I can do this,” ranging all the way to the extremely focused commitment to murder the next person who tells her she’s doing “fine, just fine.”

The jagged green line helps the birthing team figure out where the mom-to-be is on the tearful-to-murder range. But now the parents are home, and the squirming little being in the crib has more to communicate. She is sometimes hungry, after all, sometimes wet, tired, cold, hot, lonely, bored, uncomfortable, among many other emotions — all communicated without language.

It’s all so complicated, and new parents are apt to feel vulnerable, exhausted, and isolated. It’s the perfect moment for the marketers to step in and suggest hooking that baby up to a monitor. Why not? We’re so used to monitors. They are familiar, straightforward, and they come with an off/on switch. Think how much more relaxed you’ll feel interpreting the digitally analyzed transmissions of the “WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer.” Instead of looking directly at your baby when he or she cries, you can now turn your attention to the electronic monitor programmed to recognize and interpret different tones of a baby’s cry.

No jagged green lines here. This monitor provides user-friendly baby-face icons to interpret your baby’s needs. I don’t have the manual, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing the baby-face icon with the tongue hanging out means the baby is hungry. The baby-face icon with the jagged mouth must mean stress. And there are other icons for sleepiness, boredom, and discomfort.

Just the icons themselves are comforting. In my experience, a hungry baby is capable of yowling at the top of his or her lungs. It’s a profoundly not-comforting sound that most people have a strong aversion to, a fact which no doubt helps preserves the human race by convincing sometimes weary or busy parents to feed their baby NOW. For the nursing mom, there’s an additional incentive. The baby’s cry causes a hormone to be released which causes the milk to “let down,” which means it will soon be leaking down the front of her shirt unless she gets that baby to the breast immediately.

But the hungry baby icon on the WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer looks positively cute. Round eyes, upturned lips, and a cute little slurping tongue may not stir the same urgency as the great genetically coded howl for food.The icon that lights up when the WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer detects crying due to fatigue shows a baby with closed lids and a relaxed countenance. How pleasant to gaze on this angelic face rather than the real one crying in the crib in the next room.

I understand why parents want help from experts. It’s a hard job, you’ve had no training, and your shift never ends. An electronic monitor posing as translator for the baby might come as a relief. It comes with operating instructions, after all; which is more than you can say for the baby.

But more than experts, parents need support for simply being themselves in this most human of circumstances. Through the ages, humans have been parented without the help of electronic devices. A baby’s cry communicates something to parents; parents react in a certain way; both babies and parents learn from the interactions and modify their behavior, forming a unique dynamic that is the bedrock of communication and human connection.

At best the WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer is a waste of money, resources, and labor power. You’ll buy it and maybe briefly tune into the cute little baby face icons. But soon enough, you’ll realize that electronic mediating of the human cry doesn’t make it go away, and you’re at precisely the same place you started before you studied the monitor. That is, with a baby who is attempting to communicate with you and needs you to tune into her! The WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer will thus follow the natural course of its many brother and sister gadgets from manufacture by underpaid workers in a far-flung factory, to retail sale in some big box store, to brief duty as a dust-collector on a shelf, and finally to the landfill.

At worst, the WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer is an example of corporations trying to replace intricate (sometimes complicated and confusing), human experience with an overpriced, over-simplified gadget that steps in and suggests a purchaseable replacement to something that is by definition irreplaceable.

This is the message corporations give to parents about their role: You don’t know what to do; we do. You’re scared and confused; we’re confident and clear-headed. You want the best for your kid; so do we, and we can sell it to you.Having virtually conquered the globe, capitalism is looking for new frontiers. Previously uncolonized aspects of human experience and interaction appear ripe for the taking. First they make it so we have to work all the time to make ends meet. Then they take away community by organizing our lives around cars, malls, and more work, of course, which we have to double up on to be able to afford the cars and the things in the malls. After they induce isolation, they sell us back the stuff that appears to connect us to human experience.

The WhyCry Baby Cry Analyzer wants you to think that unquantifiable (unpurchaseable) attributes such as good parenting, the ability to listen and interpret, and the ability to respond appropriately to your baby are available for a price.

When you’re not monitoring the monitor for changes in your baby’s emotions, you can study the book that accompanies the device called, “Understanding your baby will stimulate development” (www.whycrycanada.com).But if you want to understand your baby, put away the books and the monitors. You might also put away the invasive, self-scrutinizing question of whether you are properly stimulating development. Development is good, of course, but there’s no reason to have it hanging over you like the proverbial carrot that will drive you to try harder to “understand” your baby. There is no external reward for understanding another person — there’s just the understanding itself, always evolving and gaining in richness, and that’s reward enough.

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