Monday, October 12, 2009

Babies, Rats & Other of Life’s Great Pleasures

Rats, it would seem, just love the smell of babies.

This is just the type of sound-bite I relish as I take in shows on Animal Planet, NatGeo and the like. This time, it’s Ratzilla, a program about absurdly oversized rats packing up from places they’re typically indigenous and relocating into suburban backyards, basements—and, it would seem—nurseries.

How do you suppose researchers come up with these insights? How can they know a baby smells more appealing than, say, a homeless drifter or a discarded wedge of pizza? Do they lure parents and their young into secret labs with the promise of a box of Pampers, a case of formula and twenty bucks toward the kid’s education? Or do they just stage sit-ins with night-vision goggles and see how things play out?

“Oh dear God, the rats are everywhere! Grab the baby! Get the mother out of here! No…wait…hold on…the big one’s just sniffing him. Awwww….that’s so cute!”

Has anyone ever interviewed a rodent to uncover its likes and dislikes? One scratch means, “Yes, babies are just super!” Two scratches means, “No thanks…I’ll pass.” All this to learn what makes an infant’s bouquet seductive while a toddler’s lacks appeal?

And what good is this information? No parent I know would employ a baby as bait in a rat trap, especially with peanut butter in the kitchen pantry. Fewer still would don a headlamp and go sewer-diving in pursuit of that perfect pet.

“Oooooo…I love the black one! No, not him…yeah, that black one. Toss him in this pillowcase!”

So, instead of having any real value, these scientific tidbits serve simply to make a good night’s sleep, already a rarity, a nearly unattainable ideal. Who, other than me, could catch quality shut-eye while suspecting an animal kingdom is parading through the adjoining room?

The research seems unnecessary. I could have told these curious minds, for free, all I know about babies. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I really read every word, from cover to cover; I didn’t just use it as a coaster. From my own experience, I can share a simple truth: aside from when babies are freshly bathed and powdered, they don’t smell good at all.

I first learned this as a teenager when my aunt asked me to babysit her twin boys while she ran an errand. I accepted, but only after receiving iron-clad assurance diaper-changing would in no way enter the equation. No sooner had the car eased out of the driveway than I was surrounded by a thick haze, the distinctive tang of pure evil. I’d heard twins share a symbiotic relationship, and here was irrefutable evidence: the two had conspired, in unison, to ruin my day.

When I first signed on to become a parent, I acknowledged that, in spite of my profound misgivings, I would share some responsibility for diaper changing. I did this knowing I could drag out my day at the office well into every evening, and that I would never turn down a business trip, especially a weekend excursion to bum-fuck Egypt (or bum-fuck anywhere, for that matter). With any luck, the kids would be toilet-trained and ready to play catch before they even thought of bonding with me.

On those rare occasions where avoidance was impossible, I would first feign surprise.

“Oh…did he? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Brian, the air is thick. Air isn’t supposed to be thick.”


“Oh, what?”

“Nothing. Just oh.”

Often, if I stuck it out, my first wife would throw up her hands, scoop up the baby and leave the room, a trail of threats lingering in her stead. If she held her ground, I’d go on the hunt for a sweatshirt and a pair of rubber gloves. Only when I was fully garbed with the sweatshirt a thick shield before my nose and mouth would I grudgingly plunge forward into this, my greatest nightmare.

My mother saw me equipped this way once. I don’t know if she felt sorry for me or for my son, who was now wailing in terror at the cotton-wrapped monster before him.

“Oh, for God’s sake. Move. Just get out of the way!”

One time, when my then-wife was out for the afternoon, one of my sons toddled into the room with a broad grin on his face.

“I pooped.”

Clearly, he had. He’d not only pooped, but worked said poop into a rudimentary form of camouflage, up his back almost to his neck. In a sick, gagging sort of way, I was impressed. This was clearly a labor of love.

It took all my strength to restrain our golden retriever, Darby, who looked thrilled that dinner had arrived hours ahead of schedule. At that moment I understood the axiom, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Then, sensing the potential for escape, I released her collar. Two minutes and a cascade of giggles later—“Daddy, it tickles!”—my son was remarkably clean. What’s more, I was becoming a fun dad.

A parenting site,, shared results of a recent study that revealed only one in five fathers change diapers. This affirmed my belief that I wasn’t a jerk for those many years—just someone trying to fit in among my peers. Would she have me be a freak? So, I may have sucked as a husband and father but, odds are, my ex would have been lucky to do better.

In truth, though, I was a jerk.

Mothers are presumed to be better equipped for this sort of thing. If you believe the commercials, a diaper change is a tender moment, full of tummy blows, loving smiles and kissed toes. In reality, I doubt a mom is any more enthusiastic about the process than her hubby. But women, bless their souls, will never put their kids in peril, regardless of the sacrifice they’re expected to make.

Still, as these beleaguered moms scrape the taffy-like residue off their forearms, I’m sure some wonder if, with a little prodding and a swipe of Jiffy, giant rats could shed their instincts and learn to love the smell of men.


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