Baby Bird

How wrong am I to flip off my sleeping infant? A philosophical inquiry.

The author and her baby.

Photo courtesy of the author

My daughter is 7 months old, and her existence encapsulates every clichéd emotional deluge of the new parent. She’s precious to me beyond any imaginable previous personal attachment. She has deepened and broadened and redefined my life and my humanity. I love her with a manic ferocity. Ad nauseam.

That said, my daughter is a grade-A pain in my ass about going to sleep. (And yes, I’ve tried everything I think is safe to try, armchair pediatricians of the Internet.)

Wittgenstein said that the limits of his language were the limits of his world, but that jerk definitely didn’t have children, because the limits of my world—and my sanity, and my life force, and my will to continue existing—are the limits of my child’s wakefulness. Sometimes, it takes longer to put the little tyrant to sleep than she’ll deign to remain asleep. It is on those days that I celebrate her hard-won unconsciousness by taking a nice little selfie in which she’s conked out, and I’m flipping her the bird. Then I share that selfie on social media, because otherwise it doesn’t exist. We’ve now got quite a little gallery

The author and her baby.

Photo courtesy of the author

Did I mention how much I love my daughter, who is with me 20 hours a day and who co-sleeps with me and who is my whole life?

The reasons I take and post these pictures are varied. I crave emotional release after hours of increasingly desperate nursing, jiggling, rocking, walking, and, my personal favorite, walk-nursing (all wriggling, self-torpedoing 22 pounds of her). I’m also trying to amuse my husband, to diffuse what could otherwise be even more strain on two adults pushed to the boundaries of civility. And, of course, there’s the defiant gesture of Parenting Realness, an offshoot of the Go the Fuck to Sleep genre—that urge to fly in the face of decades of parenting decorum and admit that while we adore our children to smithereens, we’re not going to pretend to love the bare Sisyphean relentlessness that our days and nights have become.

Foisting obscene gestures upon my unconscious baby is also, if you can believe it, a lifestyle choice. It’s a conscious cultivation of my household’s gleeful and expressive cursing culture. I grew up in a relatively pro-swear environment, where my dad once sighed mournfully and said, “Can you please wait until you’re 12 to start saying ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ all the time?” “Damn” and “hell” were fine.

In the Schuman home, excoriations against “bad words” had little to do with those words’ badness and everything to do with other kids’ parents, who probably wouldn’t let them play with us if we talked that way out of the house. In the house was another story. When, for example, my 5-year-old brother arrived home one day and proudly proclaimed that from now on he’d be referring to male and female genitalia as dick and puss, my dad didn’t even try to stifle his laughter. By the time I was in high school and my brother a middle-schooler, all bets were off, and extra conversational points were given to placement of swears within other more innocent words. And I turned out abso-goddamned-lutely great! Or at any rate, I grew into a functioning adult with a continuing reverence for the imaginative epithet. Now I’m eager to pass those values on to the little a-hole in my midst.

Photo courtesy of the author

But is my current use of the one-digit salute warping my offspring’s fragile little mind? She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby. I think I’m in the clear until she’s old enough to watch The Blues Brothers, and when Jake and Elwood curse in front of the nun they call The Penguin, then I’ll know it’s time to break out the middle-finger album and cherish our memories together. Yes, I flip off my kid—but I swear, it’s a gesture of affection.

I have thought this through a lot. Possibly too much. Possibly in a transparent attempt to placate my guilt, because in my heart of hearts I know I shouldn’t be doing it. Louis C.K.’s character knows he shouldn’t flip off his sentient second-grader after she proclaims allegiance to his ex-wife. That’s why he does it behind her back.

So it’s wrong to make an obscene gesture at a sleeping infant. But how wrong? According to my friend Jill Delston—an ethics professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and new parent to a child far better behaved than my own—it depends on whom you ask. “Not all of the great philosophical thinkers of Western civilization have addressed the question of whether it is morally permissible to flip off your sleeping baby,” she says, “so we’ll have to extrapolate.”

According to Immanuel Kant, what I’m doing isn’t necessarily bad for the baby per se, but it might be hardening my heart toward humanity in general. The childless Kant saw a moral slippery slope, for example, in abusing animals. “He did say that it can still be wrong to treat a dog cruelly, not because it harms the dog in any way,” but because it can “damage our own humanity and basically inure ourselves to cruelty generally.”

I don’t do too much better by Aristotle, who would say that humans are “habituating ourselves to the wrong sorts of actions by flipping off our babies,” Delston explains. For a virtue ethicist like him, “moral upbringing is no joke.” And my worst possible showing comes courtesy of “care ethics,” wherein philosopher Nel Noddings argues that ethical caring means “caring … even when we don’t want to,” This, alas, “suggests never falling below perfect, beatific, loving behavior.” However, Delston allows, “the angelic child in her peaceful slumber has no immediate needs you are morally required to respond to.”

The only member of the philosophical canon who’d maybe let me slide is John Stuart Mill. Mill, Delston tells me, “firmly defended the legal permissibility of profanity on the grounds of liberty, arguing that unless your action actually harms someone, no laws should restrain it. Getting your feelings hurt or being offended doesn’t count as harm.” You hear that, baby?!?

Photo courtesy of the author

Mill would conclude that “there are no clear bad consequences or harms from performing this tiny act of rebellion, which no one will know about [except readers of my Twitter feed, my Facebook posts, and my blog], and which sets back no interests.” Delston adds that my little finger-puppet show also apparently qualifies as one of Mill’s “experiments in living,” where only “empirical tests” can determine for sure whether my actions achieve happiness.

For now, I can definitively say that creating my baby bird gallery achieves happiness for me. As long as she keeps refusing to sleep, even (and especially) when she’s mother-flipping exhausted, I will continue expressing, in the best way I know how, my simultaneous victory and frustration when she finally succumbs. It remains to be seen whether my daughter will be too sensitive to take that kind of joke, once she learns what it means. And if she is, I’ll consider the experiment a failure, and I’ll gladly stop doing it. On camera, that is.