As an author with several mystery series under my belt, I am always curious about how readers perceive not only my stories, but also my characters. In Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy Crisis, career woman Sydney Stansfield Hartman suddenly finds herself saddled with the care and feeding of someone else’s baby, thanks to a series of unexpected events involving her husband, an FBI agent. Poor Syd, used to coming and going at all hours of the day and night, suddenly has to juggle her work as an interior decorator to keep someone else’s child safe from harm. It’s a big adjustment for her. Recently a comment in a review caught me off guard. My reader thought this was ridiculous — any woman should be able to handle an eight-month-old baby. I don’t know about you, but this assumption took me by surprise.
The reader questioned why Syd wouldn’t know how to take care of this tiny stranger…as if every woman somehow instinctively knows how to care for children…as if Syd is being portrayed incorrectly in the struggle to get it right as a foster mom, without any hint of realism provided by me, the author.
I grew up babysitting, starting when I was ten, and later became a “mother’s helper” and a nanny. Once I earned a degree in early childhood education, focusing on child development and psychology, I spent many years working with a wide range of children — some with handicaps, some with behavioral disorders, some with learning disabilities, some with catastrophic illnesses, and sometimes even just ordinary children.
In all those years, I saw many adults floundering as they tried to understand these wondrous little beings. They were in over their heads, at their wits’ end, baffled by the behavior of their offspring and at a loss for what to do. While parents delved into long, involved descriptions of how their normally well-behaved toddler had a complete meltdown in public, I just asked a simple question: “What time of day was it?” An inexperienced parent might inadvertently drag a child out to an event during nap time, but not one who’s “been there and done that”. The mom who’s gone through this scene and wised up knows nap time is sacrosanct. Her child’s body expects him to rest at the same time every day and wants to shut down. If little Nathaniel’s mind is over-stimulated by unexpected activity, it’s going to lead to a major conflict. “Your child is tired and can’t think straight,” is the logical explanation for why the little guy lost it at his brother’s soccer game.
As an adult, you learn over time that you can’t work against a child’s internal clock and expect to succeed — that’s just foolish. We’ve all been to the grocery store and had the experience of walking down aisle after aisle, listening to the wailing and whining of a small child while the parent tries to reason, cajole, threaten, or otherwise command obedience. Good luck with that if it’s mealtime. If adults find it challenging to wander through all that food without giving into the urge to splurge, how do you think impulsive, emotional, unfiltered kids feel, when all they hear is no?If you want cooperation from little Wendy, take her shopping when she’s not hungry and surrounded by all that tempting stuff on the grocery shelves.
That’s why I laughed at the notion that any woman will automatically know how to take care of an eight-month old child. Having been in that position many times over the years with different children, I can assure you there were plenty of times I had no clue what was going through a screaming baby’s brain. Did the diaper need to be changed? Was his little tummy upset? Did his ear ache? Was he teething…coming down with a cold…hungry? Whenever I had a fussy infant on my hands, I automatically went through my checklist, trying to find the right solution to the problem. I didn’t do it by way of instinctual knowledge, but by training. I learned and observed. I gained insight and wisdom. I paid attention to the clues. Having also observed a number of confused parents as they struggled to understand their children, I know that it sometimes takes a detective to follow the clues and find the root cause of a problem.
But where are women supposed to get the insight into a child’s behavior if they, like Syd, aren’t exposed to children? Babysitting isn’t as popular an activity as it was during my teenage years. In this day and age of instant Internet connections, is it too tempting to turn to strangers for advice on raising their kids, shunning the wisdom of women who have real-time experience? Gone are the days when mothers helped daughters learn how to bathe their first infant. Families are now so scattered across the country, the extended family is far removed from the everyday interactions that are so precious in a child’s formative years. Instead, new mothers and fathers often struggle to figure out how babies “work” on their own, missing out on so much family wisdom.
Parental expertise isn’t something we can download on demand, at a moment’s notice. Children don’t come with user manuals, any more than parents come with built-in “wisdom genes”. It takes interactive learning, some good guidance from experienced mentors, and a whole lot of hands-on training to raise a child.
Sadly, what the reader missed about my book was that Syd has the older and wiser Hartman ladies to guide her through the parenting process. Two vivacious and often funny senior citizens, Prudence and Charity, join forces with Faith, the no-nonsense lawyer, to help Syd care for her unexpected little ward, along with the invaluable experience of a man who’s changed many a diaper over the years and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Together, the extended Hartman family gets involved in nurturing a child in need.
We forget sometimes that, in this age of high-speed technology, people are still people. We’re born innocent, and if we’re lucky, we grow in wisdom as we experience life. We need to help each other along the way and share those important life lessons that weave the strength into our society and make us decent human beings.
“Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy” is free at Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, Apple, and other digital retailers. Amazon charges 99 cents, unless you can get them to price match it for you.