Why adult women are acting like infants


Why adult women are acting like infants

An epidemic of big babies

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  April 25th, 2016

If you act like a child, you’ll be treated like one,” my mother, an agrarian woman with very little tolerance for “delicate darlings”, would admonish my brother and me while we were growing up. There was an appropriate amount of time for which you could feel helpless or vulnerable in our household, after which you had to find a solution or shut up. A quietly-desperate-lives style of thing. I sometimes think it’s why whining became both recreational and a form of intimacy for me as an adult. Being allowed to blubber with tears, drown in self-pity, and get my face cradled — usually by the men I dated, and now by my husband — feels like release, like rest, to gather strength before the uphill work of fixing the problem. It feels good. So good, I’ve recently become concerned that I’ve developed an addiction to being “mollycoddled” (as my family would say, with distaste). I don’t even need devastation anymore; I’ll take cosseting when I’m happy, hungry, tired, cold, any way I can get it — and with increasingly infantile ardour. I automatically lapse into impish, gibberish-y and plaintive inflections unless I’m expressly required to stay adult. Somewhere along the way, my mother’s warning had turned into a wonderful promise. 

I have to admit I started to recognise this pattern of mine only because of the discomfiting frequency with which I was encountering it in other women. It wasn’t restricted to just romantic or very close relationships either — I saw it because it was in plain view at work, at yoga class. I heard it at the next table at restaurants. Serious, highly competent women professionals, lisping and adorably mispronouncing words, affecting poor motor skills and guilelessness; skipping, for no good reason. It was also determinedly unsexy — no simpering coquetry — and therefore didn’t need the presence of men to manifest at all. Exactly why were we being such big babies all of a sudden? I could think of a few reasons:

IT’S COOL

We’re getting no incentives from pop culture to maintain the whole grown-up shtick anymore. For Fall 2016, Dolce & Gabbana taught us how to ‘Disneybound’, i.e. dress like fairy princesses, without outright costuming; and we’ve seen the unmitigated rise of nail art (imbecilic pom-pommed cuticles are a real and present danger). Snapchat’s enormously popular animated selfie filters are the digital equivalent of year-round fancy dress, adult colouring books help us soothe the stress of being alive, and we can process horrific atrocities in other parts of the world provided Wait But Why breaks it down for us via stick-figure comics. 

A cursory glance at fiction and media tells us our heroines (Mindy Lahiri, Greta Gerwig’s entire filmography, Imtiaz Ali’s leading ladies, Hannah Horvath, especially through Season 5) have also hotfooted it back to adolescence. They’re fey child-women in smocks and sneakers, with cute stoops and bad impulse control. They can hold forth on the evils of net neutrality and their candidiasis diagnosis, but having to order a meal over the phone can undo them completely. These girls are totally over the male gaze and romance for them is but one little compartment in their formidable chest of anxieties (of which having to become a responsible adult one day is the heavy bottom drawer). 

In a cultural climate of such juvenile proportions, acting like an infant doesn’t even ring ridiculous. If anything, insisting on age-appropriateness is an effective way to feel like an old maid.    

IT’S EASY… EASIER

There are several pop-to-clinical psychology hypotheses for why an adult might feel compelled to emulate a child. These run the gamut from Dependent Personality Disorder to the recession to this decade’s favourite, the Peter Pan Syndrome; op-ed after op-ed returns to American psychologist Dan Riley’s 1983 theory of the adult (male, originally) who refuses to grow up, as a netting term for everything that is wrong with the millennial. The bottomline, however, is nearly the same for all — a need to feel protected against the wreckage of adulthood, with its bewildering paperwork and bad smells and trenchant bigotry. 

For women, there is an even more complex reality to contend with: our generation is finally availing of many of the rights our foremothers fought for. We’re free to be married without children, to be mothers without marriage; and free to eschew both for the jobs we love. And with great freedom comes great neck ache; just thumbing through all the options and their T&Cs is exhausting. We wouldn’t want it any other way (I have to believe), but maybe babyfying ourselves is a coping mechanism, a temporary reprieve from having to be emancipated, independent women. If someone can just be in charge of our vitamin intake, file our returns and offer back rubs apropos of nothing, that would greatly lighten the load. 

IT’S POWER

What if somebody told you there was an easy way to get around the many awkwardnesses of life, like asking for money you lent, ditching plans last minute or just being honest about a bad haircut?

A senior editor at my first internship was well known for her leadership style of publicly savaging anybody who didn’t fall in line, and then ingratiating herself to the humiliated with excessive coyness. So one minute, she was loudly chewing you out for a missed deadline or an error in your pages with incredibly personal digs, and the next, she was taking tiny bites of your lunch or sweetly hmphfing at your boy trouble. Nobody could stay mad at her for long and in her presence, the other women on the team would feel free to let loose their own inner three-year-old. Nice, huh?

Nobody can resist babies (and baby animals). You want to protect them, entertain them and yield to their needs and wants in spite of yourself. Also, there’s hardly anything a child could do that would offend an adult even while we know that children, with their innocence and their unabridged honesty, can be brutal.

Adults who appropriate babyhood might be disconcerting but often end up provoking that same parental instinct in the on-schedule adults around them. It’s also an improvement on the old Lolita formula, that while successful with men, usually turns off other women completely; this is manipulation the whole family can enjoy. Many are the makeshift parents who’ve interrupted perfectly inert weekend plans so a whimpering, limpid-eyed friend wouldn’t be alone at a party she would just die if she didn’t attend. Sending them a flabbergasted emoticon when they have a real crisis is how she returns the favour. 

It’s like the comedian Louis CK says about the time his little girl discovered lying, “That’s a tough one to roll back, because lying is an amazingly useful thing. How do you tell her don’t ever use that perfect solution to terrifying things again?” Being an adult baby is a great displacement activity in lieu of learning to deal with the fear, instability, disappointments and decision-making that come with being a grown-up — or cultivating the empathy, compassion and generosity it takes to stay one. It pays rich social dividends, while true adulthood has almost no attractive offers. Why grow up at all, then? Because it’s the one thing all authentic babies do.  

If you act like a child, you’ll be treated like one,” my mother, an agrarian woman with very little tolerance for “delicate darlings”, would admonish my brother and me while we were growing up. There was an appropriate amount of time for which you could feel helpless or vulnerable in our household, after which you had to find a solution or shut up. A quietly-desperate-lives style of thing. I sometimes think it’s why whining became both recreational and a form of intimacy for me as an adult. Being allowed to blubber with tears, drown in self-pity, and get my face cradled — usually by the men I dated, and now by my husband — feels like release, like rest, to gather strength before the uphill work of fixing the problem. It feels good. So good, I’ve recently become concerned that I’ve developed an addiction to being “mollycoddled” (as my family would say, with distaste). I don’t even need devastation anymore; I’ll take cosseting when I’m happy, hungry, tired, cold, any way I can get it — and with increasingly infantile ardour. I automatically lapse into impish, gibberish-y and plaintive inflections unless I’m expressly required to stay adult. Somewhere along the way, my mother’s warning had turned into a wonderful promise. 

I have to admit I started to recognise this pattern of mine only because of the discomfiting frequency with which I was encountering it in other women. It wasn’t restricted to just romantic or very close relationships either — I saw it because it was in plain view at work, at yoga class. I heard it at the next table at restaurants. Serious, highly competent women professionals, lisping and adorably mispronouncing words, affecting poor motor skills and guilelessness; skipping, for no good reason. It was also determinedly unsexy — no simpering coquetry — and therefore didn’t need the presence of men to manifest at all. Exactly why were we being such big babies all of a sudden? I could think of a few reasons:

IT’S COOL

We’re getting no incentives from pop culture to maintain the whole grown-up shtick anymore. For Fall 2016, Dolce & Gabbana taught us how to ‘Disneybound’, i.e. dress like fairy princesses, without outright costuming; and we’ve seen the unmitigated rise of nail art (imbecilic pom-pommed cuticles are a real and present danger). Snapchat’s enormously popular animated selfie filters are the digital equivalent of year-round fancy dress, adult colouring books help us soothe the stress of being alive, and we can process horrific atrocities in other parts of the world provided Wait But Why breaks it down for us via stick-figure comics. 

A cursory glance at fiction and media tells us our heroines (Mindy Lahiri, Greta Gerwig’s entire filmography, Imtiaz Ali’s leading ladies, Hannah Horvath, especially through Season 5) have also hotfooted it back to adolescence. They’re fey child-women in smocks and sneakers, with cute stoops and bad impulse control. They can hold forth on the evils of net neutrality and their candidiasis diagnosis, but having to order a meal over the phone can undo them completely. These girls are totally over the male gaze and romance for them is but one little compartment in their formidable chest of anxieties (of which having to become a responsible adult one day is the heavy bottom drawer). 

In a cultural climate of such juvenile proportions, acting like an infant doesn’t even ring ridiculous. If anything, insisting on age-appropriateness is an effective way to feel like an old maid.    

IT’S EASY… EASIER

There are several pop-to-clinical psychology hypotheses for why an adult might feel compelled to emulate a child. These run the gamut from Dependent Personality Disorder to the recession to this decade’s favourite, the Peter Pan Syndrome; op-ed after op-ed returns to American psychologist Dan Riley’s 1983 theory of the adult (male, originally) who refuses to grow up, as a netting term for everything that is wrong with the millennial. The bottomline, however, is nearly the same for all — a need to feel protected against the wreckage of adulthood, with its bewildering paperwork and bad smells and trenchant bigotry. 

For women, there is an even more complex reality to contend with: our generation is finally availing of many of the rights our foremothers fought for. We’re free to be married without children, to be mothers without marriage; and free to eschew both for the jobs we love. And with great freedom comes great neck ache; just thumbing through all the options and their T&Cs is exhausting. We wouldn’t want it any other way (I have to believe), but maybe babyfying ourselves is a coping mechanism, a temporary reprieve from having to be emancipated, independent women. If someone can just be in charge of our vitamin intake, file our returns and offer back rubs apropos of nothing, that would greatly lighten the load. 

IT’S POWER

What if somebody told you there was an easy way to get around the many awkwardnesses of life, like asking for money you lent, ditching plans last minute or just being honest about a bad haircut?

A senior editor at my first internship was well known for her leadership style of publicly savaging anybody who didn’t fall in line, and then ingratiating herself to the humiliated with excessive coyness. So one minute, she was loudly chewing you out for a missed deadline or an error in your pages with incredibly personal digs, and the next, she was taking tiny bites of your lunch or sweetly hmphfing at your boy trouble. Nobody could stay mad at her for long and in her presence, the other women on the team would feel free to let loose their own inner three-year-old. Nice, huh?

Nobody can resist babies (and baby animals). You want to protect them, entertain them and yield to their needs and wants in spite of yourself. Also, there’s hardly anything a child could do that would offend an adult even while we know that children, with their innocence and their unabridged honesty, can be brutal.

Adults who appropriate babyhood might be disconcerting but often end up provoking that same parental instinct in the on-schedule adults around them. It’s also an improvement on the old Lolita formula, that while successful with men, usually turns off other women completely; this is manipulation the whole family can enjoy. Many are the makeshift parents who’ve interrupted perfectly inert weekend plans so a whimpering, limpid-eyed friend wouldn’t be alone at a party she would just die if she didn’t attend. Sending them a flabbergasted emoticon when they have a real crisis is how she returns the favour. 

It’s like the comedian Louis CK says about the time his little girl discovered lying, “That’s a tough one to roll back, because lying is an amazingly useful thing. How do you tell her don’t ever use that perfect solution to terrifying things again?” Being an adult baby is a great displacement activity in lieu of learning to deal with the fear, instability, disappointments and decision-making that come with being a grown-up — or cultivating the empathy, compassion and generosity it takes to stay one. It pays rich social dividends, while true adulthood has almost no attractive offers. Why grow up at all, then? Because it’s the one thing all authentic babies do.