A change in our insurance has necessitated a change of pediatrician. One bright morning, when we’re normally screeching too late into the school parking lot, the children and I make our way through the wheelchairs, bureaucrats, and hollow-eyed residents of a major Washington hospital to the quiet, carpeted floor given over entirely to the care and healing of children.
”A wagon!” Paris points out joyfully as we enter the empty waiting room. Phoebe and Violet quickly climb inside the red plastic Radio Flyer, and Paris takes the helm. He pulls and pushes them a small distance, back and forth, back and forth, and they chortle agreeably. Molly curls into a chair and leafs through a nature magazine. Behind the front desk, an impassive young woman looks at a point just past my shoulder and holds out her hand.
“Good morning, I’ve brought you four new patients for Doctor–”
“Oh–right, here you go.”
“Of course.” I hand over the forms. She turns away to process our paperwork. She has not even glanced at the children.
Now I know that the American health-care system is the envy of the civilized world, that it features astonishingly clever machinery, and that even crackpot tinpot dictators fly in to the Mayo Clinic when they get a case of the wobblies. But it is also true that we Americans forego something that the most humble user of such semi-bankrupt socialist organizations as Health Canada and Britain’s National Health Service are able to enjoy. And that is the sense, when the humble user walks into a doctor’s office, that the people working there feel, however grudgingly, that it is their first business to inquire into the reason for the user’s visit, apart from his being able to pay for it.
Stumble into the Royal Free Hospital in London transfixed by advanced labor pains, as I once did, and people rush around trying to find you a bed. Of course, given the semi-bankrupt nature of the NHS, there aren’t enough beds. It takes them ages to find one for you, and probably requires them to boot some misty-eyed primipara in order for you to take her place, and six hours after the baby is born you yourself will be popped into a taxi to make way for subsequent anxious females. But at least no one stands, arms crossed, demanding that you fill out a form before deigning to notice how white your knuckles have gone.
Once we get past Cerberus, things warm up a little. A smiling nurse takes us to a small room and applies methods of weight and measurement to each of the children.
“What’s your name?” she asks Phoebe who, awe-struck, replies, “Two-and-a-half.”
Some time later she fits a blood-pressure cuff on Paris’s arm, presses a button, and steps away as the machine grunts to life. “It sounds like it’s farting,” Paris says loudly, and everyone laughs.
The nurse ushers us to a small examination room, which is bare of amusement apart from dozens of stickers on a filing cabinet, two battered children’s books, and the inevitable stool on wheels. These are desperate moments, as all mothers know. You do not know how long you will be waiting. You know it is your duty to keep everyone quiet and cheerful. You strenuously do not want a scene of juvenile debauchery when the door eventually opens. My usual trick is to hunt through the forbidden drawers until I find a soft plastic examination glove, and inflate it. You can get a good ten minutes of riotous fun out of an inflated glove, though I am never sure if the nurses approve. Today, however, I am saved by a book.
“Please will you read, Mummy?” Phoebe asks, climbing up beside me. Violet tucks in on the other side, and Paris beside her. Molly sits on the stool, twirling pensively.
“Oh, it’s a–well, it’s a book of nursery stories,” I begin, in tones of
disappointment. “Once upon a time… um…Duck Woman baked a gingerbread man,” I read, substituting bland nouns for commercial brand names. In such circumstances I do this for my own amusement, but also to thwart corporate efforts to implant brand loyalty in my children. Pop culture is filth, quoth the great Derbyshire; so is mass-market kiddie culture.
“Duck Woman?” Molly inquires from across the room.
I hold up the slim volume of Disney Nursery Stories, and she laughs out loud.
“‘Mmmm, that smells good,’ said Duck Man–”
“What’s so funny, Mummy?” Violet asks, “Why are you shaking?”
We proceed. Occasionally I have to stop to wipe away tears, and then resume in the gingerbread man’s falsetto, ‘I’ve run away from Duck Woman, and Duck Man, and Funny Looking Dog, and Anthropomorphic Rodent–”
“Stop laughing,” Phoebe says irritably.
“–And I can run away from you, I can, I can!”
“I see him! Duck Man is right there!” Violet interrupts, pointing to the stickers on the filing cabinet. Sure enough, he is, with Funny Looking Dog, Plutocrat Duck, Big Purple Dinosaur, and all the other products of focus groups and corporate artistry and relentless selling to children: SpongeBob, Spiderman, Barney, the Hulk, even an ancient, peeling Pikachu. I have to say, I regard it as a personal triumph that most of our children don’t know most of these characters. One of my friends pokes fun at us for living in “1900 House,” but my feeling is that the longer the children’s minds are uncluttered by pre-fabricated images, the better.
The door opens suddenly, and a white-coated person appears.
“Off the chair!” barks our new pediatrician, by way of introduction.
“Sorry,” says Paris, climbing off the wheeled stool.
“We don’t need any concussions here, thank you very much.”
Molly glances at me with apprehension. There have been incidents when Mummy has not responded politely to such peremptory treatment of her family. I flash her a quick smile.
As the doctor put down her sheaf of dossiers, Molly leans over and breathes, “Here we go again, another person who hates little children.” I silently shake my head No, stand up, and launch a mostly truthful charm offensive: How pleased we are that the doctor could take us, how much we’ve heard about her kindness and skills from our previous pediatrician whom we love but have had to leave for cash-flow purposes, how we are looking forward to a long and happy association, etc, etc.
It works. The hard face softens, the manner eases, and in no time she is calling the children by their names and exhibiting interest in their aches and pains. Then she is called away to inspect a screaming infant, and we are left again to our own diversions. And these, I am sorry to say, degenerate in a swift and predictable manner:
“You like to eat peanuts,” Violet suddenly tells Molly.
“You like to eat wee-nuts,” Paris tells Violet.
“Well, you like to eat poo-nuts,” Violet repostes.
“Glue-nuts,” Phoebe chimes in, “Goo-nuts, woo-nuts!
“You like to eat spider nuts, Paris,” Violet says archly.
He turns on her fiercely. “Don’t say ’spider’ around Mummy,” he hisses.
“It’s OK, darling–”
“She doesn’t like–”
“Wider-nuts, fider-nuts, shyder-nuts.”
The door opens again. It is the kindly nurse: “O.k., everyone, time for your blood tests.”
Some time later, when the children have finished crying, and all their puncture wounds are covered with Bandaids, what do you suppose they’re given as solace? They receive stickers…featuring Anthropomorphic Mouse. Some days it’s harder than usual to be a kiddie counterculturalist.