When Did Infants and Pets Become Cocktail Party Accoutrements?

Thanksgiving dinners almost always inspire conversation, so when the subject at the table this year turned to life in America, every cranberry-filled guest had an opinion. My host for the evening was an event planner for a major company in Philadelphia’s Center City. Rita’s dinners (and parties) are legendary, partially because she’s involved with setting up receptions for hundreds of people.

A subject that I brought up for discussion before dessert had to do with the current fashion of couples bringing their young babies to adult functions like dinners and cocktail parties. While I love a cute smiling baby as much as anyone else, I don’t think that infants in swaddling clothes belong next to corporate buffet tables filled with sushi and gourmet cheeses. For starters, some of the babies I’ve seen at these functions are newborns. Infants are small, fragile, vulnerable human beings who need to be watched and protected. They need to be protected not only from germs but from raucous adult partygoers who may, on occasion, have too much to drink besides not looking where they are walking. Adult cocktail holiday parties can also be quite loud, which is hardly a soothing audio backdrop for small babies.

While attending a large architectural firm’s Center City party recently, I noticed a small child being taken out of a stroller and placed on the floor of the reception room while party goers circled the stroller with drinks, plates of crab, blue cheese, and slices of roast pig. Not only was the stroller blocking much-needed room in that confined space, but the daddy of the baby insisted on giving his child walking lessons in the middle of the floor, making it necessary for guests to take wide-angled detours around them in order to avoid a collision.

Daddy was all smiles and not the least embarrassed about this very public display, but in fact seemed to take delight in the fact that this was his opportunity to shine and show off his baby. He’d even look up at the people taking wide-angled detours around his walking lessons to see if anyone was eyeing them in an admiring way. He reminded me of a fisherman waiting for a bite, only in this case he was fishing for compliments. While a few party goers did stop and say “Oh, what a cute little baby!”, most looked the other way and ignored the show, as if they were thinking: “Couldn’t you have gotten a babysitter?”

It wasn’t all that long ago when sensible couples would no sooner take their infant or child to an adult party then they’d arrive at parties naked. The operative word then was “babysitter.” Couples who couldn’t afford babysitters just didn’t go out on the town. But somehow, over time the social rules changed. Babies have become something like a possession to show off, like a tweed coat from Neiman Marcus, or a diamond from Tiffany’s.

At another Center City reception — again this was a party in which adults mingled while consuming food and alcohol — I noticed a toddler running around and scampering under serving tables while helping himself to various bits of food (with his fingers). Since no parent was in sight, I assumed he was a lost child, or perhaps a ghost from that “I see dead people” movie, but that was not the case. Eventually I spotted his adoring mother watching him grab fistfuls of this and that while squeezing in between adult legs like a rabid shopper on Black Friday. At one point his mother patted him on the head, then steered him in the direction of the dessert table where he proceeded to decimate a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

One has to wonder if the mother in question imagined the party goers thinking, “Oh my — look at that beautiful wild child, he’s such a curious little devil!” Again, we have to ask: Whatever happened to the concept of a babysitter?

In many ways, the current fashion of bringing babies to inappropriate adult events has its counterpart in the pet world. I’m thinking of pet owners who bring large dogs with them when they go out to dinner at one of the city’s outdoor restaurants. Some of these lounging dogs take up half the sidewalk while snacking from small bowls placed under the tables of their owners. Sometimes these dining-out-for-barks dogs take up more than half the sidewalk, forcing passersby to make even wider detours.

The bring-your-pet-to-dinner craze started, I believe, when notable Hollywood starlets, mainly blonde bombshells, started bringing their poodles to fancy French restaurants. Pictures of these stars and their pink poodles filled the covers of celebrity magazines.

The world of pet ownership has changed drastically in the last twenty years. I got a sense of this when I recently watched Sunday Bloody Sunday, an old film by John Schlesinger (starring Murray Head and Glenda Jackson), which I first saw in the ‘70s. The London-based story, which is about a three-way love affair, shows the death of the family dog when the dog is hit by a car while running across the street. The reaction of the characters at the death stunned me. They frown, look a little distraught, but within seconds they recompose themselves and talk about “getting another one,” as if they were talking about replacement ping-pong balls. In today’s more pet-emphatic environment, there would be considerable grief at the death, possibly even a far-flung reaction that would have the mourning equal to that of a dead child.

As a toddler, I remember the supreme delight I’d experience crawling under the dining room table at home during massive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It was in that strange under-table world (with the family dog as my companion), where I’d inspect the variety of adult shoes, especially the strange footwear of venerable old aunts in thick stockings. It was as secure a place as any to hide. It felt safe, even if the unconventional views of trouser cuffs and the hems of dresses meant that I’d receive a parental order to come out of there immediately.

Enough is enough, after all. A wild child may be cute, but only in a very limited way.