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The Depressed Baby

The depressed baby is not actually depressed, but he is a baby. His mom will consider his expressionless little face and it’s true, this baby is not a smiley baby, but the depressed baby’s mom takes this to mean something other than what it is, which is just that this baby’s worldview is maybe a little more advanced than his language. The depressed baby is just not going to smile for no reason. This is his plain face.



The depressed baby’s mom will literally and regularly ask the baby questions like What do you have to be depressed about, baby? or Why so down? and the baby has some questions too, like why does she always bring this up. He’s not lying there moping in his crib. He engages with her and everyone else, as well as with his blocks and the bead thingies and even the stupid mobile, at least when the cat gets in and bats at it. (But here’s a question: do mobile-makers think all babies are exclusively interested in clouds and kittens and ladybugs and terrible plinky music?) In the tub, he splashes, and laughs and laughs when the water goes all over. That’s funny shit! The baby is fine; he’s just a little more serious than the next baby.


Tones and Percentiles

The depressed baby does not understand a fair number of the words said by adults, but his comprehension of tone is in the best percentile. The depressed baby knows about percentiles from his visits to the pediatrician, but he can’t remember whether the good percentile is the lowest number or the highest number; he can only remember the pediatrician’s tone, which he feels has an edge of condescension. The depressed baby wonders why words are even necessary when tone tells him everything he feels he needs to know. His mother has been waiting a long time to hear the baby say mama or dada, mama first she hopes, but she’s going to have to keep waiting. The depressed baby will use words only when he feels it’s critical. There is a range of tone in the baby’s home, for example; he has a toddler sister whose tone is very consistently bright and also always on, unless she is asleep. So sometimes that’s a lot. The mom’s tone is also often bright, but has a cast of artifice. The amalgam of the parents’ tones is on the dull side, hard to parse out, especially when they’re in the next room, not offensive but no lullaby either, with an odd staying power, like a weird chemical aftertaste.



The fact is, though he truly is not depressed, the baby, both outside and at home, has a clear, if baby-level understanding that the world is not a perfect place. He doesn’t look up at birds chirping or flowers blooming and coo at the beauty of it all, though he absolutely sees beauty. He just has a more complex idea of beauty than the next baby.


The Cat and The Dog and The Dad

The depressed baby loves the cat and the dog equally, for different reasons. The dog is old and slow, and the depressed baby weirdly feels a bit of a kinship there, and he likes the texture of his fur, which is pleasantly scratchy on top and smooth on his droopy belly. The depressed baby and the dog can just kind of hang out and vibe. The cat has actually been known to make the depressed baby smile, but no one in the family has ever seen this. But he thinks it’s high comedy when the cat comes into his room during naptime. The cat has this way of sauntering that cats do, where it looks like she’s just walking around and climbing on things, deciding where to settle in for a bit, until you realize she’s looking for the perfect item to bat off a shelf. That time she batted that stupid, google-eyed stuffed giraffe off the dresser made him laugh so hard. Then the dad heard him laughing on the baby monitor and came to pick him up from his nap. I knew you weren’t depressed, he said to the baby, like it was a secret between them.



Both of the depressed baby’s parents as well as his sister read books to him, and he considers himself a big reader, but their choice of books often displeases him. Head, eyes, tummy, knees, got it, snore, plus those dreadful shiny pages, Pthhbbbpt! Is there really a big baby audience for this? Even when they read him books with stories, there are no real arcs, in his opinion, oh no, will the hippo learn to share his watermelon with his new friend? Will the used car with the missing headlight ever get picked from the used car lot? Will the sun get over their rainy mood and come up ever again? Is there no other baby in the world who would love to read about what happens when the sun stops coming up? The baby may not know there are words for this, but he does understand that if the sun didn’t go up and down, the light on things he was interested in looking at would maybe not be as interesting. (What the baby does not understand: photosynthesis, or anything like that. Not really. But if it were part of a sun not coming up book, he would be interested in it for sure.)

The illustrations leave the baby with almost a baby headache, primary colors all the time, nobody giving babies any credit for appreciation of nuance there either. Because the depressed baby is not ready to speak, he has tried different methods to indicate his book preferences, such as throwing a book on the floor or pulling an art book off the coffee table; even just studying the covers of the art books, there are bolder colors on the Basquiat cover, but their composition doesn’t insult his intelligence; it inspires questions, for example, if there was such a thing as a depressed baby, Francesca Woodman might have been the one. He bets she was, at the very least, as misunderstood a baby as he is. Anyway, the point is, those photographs are black and white and if he could, he’d just look at the art books over and over. He’d know everything he needed to know and maybe if they just let him do that instead of snatching the books away or putting them up high just because his fingers don’t work as well as yours, he’d smile for you. But he hasn’t resorted to that yet, because the depressed baby might not be depressed but he is stubborn. Thank god they finally moved past those stupid little square books his sister obviously chewed on when they were hers because she was probably hoping they tasted better than the dreadful content inside.

The baby had some small hope that he would be recognized as pensive rather than depressed when his parents read him a book of baby facial expressions (honestly, again, so basic, sad, angry, happy, the end, though in this six-page book, pensive is arguably a real plot twist). His motor skills failed to land his little fist on the pensive part of the page in such a way as to clearly convey This is me. You’re seeing this as depression but I’m this, but he leaves his hand there long enough that the dad appears to get it. He’s pensive! Yes you are, you’re our little pensive baby! The mom shakes her head, unconvinced. I still think he’s depressed. Nah, the dad says, looking back at the baby. You’re just thinkin’ about stuff, arentcha baby? he says. The baby has never felt so seen. It’s his resting baby face! he says to the mom, cracking himself up.


The Depressed Baby Is in Love

The depressed baby’s sister’s best friend is Riley, who lives next door. Riley is magnificent, with long and messy brown hair. Riley is being raised with they pronouns until they decide otherwise. The depressed baby knows nothing about this. He is aware that he has a physical self, less so about how anyone makes meaning of its individual components. He has heard his mother call Riley she more than once and then correct herself to they as though this is an inconvenience, but how he feels about Riley is entirely unrelated to their unknown components. Again, words aren’t the baby’s top priority, but his love for Riley is about their magical essence, and if he did choose to use words, he would for sure call Riley whatever Riley wanted to be called. The depressed baby is called so many things and no one is asking for his input on that, son, brother, baby, boy, he, it all feels meaningless to him, just a way for them not to say Hey you, though he might prefer Hey you to Depressed.

The depressed baby’s sister loves her brother, but not as much when she wants to play alone with Riley. But Riley loves to pretend the depressed baby is their baby, and the depressed baby, who talks a big game about nuance, cannot tell that how Riley feels about the baby is not the same as how the baby feels about Riley. When Riley calls him Baby, it sounds to him like a song, like a pet name, not like the thing that he is. The depressed baby is in love.


The Pediatrician

The dad and the mom take the baby to the pediatrician however often it is they do, seems like a lot, though the baby doesn’t know if it’s more or less than other baby checkups. (It is.) Because the baby still doesn’t talk, the mom continues to be concerned about his development, though each time, the doctor proclaims him healthy and showing no signs of unusually delayed development. But some babies are taking steps by now, aren’t they? she asks. Sure, the pediatrician says, but there really is a range of ages where this happens. Your baby is fine. He crawls, he sits up, he can see and hear, he stands up, don’t worry. Unknown to everyone involved, in the middle of the night, the baby has stood and taken steps around his crib one or two times just to see how he felt about it before drowsily lying back down. So late, he’d thought, where am I going anyway.


The Sign Language Experiment

Not long after this when he still hasn’t said any words, the mother takes him to a developmental specialist who does further tests and again finds no cognitive differences, assuring the mother that the baby is still well within the range of when babies say their first words. The depressed baby thinks about fucking with the doctor and his mother, maybe pointing to an image of a shoe when asked which one is the banana, that kind of thing, but he does want them to know he is smart, which unfortunately leads to the sign language experiment. It is then that he knows the jig is about to be up, that it would be easier to just start speaking than to learn a whole new language.



His first one, finally, is No, which comes not long after the sign language experiment begins, and is very specifically about continuing the sign language experiment. His mother is relieved, excited actually. No! Yes! Hahahahaha! But as soon as he decides to say it, it’s the only word he says for a while. He knows what it means, and only uses it when he means it, which is often, but you’d be surprised how far No can go when it’s the only word you can say, because think about it. No makes the baby a little drunk with power actually, because he’s able to get almost everything he wants with just this one word. But when he tires of saying no to the same old tired ass books they read to him night after night, he decides to speak his first full sentences. You don’t get it, the baby says. I like art. Just let me see the art. 

Oh! Oh! the mom says. Her idea is to get the baby some baby-level art books, but the dad knows what the baby means. The mom and the dad quietly mumble some sounds to each other as though the baby isn’t right there. He doesn’t know what’s being said but their buzzy tone indicates that even though he’s finally asked directly for his needs to be met, it still may not happen. And sure enough, the mom brings home some art books for babies which are still super basic, so the dad secretly shows the baby the grown up art books once or twice. Some of the text is dense and doesn’t even make sense to the dad. The depressed baby doesn’t care that much about the words though; that’s just a way for them to stay on the pages longer, to hang with his dad longer. The baby is for sure going to be an artist when he grows up.


The Dad and the New Dad

One day the dad is not there, and the next day there is some new guy.

It may be the case that it’s not quite this speedy, as the baby’s sense of time is not as good as his sense of tone. The baby did notice as the dull tone of his parents became silence, and that he saw the dad less often, and then never. He wishes he had said Dada sooner maybe, to try to get some intel on that. New Dada is the entirety of the story he is given. He’s thinking about throwing some new words out there soon though, because he wonders.


Riley Again

Today is one the best days of the depressed baby’s life so far, because Riley shows him a Vivian Maier book while he sits in their lap. Riley tells the baby that this book is from the depression era because they just learned about it from watching Paper Moon and now they think anything in black and white is depression era. Riley doesn’t read the words because they can’t read either, but they’ll try to describe what they see in the images, or make up a little story about it.

This little girl is dirty today because she got in a fight with a bad kid from down the street, but she stopped when he gave her this watch. Also this little girl is prolly a they but back in these times you could only be a she or a he, but this kid would throw themself on the floor when you tried to put them in any kind of dress, which is why they’re wearing this t-shirt. This poodle is waiting for someone to help him make a phone call. This is what phones used to look like in old times, baby, you had to go all the way out to the street to call someone. This poodle hasn’t talked to his brother for a really long time. But no one will help him because he’s a poodle. 

Relatable, thinks the baby.



The baby decides today is the day. I know you’re not my real dad, he says to the new dad. Where is my old dad, the baby asks him.

Gloria! the new dad calls into the next room, handing off the baby when the mother comes in. He knows, the new dad says.

It’s lunchtime, the baby’s mom says. We’ll talk about this later.

Later comes and goes.


A Bad Day

It starts out great, Riley reading the baby a Saul Leiter book, but then they take the opportunity to break some news by pointing to a blurry street scene. We’re moving to here, Riley says. This place is called New York. Much like his concept of time, his concept of distance is about as blurry as the photo, so for all he knows, New York is only a few blocks away. But then Riley tells the baby that they’ll miss him. Had Riley not made any comment on the photo, the baby might have lingered on his appreciation of the colors, the composition, the mood, but New York and miss you fuck his shit up, even though he still doesn’t know what miss means. The tone of this miss is giving off a new kind of bad vibe. The baby is still not depressed, but he is heartbroken and sad.

Up to now he’s been mostly a What baby but he’s going to be a Why baby real soon, wistfully looking back on those simpler What days.


The Sister Is No Help

Where’s dad? His sister hasn’t been given much more information about it either, although the mom has adjusted her level of non-information to be age-appropriate for a first-grader.

Mommy told me he’s in a better place now but she was trying not to cry so I dunno how much better it could be. You’ll understand when you grow up” was what I was told, the least true words said by parents across time and around the world. She said she’d tell me more when I’m bigger so I’ll tell you as soon as I know.

Do you think dad moved away to New York with Riley?

No, they would have said.

What the baby doesn’t have words for even in his own head: How could it be better without us?



That bigger thing floats around the baby’s brain for a while. He knows what miss means now. He misses Riley, he misses his dad, and he really wants to get a grip on this better place thing. Going by the big people he knows, nothing seems better for having the extra mass. He wonders if staying small is an option.


Baby Asks New Dada About Old Dada Again 

It’s not my place to say, baby. 

Take me to your place to say, the baby answers, and tell me there.

Elizabeth Crane is the author of two novels and four books of short stories, most recently the novel "The History of Great Things" (HarperPerennial) and the collection "Turf" (Soft Skull). Her debut novel, "We Only Know So Much" (HarperPerennial), has been adapted for film. She teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at UC Riverside Palm Desert. Her debut memoir, "This Story Will Change," is out now from Counterpoint Press.

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