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A Farewell to Binkies

Somewhere among the shoelaces and bandannas in my bottom bureau drawer, there lies a curious conglomeration of cotton, plastic, and rubber. It looks like a baby's sock, but the ankle end is adorned by two thin strips of Velcro, while the toe is studded with a concave plastic disc from whose center protrudes a small rubber bulb. A Muppet that never made it to Sesame Street? A miniature war club as rendered by a 1960s Pop artist?

It is, in fact, a pacifier mitten, the only one of its kind known to exist in the world. My wife, Anne, invented it, in circumstances proving the old saw about necessity being the mother of invention  -- necessity in this case defined as the need to breastfeed not more than 24 hours a day. In the vast scheme of things, the invention of the pacifier mitten might not rank up there with that of the printing press or the yo-yo, but it was, I dare say, the technological breakthrough that enabled us to survive our first year as parents.

I got out the pacifier mitten this morning. The sock, once white, is gray and furred with age, and the rubber bulb is brittle with cracks. A few strands of hair are wound tightly around the base of the nipple. It hasn't been used in many years. My 9-year-old daughter's nighttime ritual now consists of playing Britney Spears on her tape player until she falls asleep. While no less addicted to pacifiers, our 4-year-old son, Henry, never took to the mitten. But though we have long since thrown out or given away favorite dresses, old teddy bears, and other items redolent of our childrens' early years, we have hung on to this ratty little article. It may be time to let go. By mutual agreement (between his dentist and his parents), Henry is about to give up his pacifier. The prospect fills me with terror and nostalgia. From now on, ours will be a pacifier-free household, bringing an end to a relationship that, like many of life's most cherished bonds, began in profound antipathy.

George Howe Colt is a former staff writer at Life magazine.

War and Pacifiers

In the greatest  -- and perhaps only  -- pacifier scene in American literature, a young mother in Mary McCarthy's The Group comes across a friend's pacifier-sucking baby in Central Park. "Priss tried to avert her eyes from the spectacle," wrote McCarthy. "For a child to find heaven in a dummy breast was the worst thing she could think of  -- worse than self-abuse. She felt there ought to be a law against the manufacture of such devices." Before Susannah's birth, our attitude was only slightly less censorious. Strolling the streets of Manhattan, intoxicated by imminent parenthood, my wife and I mentally tsk-tsk'd at the ubiquity of rubber-stoppered children: newborns whose pacifiers stretched from ear to ear; toddlers tethered to their pacifiers, as surely as Edwardian gentlemen to their pocket watches, by ribbons pinned to their shirts; 4-year-olds who talked through their pacifiers as matter-of-factly as Edward G. Robinson gabbed through his cigars. Pacifiers, Anne and I agreed, were an impediment to language acquisition, an aesthetic outrage, and a tacit admission of parental failure. A week before the due date, when my sister-in-law sent us a pacifier as part of a newborn-baby care package, we buried it in the back of our closet as if it were a particularly embarrassing sex toy. Pacifiers might be okay for other babies, but our bundle of perfection would be so plied with attention and creativity she'd never need one.

And then Susannah was born.

One evening six weeks later, after crooning 15 lullabies, reciting 23 nursery rhymes, and performing the entire score of Oklahoma and the less difficult parts of A Little Night Music, I snapped. As she had each night since birth, Susannah had exhausted my imagination, Anne's breasts, and all four parental pinky fingers  -- and was still wailing. "I'm getting the pacifier," I yelled. With Susannah's screams and Anne's half-hearted protests ringing in my ears, I rummaged frantically through the closet. Had we  -- God forbid  -- thrown it out? But there it was, looking as pristine and desirable as an orchid in its plastic case. I smashed open the box and held up the pacifier. WHOOSH! The nipple disappeared into Susannah's mouth. During the next hour  -- blissfully silent save for the faint slosh of rubber on gum  -- Anne and I underwent a condensed version of Kubler-Ross's classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. (We added a lengthy stage of rationalization: Spock and Leach say it's okay, it'll be easier to get rid of than her thumb, she clearly likes it, we'll go insane if we don't, etc.). And then Susannah fell asleep. Anne and I looked at each other. We had crossed the Rubicon. Or had we met our Waterloo?

Rubber Soul

Over the next few months, we gradually learned the ins and outs of pacifier protocol. We learned their names, which are legion: plugs, binkies, dummies, geekies, soothies, fi-fis, nin-nins, noo-noos, nook-nooks, cee-cees. (Not wanting to hide behind euphemism, Anne and I called them pacifiers, eventually shortening this to "pacis," which seemed to have an affectionate, informal ring, a certain Gallic insouciance.) We learned how easily they disappear, and tried never to let our stock dwindle to fewer than three. We learned how to pendulum our arms across the bedsheets to retrieve a missing pacifier in the middle of the night (a "paci-sweep"). We inadvertently chanced the thrill of going out for the day without pacifiers, an experience we referred to as "working without a net." We learned what to do when a pacifier falls on the floor: In the first month, you boil it before giving it back to the child; in the second month, you rinse it off and put it back in her mouth; in the third you just wipe it on your pants and fork it over.

Sad to say, we even experienced the ugly spectre of anti-pacifier prejudice  -- the kind we had been guilty of a few months before  -- when an elderly woman stopped to coo over Susannah. "Oh, she's so cute. If only I could see her face," she said, reaching into the stroller and pulling out Susannah's pacifier, whereupon that cute face erupted into an ugly mask of tears.

Still Life with Paci

To be honest, there were limits to our acceptance. I want to make it clear  -- and I'm not being defensive, I'm really not  -- that we permitted pacifiers only at nighttime, on long car trips, or in emergencies such as Saturday mornings when Sesame Street was replaced by Washington Week in Review. (Although our first babysitter insisted she never gave our daughter a pacifier, Susannah invariably returned from the park with a mysterious pacifier-shaped imprint around her mouth.) We never bought pacis decorated with pictures of Daffy Duck, Bart Simpson, or New Age moons. We steered clear of pacifiers with rings attached, which make babies look as if they're about to paw the ground and snort like a Brahma bull. And we managed to resist buying the silver-plated zebra pacifier holder, the pacifier in the shape of bee-stung lips, and the pacifier on whose clip were inscribed the words "Plug me in and enjoy the silence." We felt lucky that Susannah's pacifier of choice was a plain oval model, although I believe my design-savvy wife would have been even happier with something handmade by Shaker craftsmen out of burled rosewood. (Susannah, however, would never have accepted it; whenever we ran out of her usual brand and tried to substitute another pacifier  -- which to our eyes looked exactly the same  -- she'd give it a quick taste, and then calmly eject it, like a connoisseur recognizing and rejecting an inferior wine.) Indeed, we would have preferred that our daughter be able to survive without one at all, but in time, we developed the capacity to see past it, like the quick-sketch artists in Central Park who diplomatically omit the pacifier as they draw the tourist baby's portrait.

Perhaps that is why I didn't realize the extent of Susannah's  -- and our  -- addiction until the evening I left a pot of pacifiers boiling on the stove, went into my study, and forgot about them until four axe-brandishing firemen showed up at our door. (The smoke had seeped into the apartment of a neighbor who called 911.) Although I told the chief everything was under control, he insisted on verifying the source of the smoke. Mortified, I led him to the stove, where the pacifiers had melted to a black ooze resembling the remains of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. He asked what I had been cooking. "I've been sterilizing pacifiers," I said meekly. I expected guffaws, but the chief, a silver-haired, iron-jawed gentleman, was philosophical. "Oh, we've seen fires start from a lot stranger things than that," he assured me. (At that moment I realized that 3-year-old boys had it right: There was no more noble calling than that of fireman.) And yet even as I ushered the firemen out the door, my concern was not so much that I had nearly burned down our apartment building  -- in what my family remembers as "The Eight Paci-Fire"  -- but that I had cremated our entire stock of pacifiers and the store that carried Susannah's brand had long since closed for the night. (My wife, with her zest for research, got on the phone and finally tracked down a supplier miles uptown.)

Keeping Susannah's paci within reach had been a simple matter when she was in bed with us, but when we moved her into her own room, we had to get up five or six times a night. A friend suggested filling her crib with so many pacifiers that she couldn't move without finding one  -- he supplied his daughter with at least a dozen. So for a few nights we dropped handfuls of pacis into Susannah's crib  -- a ritual that never failed to remind me of zookeepers tossing meat into a lion's cage  -- but she invariably rolled over on one and woke up crying. Another friend recommended glow-in-the-dark pacifiers, which made the crib look as if it were blooming with radioactive mushrooms. But they slipped down the sides of the mattress or beneath the crib's bumper, and Susannah's plaintive cry once more haunted our slumber.

My Pacifier, My Self

How to keep the pacifier always at hand? Anne's solution was disarmingly simple: Make the pacifier part of her hand. Had sleep deprivation sent my wife off the deep end? That night, Anne placed a pacifier in our sleeping daughter's fist and studied the angle of her hand as she instinctively thrust it into her mouth. Then she sewed a spare pacifier onto one of Susannah's socks, whipstitching the thread through the ventilation holes in the plastic. As with the invention of the lightbulb, there were many false starts before the Paci Mitten was perfected. Like inventors from Da Vinci to the Wright Brothers, Anne had to grapple with a multitude of difficult design questions: Should the pacifier be worn on the palm side or the knuckle side? How high or low should it be? Night after night, Anne stayed up sewing, taking her place alongside Betsy Ross in the pantheon of heroic seamstresses. In early prototypes, the angle of the pacifier was not quite right, and our sleeping daughter invariably attempted to insert it into her cheek. And even when Anne got the angle perfect, the sock kept slipping off Susannah's pudgy hand. So Anne went back to the drawing board and devised the Velcro wristband. That night Susannah finally slept, as the oxymoron goes, like a baby  -- albeit a baby chewing on a grotesque cotton excrescence on her arm. (Although Anne's mothers' group hailed her as a genius and suggested she patent the Paci Mitt and make her fortune, we noticed that not a single member ever asked for the pattern.)

Susannah eventually outgrew the Paci Mitt and was able to track down loose pacifiers on her own. Our fears that she'd walk around for the rest of her life with her hand at her mouth in a kind of poorly aimed, permanent salute proved groundless. When Henry came along, he disdained the Paci Mitt  -- my wife and I were, I confess, disappointed  -- but he was no less devoted to pacifiers than his sister had been. As with Susannah, I came to marvel at his paci-dexterity, how even when it was not in his mouth, he'd manipulate it in his hand, as a pitcher massages a baseball while sitting on the bench. His relationship with it was instinctive; in sleep, he'd sweep his hand across the bed to corral a pacifier, and, finding it, he'd rotate it in his fingers until the rubber bulb was aimed directly at his mouth. Henry even employed pacifiers as a comic prop; one night he came out of his room, laughing and sucking on two simultaneously. (I half-expected him to pass one to Anne, like Paul Henreid in Casablanca.) I occasionally found myself studying Henry's paci, marvelling at its design, as streamlined and efficient as a Bauhaus chair, as smooth and satisfying as a sculpture by Henry Moore. What other man-made object looks so simple yet is capable of delivering such instantaneous comfort? Why don't adults have an object that can reverse a foul mood so quickly and so easily? Watching Henry with his pacifier, I felt the envy I sometimes feel for people who are deeply religious. (The pacifier was Henry's higher power.) At bedtime, as I handed Henry his paci, it sometimes seemed that all across the city, like the cells of a harmless but fervent cult, there were thousands of apartments in which small children were settling down to their nightly worship of these tiny, plastic-and-silicone gods.

Alas, to every thing there is a season. And the time to cast away pacifiers, Henry's dentist informed us, had arrived. Despite our brave talk about pacifiers being easier to give up than thumbs, Anne and I knew that withdrawal can be a nightmare. It's not so easy for the child, either. I recall reading some time ago about a European country in which parents have designated a large tree in the capital city to be "the pacifier tree"; once a year, children would travel from all over the country to hang outgrown pacifiers on its branches. We didn't have enough frequent flyer miles to travel to Europe, however. So, like many of our friends, we resorted to a more American strategy: bribery. In return for a huge plastic pirate ship, Henry agreed to relinquish his pacifiers.

On the appointed evening, Henry bravely went to bed sans pacifier. We didn't hear from him once that night. I hardly slept, of course, because I had to go in every few minutes to check on him. As he slept, Henry occasionally pursed his mouth like a fish, sensing the missing pacifier as an amputee still feels the missing leg. Sometimes he swung his arm across the bed, in a vain search for the pacifiers he dreamt might still be there.