A fresh baby? In this economy?

The Baldwins remind us how little we understand the inner workings of other families.

In its infinite generative power, Twitter churned up an oddly enchanting term this week: the fresh baby. What is a fresh baby, you may ask? Well, a fresh baby is the baby you get when you already have a newish baby, say less than six months old, and then all of a sudden you show up with another baby, a fresh baby. (Is the other baby now a stale baby?) “Irish twins” are a familiar phenomenon, as is what was once known as the “sooner child,” a baby who appears less than nine months after marriage. But what appear to be full-term babies about 2/3 of a gestation cycle apart are a more unusual phenomenon—one that, it seemed, could only have been invented by Hilaria.

Hilaria Baldwin’s is a celebrity story that transcended my general indifference to celebrity stories at the end of last year to awake what were actually fond feelings. Mere days after I predicted on a podcast that after the stomach-churning ride of the Trump years we would all seek relief in triviality, the lame-duck internet of December lit up with the revelation that Alec Baldwin’s beautiful Spanish yoga-instructor wife Hilaria, with him the parent of five young children, was actually a woman named Hillary from Massachusetts.

What American affects Spanishness? It is such a strangely innocuous thing to do, with none of the sting of Rachel Dolezal affecting being black—it’s more like posing as a Rockefeller, or the Cockney “modiste” on Bridgerton pretending to be a French couturier. Hillary Hayward-Thomas, like me a prep school girl from Boston whom I might well have played in soccer if I were a few years younger, had the imagination I lacked. She pressed the upgrade button, and a lifestyle brand was born, complete with cooking segments and aspirational lingerie selfies. Was her faux-Spanishness a con? Maybe. But it was one I didn’t mind—amid the death and genuine corruption of late 2020, it seemed a pleasantly silly, victimless diversion.

On Monday, Hilaria Baldwin made the gossip pages for a different reason: within six months of the birth of a son in September, she announced the arrival of a new baby, Lucía. Like an Instagram fertility goddess, Baldwin cuddled with a half-dozen adorable kids under age eight, including a sleepy newborn nestled up to her larger infant brother. There was no explanation, just the number 7 (these kids plus a daughter of Alec’s from an earlier marriage) and a heart emoji.

There it was: a baby mystery. It was also a baby amid a relative baby drought. Birth data from 29 states for December 2020, nine months after the pandemic was declared, show a 7.3% decline from the previous year. Parents are so strapped that diaper banks are unable to keep up (consider donating here or to one in your area). They are having fewer kids, not so many that one pregnancy overlaps impossibly with the next.

Fans were fascinated. “I need to discuss Hilaria Baldwin with someone because my boyfriend doesn’t understand why I keep saying ‘Where did that baby come from? There’s already a fresh baby!’” one woman said on Twitter. “how did hilaria baldwin have a fresh baby 5 months after having her last fresh baby,” another added. “Did not realize it was needed but props to @AlecBaldwin @hilariabaldwin for adding ‘fresh baby’ to the lexicon,” said another.

Of course, there was a rational explanation. Internet sleuths quickly dug up online links between Baldwin and a surrogacy agency, and within a couple days sources had confirmed to People and the Today Show that the baby had been born via a surrogate.

But by Thursday, Baldwin herself grounded the story in something much more sober—her loss of two pregnancies in 2019, which she had already written movingly about for Glamour magazine early last year. “The Baldwinitos craved so much to have a little sister,” Baldwin wrote on Instagram. “Many of you may remember the loss of their sister at 4 months in the end of 2019. There isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t ache for our daughter. When I found out our baby had died, I told our children that their sister was going to come, just not at that time. Nothing will ever replace her, but two wonderful souls have come into our lives, and we are humbled to know them.” Gratefully, she mentioned “all of the very special angels who helped bring Lucía into the world.”

It turns out that Alec Baldwin, who early on told someone questioning the origins of the new arrival to “shut the f*** up and mind your own business,” had a point. Humans will always be curious about how babies come to be—one world religion I can think of dedicates an entire major holiday to marveling at a virgin birth. But it’s increasingly taken for granted that we all build our families differently, and how we get there is up to us. Our toddler has two moms and two beloved teen brothers, without yet having an idea this is anything other than normal. The families around me have come by their kids through adoption and surrogacy and fertility treatments as well as in the most old-fashioned of ways.

The pandemic may have discouraged childbearing, but it has also thrown into relief how varied our family units are already. One friend last year found herself living with, among other people, her girlfriend’s ex-husband’s mom; another three-generation household in my circle makes three meals a day for six adults, two teens, and a little kid. Hundreds of thousands of extra families have recently been thrown off their axes by loss.

As varied as these families are, it’s worth saying that I know zero parents in my generation with six children—for non-religious middle-class or wealthier families, that’s an almost unheard-of number. Few of my peers could manage to house, feed, or care for a brood that large, and at a time when the New York Times is titling a series on working motherhood “The Primal Scream,” such performative supermomdom can seem almost like a taunt.

But unexpectedly, I find myself feeling protective of Baldwin. She was privately pursuing this salve to her lost pregnancies even as people were making fun of her in December. And I know what it’s like to be part of a domestic unit that some people would judge. The truth is that as irresistible as it can be to project joy or misery or drama onto other families, they have their own internal logic, and it is mostly opaque to outsiders.

All this is to say, to Alec and Hilaria and the Baldwinitos: Congratulations on your beautiful fresh baby and the newish baby before her, and good luck ever sleeping again. And to the rest of you, here’s wishing all your various wild families more bright times than dark ones.

What to read

Detail of painting by Jacob Lawrence, “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820-1840—115,773.”(The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Peabody Essex Museum)

Speaking of allegations, political figures have faced quite a week. Multiple young women alleged that New York governor Andrew Cuomo had sexually harassed them. Former Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao, whose husband is Sen. Mitch McConnell, was referred for criminal investigation in December after she allegedly “repeatedly used her office staff to help family members who run a shipping business with extensive ties to China,” but the Trump DOJ reportedly declined to investigate. Obama and Trump White House physician Ronny Jackson allegedly drank, took drugs, and made sexual remarks about women while on duty, according to the Department of Defense inspector general. He is now a congressman. Florida governor Ron DeSantis suddenly received millions of dollars in PAC donations from a wealthy and exclusive private community the month after the state steered much-coveted Covid vaccine doses there. At press time, all of these people seemed to be doing fine. Props to the New York Times, CNN, and the Miami Herald for breaking the stories.

Just weeks after a missing panel of painter Jacob Lawrence’s epic 1950s series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” turned up in a home on the Upper West Side, a nurse in the same neighborhood realized that the painting of emigrants on her wall might be another missing panel from the same series. The New York Times has this fantastic NYC lost-and-found story. For some reason I found it especially touching that, in person, the painting revealed two vivid signs of life that had been obscured in a bad black-and-white reproduction: a nursing baby and the country’s symbolic flower, a red rose.

Olivia Nuzzi’s beautiful account of losing her faraway mom while reporting on Jill Biden, for New York Magazine, is a heartbreaker. Read it here.

What to consume

Nomadland, now streaming on Hulu, and its director, Chloe Zhao, won much deserved Golden Globes this week for best drama and best director. (Astonishingly, Zhao is the only the second woman ever to win, following Barbra Streisand for Yentl in 1984.) I would happily watch star Frances McDormand read the phone book or whatever else she prefers for two hours, but this film uses its lanky protagonist as a prism for two deeply American phenomena—its ravishing sunset landscapes and the daunting physical labor that can be a necessity for workers up into their senior years. The film draws on Jessica Bruder’s reporting about the migrant workforce of older Americans who live out of vans and fill temporary jobs, including for massive companies like Amazon. On one level, there is something dystopian about this way of life—it’s a bootstrapped existence for citizens living without any of the ordinary protections of a top world economy, lacking health care or much space or time to rest. But the film also showcases the dignity, pride, resourcefulness, and solidarity of these travelers, who have opted for a freer and more open-ended mode of existence compared to a fixed one. McDormand and costar David Strathairn occasionally stand out as the physically lovely veteran actors they are, seeded in among people drawn from the real van-dwelling community. But the patient, observational tone of this film is anything but Hollywood, and its respect for its subjects makes it more philosophical than sad.

Finally, here is Dolly Parton getting (and singing about!) her first Covid vaccine shot from her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, the dad of WNYC’s Jad Abumrad, who made a lovely podcast about her. Parton, in case you missed it, helped fund the elder Abumrad’s vaccine research at Vanderbilt. That research helped lead to the Moderna vaccine, millions of doses of which are now being rolled out to Americans—including Dolly herself.

Wishing you health, vaccine access, and domestic happiness. I’ll see you next week.