the overwhelming joy of shopping…
None of the obvious huge themes of new parenthood—the decision to conceive, the passage of our child through the birth canal, the quest to ensure his dual citizenship, certainly not the meaning of becoming a father at age 47—has approached the full-on, months-long, mind-numbing, all-consuming, ridiculous quest to find the perfect set of wheels for my son.
Googling—initially a modern wonder, then a verb, a time-sucking vortex, and now something future psychiatrists will add to the diagnostic manual– begins pre-birth with the realization that the new family member will need transport. The three-in-one systems (bassinet, car seat, and wheels) that allow you to bring baby from the hospital to the car and through to age four without ever having to actually touch the ground are as large as our Toyota Yaris, and as expensive as a dental implant. We consider alternatives.
Our first trip to a baby store, mid-pregnancy, has me and my world-traveling wife stumbling out of the car in that most familiar of places, the suburban strip mall. We are there to ‘take a look’ at the gamut of ‘baby-needs’: crib, mattress, playpen, chair, bottles, clothes, etc. We share a desire not to overburden our little guy with stuff, but even the bare-minimum seems to include a changing station, with corresponding pad and covers, something to carry the baby, maybe some diapers…
I find myself feeling like a creepy guy in a porn shop as I sidle up, trying to appear disinterested, to the hunky mannequin who sports the baby-carrying device; am I whistling and saying ‘heh heh heh’ as I undress the dummy and begin to wrestle the impossible set of straps and connectors? Stephanie browses while I try to hide the fact that I am hopelessly tangled, panicking and humiliated. The mood as we get back into the car is depressed and nearly suicidal.
The store becomes a symbol to me of the sleazy, manipulative, preying-on-sentimentality marketing targeting parents. In each of the stores we visit over the coming months, the feeling upon leaving is just as greasy as when you visit a car dealership, or try to change your mobile phone plan. The profusion of sweatshop junk dyed pink and blue and sold as loving necessity makes our heads spin. ‘Kinder-crap.org’ becomes our household reference for baby stores and baby stuff in general.
Probably the most cynical business we encounter is the post-birth photography cartel. A photographer barges sweetly and repeatedly into our maternity room on Félix’ first days of life, on day three staging a photo session. Months after birth we find ourselves in a local hotel conference room staring at a coffee-table book—multiple, hideous, digitally-enhanced variations on exactly 8 photos. The photos are sweet, our baby is cute, Stephanie appears in one photo looking like a trauma victim, and the photo of sleepy-daddy-with-baby features prominently and repeatedly, guaranteed to yank at the heart-strings of any decent wife and mother.
The nice saleswoman coos over our baby as she shows us the variety of ‘first photo’ products—mugs, t-shirts, magnets, mouse pads, etc. All we want are the digital files— I guess it’s what anybody wants—only available with the purchase of the hardcover book. The saleswoman admires the cute photos with us and tells us that the company, which works all of the hospitals of French-speaking Belgium, has recently picked up the contract for the whole of France as well. Or did she say Germany? At any rate, the child-photo refrigerator magnet business is booming.
Again, the baby biz takes me to a porno-place, with my semi-nude three-day old son as the object of desire—the images packaged to induce a glandular response. Only we are not reaching orgasm, we are reaching for our credit card: daddy, ready to walk away from a $300 ransom on my own child’s images, takes one look at dewy-eyed mommy, and knows all is lost. We carry Félix in his used car seat, along with the coffee table book, back to the car.
The car seat—’maxi cosi’ in French denoting both the popular brand and the object, much as ‘kleenex’ works in America—is more than 10 years old, bought cheap from one of Stephanie’s colleagues. Buying a used car seat is our initial response to the world of child-transport, in fact the car seat is old enough that it can’t really fit any of the stroller-car seat combos that are being marketed to us. So we avoid the set of mega wheels that will fight the grand piano for space in the living room.
My incessant googling about baby-transit turns up a web site proclaiming the stroller, the bassinet, and the rocking-baby-seat all ‘mother substitutes’ which basically subvert the natural placement of baby-against-mommy’s-skin. The dogma is heavy but the site reinforces our basic desire to avoid the child-sport-utility-vehicle. We determine to carry Félix around for more or less the first six months, until he can safely ride in a small, old-fashioned, stroller. Thanks to my sister Rachael, we have a trio of used strap-on-baby devices—and instructions for how to use them: a front-carrying device with buckles, a sling with fabric and a ring, and a huge piece of white fabric apparently not meant to be worn at frat parties.
Something about his weight, and Stephanie’s imminent return to part-time touring, increases both frequency and intensity of my stroller-googling. I spend hours online obsessed with which strollers are good for the cobblestones that line my walk down into town, which strollers fold up well for car transit and air travel, three wheels vs. four, lightweight vs. heavy-duty, small wheels vs. large, pneumatic tires vs. solid plastic, suspension systems or not, which strollers for jogging—no worries!–which for all-terrain, which are available in Europe for reasonable money, which ones I might have to wait until my June trip to America to try/buy…
not far from a breakdown!
And then there are the reviews, in English, French, and German. I alternate between Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, and Amazon.de, and a british site called Mumsnet, trying to decipher–as is the way with all things bought online–whose experience as stated in the customer reviews might actually help me make a better-informed decision. Youtube is filled with stroller-demos, and I watch more than my fair share of amateurs and professionals extolling, cajoling, folding, and unfolding.
One parent excoriates a stroller company for incompetence and neglect, describing an accident in which she falls on the stroller, causing her kid to get cut in two places and the bending the stroller frame. Some parents take pride in having had one stroller through multiple infants, at least one parent claimed to have gone through more than half a dozen top-of-the-line strollers for her one baby–for what I calculated to be a stroller budget of easily more than $3000—some people just want to use the reviews to express anger about the universe, and some to express their love. Some of the reviews actually offer thoughtful stroller analysis.
We visit another baby store and try some models, and there is one brand that seems good for price, maneuverability, and reputation. More googling at home finally leads me decide on a German-model, lightweight but with bigger wheels, and a youtube demo that has us nearly peeing in our pajamas late at night in bed. I am ready to order the German stroller when I stumble across a page of reviews: ‘wheel fell off’, ‘stroller collapsed and baby folded inside’, ‘brakes don’t work’, ‘front wheel stopped turning’, and the consumer kiss of death–‘you get what you pay for’.
On the Sunday before Félix turns four months old, Stephanie introduces me to a fantastic Belgian group which organizes walks of 5, 10, and 20 kilometers all over the country. At a meeting place/cafeteria, you pick up a set of directions, but our 6 mile-trek is so clearly labelled with stickers that we never need the paper. It takes us from the town of Huy up an incredible hill—the ‘wall of Huy’–that is the centerpiece of a famous annual bicycle race (la Flèche Wallone). Wearing Félix up the small mountain for an hour-and-a-half before handing him off to Steph, I came home weary with an aching back, and resume my desperate googling.
Tuesday dawns and I announce to Stephanie that we are going to check out a couple of baby stores, again, for strollers. Depression overcomes her, but she relents, and after feeding the baby, and ourselves, we head back to the very first store, the ‘scene of the crime.’ A super-informative salesman recommends a model we have liked, has one in stock, and sets it up for us to try. He has three children, they have all used these strollers, and no doubt that this is the right model for us.
My bad French leads him into an anti-American rant for the ages: Americans have so many liability issues about strollers, alcohol, and hot coffee that there is no liberty left. He has no use for strapping kids into strollers, either, and sardonically imitates children unable to even take a step unassisted. Sure, his kids have slipped out of the stroller, but as he says, ‘only once’. I ask for, and do not receive, a discount based on his anti-American bias. Folded, the new addition fits perfectly into the small trunk of our Yaris.
Hours later we wheel the slumped, strapped, smiling Félix around like we have been doing it forever. I gleefully roll the mid-sized, 4-way suspension wheels over lousy asphalt and brick, up and down a few curbs. A walk the next day takes us off-road, over grass, dirt, and the steep cobblestone street that leads downtown. In the stroller, in the living room, the kid takes the longest nap of his short life, and we celebrate. Kinder-crap.org, to the rescue!
sometimes everything works out exactly as it should…