Shopping for stuff

Even if our child grows up to be a backwoods introvert, a sociopathic killer, a lobbyist or the inventor of a time machine who then uses it to go back to 1997 and invent the PalmOS SSL certificate handling abstraction interface, in the short run I think I might consider myself a success if I can get through the whole experience without buying anything with cup holders.

Beth and I spent the afternoon in a children’s department store on Clement St. We went in with a tape measure and a long list of things to examine. It didn’t begin well, probably because we’d written down “car seat” first and so went to look at those.

Car seats should not be one’s introduction to parenthood. I suppose that’s easily avoided, since in one sense the traditional introduction to parenthood is copulation, which exceeds the fun of car seat shopping by a fair margin. But copulation only covers the first few minutes or hours of the whole affair, and somewhat later on you might find yourself staring at an entire wall of car seats. They stare back at you like a menagerie of plush, injection-molded beasts. The words “danger” and “warning” in peer out in 24-point yellow or red capitals from the stickers that lurk in every crevice. They foretell the many horrors awaiting the slightest misapplication of their various injection-molded features. Most of these use careful line diagrams depicting the hapless offspring of careless parents who attach the wrong strap to the right buckle or vice versa. The children are fine, of course. Their misguided caregivers have only just stepped back from their misdeed for the benefit of the artist. They haven’t yet applied key to ignition, foot to accelerator, cellphone to ear, and evidently most importantly, enormous latte to cup holder.

I don’t understand this cup holder thing. Okay, I grant that on some level American culture is defined by the amount of ingenuity, pluck, determination and can-do spirit we apply to installing cupholders on most every object we design or (until recently) manufacture. Few things say more about us as a society than the convenience and ubiquity of having our beverages always within reach, snug in insulated paper cups proffered by the obsequious mechanical hand of the nearest cup holder. There seem to be entire micro-industries devoted to the things — my former employer will happily sell you over ten thousand of them. But we’re not talking about a pocket to stick the baby’s bottle in or an indentation on a high chair’s tray. Most of these cup holders are there for use by adults. Maybe I’m poorly prepared to understand the need for all this beverage holding because I skipped out on the whole personal water bottle thing. Also I mostly stayed away when coffee shops abruptly surged from sparsely-distributed places where you tended to drink coffee along with your eggs, bacon and toast to a teeming pestilence found on every blasted street corner. Not that I don’t like coffee, or enjoy a coffee shop well enough. It’s just that I’m okay if that isn’t part of the experience of putting my beloved child into a car and then hopefully not maiming them due to inadherence to some DANGER or WARNING or other. The back of a car seat does not need to be a nest of cafe culture. Honestly, I’m fine with it mostly being plastic and probably some dust bunnies.

Some of our audience might remember a post about not owning a car, or at least not buying a bigger one to fit all three of us. This whole thing about looking at car seats doesn’t mean anything changed on that front. We’re still thinking we’ll be fine as-is. However, car shares are part of how we plan to deal with cases where we do all three need to go somewhere, and being cars, if you’re going to put a kid in one they need a car seat. Being a shared car, you’re also going to need to install the car seat, go someplace, come back, remove the car seat, and leave the car the way you found it. Most car seats aren’t designed with that form of portability in mind. The current state of the art in portable convenience seems to be the detachable base, a hulk of plastic and metal latches which you strap semi-permanently to the car, whilst removing the seat portion at will to carry your sleeping child into the house (or coffee shop) without disturbing them. Some of these can also be latched to a stroller, which I have to concede is a decent idea, albeit one whose implementations are all huge and heavy, and not entirely due to all the cup holders. Eventually we found a couple of fairly ordinary seats that looked like they mostly held babies and didn’t transform into strollers or separate into pieces or brew espresso. That seemed like accomplishment enough, so we fled to look at much more restful cribs and rocking chairs for a while.

The high point of the excursion was definitely the baby-carrying device section. We spent quite a while trying on slings, wraps, carriers, etc., aided by the services of a ~10lb fake baby lent to us by a shopkeeper who’d noticed me gathering up heavy objects to stuff in a sling to achieve the same simulation. The fake baby in question was capable of holding its head up unaided, and by way of being a largish doll stuffed partway with ball bearings, its weight was concentrated unrealistically (if forebodingly) in its butt, which was swathed mainly in duct tape and the lower portion of an I <heart> SF jumper. It turns out to be hard to check the fit of most slings when you’re 23 weeks pregnant, so I did a bit more of the sampling — Beth and I are close to the same size anyway under normal circumstances. Much laughter was also had trying to work out ways to fit the fake baby around or atop the real one. A shopkeeper demonstrated how to put on a Moby Wrap (fiddly to put on and undignified, but with good weight distribution) and also how to undo it in a way that makes the baby abruptly fall out the bottom and plummet four feet to the floor. They also had a stock of external-frame backpacks for toddlers, which promise a whole new range of opportunities for smacking the kid’s head into the overhead rails on Muni — to say nothing of how gloriously you could obstruct up a three-foot radius on a 22 Fillmore or 38 Geary with one.

Before they chased us out into the cold and rain and abundant supply of tasty Vietnamese food of Clement St., we played with strollers for a while. Finding small, simple and foldable ones turned out to be hard, not because they don’t exist or the shop didn’t sell them, but because they can be so effectively hidden behind an SUV stroller, of which the shop stocked plenty. Also for some reason strollers all have hollow injection-molded plastic wheels now, which seems like an exercise in planned obsolescence unless sidewalks in other parts of the world are made of something far softer than the concrete I’ve been accustomed to. Eventually I found one that amounted to some canvas and a bit of foam slung between a minimalist aluminum frame, deep enough a child probably wouldn’t flop out of it, and narrow enough to fit easily through a BART fare gate. I wheeled it happily around the aisle for a few minutes, making easy, effortless turns, tilting it backwards to show off hypothetical stars, fireworks or sunsets, and imagining myself the proud, capable parent who knows what’s important and how to avoid saddling my child’s upbringing with pointless and unrewarding extravagances.

“It’s got a cup holder on it,” Beth said, pointing.

– Devin


  1. Tara said,

    November 10, 2008 at 1:05 am

    I went into a Babies R Us in SoCal last weekend and had a similar experience. I learned the ins and outs of “side-impact tested” and various other reasons you’d want to pick one car seat over another. I held out for the prettiest one, and my friend ended up taking that one home anyway.

  2. Réka said,

    November 10, 2008 at 6:27 am

    Devin, I get a kick out of reading your posts, and I always make a mental note to respond, but rarely do.

    So here I am.

    Carseats/strollers: We went through a number of them, and by FAR my favorite one for portability, ease of use, and practicability was the Graco Ultima TS (picture: I realize you probably have slightly different models in the States, but I’d like to point out a few features:
    1. No cup holder for parent or child. ;)
    2. Seat can be reclined almost to a horizontal surface, so unless you want to place a newborn baby belly-side down on it, it will be serviceable from birth to toddlerhood (we still use it for Zsuzsi, and she’s past 3). And even if you want to put the baby belly-down, you can always even out the surface with a folded up blanket and voila. Even surface.
    3. Lightweight, easily maneuverable, AND folds up small enough to fit in the trunk AND has a huge basket to pack stuff into. This was important to me because I go shopping with it on foot to the local stores and markets.
    4. One-click system for attaching the carseat, which is sturdy but light enough to carry in hand for short distances AND is easy to strap in without a base (which is also available, btw). Also, Vivi used it til she was 18 months old, granted, she was a relatively small child. So we got good use out of it.
    5. Cheap.
    6. Did I mention no cup holders anywhere? Nor digital clocks, thermometers or heart rate monitors.

    Carriers: The Moby Wrap may look undignified, but again, having tried literally a dozen types of carrying devices, I must say that the Moby Wrap is the most comfortable one for smaller babies, with a Didymos or similar style non-stretchy, but light wrap the most comfortable for older ones. It’s worth the time and money to attend a sling-tying class if one is to be had near you. I carried my girls past age 1, and I wish I had learned how to do a back carry way earlier than I did because hands down it’s the most convenient way of carrying them (unless I’m going shopping, then I take the stroller). If wraps are too fiddly for you, for smaller babies, Baby Björn or ErgoBaby carriers are also pretty good, but really not anywhere as comfortable and easy on your back as a wrap. I also had one of those metal frame backpacks and I did a lot of research, and got a relatively pricey one and it was SO UNCOMFORTABLE. For both of us. Now that may just be bad luck, but you have to figure the weight of the thing itself is often considerable, too, and you’re only going to start using it when the baby is relatively older to begin with. My point is: they’re bulky and heavy, and about the only good thing about them is extra packing space, which you don’t have with a wrap. But I doubt you’d want to carry even more weight after you’ve got the weight of the carrier and the weight of the baby figured in.

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