Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Kids Take the Backseat

We all carry images in our mind of the kind of parent we don’t want to become: the minivan-driving soccer mom in yoga pants and a designer hoodie popping a forehead vein as she screams at her kindergartener to show a little life out there! The distracted father who forgets his kid’s birthday and tries to make up for it by bringing home a kitten the next day, having also forgotten that his child is allergic to everything that sheds. For me it’s being one of those moms who rides in the backseat of the car with her kid while the dad drives around like a chauffer or like a single dad with two kids with a 34-year age span.

Growing up in my family, the front seat was decidedly for grown-ups and the backseat was for kids. This was not negotiated or argued or questioned, it just was. When we visited grandparents or they visited us and two adults sat in back with one kid while the other kid rode in the “front middle,” it was a special treat and the source of much giggling—particularly the time my dad scolded a backseat rider for making that horrible squeaking noise with their straw in the lid of their take-out cup, and the squeaker turned out to be my great-grandmother.

In my best friend’s family, the Mennonite minister dad and little brother rode in front while the mom, big sister, and I rode in back devising a plot to overthrow the patriarchy. Or maybe that was just me.

So it was with alternating waves of dismay and denial that I received the news, after 5 months of research, that the only way to fit an infant seat in my car would be to move the passenger seat all the way up until it practically touches the dashboard—leaving no room for a passenger—and put the car seat behind it. “It’s the only way,” insisted the National Child Passenger Safety Board-certified sales clerk at a nearby suburban children’s boutique where I’d gone in hopes of finding something more compact than the sprawlingly large American child restraints they hawk at big-box stores.

It’s not like my car is some teensy, sporty, child-unfriendly thing. It’s a VW station wagon, for christsake. Surely someone has found a way to transport their baby in a Jetta wagon without having to first become a Mennonite minister’s wife.

“Oh, you won’t be able to use the front passenger seat for a few years now, so you might as well get used to riding in the back while your husband drives. Or you could get a new car,” quipped the NCPSB lady.

She wasn’t kidding.

“Okay, thanks, sounds good, will do,” I muttered as I shooed her out of my car and headed back to Babies-backwards-R-Us to buy the car seat that had sort of fit in the middle, so long the handle was kept upright—which, according to the instructions one wasn’t supposed to do while driving—and so long as it’s okay for the car seat to rub heavily against the front seats—which, according to all safety information, it’s not.

I bought the sort-of-fitting seat, then went to Target to check out yet another brand of seat to see if it fit any better. Unfortunately, the seat from Target wasn’t sold individually. It was only sold as a package deal with a giant, unwieldy stroller that we have no use for, having already purchased a giant, unwieldy European (and therefore beautiful) stroller off Craigslist. I figured I could buy the car seat-stroller combo and test the seat out in the parking lot. If the seat fit I would return the whole combo right then and there, go home, and order the car seat solo off the internet.

So there I am, lugging a 127-pound travel system out to the parking lot, finagling the car seat out of its giant plastic baggie and away from its stroller friend without dropping either part onto the wet, muddy (it’s autumn in Seattle) pavement, and sticking it in the middle of the backseat to see whether it—Nope. Not a chance.

I wrestle the car seat back into its baggie, somehow reunite it with Mr. Stroller, which is still mostly inside the box, which is perched precariously on a shopping cart, which is rolling every which way, which no one is offering to help with (God, I miss Iowa)—and I wheel the whole thing to the customer service counter. I explain the situation, how I bought the thing not ten minutes ago, just wanted to see whether it would fit, but it doesn’t, blah, blah. The teenage customer servant looks at my receipt and immediately calls her supervisor over.

“I’m sorry,” the also-teenage supervisor says gravely. “Once the box has been opened, we can’t take these back.”

Let me take a moment here to say that throughout this entire pregnancy, I have been very well-behaved. I have not bored sandwich shop personnel with overly long explanations about the threat of listeria looming in lunchmeat or soft cheese. I have not regaled salesclerks or other people who aren’t my mother, husband, close friends, or readers with tales of my aches and pains and splotches, and I have never broken down into hysterical tears over some bureaucratic nightmare.

Until this day.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I wailed. “That was the whole point of buying this thing! If I’d known I never would have come here! That’s just totally, totally insane! I bought it five minutes ago!”

“I’m sorry, but the seal’s been broken. We can’t—”

“The seal?! The seal!? It’s packing tape! Get me some packing tape and I’ll fix it up so no one will ever know it’s been opened!”

“It’s our policy that once the seal has—”

“Oh. My. God. It’s. A. Stroller! Not a sterilized piece of medical equipment! A. Stroller!”

“It’s our pol—”

“I don’t care if it’s your policy! I want to talk to your manager’s manager’s manager. The president of the company. I don’t care who, but there is absolutely no way I am giving this store 120 dollars for a car seat that doesn’t fit in my car and a stroller I can’t use. I will never shop here again!”—then I brought out the big guns. “I will tell EVERYONE I KNOW never to shop here!”

Which really ought to have gotten him scared because I know, like, fifty or so people.

The female customer servant just stared at me, clearly thinking the second I get home I’m making an appointment to get my tubes tied.

The manager guy started to seem sympathetic. Or maybe just tired. In any case, he eventually instructed his underling to process the return as “defective merchandise” and then made sure I knew he was breaking the rules.

I thanked him through my sniffles and then inanely tried to explain that I don’t usually cry to get my way—well, maybe just when I’m pulled over for speeding. But usually I cry because I’m mad at myself for not being assertive, so in a weird way my breakdown was a triumph. Not exactly how I would have scripted it had I had more time to prepare, but what’s the fun of being pregnant if you don’t get to scream at a pair of teenagers in red polyester vests and plastic nametags at least once?

After I got home from the Evil Store I Will Never Again Frequent—except to buy those cheese crackers nobody else seems to sell, I broke down and called The Car Seat Lady—yet another National Child Passenger Safety Board-certified volunteer car seat inspector—but one who understood (or at least accepted) my refusal to give up the use of my front passenger seat for the next two years. She promised over the phone that she had “just the car seat” for me. Seven minutes later she magically appeared at my front door, an enormous woman bearing two car seats and a four-and-a-half pound preemie-sized doll named Fremont.

(A brief aside: I normally wouldn’t mention someone’s girth as it seems rather rude and sizeist, but it’s sort of important for the visuals here—nine-months pregnant lady, twice-her-size other lady, two infant car seats and a four-and-a-half pound doll all fitting into the space that one goddamned car seat from Target refused to be wedged into.)

The Car Seat Lady demonstrates how one of the car seats I’d previously thought wouldn’t fit actually does fit, so long as you keep the handle in the upright position, which is okay in this particular model (unlike the other one) because this one has been safety tested—and approved—in this configuration. Who knew? The Car Seat Lady, that’s who!

I go back to Babies-backwards-R-Us to exchange the seat that can’t be used with the handle in the upright position for the one that can, and I am proud to say that now, a full five months after I began the process of outfitting my car with an infant seat, we are in business—no religious conversion required.


  1. I swear to god it's a conspiracy between car seat manufacturers, suv manufacturers, and the red bulls eye people. Long live German cars with no legroom (or car seat reclining room) in the backseat! And long live volunteer car seat inspectors--especially of the NCPSB-certified variety!

  2. You got a stroller! And a swine-flu shot! And, after many most enjoyable paragraphs, a car seat! Quite the successful start to your week, lady.

    It gives me an irrational degree of joy to think of that baby doll's name being Fremont.

  3. Hi!

    I came over here via Offbeat Mama and stumbled upon your carseat debacle. I am currently pregnant and my husband believes that the VW Jetta wagon would be perfect for us and your story is scaring me! What year Jetta do you have? Would you mind telling me which carseat you ended up going with? Do you curse your Jetta every day for it not being more baby friendly? The whole reason we are considering a Jetta is for the baby,to have more "room"! Any advice would be appreciated, thanks.