Monday, April 2, 2012

Sleep-deprived post in which I rail against car seats

I haven’t been the most avid blogger lately.  I can manage about 1 decently thought out post per week, some of which is typed one-handed while nursing.  I’m trying to find my rhythm with a newborn and a toddler, and when one is sleeping, the other often seizes that precise moment to demand my undivided attention.  It’s almost as if they know.  You know the drill. 
So, during the 1 or 2 hours I get to myself (never at predictable times, mind you), I’m generally too exhausted to do much more than the basics like feed and bathe myself or catch up on some sleep. Maybe find a clean pair of underwear. 
So, where am I going with this?  Oh yeah. Car seats. (You see? Not at my best.)

I really could write a book about raising a child in a cross-cultural environment – well it’s just that that pesky nourishing and cleaning myself seem to always get in the way.  Point is, there is a lot of stuff here to talk/write/blog about.
But lately I’ve been fixated on car seats. 

When we moved to Busia I lugged a car seat for my toddler through 2 transcontinental flights.  It’s pretty safe to say it was the only one in that Western Kenyan town of 30,000 people. No one (even the few who own cars) used one, and most people had never seen or heard of one.  When I tell people they are required in the US, that you can get a ticket if your child rides without, people look at me like they didn’t hear me right.    It sounds ridiculous.  You mean everyone must purchase this little baby thrown and put their child in the backseat.  By themselves?? Nonsense.
And this is where you’ll have to bear with me.  There’s a tiny part of me that agrees.
I get that they are lifesaving, and this is why my family uses them.  And they’re totally necessary if mom wants to drive a car and take a baby with her.  You can’t very well strap the little one to a seat or balance him on your lap while driving, and the roof rack is just cruel. 
But driving with a baby in the car seat is one of the only times when your baby is crying for you, and you’re right there, and you can’t comfort him. 

Sure, you can’t always get to a crying baby right away.  Maybe you’re cooking or in the shower or tending to another child.  But no law is tying your hands in the matter.  You can always shuffle things around domestically to reach your baby.
Walking on shamba (farm) I once heard a cow making the loudest and most distressing “moo” I’d ever heard.  (Stay with me here)  When I looked in the direction of the moo, I saw a mother cow tied to a tree looking over at her baby who was tied to another tree.  Their tethers did not allow them contact.  It was a very distinctive noise.  My Kenyan colleague knew the sound was a mother in distress before we even saw the cows.

That’s what I mean.  It feels unnatural not to be able to comfort your crying offspring when you’re right there.  It’s distressing on a primal level.

       (**Before you say anything, I'm aware of the current political risks comparing mothers to farm animals.)
I feel car seat ambivalent mainly with newborns, even though they are the most fragile and you’d think I’d be most “pro” car seat at this stage.  But this is also the stage in which they need their mamas most urgently.  Here in Kenya, I’ve never seen a baby under 3 months more than a few feet away from caring arms.  And that newborn cry is just… there’s gotta be a name for that nerve that goes directly from mama’s ear to action/panic brain center when triggered by a newborn cry.  Because they need to be close to you.

So, given a crying baby backseat, you try everything.  You sing, play children’s CDs, stop and start the car to rock the baby, turn the fan on extra high for white noise.   I’ve nearly torn a rotator cuff twisting my arm back to rock the seat while driving and singing.. and then crying.  But really the little bugger wants none of this.  He wants you. He knows you’re close.
You can always stop the car, you say.  I’ve done this. But ultimately you have to get where you need to go whether or not your little one is consolable.  I remember on a long drive to visit my sister stopping several times to soothe an infant Caleb only to start and hear him wailing again.  It was so stressful I literally contemplated not driving again.  Not just to her house, but until he was no longer a baby.  I know that sounds hysterical, but it’s how I felt.

I realize how heretical this car seat bashing all sounds.  Do you remember when Brittany Spears got caught driving with her kids in the front seat with no car seat? It was met with unqualified outrage.  Gossip columnists took it as further evidence for her deteriorating mental health. 
Complaining about life-saving car seats might strike you as crazy, wrong-headed, or just a bit too whiny. My husband certainly thinks so.  Don’t worry – we still use the car seat.  And I’m certainly not advocating that anyone abandon doing so. 
But just the other day, as I was loading a 4 week old Emmet into his little straight jacket of a car seat in the backseat, I overheard a Kenyan man say with astonishment: “Ona, anaweka mtoto peke yake.”  Look, she’s putting the baby in by himself.  Clearly he found the practice bizarre.  And, there’s a secret part of me that very much agrees.

My first at 4 days old in that dastardly car seat (Boston)
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30 comments:

  1. Weird. Both my kids really loved their carseats as newborns. Something about being all snuggled up and closed-in and cozy. as newborns, i would sometimes put them in the carseat even if we weren't going anywhere. of course they sometimes cried in the car (e.g. if they were hungry or needed a diaper change or upset for some other reason), but not any more than they would sometimes cry while in their baby swing or their crib. I didn't pick my newborn up (from the crib or baby swing) everytime they cried there either. I would re-insert binkie, sing to them, etc. Babies have to learn not to be held all the time and to be okay with that.

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    1. Rebecca, you are so lucky that both little ones loved the car seat. Actually, Caleb liked it OK and sometimes we could even swing it with him back and forth to soothe him. Emmet HATES it from the moment we put him in it. But both would get to the point where they just. want. out. And Emmet just want to be held. Nothing else.

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  2. Both of mine were car seat screamers!! I totally feel for you! I remember the drive to get Noah from his babysitter was a daily 40 minute round trip of h*ll with Simon screaming at the top of his lungs, and me not being able to do anything about it. Like you said, you still have to get to where you are going! Noah screamed bloody murder for hundreds of miles during two road trips to Connecticut when he was a baby. We took exactly zero road trips with Simon as a baby. Just. Not. Worth. It.! And yeah, I still nurse on the road sometimes -- without removing anyone's seatbelts. Quite the contortionist challenge.

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    1. Oh Whitney, I feel for you. You seem to have so many parenting challenges. They say you're given the babies you can handle. Maybe that means the universe thinks you're an incredibly tolderant and capable mom. : )

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  3. This post was so refreshing to read. Thanks for sharing. We live in Uganda with our 5 month old daughter and I know what you are talking about. We went on a mini-safari a few weeks ago and I remember how guilty I felt taking her out of the car seat when she was upset (she'd been traveling for several hours) and all we were doing was driving around very slowly on empty roads with zebras and giraffe around us. there are times for car seats and they are very useful when traveling at any reasonable speed on a major road (especially in east africa!). And, there are also times when its okay to take them out ... when stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam in nairobi or when needing to nurse on a dirt road in the Serengeti during the low tourist season... love your blog!

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    1. Thanks so much and I'm glad that this struck a cord with you. And I TOTALLY agree. THere are times (last night even) where we judge it safe to take him out but keep him tightly in someone's arms in the backseat - short safe distances, traffic jams, safaris ; )

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  4. My grandmother was all car seats, schmar seats. She rode in the front seat with my infant daughter in her arms on the way back to the hotel from a family picnic and I was in full blown panic. I will not mention we were on a country road with all of two cars on it, mine and hers (with my grandfather driving). Maybe my dad was trailing us, I can't remember. Three cars, then.

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    1. "Car seats, schmar seat" Hilarious! I think I love your grandmother. : )

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  5. I was raised without car seats or seatbelts and I survived.
    Boy are you opening up a can o' worms with this one! Sleep-deprived as you may be...!
    I find it so interesting that when you tell people about the car seat law here they look at you like they hadn't heard you right!

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    1. Were you raised here or abroad? You know, I can't even remember if we used car seats as babies/kids. I was born in the 70s. I may have survived similar peril!

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  6. Love this post! Good for you for having the courage to write it. I knew a wonderful Ethiopian man who said to me, when I was whining about how my baby wouldn't sleep in his crib: "You Americans expect too much of your babies." They just want to be close to us; I get it now, but it took some time.

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    1. Wow, that's so true. I think it encapsulates so many of the differences in child rearing. We want to schedule and train them almost from day 1. Parenting of infants here seems so much more baby-led. And parents are also less stressed out when they don't expect infants to act according to our own plans. And he's right - at this age, they really mainly want to close to you!

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  7. Hmm interesting - honestly, I don't have kids and I've never thought about it that way (or at all really) before!

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  8. I don't have children yet and so I haven't experienced it from your perspective, but I definitely get where you're coming from. For me, it's not so much the car seat but the seemingly never ending booster seats that children have to ride in. I get that they can be life saving in accidents, but it does seem a bit excessive when you have 1st graders riding around in these things.

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    1. Oh, I totally agree! Last time I visited my pediatrian he said that the new law is that kids have to be in some kind of a seat until they are 9 and then have to sit in the backseat until they're 13!! I can't imagine what people here would think of that!

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  9. oh, i love the man who found it bizarre that the baby would go in by himself! my sister and i both agree there is nothing more distressing than the sound of your tiny newborn wailing away in his car seat when you can't reach him... we use them (of course), but i completely understand what you're saying. my sister suggested making a new type of car horn that attaches to the newborn seat and pipes that music out of the car like a siren - an idea i think she would patent, as every mother in a ten mile radius would move her car out of the way. wishing you sleep and a few long, hot showers!

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  10. I grew up without car seats and I'm alive to tell the story. My sister and her hubs, however, were what I considered over the top about car seats for their daughter. They traveled everywhere with a very particular car seat, and one of them had to drive the car, even if the car wasn't their own, they didn't trust anyone, while the other sat in the back with the kid. It really was too much, but I don't have kids so maybe I would do the same thing if I did have one. Your post is a great perspective from another culture. Fascinating that they couldn't believe the baby would be by himself! And, that mother cow got to me!

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  11. It's really something when you stop to consider how things are in other cultures. I grew up in a no car seat generation, but wouldn't dream of not having one for my kid. But I remember those days of not being able to get to him and him screaming. We had a song we used to sing, my husband and I, at the top of our lungs to try to calm him. Sometimes it worked. Great post!

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  12. My kiddo is *finally* front seat safe, and it has made life so much easier. She can't make any noise, so trying to check on her and drive, was maddening and saddening. Ugh.

    Also, those poor cows!

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  13. Oh my little loved to sleep in hers- at times, it was the only way she would nap!

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  14. I'm with you. I'm old and when we were growing up, we just tossed in the back seat of the ginormous station wagon, told to shut up, and off we went. Oh, and my mom was smoking while she drove. Sometimes in the winter she would crack the window just an itsy bit to (sort of) let the smoke out. My 21st century self shudders - SMOKING? NO CAR SEATS? and then I think, what the hell, we lived. And here, in Abu Dhabi it's hilarious (and terrifying): toddlers sitting on mommy's lap in the front seat of the porsche, kids hanging out of the sun roof of the moving car...wild. I do always feel, though, that babies are supposed to SLEEP in a moving car. It's like written into the baby contract or something. So when they don't, they are in total violation.

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  15. I think one of the reasons car seats are so necessary here is the number of cars on the road and the speed at which we drive here---a situation far removed from what you are living in. I think that has to be part of your mixed feelings about car seats. I love the notion that babies are living in a culture where they are never more than 3 feet away from loving arms---that's just beautiful. Nice post, Erin

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  16. My brother in law has moved to Taiwan and has since married and has two children. When his first was small, he disclosed how they ride as a family on the scooter. His wife behind him, while their infant son strapped to the bjorn between the two. To say it freaked my mother in law out, was an understatement, but what can I say, it's the norm.

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  17. You know, I get what you're saying. Which is why the first 3 months of my son's life, I never drove by myself with him. My husband would drive and I would sit in the back with the baby. And I'll always be holding his hand or something. It was like I couldn't bear to be more than 5 inches away!

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  18. this is tough! I understand the pull in both directions. I really think it matters in what environment you are driving in. great thoughts.

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  19. I totally get the primal need to be close to your newborn...I didn't want to let my babies out of my arms for those first few months. I kind of 'hibernated' after they were born, and didn't go out much.
    Great thinking post :)

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  20. My mom often reminds me of how she would just hold us in her arms when we drove, my dad driving.
    My son loathed his car seat and would scream everywhere we went in a car. I often thought, he must be starving! I would practically rip him out of his car seat to feed him and...he didn't want to eat. He just wanted to be with me. He quieted as soon as I scooped him up. Go figure.:)
    I get this. And I really enjoy your writing.

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  21. I cannot wait to read every single one of your blogs!!!! During our recent trip to Kenya we never used our carseat. If there was a car everyone was so excited to see it they wanted to ride in it. Anywhere we went we were crammed door to door full of people in the back seat. One time I seriously just suggested a niece ride in the boot. I was tired of being smooshed and it was an SUV. They are so used to riding carseat and buckle free. I explained to my sister in law that if they lived in the states all three of her children were still small enough to need carseats or they'd be fined. My trip ended up consisting of comparing one normal routine to something that would be punishable here in the U.S. After a month I was able to relax a little. Sometimes when my son was younger (6 mos now) my husband would ask me to take him out of the carseat and nurse him. Kenyans aren't used to hearing babies cry. It's that simple. Mom truly is within 3 feet at all times. Basically, I loved a lot about their natural way of child rearing. I could breastfeed and no one was looking at me or judging me for it. I loved that. I find that breastfeeding in the states, trying to conform to all of our silly social norms, yet trying to ignore them because they are ridiculous is very stressful. I do dread driving in Kenya. But, what can ya do? I just hope we can buy our own car next time we visit. Being deep in the village and holding your son with a 103 F temp... knowing deep to your soul that he has Malaria... and not being able to do anything... bc you're literally stuck deep in the village!! AH!! Gotta have a car!!

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