I have this memory that has been haunting me. I’m very pregnant and I’m sitting on the floor of our living room on 3rd Street in Brooklyn. In front of me is an infant car seat and, in my hands, the instruction booklet. I am convinced that I will not be allowed to have a baby unless I can figure out how to properly thread the car seat. But my geometrically-impaired brain cannot make the diagram in the booklet correspond with the back of the actual car seat. And I know that if the seat isn’t threaded the exact right way, my tiny, defenseless, improperly tethered, new baby will ricochet out of the car seat and fly through the air. This image collides with the thick brew of pregnancy hormones coursing through my body. I am a mewling, weeping mess marooned on the living room floor.
Later, Peter’s less hormonally ravaged and more logical mind prevailed. I think we went to the local police station and met someone called the “Car Seat Safety Officer.” I have a vague notion that Mr. Car Seat Safety reassured us by poking and prodding the various buckles and belts and then stuck his uniformed knee firmly into our little grey plaid seat and pulled up hard on the seatbelt. I remember thinking that our car (a 1987 Chrysler Ciera called HotBird) was probably not the safest set of wheels on the block, but I was relieved that the car seat had gotten the official safety stamp of approval.
On her maiden voyage down Manhattan’s West Side Drive, we were all scandalized when the supposedly well-tethered 18-hour-old-Kate’s entire top half of her body flopped down into her lap. We were all too terrified to tighten the straps around this new little translucent person, so as Peter drove us back to Brooklyn, my sister held Kate’s tiny grapefruit head in her hands. I stared over the back of the front seat in horror. I’m pretty sure the “Auntie’s Head-Hold” wasn’t one of the diagrams in the instruction booklet.
I subsequently became an expert at car seats. You've got to be. You can’t go anywhere without one, and even the most expensive ones - even the Consumer Reports A +++ rated ones - have straps that are forever getting mucked up and twisted. (It’s the babies, they’re busy messing them up back there while you’re listening to NPR.) I have spent so much time rethreading and futzing with Kate’s car seats that I have fantasized about being a contestant on a “Beat The Clock” type game show where I compete to restore car seats to order in mere moments. Or, better yet, try and stump me with a naked car seat frame after you've been forced to take the cover off and wash it because you can no longer stand the stench of the multiply-puked-on-fabric. I bet I can have that baby up and running in 6 minutes flat with just a phillips head screwdriver and one long pinky nail.
Eventually you lighten up a bit. Somewhere en route to Hong Kong via California, I lost the locking clip for Kate’s car seat and I never bothered to get a new one. Every time we went around a curve on the San Diego freeways, Kate’s seat would lurch to one side or the other because the automatic seatbelts in my dad’s car can’t hold a car seat securely without a clip. Kate enjoyed the excitement and I had other things on my mind. When we arrived in Hong Kong, I astonished the cab driver by trying to buckle the car seat into the back of his taxi. He kept up a constant mime of “mother holds baby in her lap” while I broke all my nails trying to pry the belt out from between the seats. Now the car seat has been banished to the utility room along with the bikes, the stroller and the roller blades. These days, Kate automatically sits on our laps on all methods of conveyance. She and Peter even have jokes about the “Dada seatbelt” (two hands that come around her and “lock” into place). Sometimes, when the bus is really crowded, we don’t get the window seat and I have to struggle to keep myself and Kate from spilling into the aisle as we careen around the hairpin curves that wind down from our village. Kate laughs as I try to keep her from flying out of my lap and I think about my sister calmly holding a floppy infant head in between her thumb and forefinger.
Off we go to Bali for our first holiday away from Hong Kong. We debate bringing the car seat, we even try to e-mail our Balinese driver to see if he has a car seat. When we don’t hear anything, we just get on the plane and decide to go with the flow. There are no seat belts in the van that picks us up at steamy Denpasar airport. Just Dewa, a lovely Balinese man who will be our driver for the week, and two rows of comfortable seats. Kate immediately clambers into the van and sits between us, pleased to have her own space for once. On the way to our villa in Ubud, our fears are somewhat allayed by the fact that Dewa is an excellent driver and no one is driving very fast because the roads are narrow and filled with motorbikes. Later we realize that most of the motorbikes in Bali carry a whole family, usually with babies perched jauntily, terrifyingly, on the driver’s lap. Sometimes the bikes carry a whole family and their groceries, with mama riding side-saddle holding the bags. In Lovina, a seaside village, a motorbike carrying a giant piece of bamboo made it look like the tree was taking a holiday.
During one of our excursions, we saw a motorbike chug by that appeared to be driven by a 6-year-old boy. Finally we just gave ourselves over to the place and felt grateful that we hadn’t lugged our car seat. Kate spent most of her time in the van comfortably bouncing around between us, sleeping sprawled on our laps, or scattering the refuse of her many half-eaten snacks on the floor. One evening Dewa brought his kids to meet Kate, and they shocked us by using the van as their playroom on wheels. As his father calmly steered down the dark, narrow lanes of Ubud, the younger boy climbed around like a monkey – switching the lights on and off and flipping over the seats. Kate watched in wonder. These are boundaries she had never considered breaking. She whispered to me, “He’s a bad boy,” and I realized that she was applying her own moral code to this very different world we’d entered. “No,” I said, “he just has a lot of energy.” She is old enough to start differentiating between what is right for her and what is right for others.
So are we. We’re learning to be flexible. No need to shed our ways completely if we can adapt to each new situation. But, on our own here, we’re learning to rely on our intuition, our consensus as parents, our gut. We miss the wonderful advice and counsel of our trusted friends, families, doctors, books, websites and teachers, but this experience is proving to be good for all three of us. We are each learning self-reliance, we’re getting tougher. We’re bouncing around in the car/bus/taxi together. We’ve left the instruction booklet behind.
I can't tell you about it because you're a grown-up. Grown-ups can't know about these things.