Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Yes, we still need strollers

Stroller, prams, pushchairs, buggies--they're a part of childrearing, whether you love them or hate them. And an awful lot of people do seem to really hate them. Dislike of buggies is one of the top complaints among those people who have a hostile attitude towards parents and children in public spaces--whenever the breeders vs. childfree-by-choice wars break out online, you can guarantee that there'll be lots of moaning about stroller-users bashing people in the ankles or pushing them off the kerb.

Big ("SUV") strollers, expensive strollers and older kids in strollers come in for the most criticism. "These things get bigger every year!" "Just carry your kid already--and once they can walk, make them walk!" Sometimes--in one of those unholy alliances that only the Internet makes possible--the child-hating-by-choice people are joined by the attachment parenting brigade, who say things like "Oh, I agree! I don't know why people use strollers; we almost never used ours, just carried her everywhere in a sling! It's soooo much easier than a bulky buggy!"

Now, I like a good sling myself too. But strollers are a necessity for most of us at least some of the time. So, taking a hint from Privilege Denying Doula for a moment, I'll say why I think so.

1. Not every baby will tolerate slings
Some babies really, really don't like being worn--and it's not always a case of "Oh, but you just need to find the right sling!" Some babies just prefer the stroller. No, seriously. They do.

2. Not every parent can use slings
Some mothers have disabilities even before they get pregnant; others develop problems due to pregnancy and childbirth, which can do a number on your body. Mothers who have developed chronic back ache, who have symphysis pubis dysfunction, who are recovering from surgery or whose pelvic organs are falling out don't need to aggravate these issues by lugging the baby, baby gear and all their bags around for hours on end. Which leads me to...

3. Prams carry stuff
I love slings for short trips, but for whole days out or when doing errands on foot...? The problem is, you don't just have your child; you've also got a diaper bag, change of clothes, toys, maybe snacks or drink. PLUS groceries and shopping... or maybe bags of dry cleaning and recycling... or maybe a bag of library books and the boots you're taking to the menders... perhaps raingear and umbrellas... or a picnic lunch... I have actually tried doing trips like this with a sling rather than a pram, and discovered that the hassle of occasionally having to search for an elevator is actually a lot less miserable than staggering round like a packhorse for hours and hours.

4. Prams let you catch a break
A child falling asleep in the pram is your cue to slip into a cafe or restaurant for a quiet lunch with your friend or partner, or even just a nice half-hour to have a coffee and knit/read by yourself. You really cannot enjoy this kind of moment with a baby glued to your front; you can't eat in comfort because you have tyrannosaurus-rex arms (= you struggle to get your hands near your face), and you can't drink anything hot for fear of dropping it on their head. If they're on your back, you can't sit back in your chair and relax. Ugh!

5. Kids who can walk sometimes need strollers too
A lot of people love complaining about walking-age children in strollers. "Let them walk! They need exercise!" Yes, but. The four-year-old you briefly spied in a stroller yesterday was almost certainly not there all day long. Most likely they walked for ages, and then took a little rest in the buggy when their legs started to give way. A stroller makes it possible to cover substantial distances without driving; nobody moans about a four-year-old being driven from A to B in a car, even though said child is getting no more exercise than a child in a stroller (less, actually, since the strollered child probably did much of that journey on foot); Show me a person who says "Well, my little one was out of the buggy by 21 months! I believe in making children walk!" and I will show you someone who flippin' drives everywhere. Which brings me on to...

6. If you don't have a car, your stroller IS your car
The whole notion of "babywear only, skip the stroller and then make them walk once they're toddlers" is actually quite doable for most people who drive most places. You can dump all your stuff in the car, drive from place to place, and when you get out, bring just those few things you need right now; a baby can fall asleep in the carseat and you unsnap the bucket and carry it into the restaurant; an older child can take a nap in the car on the way home.  If you don't drive it's a different story. It is often not possible to carry a baby, diaper bag and errand stuff/shopping round for hours on end while covering considerable distances on foot; nor is it practical to do everything at a small child's pace. And your toddler will have nowhere to rest or nap. I think, to be honest, this is what's at the crux of all those furious online arguments about strollers in public places. The demographic which is most hostile to having children in their midst tends to be concentrated in densely populated urban areas... however, it is precisely those areas where parents tend to need their strollers the most.

7. Not all strollers are created equal
I'm not sure where this whole "Strollers keep getting bigger all the time!" idea has come from--haven't the people who say this ever seen a tank-like 1950s pram? Now those really are strollers you could haul a week's worth of coal home in (and of course that's just what people did). Teeny umbrella strollers are great for older kids, but tiny babies need to lie flat. And if you're a city parent who uses your stroller a lot, it is perfectly reasonable to spend $$$ getting an good one; cheap strollers will steer awkwardly, rattle your child around when they're trying to nap, and rapidly wear out and need to be replaced. False economy. I'm not sure why it's considered so morally abhorrent to spend some money on something which one is going to use hard every day and be seen with for hours at a time. Nobody bitches at the person who invests in a decent winter coat rather than the cheapest anorak they can lay their hands on. (Just one thing: if I'm brutally honest, I do think that some of the strollers used by some parents are bigger than they need to be. I think the best urban stroller is mid-size: big enough to carry your gear, small enough to be reasonably agile.)

Closing thoughts
Much as I love my Beco--it's practical, fun and sometimes life-saving--I'd be disappointed if the existence of slings started to become yet another excuse for stroller bans, hostility towards pram-users in public spaces, or failing to make accommodations for strollers such as ensuring elevator provision. Hating on parents with strollers won't make us and our offspring disappear--it will just drive us into cars, which won't help anyone. Of course it is possible to "manage" without either prams or cars--in remote villages in Nepal and Sierra Leone and so on, women trudge around with babies, firewood, water and farm produce strapped all over them. I wouldn't want to live that way, and women in Nepalese villages probably wouldn't live that way either if they had any choice in the matter. At least Nepalese village women have the option of leaving toddlers in the care of extended family members or older kids (who do most of the childcare in traditional societies). In developed countries, we have little choice other than to drag toddlers around with us on errands. Strollers are an important tool in making sure parents, especially mothers, can occupy public spaces easily and get their stuff done.

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