The Car Seat

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If I had to choose the single worst aspect of parenting in the first year of a baby’s life, I have a very simple answer: the fucking car seat. Every aspect of it — choosing one, buying it, installing it, removing it, putting it into another car, strapping a screaming baby into it — is totally maddening and utterly exhausting.

The first challenge you will face, alone as parents, just unleashed from the hospital, will be getting your baby home. If, like me, your baby was born at the tail end of a blizzard in Manhattan and if, like me, you live in Brooklyn, well, getting home will possibly be worse than the delivery.

We planned in advance: We researched the best and safest infant car seat (which it turns out is, unsurprisingly, probably the most expensive), and we bought it. We installed the base into our tiny car weeks before Zelda’s planned escape from my womb. We hauled the little seat into the hospital, where a nurse showed us how to strap her little body into the seat. She sat there, strapped in, surrounded by sausage-rolled blankets, seemingly gasping for each breath. We threw the seat into the base which, we’d read, shouldn’t budge “more than an inch” in its position. It budged. We white-knuckled it all the way home. We made it.

We didn’t drive that much after the baby was born, so she never really got a car groove going. She threw up in the car sometimes, she yelled, and I wrestled, often, with the sneaking suspicion that the car seat was improperly installed. Finally, I hired a professional car seat installer, and paid the best seventy-five dollars of my life to find that I was correct: The car seat wasn’t situated correctly. The installer showed me how to get it in and out of the car in seconds flat: You need to move seats and get your entire body into the back seat of the car. You push on the seat with your body, you tug harder than you’ve ever tugged on the seat belt which will be all that stands between your baby and the outside should an impact occur. You struggle and huff and puff. You turn red. And you get that fucker installed properly. And then, before you know it, the little rat has outgrown her first car seat and needs an upgrade.

Modern car seats are gigantic. So if, like me, you are married to someone who is six-foot-four, you can forget about travelling anywhere in comfort unless you’re prepared to purchase a Suburban or a minivan. The rules of car seats decree that the back of the seat mustn’t touch any of the seats in front of it. And, because my husband is so tall, his seat needs to go alllllll the way back. That means that the baby seat cannot be in the middle of the backseat, but behind the passenger seat. That’s my seat! In fact, even now that I have my own car, I can’t drive it if my husband is along for the ride. I’m the only person in the family that can squeeze into the passenger seat with the fucking car seat behind it. “What,” I ask several times a week in desperation, “would we do if we had ANOTHER baby? Never go anywhere together?”

Two weeks ago, my grandmother died. She was nearly ninety-one years old. So Zelda and I flew home to Pittsburgh together. Not wanting to be stranded in the suburbs at my father’s house all week, I decided to rent a car at the airport. I’m always prepared, and I made my plans carefully. I decided that I couldn’t travel alone with a thirty-pound one-year-old, a suitcase, a carry on, a stroller, and a car seat in a bag. That is just crazy. So I called the car rental places and confirmed that yes, they had car seats that would work in my rental car for her.

After a somewhat harrowing but short (less than an hour!) flight home, we arrived at Enterprise Rent a Car in the Pittsburgh International Airport. I don’t want to say that something smelled off from the beginning, but as I stood at the counter trying to appease my daughter who really just wanted to be set free to destroy the terminal, it wasn’t exactly reassuring to hear “Ha! I’m not sure, it’s my first day,” when I asked about the car seat. The Enterprise employee conferred with several others before letting me know that my car seat would be available in the parking lot where I was going to pick up the car. Then, he told me that the cost to rent the car — a Toyota Corolla — would be six hundred dollars. “Fuck it, I’ll figure it out later,” I told him as I took the receipt and the navigational unit (apparently they still make those giant Garmin things that plug into a lighter outlet!) from him and walked away, baby screaming the whole time.

The car seats that Enterprise had on offer left a lot to be desired, it turns out. One was too small, one too large, and the only one that seemed like it might fit was broken. All were terribly cheap and dirty, and most of them seemed to be at least ten years old.

Now, I didn’t expect a remarkable car seat, even though I was paying six hundred dollars to rent a car for three days; I expected a car seat worth the additional ten dollars per day that I was paying for it. I also didn’t expect them to install it for me; I know how to do that fairly quickly on my own, even with luggage and a baby in a dark garage at 4:30 PM when it’s thirty degrees outside. But, as I’d called in advance and warned them, even telling them my daughter’s age and weight, I did expect a functional car seat. Sadly for the employees of Enterprise Rent a Car, I can turn into a bitch pretty quickly. My daughter was in her stroller crying as I threw car seats onto the ground, discarding each as either broken, old or the wrong size. Employees began flocking around me, disappearing and reappearing with other old broken car seats, asking me if I wanted to go inside to keep warm. “No, we’re fine!” I kept barking, though it was by then so completely obvious that nothing was fine. “Can I get you anything?” a nice female employee asked.

“Yes,” I said, in tears. “You can get me a fucking car seat that works and can be installed into a modern car. I’m paying six hundred dollars for a car for three days; I’m going to my grandmother’s funeral; and I called beforehand to make sure this exact situation wouldn’t happen. These car seats are illegal! They update them like every single year. These should be thrown in the fucking garbage!” She blinked and nodded. Over an hour had passed since we landed.

I called taxi companies to see if they could pick us up and had car seats. A laughable request, apparently. Finally, I called my father, who has a car seat. He would have my brother come over, put the seat in, and pick me up, he said. They live about an hour away.

“I don’t need the fucking car,” I finally said, pushing my still-crying daughter back towards the airport. “Can we call you a taxi?” the nice Enterprise woman asked me. “Can you magically make a taxi with a car seat appear?” I yelled. “That’s the thing you guys don’t realize — I can’t FUCKING LEAVE the airport without a car seat. We are stuck here until someone picks us up!”

As we walked away from Enterprise one last time, I saw a young lady approaching a rental minivan with a toddler in a stroller. “Good luck!” I yelled, no context offered.

My parents didn’t have this problem. If car seats existed in 1977, when I was brought home from the hospital, they certainly weren’t a requirement. No, they just loaded me up into whatever tank they drove that passed for a car and shot on home. And here I am, thirty-seven years later. I made it. Now, I don’t think that they didn’t NEED a crazy car seat like the ones we have today. They did, they just didn’t know it yet, and our collective lack of safety was their gain in never having to deal with the painful necessities we now face as parents.

As I sat in the airport, defeated on a bench feeding my now happy and warm daughter animal crackers, I thought about the indignity of my situation. “No preparations could have saved me from this,” I told myself. “I yelled at people and swore at them, in front of my daughter, and nothing could have stopped it,” I told myself. “Well, Uber could have stopped it,” I said aloud to Zelda, who smiled. “Uber has those amazing little car seats they install in seconds flat, always nice and clean. We’ll get an Uber home from JFK, and it’ll be fine,” I told her. And we did.

The Parent Rap is an endearing column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.