Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carseat Defeat

I have a confession to make. I have a sneaking suspicion that my children spent the early years of their lives being chauffered in carseats that were not installed correctly.

For those of you who have kids under the age of 35, you understand the angst and guilt imparted on parents around the issue of the carseat. Parenting blogs and listserves are overrun by sanctimonious moms who debate the level of BPA in their seats and insist they will keep their children in carseats until the kids are 30. I would be willing to bet these are the same parents who shoot their faces full of Botox, but moral consistency is not what this is about.

And no matter how competent you may be around the house, unless you are a structural engineer, you are not qualified to install the seat. The seats inexplicably "expire" after a certain period of time, presumably when the toxins in the styrofoam they are made with is ready to self-combust. Yes, most of you reading this were driven around  like little projectile missiles ready to launch through the backwindow of your parents' wood-sided stationwagon. Every trip to the A&P or gymnastics lessons was as unstable as those jumpseats in the back of a school bus. Is it any wonder so many of us have digestive or nervous conditions?

I became suspicious years ago about the carseat scam, after paying a $35 fee on top of the $200 for my oldest child's plastic-and-styrofoam seat--bought at an establishment with an incongruently brutish and aggressive sales staff, considering it was named something like Tiny Town-- to be professionally installed into our  Volvo stationwagon. I was aware then, as I am now, that "professional" simply means someone who is paid to do something. It does not speak to competency or skill. But to a new parent with a turbo engine stationwagon, it was all about safety. So a top-of-the-line carseat, bought at West Los Angeles' go-to store for baby gear, to go with the premier Volvo Mommymobile, calls out for a custom seat installation. Even if my delicate infant's seat was being jammed into place by a man with a thick gold chain and untended knuckle hair, who looked like he both had the ability and the desire to crush my new Eurocar with his bare hands.

The crack installer grunted and cursed (though, fortunately, in a foreign tongue, so as not to scar my newborn's psyche) as he screwed and hammered the puffy seat into our stationwagon. For someone who apparently made a living installing these carseats, he was all force and no finesse. Would I get my money back if he snapped the seat in two? Would he take out his frustration with the seat installation on our shiny new car, pounding the hood into submission?  Would the sweat flying off his brow stain our lovely leather seats? And do I have to tip this person?

My son just never seemed comfortable in the seat. Despite the foam padding and nifty cup holder (for his baby latte??), it was a daily struggle to wrench his body into the allotted seating area and buckle the five-point harness. There always seemed to be some appendage flailing out of the security of the complex constellation of belts. While the buckle was appropriately baby-proof, it was also adult-proof, and neither my husband nor I ever figured out the trick to unfasten it without at least one finger getting pinched.

Luckily, we only had to struggle with this deluxe piece of travel furniture for a short time, because when my son was 18 months old, our ultra-safe Volvo stationwagon burst into flames while we were returning from a vacation, turning both my son's fancy carseat and his beloved baby blanket into ashes. We were all safe, thanks to the superhuman parenting instinct that kicks in when there is a crisis. But for parents who obsessed over choosing the safest of everything for our child, we were underwhelmed by these highly touted items.

My daughter did not get a $200 carseat when she was born. Maybe it was second-child fatigue, but more likely it was our disenchantment with the items showcased in parenting magazines and The Right Start. Our daughter's carseat was a Target sale item, with no cup holder (we decided to raise #2 caffeine-free), but many belts and latches attached to it. Now, I am a whiz putting together Ikea furniture--and that is using a Swedish-made manual. But carseats made in my very own country of origin are clearly not meant for American-born, Ivy League English majors. The diagrams in the installation manual had absolutely no relationship to the actual seat. And the levers and hooks that the belts and gizmos were supposed to attach to did not seem to exist in my car, a popular Toyota SUV.

Fortunately, I have moments of desperation where I am able to channel my inner MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson who, as we all know, also played Dr. Jeff Weber on General Hospital in the 1980s) and get the job done with bungee cords, masking tape, and a tube sock. Voila! My daughter always seemed to lean to the left, and she had to suck in her stomach to get the belt fastened, and once she hit the age of 4, she had to hold her breath and keep her left arm over her head in order to get the damn thing buckled. But I had officially done what a husky and bitter man with a unibrow was not able to do--even for $35. It was only recently, when I decided to remove the seat in favor of a "booster seat" (whose purpose is completely unfathomable to me), that I realized I probably shouldn't have had to use a steak knife and nail file to remove the seat if it had been installed according to code.

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