Friday, November 22, 2019

The Stroller

Twice recently I've seen the stroller come up in things I've read. Most recently, there was a New York Times op-ed, ostensibly about the ethics of sharing stories about your children online, but with a part philosophizing (in fairness, the author, is a philosopher) about how "people warn prospective parents that having a baby is expensive, but that isn’t exactly true. What’s expensive is getting away from your baby." Among the items listed: "A stroller so you don’t have to carry them."

Then there was the (brilliant, and to be discussed more elsewhere) short story, "The Feminist," by Tony Tulathimutte, in n+1. It's the story of a disillusioned and ever more resentful male feminist. He sees those around him settling down, thinks everyone else can find love, but that he's somehow cursed. But his breaking point is "a fleet of strollers":

He flattens against the plastic wall to let three, four strollers pass, then tries to enter the restaurant when a fifth woman approaches, pushing an enormous three-wheeler with BMX tires and a crusty-eyed baby scrunched inside it. ...

[H]e catches up to them and (carelessly, with his injured foot) delivers a solid righteous side-stomp to the stroller’s chassis, which the mother catches just before it tips over, and he gives another wild kick before he shoots off through traffic across the street. Their shouts degrade into noise as he rounds the corner at a hobbled gallop, and he makes sure they hear him laughing.

We own basically one expensive thing and it's this stroller. More than this 4-year-old computer, and more than the non-existent car. More than any item of (Ikea and Craigslist) furniture. More than those other carlessness-related 'investments', the giant Canadian parkas. It seemed ridiculous, and still seems it, but wasn't.

Is it a status symbol? It is and it isn't. Yes, it's practical - snow-compatible (necessary for a December baby in Toronto), and this particular model came with a detachable bassinet that was also the 'crib' for the first I no longer remember how long. But there's something pleasing about getting your child the best possible start in life, with something new (a used stroller being apparently but probably not really a death trap?) and, why not, a bit glamorous. Only the best. Expensive baby clothes are clearly not useful, but in the case where the expensive thing is also the most useful one, why not lean into that?

If it's status, it's perhaps less the stroller itself (and the prices of these would horrify even those who were merely assuming they're expensive) than the implication: The stroller-pusher, if the parent of the child, has everything sorted out. If the stroller is big and/or the mother is older, her life got to a place where a baby was possible, a desirable abstract situation even for many with zero interest in having kids.

There was also, I'm remembering, a third stroller reference, in a tweet I'll never locate, something about a homeless man holding forth about all the dogs and strollers in some gentrifying area, shared not by the homeless man, but rather by someone (presumably) less destitute but in solidarity with the annoyance at those people with the strollers and the dogs. In a city, stroller plus dog implies a lifestyle. Implies, but doesn't necessarily accompany.

I feel guilty when I press the button with a wheelchair icon for it to get through doorways, or sit in the blue seats on the front of the bus. A baby stroller is and isn't a mobility device. It's indisputable that babies aren't about to climb subway stairs or walk down the street, and that if only for medical appointments, they do occasionally need to leave their homes. But there's this alternative, a carrier, that works well for the blip of time when you're recovered enough from childbirth to use it but your baby is not yet too big and squirmy to walk around with strapped to your torso. And the carrier doesn't quite fix things, because you will still take up more than one seat on the subway (the baby's legs need to go somewhere!).

To go around with a stroller - and yes I read the Rachel Cusk excerpt about moving through space with a baby, yes it's amazing, yes I still need to read the book itself - is to engage, despite yourself, in an endless stream of feelings-projection.  You know your presence annoys everyone around you - both from others' responses and from reading accounts of people annoyed by strollers - but you can't know why, so you start guessing. It could be anything! It could be something understandable (your stroller is blocking someone's way to a make-or-break job interview; the person annoyed seeing a stroller is childless not by choice) or obnoxious (someone thinks, because reasons, babies don't belong in coffee shops/farmers markets/supermarkets/cities). It could be, if fiction's to be believed, that the man annoyed at you for pushing a stroller is an incel.

All you can know for sure is that the stroller reads as optional. Optional because babies are often understood these days as an entitled lifestyle choice, but also because look at the space that thing takes up, surely there'd have to be some alternative, not that it's for the annoyed onlooker to articulate what that alternative might be.