A newspaper article recently advised me to save $10,000 before becoming pregnant – and this is just to provide adequately for the infant in its first year. It seems that I must choose between having a family and paying my student loans. Why are these babies so expensive?
I am beginning to get an idea. First, there’s the need to take baby out of the house. This seems to involve a transport device that is more schooner than stroller. Instead of a single wooden figurehead, a row of large plastic toys for the baby’s entertainment tops the stroller’s prow. A soaring sail of a canopy shades amidships while diaper bags larger than lifeboats dangle aft. Sometimes an infant passenger slumbers in a secure hammock below deck, and instead of dolphins riding the wake, the family dog trots portside. Henry VIII sailing the Thames was a ragtag affair compared to the pomp and luxury of the modern baby stroller.
Neighborhood coffee shops are ports of call to the mommies who captain these outsize vessels. When one stroller comes in, six or seven adults have to leave just to make room. If a fire were to break out, Mommy could pick up her baby and run, but the rest of us would be hopelessly trapped behind the stroller.
My childhood stroller, compared to the sidewalk yachts of today, was little more than a low-slung seat on wheels. Once, at the zoo, a goose nibbled my toes. I loved it. Today’s little ones can barely be seen inside their shaded vessels, much less tasted by friendly animals.
A look at today’s toys also helps to shed light on the $10,000. Behold a product called the Evenflo Exersaucer Mega Circus: children of three months old are seated in a plastic gadget that’s part walker and part control panel teeming with rattles and plastic rotators and animals and flowers on high, bendy stalks. The Mega Circus’s 360˚ dashboard makes the Millennium Falcon look like a go-cart. Now we know the reason young children aren’t overwhelmed by 3-D Imax movies about spaceships and monsters – the kids have been piloting the Exersaucer since before they were six months old.
Toys for older children are just as overwrought. I was more than a little unsettled as, shopping for a new notebook at Rite Aid, I encountered a three foot tall “walking doll” for sale. We can deplore the lack of imagination embodied in a toy like this (now dolls have to be life-size and ambulatory to boot), but really, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Imagine playing with your walking doll all afternoon, and then propping it against your closet door when it’s time for bed. Late in the night, after your parents have gone to sleep, the outside pavement whispers as the headlights from the occasional midnight car swoop eerily through your room. The soft light rolls across the profile of the doll, whose jutting gangly limbs seem to reproach you for leaning her so crookedly against the door while you climbed into your warm bed. The next time the pale headlights washed silently across the room, is it so hard to imagine that the doll’s head had turned of its own accord in the dark to face you? But I digress. (If I didn’t have fantasies like this in the aisles of Rite Aid, I would need fewer notebooks, but my points about the doll still stand).
All of this brings me to what children really need, which I rediscovered while lending a hand at a co-worker’s home gathering. She has two children, aged about four and six, who, in the course of the evening, were joined by (roughly) 150 of their friends. Before the guests descended, I offered to read the kids a story so their mother could plate food in peace. The four-year-old was torn between eating his very own hard-boiled egg and listening to the story, but he compromised by scarfing the egg down in the kitchen and dashing out for a flying leap onto the couch lest he miss another moment of Babar. In the story, a little girl elephant is born. She eats dinner and plays hide-and-go-seek. She wanders off, makes some friends, and comes home in a hang-glider. She tells her parents all about it. The End. The kids were entranced.
Later, they settled in for a round of “Hungry Hungry Hippos”. If you don’t know what this game is, let me know when you’re coming out of the cave you grew up in, and are ready to have some fun. Four small plastic hippos whose mouths clap open and shut with a lever surround a board rolling with small white marbles. Whoever catches the most marbles in a frenzy of slamming wins. (On a related note, I’ve heard that children have sharper ears than adults. This cannot be true. Four children whaling away on four plastic hippos could drown out a jackhammer and the kids don’t turn a hair).
My co-worker’s lovely home also boasted another integral feature of a child’s simple joy: a floor plan which connected the vestibule, kitchen, dining and living rooms in one big loop. Like a hurricane gaining strength over open water, a torrent of ecstatic children (gaining collective velocity with each cookie consumed) ran races through the party. Occasional hitches in the stampede occurred as small contingents piled into the bathroom and then flung the door open in the path of the next lap. One small girl trotted doggedly at the rear of the pack, holding a chocolate cupcake. “Guys, we need to take an eating break,” she begged.
The kids at the party were raucous, but they also brought me a new peace of mind. A child’s food, clothes, medical care and education may be budget busters. But when I shop for a stroller, I will not be purchasing a merchant ship on wheels. Exersaucer Mega Circuses and Walking Dolls need not apply. I remember the most exciting toys my brother and I ever got: the huge cardboard boxes that new appliances or furniture came in. Compared to the possibilities of these boxes, dolls seemed downright one-dimensional.
Do you have a battered storybook? A cardboard box? Marbles and a tiny plastic hippo? A living space that can occasionally double as a race track? If so, don’t break the bank – your children are ready to be enthralled.