Ridiculous Thing #15: Practising car seat exceptionalism

My rule against giving advice to new parents has three exceptions. Anyone who needs them is probably very busy, so here they are in tl;dr version:

1. Envelope-neck vests can be removed downwards.

2. There’s a hidden built-in hood on your Maxi Cosi car seat.

3. Fit your own oxygen mask first.

Sadly they all need some (or a lot of) explaining. Bad luck, new parent. Read on.

So, I don’t as a rule give advice, for several reasons. Firstly, it gets up people’s noses. There’s almost no way to do it without sounding (and being) smug, supercilious, or around 400 years old. Secondly, as this blog attests, I’m not what you’d call the most intuitive of parents, or the quickest to see ingenious ways through parenting’s thickets: that means that if I know a Thing about parenting, it is doubtless an incredibly obvious Thing and well within everyone else’s ability to deduce. I used, for example, to be very proud of what I called my “bag of tricks”: a special little carrier that I stowed beside my bed, filled with all the things I might need should the baby poo in the night. Thanks to my bag of tricks, which I carefully stocked each day before bedtime, I didn’t even need to get out of bed in the wee (hee) small hours when the shit hit the, well, everything, saving myself a lot of nocturnal blundering about and a fair bit of sleep. It was only several weeks into doing this with my second child that I realized that what I was assembling each night was called a changing bag, and was one of the most basic bits of kit each and every parent acquires. And I had a proper one in the cupboard downstairs. Lastly, a lot of the stuff you might want to help other parents through is actually the kind of knowledge you can’t impart in a declarative way. That’s the case, I suspect, with everything I was saying about the culture shock of having a new tiny dependent. No amount of understanding at a cognitive level really helps to prepare you; you just have to experience these things for yourself. Nonetheless, these three pieces of advice beat the rule because they are all exempt from those problems: they are too nifty to be hackneyed; they’re too surprising to be obvious; they’re smack-you-between-the-eyes enough to make them worth being told.

1. Envelope-neck vests can be removed downwards.

Why do baby vests (the little t-shirts with poppers in the crotch) have those cute little necklines? Is it just because a sweetheart neckline dates too quickly? Turns out, no. It’s so that if the nappy leaks all over the vest you can peel that vest off downwards, over the baby’s hips and legs, instead of covering the baby’s face and hair with escaped crap as you try to get them changed. I know people who’ve literally cut off and thrown away baby clothes before learning this trick. Learning it set our Facebook parenting group on fire.

2. There’s a hidden built-in hood on your Maxi Cosi car seat.

No, there really is. I know you think it’s perhaps on all the other models and not yours, but it’s on yours too. See those indentations in the carry handle? They’re for the hood to attach to. To find it, poke your finger between the fabric and the plastic at the very back and top of the car seat, above where the baby’s head goes. There you go.

When my best friend’s baby was about three months old she showed me her car seat with its snazzy rain hood. “I saw someone else had one with a hood and told her I wished we’d got one on ours,” my friend told me. “She said ‘You know, I used to think that about my car seat, and then my mum showed me that actually mine had a hood too.’ I didn’t believe her, then came home and checked, and she was right. It’s on ours too.”

I listened to my friend’s story and nodded and smiled — our car seat, you see, didn’t have such a hood. After all, my baby was older; we’d had the seat nine months by then and used it frequently, so I’d have noticed something like a rain hood by then, no? Only that night did this story begin gnawing at me. I got out the car seat and had a look. And… yep. There it was. Hiding in plain sight. (I like to think that someone somewhere is sitting reading this and chuckling, secure in the knowledge that they have a make of Maxi Cosi car seat that doesn’t have a hood. Don’t be That Guy.)

For reference, this thing, although hard to find, is in fact documented in the seat’s instruction manual. But don’t tell me – yours came without an instruction manual, right? Well, my friend, it’s in the secret instruction-manual compartment concealed on the back of the seat. Really. I know. I KNOW.

3. Fit your own oxygen mask first.

All right, this is the one that’s actually precious. A friend (in fact, the same friend who unwittingly enlightened me about the car seat hood – where would I be without her?) shared it with me, for those moments of total despair or panic, or for those much-longer-than-moments times when it might feel as though raising a baby is dismal and destructive and more than you can manage. When you fly with young children, the ubiquitous safety video admonishes you: “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling.  If you are travelling with young children, fit your own oxygen mask before helping them.” I never gave this instruction much thought before I had children; I suppose I sort of assumed that it was some kind of adult chauvinism; maybe making up for centuries of ‘women and children first’. Mildly offensive, maybe – why shouldn’t you try to be a bit of a hero? But of course, it’s pragmatic advice. You have to help yourself first because if you don’t fit your own oxygen mask, you might, you know, die, and then you are of bugger all help to the children anyway.

In the early days it is easy to become your own last priority. As well as the 24-hour demands of caring for a child, there’s every other part of your life to think of too: work, housework, paying bills, your partner. A lot of our mothering culture promotes self-sacrifice, explicitly or implicitly. You might find yourself going from daily showers to weekly showers. Your sleep is probably sacrificed any time anyone else is awake. Eating can be haphazard and unhealthy. And time alone probably disappears. Some measure of this is inevitable, but it’s dangerous too. You can parent yourself into a corner. If you give up everything for your kids, to the point at which you cease to function, you ultimately rob them of the thing they need most. It’s a strange formula: a little bit of selfishness is essential if you’re going to carry on being selfless. That’s why I love the oxygen-mask analogy: it highlights the truth that without taking essential steps to care for yourself, you become useless to the people you want most of all to help. Postnatal depression can be deadly. Even where tragedy is avoided, it steals joy and even normality, from everyone in a family. And a lack of balance in life — a balance that involves meeting your own essential needs, and yes those very well can include time alone — is a quick route into depression.

I have one more piece of parenting advice, not relevant to the newbie phase but you’ll need it come weaning time at about six months: to give your kid banana, peel the whole fruit, then press your finger lengthways into the banana’s end. You’ll find the banana splits magically and mess-free into three slim, easy-to-hold segments perfect for small hands. You’re welcome. There’s parenthood: existential crisis and snacking, all in the same breath.

Ridiculous Thing #15: Practising car seat exceptionalism

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