How I Conquered the Infant Car Seat
by Kristen Van Tassel
My son Cedar, who is six years old and has never heard the word "rave," is as addicted to techno music as any ecstasy-addled twenty-something in the cutting-edge night clubs of Europe or North America. This odd sonic preference is the direct result of Cedar's first road trip—a 17-hour Kansas-to-Wisconsin excursion that took place when he was just five months old. Ever since that day, he'll stoically tolerate children's songs and Mozart, but only tripped-out tunes with pumping bass-lines and heavy drums truly capture his attention.
"Mama," Cedar will say suddenly as we listen to music in our 1989 Dodge Caravan, "what is this song saying?"
I'll listen to the song—in this case a loop from a Moby tune that goes, "Get my honey come back, sometime"—and try my best to explain the lyrics. "Uh, I think somebody misses his friend and wants his friend to come home."
"Who does?" Cedar will demand.
"Because he's lonely."
"What is the song saying now?"
"I think it's saying, 'Get a hump on my back.'"
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know."
"It's hard to understand."
This is not the sort of conversation an adult can sustain for long, but it seems to be my destiny. I'm the one who got Cedar addicted to techno music.
I will not, however, take full responsibility for this idiosyncrasy. Part of the blame must go to whoever invented the legislated safety device we all know as the "infant car seat."
To understand just how far infant safety technology has developed over the past few decades, one need only consult with my father, who, when he first encountered the brightly colored, gordian system of straps, buckles, and levers in the back of our minivan, declared, "I have no idea how this thing works." Dad, a recent retiree from his job as a high school biology teacher, had somehow been bamboozled into joining our epic road trip to Wisconsin, and he wasn't taking it too well. Retired people, he was discovering, are a ready source of cheap labor. This was certainly the case in my situation, since I was traveling to Madison to present a paper at an academic conference, and I needed someone to watch Cedar while I joined other English PhDs and PhD-hopefuls (as I was at the time) to talk about constructions of whiteness in marginalized discourse communities and identity politics for performative pedagogy. Since neither my husband nor my mom could take time off work, this babysitting duty fell upon my dad, who had accepted the task with the grim fatalism of a 12-year-old being forced to attend summer camp. "I have no idea how this darn thing works," he told me again, louder.
To some extent, my father's frustration with the infant car seat was a generational issue. In 1969 when I myself was an infant, transporting babies across state lines was not nearly so difficult. Car seats—if they were used at all—were little vinyl-lined plastic bath tubs with seat belts stretched across them. If the child inside the tub cried, her mama could just reach over and pluck her out. In 1969, babies on 17-hour road trips to Wisconsin happily spent their time nursing, sleeping, or playing in someone's lap—even if that person was the driver. So long as families were not involved in car crashes, which were, in 1969, almost always fatal for these unbuckled children, long road trips were the makings of nostalgia.
Three decades later, though, changes in infant car seat technology have rendered car-borne babies completely immobile and securely fastened into padded mini-prisons, thus lessening road-trip enjoyment for babies and parents alike. Those of us who have negotiated the mechanics of an infant car seat lately—and it is rocket science—know the American highways are no place for babies and their parents. The modern car seat is arduous in every way, beginning with the instructions for using it, punctuated every other line by the fully capitalized assertion "FAILURE TO INSTALL CORRECTLY CAN RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH." This declaration, of course, strikes at the heart of the infant car seat issue for all parents: anxiety and guilt. No mama or daddy on earth wants to be responsible for their child getting hurt in a car accident. This, along with the fact that car seats are legally required, effectively keeps babies buckled up, regardless of its unpleasant consequences.
In order to retain our sanity, we (the contemporary parents of young children) do what we must to keep our car time to a minimum, namely resorting to whatever measures are necessary to eliminate unnecessary errands and excursions. Theoretically, while a few parents (though none I know) might have the wherewithal to boycott the car for the first four to six years of their child's life (the span of time car seats are legally required), most of us choose quiet desperation instead, compromising ourselves in any number of ways in order to cope. For this reason, even vegan anarchists find themselves at Walmart's one-stop-shopping superstore once they become parents. Name your dream, ideal, or principle: the car seat trumps them all.
Needless to say, the baby sedation industry freely exploits our desperation, and prior to my trip I equipped myself with all the standard baby distraction devices, including an electronically programmed rattle and a motion sensitive, singing bumblebee. As my father and I prepared to transport Cedar 17 hours to Wisconsin (and back), we armed ourselves with these items (and more!), grimly buckling ourselves in for the ordeal.
In keeping with expectations, Cedar started to get fussy about two hours into our journey, just after he woke from his nap and remembered he was trapped, shrieking in frustration and squirming against the straps that pinned him into his car seat. I was driving at the time, which left my father with the task of pacifying Cedar. As a grandfather, my dad has the perfect personality for kids who are about 4-12 years old—that is, old enough to talk about rocks and mammals—but infants are not his strong point. He has difficulty relating to their worldview. His standard response to prolonged crying is "Quiet!"—a brisk instruction he issues like a military command—and at five months of age, Cedar just wasn't buying this. "Let's be reasonable," my father lectured to my squalling son. "Crying won't help."
Hoping to alleviate the tension, I began to hand my father various rattles and stuffed animals, but Cedar took little interest in them. Twenty minutes later, I was reduced to singing the theme song from "Veggie Tales." Cedar was not soothed. He didn't want to be amused, he wanted out of his godforsaken car seat.
For the entirety of Cedar's life up to that point, all the music we'd played for him had been strictly baby-oriented—primarily selections from a nature-themed lullaby CD four-pack I'd received as a baby shower gift, featuring traditional lullabies played to the background sound of rainfall and crashing waves. The illustrations on the CDs were charming—toddlers playing in the surf—but the music's actual usefulness remained dubious. Nonetheless, I instructed Dad to rummage through the CD collection under the minivan's front seat, hoping this music might solve Cedar's woes.
What I'd forgotten at the time was that the drawer under the passenger seat of my minivan contained two separate CD collections. One was dedicated to the baby-oriented albums, and the other contained music I had reluctantly stopped listening to when Cedar was born. Much like an ex-smoker might keep a spare pack of cigarettes in the woodshed, I left in the car a few of my old favorites—such Nirvana's Nevermind and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine—for the occasional solitary trip to the grocery store (CDs that, given their recurring motifs of self loathing and drug addiction, seemed unhealthy listening choices for babies). As it happened, Dad chose the wrong collection, and after a few moments of fumbling, jammed into the player Leftfield's "Leftism," a CD of techno.
When the deep bass lines began to thump out of the van's speakers, my dad—who dismisses any song with a steady beat as "rap"—swiveled his head toward me, incredulous, as if I'd just asked him to serve Cedar a bottle of Jack Daniels. But before he could utter his standard line of censure ("What is this crap?"), we noticed a new sonic texture in the Dodge Caravan.
Cedar had stopped crying.
My father and I peered into the back seat in wonder. Cedar was transfixed by the pulsing rhythms of the music, a vague look in his eyes and a slight smile on his lips. Xanax has been described as a large, god-like hand that presses its user into panic-free rest, and this is how techno music was suddenly working for us. Its pulse was too strong for Cedar to resist—it pushed him back to a safer place, like the womb, where he had rocked to the motion of the amniotic fluid, the beat of my heart in surround-sound.
We played "Leftism" no less than 21 times during the trip. Perhaps out of relief, even Dad subconsciously began to tap his foot and nod his head. We drove to Wisconsin and back in a haze of electronica, Cedar smiling from the confines of his car seat whenever the music played.
He has been hooked on techno ever since.
I have relied on this music for all subsequent trips with my children, including my second son, Luke Oak, who responded to "Leftism" with similar effect several years later during his infant journey from Kansas to Kentucky.
In fact, I've begun giving Leftfield's "Leftism" as a baby present to my pregnant friends, recommending it for stop-and-go rush hour traffic, as well as holiday road trips. I've already received fan mail in response. I have yet to receive any recognition from Leftfield or the infant car seat industry, but I figure it's only a matter of time.
My only hope is that twenty years from now, when my sons are famous DJs on the international rave circuit, they don't forget to give credit to their mama.
Kristen Van Tassel lives on a farm outside of Salina, Kansas with her husband and two sons. Kristen teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College (Lindsborg, KS).
yellow lamp on blue book
beach blanket mamas