Clare Gibbons is a former senior writer for Butterfield & Robinson and a graduate of The New School MFA program. She lives with her partner and two young kids in Toronto.
I shot up in bed with a fist of weight concentrated on my sternum. A tight knot of regret? Earlier in the day I’d given our stroller to soon-to-be parents a few blocks away. And just like that an essential accessory to my children’s infancy was gone.
My partner raised a dishevelled head my way: “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure we should have given the stroller away so soon,” I explained, propping up on my elbows.
“The stroller?” He repeated, still confused, brushing the sweep of hair from his forehead.
I considered our youngest child, who was just 3½-years old, but could pass for a five-year-old. “What if he were to get sick,” I wondered aloud “and all he wanted was for me to push him around?”
“Nobody is getting sick,” he replied – interpreting my regret over the stroller as worry about the virus. “We are in a bubble,” he added.
“Something is lost,” I said as I sank back down to my pillow.
I knew something was gone.
Early into my first pregnancy, we’d discovered that purchasing a stroller can require some serious cash. At social gatherings we loved to recycle this talking point, telling anyone who showed a passing interest that the price tag reflected the down deposit for a small car. (At the time we didn’t have so much as an extra room for the baby – let alone a car – so our expectations of the stroller were particularly grandiose.) To confirm that we were responsible decision makers, my partner spent days cross-referencing consumer reports while I, happily swayed by the promise of images, flitted through social-media reels aggregated by “stroller.” Each vibrant filter hinted at what I could have: a docile babe, a bright life.
Our requirements for this mini-vehicle ranged by the day: Could it handle frequent grocery-addled missions and a Toronto winter that plied the streets with slush? Would it keep a new babe asleep while traversing all manner of terrain – showing equal resiliency in ravines, parks and down the stairs of the subway? Would it keep my coffee from sloshing out the spout and my spirits even? We felt certain that we wanted two kids so we figured we’d better scale up from the get-go and bring home the best on the market.
Well before the first snowfall, on the edge of fall, my daughter arrived and like all unknowable-until-they-happen events, shocked us into a new stage of our lives.
“Motherhood is a solitary journey,” my friend imparted flatly over the phone only a few weeks into our new status. She was one of few friends also with a child at the time. I balanced the phone precariously between my shoulder and ear as we recounted birth stories; her son’s wail shot through the line licking the breadth of ocean that separated us.
As I moved through the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure if I entirely agreed with her assessment, but I’d also never considered a solitary journey a pejorative.
There wasn’t much time to mull on it, frankly; I felt so destabilized by sleep deprivation that any attempt at socializing only caused me further labour and so the two of us spent most of our time roaming the streets in our puffed up chariot hitting pastry shops (fuel for me) and empty parks where I’d sit on a blanket with the splintered midday sun shooting through the few remaining leaves on the trees. Next to me she lay secure in the stroller, under a layer of wool.
The time, though raw and hazy, felt deeply lived in. An infant knows only its present needs and by this lucidity of instinct, strong-arms you into the sustained present as well. I felt my uncomfortable relation to time shift under me and settle with glacial ease. For the first time in a while, I felt anchored. (From a young age, I’ve had a persistent habit of imagining my present self as future memory, which meant I could spend a good chunk of time either mooning about the past or fretting about how quickly the future encroached.) In the window after birth there was a keen simplicity to my days.
It didn’t make the tough parts any less tough though – and perhaps that’s why I merged so fully with the stroller. During that time, there were few things that I could depend on so entirely, without judgment.
At the local pharmacy, I’d fling toilet paper and baby wipes into the undercarriage of the stroller, trying to glide swiftly past the well-meaning strangers, who without fail would offer some version of “Smile – it goes by so fast” as I braced a little weight on the handlebars, the stroller now tacking toward the express checkout, my third cup of coffee in hand.
Nearing noon, I might be about to leave the park when my partner would call during his lunch break; hearing the baby wailing, he might inquire if I’d consumed some dairy that day (there was constant speculation that she had gas issues) and I’d whip around for another loop on the outdoor track, wheels spinning, as I spat into the phone, “Did YOU eat any cheese today?!”
On all occasions when her crying felt unknowable and I craved the revitalizing slap of fresh air on my face, I would harness her into that trusty steed and quiet us both with the monotonous rattle of the road.
The stroller acted as a receptacle for relief and an extendable purse – easing me of the burden of jackets, tissues, wipes and frequent banana refuge. It earned its patina through every salt-rusted wheel (a testament to Toronto winters) and fabric-gnawed crevice. Crucially, it earned my trust.
But perhaps a simpler and truer way to understand the stroller is not through the convenience it offered me but the security. It was my containment machine, my control station.
While birth had validated an emotional and physical power I hadn’t fully conceived of, it had also laid bare a larger powerlessness all parents must confront. Turns out, relative to the enterprise of life, there is very little you can truly control with your children. But up to a certain age and finger dexterity, I can still scoop them up and click them in to the stroller – make them go in the direction I want.
We lose many things over our lifetime, both tangible and intangible, but no one object has grown to represent my nostalgic feelings, my highs and lows of infancy and new motherhood, so thoroughly as the stroller.
In an uncertain future, it’s common for people to look back wistfully to the past for comfort, a New York Times article written by Danielle Campoamor explained – to search for something to soothe.
Could the night-time lament for the stroller be an issue of pacification? I couldn’t deny a certain underlying grief and fear vis-à-vis the pandemic; it would make sense that I might flit back to the era of the stroller as a function of self-preservation. In the coming weeks, my children would be returning to school and daycare as COVID-19 numbers in Ontario gently slithered upward – the stroller, in contrast, was a safe memory, a balm to our current state.
In truth, though, it didn’t surprise me that the act of relinquishing our stroller caused me grief. Moving forward often tipped me toward the end.
And while I’d paid nary a passing thought to the shedding of other tactile instruments from my children’s younger years – the crib, the infant car seat, the hand-crafted mobiles – the stroller’s tenure represented so much of the ineffable-ness that I cherished and struggled through as a mother of young children. To say goodbye to my favourite tool was to heel an invisible line in the sand. And it was to bid adieu to the stage of becoming a mother – a time when I heard myself explaining the world to them and believed the limitlessness of it myself.
The stroller underlined the passage of time in a way that a bottle-drying mat never could.
Looking back can be a coping-mechanism, Ms. Campoamor asserted, dubbing nostalgia the “emotional pacifier,” but when you get stuck there, well that’s when it can be unhealthy.
Look, I knew I didn’t want to go back to the days of infancy. What I needed was to acknowledge its passing.
And within that lay a more uncomfortable truth – that a part of me had conflated the idea of a physical stroller with a bargain for the safety of my kids, with an impossible plea for control.
Whether we kept the stroller in the basement or not, our kids would, as desired, move forward in their lives; and just as before, there would be no guarantee, no perfect decision, no amulet to ward off what they might come up against in life – sickness or otherwise.
“We are not asking for it back,” my partner said, settling the conversation that evening once he realized I was trying to re-configure the stroller back into our lives.
And I spent the night smothered in duvet wrestling with that false idol and beloved testament to time, until I found myself on the morning of a new day. And I did as parents do: dust off and continue to continue forward. For me, it would be a step into a new, stroller-less era.
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