The feminine part of "women and children first" has, perhaps, been dropped in our more equitable and less chivalrous times, but the kid side of the sum has not, at least that’s my sense of things. As a society, we generally try to put children first knowing they are our world’s future, not to mention payers of our future social security checks.
Which is why we should make way for that twin-filled, double-wide stroller driven by a firm-handed mom down the sidewalk of the Upper West Side, Park Slope or even in some other less mom-oriented part of the city. Or should we?
Whatever the answer, it’s hard to stifle a feeling of irritation when parents use their strollers like battering rams to make way through crowds. And in New York City crowded environment, it’s simply a fact that space is scarce, and strollers take up a lot of it. Even a small stroller takes up a disproportionate amount of space because it and an attached care giver act like a blocker on a sidewalk, impeding the free flow of traffic in, out and across a sidewalk.
I write as a parent who is behind a stroller for often more than an hour a day, so I’ve been both sides of the equation. As I wrote in a recent essay, before becoming a parent, I swore that I would not use a stroller, particularly a really big one. And then I found that I did. The stroller my partner and I use can only be called an SUV-style stroller — a wide three-wheel jogging stroller with a wider than average width and footprint. It’s so large, it can’t fit through most supermarket check out lanes.
The story of how we ended up with our very large stroller, despite firm convictions the other way, is perhaps illustrative at how one learns that one’s personal needs are not always consistent with one societal convictions or of one personal opinions in a previous incarnation. Seeds vary depending on where one stands. Or strolls.
Because we had so personally disliked "the stroller people," as we called them back on the Upper West Side where my wife had lived while single, when our bundle of joy arrived, we were ready with… slings!
I’m sure you seen these bandolier-style garments, which make moms and dads like the Frito Bandito. We first fell in love with slings — conceptually that is — when a few years before having children we saw a woman carrying a beautiful baby in a very attractive sling down a sidewalk near Chelsea. She and the baby looked so snug, and they were so space efficient as a package. We resolved then and there to be sling people if we even had kids, despite the sling’s hippie associations we didn’t really want in our personal brands.
So, prior to our little guy coming, we bought slings and actually took classes in how to wear them after he arrived. I ended up buying three separate slings. The one I used looked more like a piece of camping equipment with its clips and shiny nylon material, and I convinced myself I looked almost rugged wearing it.
But for us, they didn’t work. Carrying a baby in them was like carrying a large stone around your neck at a bad angle. We had optimistically hoped that using slings would improve our bad backs, which we both had. Instead, they made them worse, much worse. Soon we were not only dealing with lack of sleep, but with back problems too. Finally after about two or three months (my memory of that time is hazy because of sleep deprivation), my wife broke down my resistance and we bought a Maclaren Techno Stroller, which is sort of your basic yuppie stroller. Expensive — $350, as I recall — but not outrageous, like the $800 or $900 Bugaboo.
Our lives instantly got better. In probably a week, we had stopped using slings entirely. We went from hating strollers, to loving them. They saved our lives.
But why did we move from a medium-sized stroller to a really big one? The short answer, no pun intended, is that we’re really tall. REALLY tall. I’m six foot seven, and my wife is six foot two. That’s tall. And we both have back problems. This meant, particularly for me, an average stroller, while better than a sling, was still really hard on our backs because you had to hunch over while using it.
It wasn’t like we didn’t try to make do. For a while we had used this really light weight stroller, a Chico, which we had equipped with handle extensions we found on the Internet. But the extensions soon fell apart and the Chico became worthless to us.
There were only a handful of strollers whose handles went up high enough for me to walk comfortably behind them. We nixed the $950 Bugaboo Chameleon, despite my love of its sleek design, and eventually bought the mere $400 or so Baby Jogger City Series. We Craigslisted away our other strollers.
So now, with our son approaching three, we walk behind our Baby Jogger or sometimes leave it at home, now that he’s walking more. But it should be said that I can’t imagine living without using a stroller a lot, at least for a year or two more. Those posters who declare that one can abandon strollers are talking through their noses. How can you walk 20 or more blocks with a toddler on errands that have some degree of time pressure without using a stroller? You can’t. Unless you use a bicycle, but that’s a different essay.
So, to sum up, we are left with our big SUV stroller, and the people around us on the sidewalks are left to adjust to us. But the point of this story is not to carve out an exemption to ourselves to the rules of polite road and sidewalk conduct. It’s to again remind ourselves and others what’s appropriate conduct is to some degree relative and individual. When you get down to specifics, it’s hard to say for sure what is and isn’t selfish or unselfish conduct on the road or anywhere else, even if making rules is unavoidable.
It ultimately gets down to what we value as a society and how to encourage or allow for it. Given their size and prominence, I start to consider whether there should be some size limit to strollers or devices in general that are allowed to be wielded down the street. Congestion pricing for strollers anyone? That’s a joke, by the way.
A better direction for public policy to go in is to ask how can we gain more space on sidewalks for everyone? After all, in the most crowded sidewalks like along Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, the bulk of the public right of way is still given over to moving and stationary motor vehicles. We could change this by say, widening the sidewalks by five feet, and pushing the cars a little closer together. The extra space is certainly there — down on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue the street is narrowed by two five-foot bike lanes. There are cheap ways to do this as an initial try out phase, like the pedestrian reclamation projects in Midtown.
With wider sidewalks, even an SUV stroller like mine would be less obnoxious.
Photo: Stroller parking at a Dan Zanes concert in Prospect Park. The Brooklyn Paper / Julie Rosenberg