Long before we became parents, Daniel and I decided we would not be transporting our child in a stroller on any regular basis. We live in Pittsburgh, a city of steep hills, stairs, and sidewalks cracked by frost heave and tree roots. Our neighborhood has heavy pedestrian traffic on sidewalks that are narrow in places. We often ride city buses, which allow strollers only if folded, and we’d seen how parents struggled to fold a stroller with one hand without dropping the baby.
Recalling the various baby carriers used by my mother and her friends, I did some research and learned that carrying a baby or “babywearing” has many advantages for child development, as well as being convenient for parents. I bought a ring sling, and by the time Nicholas was two months old, I felt we could hardly live without it!
However, we did wind up owning a stroller. A friend insisted that we take the two strollers her kids had outgrown, saying that our baby would soon be too heavy for a carrier. Well, why not–these strollers were free, and they were the “umbrella” type that’s very basic and lightweight and fits into a small space when folded. We stashed them in the basement in case we might ever want to use them.
In my first 20 months of parenthood, I used the sling every day and never touched the stroller. I found the sling extremely comfortable and very easy to use once I got the hang of it. As Nicholas got heavier, I found that the way the sling held him close to my body and distributed his weight between my right shoulder and left hip made him seem much lighter than when I held him with my arms. Each workday, I cinched him onto my body and hung his milk bag, my lunch bag, and his diaper bag on my various shoulders. I felt like a pack mule, but it worked! I’d walk 3 blocks to the bus stop, ride a bus 8 blocks, get off and walk 1 block to the babysitter’s, and after dropping off Nicholas I’d get on another bus to work. In the evening, we did the same thing in reverse. Once he started walking, on the way home he’d sometimes walk on his own feet and sit next to me on the bus, and I anticipated a smooth transition into doing that all the time and not needing the sling anymore.
Then I hurt my back. According to my chiropractor, I popped a rib slightly out of place. Suddenly the sling was uncomfortable, lifting Nicholas into and out of it was agony, and carrying him in my arms was pretty bad too. So I thought we’d use the stroller temporarily. Lifting toddler and stroller and bags all at once onto a crowded bus would be terrible for my back, so I started walking the whole way to the sitter’s–about a mile.
Four weeks later, I was better, but Nicholas had become very attached to riding in the stroller. During that time, he’d also had some changes of behavior. He liked the stroller, but was it good for him? I wrote, at the time:
I have several objections to continuing with the stroller:
- I feel detached. About 75% of the time, I feel like I’m walking down the street alone pushing some object; I have to make an effort to remember that Nicholas is there. When he says something, I often can’t hear him over traffic, or I can’t understand what he’s talking about because I can’t see from his viewpoint.
- During these few weeks, Nicholas has started clinging in the morning. It used to be that when I dropped him off he’d been snuggled up against my side, chatting with me face-to-face, as we traveled together, and if he nursed at the sitter’s it was because he hadn’t eaten much breakfast, and then he’d hop off my lap and go right to the toys. Now he’s been riding alone, facing away from me, so our arrival at the sitter’s is an opportunity to reconnect, and he typically nurses both sides, then stays in my lap leaning against me or wants to show me a toy or bring me a story to read; dropoff takes 15-30 minutes instead of 5-10, and if I try to speed it up he starts clinging to me and wailing, “Mama no!!”
- Nicholas is now refusing to leave the sitter’s in the evening. It used to be that leaving meant snuggling and chatting all the way home, and he was reluctant to leave only if he was really involved in play. Now leaving means another ride alone, and he resists and delays in every way imaginable; some days I’ve buckled him into the stroller and pushed him 3 or 4 blocks before he stopped screaming! It’s possible that he just happens to be in a phase of difficulty transitioning, but it started within days after we started strollering.
- I don’t want him to get used to riding instead of walking. After just 4 weeks of strollering, he refuses to walk on his own feet around the neighborhood unless he’s pushing the stroller, and even that lasts no more than 2 blocks–whereas he used to love walking and would go 6-10 blocks at a stretch.
- Being passed by the bus while walking really annoys me. It’s not that it takes that much longer to walk–depending on the timing, we could spend just as much time waiting for and then riding the bus–but using the sling I’d sometimes decide to walk and then catch a bus if one happened to come along when we were passing a stop. I can’t do that now.
- Traffic is heavy at the times we’re traveling, and I see enough careless drivers to make me really nervous. It is much harder to dodge and run with a stroller than with a kid attached to me or even walking next to me where I can grab him up.
- Negotiating bumpy sidewalks with a stroller is a lot harder than with my feet! I don’t get to look around and enjoy the scenery because I have to watch the sidewalk.
- Our stroller veers off course very quickly if you push with just one hand. I hate having to stop walking every time I need to scratch an itch or blow my nose!
- Speaking of nose-blowing, I can’t see Nick’s face and have no idea if he’s drowning in snot until we reach our destination, unless he complains.
- His babysitter persuades him to leave when he’s reluctant by offering a snack to eat on the way home–so now this is an everyday rather than occasional thing. In the sling, he’d feed half the snack to me. Walking, he’d eat a bite or two and then hand it to me because he was busy exploring. In the stroller, he eats every bite. These are not the healthiest snacks, and he eats less dinner because of them.
- In a few months, there will be snow. Not everyone shovels their sidewalks, so it’s tough going for a stroller.
Reading that list showed me that the inconveniences and safety hazards of the stroller were enough that I wanted to quit using it. But Nicholas, aside from his reluctance to go home, seemed to adore strollering: He ran for the stroller as soon as we got out onto our porch. If he wasn’t having a tantrum when he got in, he seemed happy while riding. When we got home, he didn’t want to get out, would push my hands away from the buckle, and if I succeed in dislodging him would get back into the stroller after I parked it on the porch. I felt trapped in Stroller Madness: the idea that a toddler deserves to ride in a stroller, that it is the normal way to transport a child, that he liked it and I would be cruel to take it away, that I was some kind of freak for wanting to strap my child to my body. Why couldn’t my kid be like everybody else?
Well, he’s not everybody else. He’s my little buddy, my daily companion, that koala-like creature who rode in my pouch and learned my ways. I missed him! I didn’t want to be his chauffeur; I wanted us to go places together.
One morning, I put the sling around myself again and guided Nicholas into its loop. He looked surprised, but right away he glommed onto me in his usual koala grip and allowed the fabric to be tightened around him. When we got out onto the porch, he reached toward the stroller, but I said, “We are using the sling today.” and kept walking. He chattered excitedly as he looked at the world from what must have seemed a startlingly high-up perspective. He was pleased to ride the bus again. He snuggled against me, using a soft voice and subtle gestures to tell me what he was thinking; there was no need to make a big fuss to get my attention.
Within a few days, dropping him off and picking him up became easier again. I’ll never know if his difficult phase simply happened to coincide with the strollering phase or actually was caused by it, but I know that I felt a change in the bond between us when we used the stroller and when we stopped.
Once we put the stroller away in the basement, Nicholas stopped asking for it. By the time he grew too heavy for the sling just a few months later, he was able to walk well enough that he simply walked next to me on our daily commute, occasionally asking to be carried for a while.
We did continue to use the stroller sometimes for longer walks. For example, to do errands at the far end of our neighborhood business district (about one mile away), I often put Nicholas in the stroller so that I could walk at full speed and allow the option of his falling asleep. However, it was difficult to move a sleeping child from stroller to bed without waking him (whereas with the sling, I could walk right up to the bed and gently lower him onto it) and as he got bigger it became impossible, so the stroller’s reign as Sleep Inducer was short.
Now I can’t recall the last time we used the stroller. Nicholas is three-and-a-half and can walk a mile almost without noticing. Sometimes he whines about being tired, sometimes he asks if we can take the bus or car instead of walking, but he doesn’t seem to have the idea that he’s supposed to ride all the time.
I still look at parents struggling with strollers and wonder, Why do they do that? How can the convenience of not carrying your child outweigh the annoyance of walking with your eyes on the ground, detouring to use the curb cuts, dancing to hold a store’s door open while pushing a stroller through it, dragging a cumbersome wad of pokey metal up steps and into places where there is no space for it?
Now, though, there’s also another question in my mind when I see a parent pushing a child in a stroller: Don’t you miss each other?
P.S. Since I wrote this article, a research study has observed that babies in forward-facing strollers have less interaction with their parents. The author speculates that this may impede language development.