Kerb your enthusiasm

The ups and downs of men, babies and steerable contraptions

For most of us, walking is an unremarkable affair.  A basic human function that barely registers in everyday consciousness.

There are people who choose to walk for the sake of walking, true, but we can ignore them and their unique, admirable approach to existence.

By and large, walking falls into that category of activity we take for granted, alongside other such quality physical experiences as drinking water and going to the toilet.  They don’t tend to require much thought, time and effort, which is why they can wreak havoc on a schedule of back-to-back meetings.

Every now and then we find ourselves walking to the post box, the convenience store or a neighbour’s house.  Typically, the most challenging part is putting our shoes on before we leave home.

Once in a blue moon, however, something goes awry.

Perhaps the weather is horrendous – soaking you to the skin before you remember your umbrella is broken.

Perhaps you have a blister on your toe – making every step feel like your shoe is gnawing on your feet.

Or perhaps the car is in the garage, the bus has been delayed indefinitely and you have two big and awkward bags of shopping – transforming an easy journey by foot into a feat you’re proud to complain about for the rest of the day.

I’m willing to bet we’ve all had at least one experience during which we’ve wished dearly for some kind of wheeled device, or to be able to attach wheels to an otherwise inanimate object for our own craved convenience.

The history of the wheel, rolling back through time for millennia, is the history of mankind’s everlasting mission to make life on Earth just that little bit easier and the burden of evolution that little bit more bearable.

Several thousand years punctuated by the occasional, “Hold on, what if we stick some wheels on it?”

Today, our dependence on wheels is more widespread than we might realise.  Supermarket trolleys; even some supermarket baskets have wheels.  Suitcases; even some briefcases and satchels.  Furniture; office chairs and hospital beds in particular.  Wheel barrows and sack trucks.  My vacuum cleaner has wheels.  Want more holiday freedom and flexibility?  Why not attach wheels to a tiny holiday home and tow it behind your car.  Tired of walking?  Ride a bicycle.  Tired of cycling?  Try a skateboard.  Skateboarding too much work?  Why not strap a skate to each foot.  Still not convinced?  How about wheels in the heels of your shoes?  No?  Ok, fine – go get yourself a Segway.

Not all problems can be solved by adding wheels, true, but the humble wheel has revolutionised many chores and activities.

So it makes sense that finding a way to attach wheels to a baby – or rather, attach wheels to something we can use to transport a baby – has featured on the agenda.  What is mildly surprising is that the first recorded example is from the 1700s but, given we’ve been using wheels to transport people since before the Christian era, it’s safe to assume that at least one parent in history has sighed and said, “Ok, fine – just put him in the wheelbarrow and go careful on the corners.”

Every day, all over the world, mothers and fathers need to transport their babies whilst travelling on foot from A to B and back again.  The majority of us recognise three options as standard:

  1. Direct manual carrying
  2. Baby sling/carrier
  3. Buggy/pushchair/pram

As a general rule, our chosen mode of transport for any given journey depends on distance and level of complexity.  Today we focus on the latter.

Make no mistake, at some point during your first year of parenting you will acquire a buggy.  Granted, newborn babies are small and light and there are advantages to maintaining close physical contact, but it doesn’t take very long for your dainty cherub to become an unbiddable cross between a spasmodic octopus and a sack of potatoes.

While or when this happens, you will become increasingly aware of the need to:

  • restrain them;
  • prevent them falling to the ground;
  • keep them comfortable;
  • transport all the crap you need to look after your baby while out and about; and, of course
  • not encumber yourself directly with their increasing weight and mass.

Although by no means a perfect solution, the buggy provides the means to meet your requirements and it was on our big list of things to get right from the get go.

Our first was a Mamas & Papas model that is no longer available: a folding frame on wheels with a basket underneath and interchangeable carrycot or pushchair seat.  It was practical, discreet and performed just fine.

My only issue was that I could never, ever fold or unfold it on the first, second or third attempt, by which point Emma had usually shouldered me out of the way and taken over.

Emma seemed to have no trouble, so I can only conclude that her lower centre of gravity gave her some kind of advantage…

We picked up our second buggy before Alex was twelve months – a Bugaboo Cameleon.  If the Mamas & Papas model (which stopped even pretending to fold/unfold properly) was the equivalent of a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin family hatchback, the Bugaboo was a big, bold and beautiful monster truck.  Bright canary yellow, ferocious off-road wheels and suspension – it dominated the pavement in all its slightly unnecessary glory.  Like a ride-on lawnmower with go-faster stripes in a standard suburban garden, it was a magnificent, impractical joy.

It arrived with a large entourage of accessories, including a ‘footmuff’ (sleeping bag), rain cover, sun canopy,  carrycot, parasol and a transport case (i.e. to transport the buggy) that I could fit inside.  We never used the parasol and the case lived in the loft.

Other available accessories included a cup holder, smart phone holder, mosquito net and high performance footmuff…

When Adam was born, Alex was still too young to walk everywhere but getting too old for carrying.  We needed a single solution to transport both simultaneously, but did not have the space to accommodate twin or tandem equivalents of the Cameleon.

Fortunately, Bugaboo provide an entirely different solution.  The buggy board is a small, singled-wheeled platform that clips to the back of your buggy.  It is big enough for a toddler to stand on and you can add a small seat.  For several months, Alex perched precariously between Adam and whoever pushed the buggy.

In my view it was a smart solution with three small flaws:

  1. Alex didn’t really like it, and spent most journeys hopping on and off; 
  2. whereas the buggy itself could cope with the most extreme suburban terrain, the board had less off-road capability than a mobility scooter; and 
  3. it sat directly in front of my feet, preventing me from walking properly. I had to (a) position myself slightly to the left, walking freely but pushing less so, (b) take tiny shuffling footsteps, or (c) walk like I’d just climbed down from three days on a shire horse; or urinated all over myself.

After several months we abandoned the Bugaboo and bought a second-hand, umbrella-fold, twin pushchair.  It was light and basic, smaller than the Bugaboo when folded and not much wider when in use.

For storage and transportation of the pushchair itself: perfect.  For transportation of the children: not so much.  The same build that made it so manageable when not in use completely undermined its value once the children were aboard.  A clothes airer on wheels would have been more stable and robust.  To get the thing moving under their weight required such exertion that the whole, rickety frame threatened to buckle and collapse.  Or go round and round in shuddering circles.  We barely used it before giving up.

We had a day at the zoo planned, though, and were not thrilled at the prospect of keeping two toddlers on their feet for several hours.  We picked up a couple of cheap, basic pushchairs.  And by ‘cheap’ I mean £12 each.  And by ‘basic’ I mean they weren’t much better than the twin.  But the ratio of children to pushchair was 1:1, and they worked just fine.  We’re still using one of them for Adam today, three years later.  No smart accessories, no fancy features – just economy, simplicity and function.

Obviously it wasn’t possible for one of us to push both pushchairs at the same time (tried, failed) so the lone parent had to pop Adam in the carry pack or require Alex to walk.

My only issue with these pushchairs is that the handles don’t extend, forcing me to lean over them like an elderly gentleman held up by his personal shopping trolley.

Speaking of which, newborn parenting is our opportunity to shamelessly employ a version of the notorious tartan trunk on wheels long before one becomes necessary.  Did I ever visit the shops with a buggy but no child?  Maybe…

Even when fully laden with children, a buggy offers ample storage.  Besides the shelf or basket underneath you can use the handles to hang bags and coats, and if your child wants to walk you have all that seat space in front as well.

Just remember to keep everything carefully balanced.  If your child is counterbalancing everything else, make sure they don’t suddenly get out or it will Buckaroo!TM

It is possible to overload a buggy, however, as we discovered on the way home from a weekly grocery shop whilst ‘between cars’.  The combined weight of both children and several brim-full bags for life ruptured an inner tube.

It happened several times, and while we bought a repair kit and at least one replacement, the risk and impact of a flat tyre encouraged us to choose airless tyres over the pneumatic variety.

Besides not abusing the load-bearing capacity of your buggy, you can avoid tyre wear and tear by adopting a more sensitive approach to the mounting and dismounting of kerbs.  Despite their formidable (in context) appearance, the off-road tyres on a Bugaboo Cameleon do not make light work of a steep kerb.  The old ‘ram-and-jump’ technique may satisfy our inner man-child, but it does the buggy no favours.  The ‘stop-and-seesaw’ approach (down at the back, up at the front; or vice versa) is better, but nothing beats a good dropped kerb.

Before children I was only dimly aware of dropped kerbs.  Today, I am familiar with their locations all over town and, while I have no plans to launch a dropped kerb appreciation society, my enthusiasm for them is very dull, sensible and real.

In September this year, Adam will start school and we will bid farewell to buggies and pushchairs for ever.  I am not looking forward to losing the option to reduce walking time and aggravation by loading a complaining child into a wheeled chair.  Nor will we gladly embrace our roles as family packhorses.

The silver linings are plentiful, though, including:

  • No more storing a buggy in the car and hallway. Although our current pushchair stands neatly against the radiator, or lies neatly across the rear passenger foot wells, the Bugaboo dominated the hallway (and so lived in the conservatory) and took up almost all available room in the boot of the car. 
  • No more concerns about losing time or fingers wrestling with the mechanism of a trembling mousetrap on wheels. 
  • No more cleaning up crumbs and crusted puree from the depths of the seat, or mud and seasonal detritus from everywhere else. 
  • No more awkward manoeuvring through doorways, crowds and elevators.

Even so, there is something else we lose.  Something beyond everyday practicalities.

This may be peculiar to me, but I’m going out on a limb to suggest that many men (women too, perhaps – I cannot speak for them) derive an empowering, wholesome satisfaction from the control and manipulation of ‘steerable contraptions’, wheeled or otherwise.  For example: the wheelbarrow, the plough and the lawnmower.  The supermarket trolley and the walk-behind sweeper.

And of course: the pushchair, pram and buggy.

Now, I don’t want to explore the relationship between man and two-handed mobile machinery too deeply lest we find ourselves trapped in an unfortunate rabbit hole, but I propose that the opportunity to publically prove ourselves master of the pushchair is richly rewarding.

Maybe it’s something we acquire from our fathers, maybe it goes deeper than that, but when a well-designed and well-balanced buggy turns 360° or an awkward corner with elegance and purpose – in our hands – we experience the same uplifting sense of competence and completeness as when a hover mower glides rather than scrapes, or when a chair trolley deposits its load exactly where we want them rather than all over the floor.

Especially when we manage it one-handed.

And because our audience has a higher level of sentience than a stack of chairs, in these moments our respective relationships with steerable contraptions and our offspring come together to create a single beautiful experience that is as powerful and profound as it is daft.  Sharing these moments with our children contributes to the curious bond forming between us.

Manhandling an older child who has gone full screaming sack-of-potatoes is just not the same.

Cruising with your buggy and a baby on board is a healthy and respectable way for an infant and father to enjoy each other’s company.  For full effect, do it without deadlines and destinations.

A cup holder sounds like a good idea, though…

1 Comment

  1. I wouldn’t abandon your buggy just yet! Comparing your legs to Adam’s, I bet there will still be times when using one will be very advantageous!

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