Our apartment is a baby booby trap. Between our ladder bookshelves, our tangled yards of electronic wiring and our anti-feng shui decorating style, we are tripping over all the hazards the baby experts warn about.
But instead of crawling through our apartment and barricading, battening-down or turning our living space into a giant bubble, we’ve came up with a novel solution. We’ve decided . . . not to.
Ten months ago, the notion that we would blow off babyproofing seemed highly unlikely. We were those parents, the ones who practically hosed down visitors with anti-bacterial hand solution – and then refused to let them hold the baby. We installed tethers on the changing table, just in case our son – the one with no neck control – catapulted away from us, mid-diaper change. And when I took him for his first few walks, I actually slid the stroller wrist strap over my hand and tightened it around my forearm, in case a crazed baby snatcher tried to wrestle the stroller away from me on the mean streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
But as time passed, and our son failed to spontaneously combust, we became more confident in our own skills and judgment. The complicated rituals that we relied upon to keep him safe no longer seemed necessary. In fact, they seemed preposterous.
So when the topic of babyproofing our home came up in my mother’s group, I hadn’t given it much thought. My son was old enough that we measured his age in months rather than weeks, but not old enough that he was able to move with any sort of intention. I figured we had plenty of time. Not true, the moderator of the group insisted. In hushed tones, she proceeded to spell out the hazards lurking in our homes, and the tragedies that could befall our children if we didn’t act: They could be crushed by unsecured furniture! Choke on loose change! Gouge themselves on sharp furniture corners!
Now, I have fears about my son. I worry that he’ll be bullied in school, or worse, be a bully himself. I worry that he’ll have half a million dollars in student debt. I worry he’ll try coke with some kid named Travis in the parking lot of a Dave Matthews Band reunion concert.
But I’ll be damned if I’m going to worry about him impaling himself on the coffee table.
Yet, among the other mothers in my group, panic was setting in. Brows furrowed, they volleyed questions to the moderator. Should they banish their household cleaners to the garage? Cover the hardwoods with composite foam flooring? Replace the blinds with curtains?
The trend toward overzealous babyproofing isn’t isolated to the parents I know; it’s everywhere. At the hardware store, there is an entire aisle dedicated to babyproofing products. The array of plastic fixtures you can buy to secure your home is mind-blowing: magnetic cabinet locks, folding door latches, faucet covers, outlet covers, oven knob locks, cord wind-ups, bolts to secure your furniture to the walls, lockboxes for your cleaning products and medications, tubes for your wires, fences, gates, and – of course – furniture corner covers.
The message seems to be that childhood is a time of profound danger, and that the only way to confront that danger is by adopting an all-consuming, hyper-vigilant style of parenting – and by spending lots of money. In fact, if you don’t trust yourself to seek out and identify all the death-defying hazards in your home, you can spend hundreds of dollars hiring a company to come to your apartment or house and babyproof it for you.
I suppose if you are already replacing your plastic bottles with glass ones, forcing your doctor to agree to a revised vaccine schedule and regularly checking the state sex offender registry, then breaking out the power tools and tearing up your cabinets is just another day’s parenting. Overzealous babyproofing is one more example of overparenting gone mad. But for those of us who resist the idea that responsible childrearing means driving yourself crazy, it is one more example of overparenting gone mad.
Nevertheless, my husband and I thought about it. We could put safety bars on our windows and latches on our cabinets, we reasoned. We could scrub our floors each morning and nail the furniture to the walls. And while we were at it, we could go back to being the kind of people who physically attach themselves to their child’s stroller.
So instead, we waited, as tummy time turned into tripod sitting, and batting toys turned into holding them. Crawling and climbing came next, followed by opening and shutting, dumping and spilling. Through all those phases, we have discovered that our son isn’t Evel Knievel; he’s just a kid who’s curious about his world. And at no point have we felt that he is such a danger to himself that we have to build him a padded room.
Instead, we have discovered a real joy in watching our son interact with our things. His fascination with our stuff is far more rewarding than his passing interest in the plastic crap we’ve bought for him. Each morning he shimmies over to our Creature stereo subwoofer, which resides under my desk. He stares at it, palms it, occasionally tries to eat it. Then he turns the tiny silver knobs all the way up. Apparently, he thinks NPR could use a little more base.
And I love that he prefers playing with our bookshelf to his own board book library. Sandra Boynton is perfectly entertaining, but my heart pitter-pats when I see him get up on his tip-toes, haul the Chicago Manual of Style off the shelf and sit quietly on the floor, flipping through its feather-thin pages.
Of course, we don’t really think he is expressing a preference for high culture. He’s exploring our things because they are colorful, or shaped to his liking; slap a pair of retractable googly eyes on it and the Creature is a dead ringer for Boobah. Mostly, he gravitates to our stuff because it is ours, and in a way, by extension – his.
Nonetheless, we are perfectly aware that there are real dangers in our home, and we’ve addressed the ones that are genuinely threatening. Despite our best efforts, no level of babyproofing will ever guarantee a child’s safety. We vacuum the floors every few days to collect the accumulation of detritus that he might otherwise ingest. We’ve learned to open our windows from the top, rather than the bottom. We would totally move the bleach to the back of the cabinet – if we actually owned bleach.
But despite our best efforts, no level of babyproofing will ever guarantee a child’s safety. Sure enough, our son had his first choking scare just a few weeks ago, when he tried to swallow a part of one of his toys. And not just any toy: his hand-crafted, age-appropriate, lead-paint-free, made-in-Vermont wooden bunny rabbit. He managed to chew off its pink little ear, and was rolling it around in his mouth when my husband fished it out.
Both inside the walls of our apartment, and beyond it, there is a world that isn’t always safe or healthy or perfect. And that’s the world we are teaching our son to live in. So there will be no composite foam flooring in our future. No spring-loaded outlet covers. No hours spent cursing each other as we try to affix all that plastic hardware. Our family is living life on the coffee table edge, so to speak. And we couldn’t be happier about it.