Ask Umbra: Can I have a kid and be car-free?
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Q. Dear Umbra,
My husband and I are extremely lucky to live in a walkable neighborhood with necessities nearby — supermarket, library, bilingual preschool, and I can bike/bus to work. My issue is that now that we have a baby, all the other moms drive their kids all over the place, shopping and taking cute little day trips. I would prefer to drive only in emergencies, but our entertainment options near home are severely limited. Is it better to leave a smaller carbon footprint and make a moral statement my son might be proud of one day, or to have additional experiences with him/relationships with kids and moms across town that I will treasure until we all go up in flames?
P.S.: My husband doesn’t like me to take our baby on the bus, even to visit friends who live near the bus line. He thinks buses are dirty, that my time is too valuable, and that it makes us look poor.
A. Dear New Mom,
As you’ve no doubt learned in the last few months, new parenthood involves a dizzying series of choices. Cloth diapers or disposable? Breast or bottle? Work or stay at home? Co-sleep or crib? Now it seems we have another item to add to the checklist: moral statement or treasured memories? I’m pretty sure you can have both.
You have gotten accustomed to walking places. This is great! You and your husband are part of a generation of young families who realize that cities can be vibrant, exciting, diverse, healthy, occasionally exhausting places to live. You, New Mom, are on the cutting edge! So cut yourself a break.
I will tell you a secret about babies and small children: As long as you are with them, they do not much care where they are. They think it’s just grand watching ants in sidewalk cracks, or laughing at the funny faces you make, or building forts out of sofa cushions. Let the other mothers take their children to Sir Tots a Lot and Princess Bouncy House and private lessons on the far side of town where they teach infants signs for all the elements in the periodic table. You and your son will create plenty of treasured memories without a car. Believe me, you will see and appreciate things those other moms never do.
That said, I do want you to be careful not to get isolated. You need to spend time with other adults, and your son will benefit from hanging with peers as well. Find out if there are other like-minded parents nearby who want to form a playgroup or a carbon klatch. If your activities do require getting in the car once in a while, let your moral statement temporarily go out the window. You could experiment with setting a guideline that feels right for you, like limiting your driving to once or twice a week. We should all, of course, choose a fuel-efficient car if we must drive, bundle our errands, and carpool when we can. (That’s tricky with multiple car seats, but not impossible. Just takes a few extra minutes of wrangling.)
You also need to have a frank discussion with your husband about the bus. His assumptions are wrong, and you are lucky to have reliable public transit and friends who live near it. To bolster your confidence, read “The sane person’s guide to bringing kids on public transit,” which includes tips for dealing with strollers and so forth. In fact, you should read most of the Grist pieces by Carla Saulter, a Seattle mother who is committed to raising two kids car-free. And feel free to quote my friend Lou, an urban mother of two: “Your dear reader’s husband should adhere to good old-fashioned southern advice: When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
I checked with a few other urban moms to see if they had any morale-boosting tips. They do!
- Sarah says: “I walked a lot with my new baby, either just for the sake of walking or to do errands. This is the best time to do whatever you want, while he/she is captive and asleep all the time.”
- Lisa says: “The truth is that urban parenting is hard … you have to trudge through miserable weather. You can’t just get in the car and go to Chuck E. Cheese when it’s cold and rainy. There are, of course, wonderful aspects to it. You see people on the street all the time, so it’s easy to forge new friendships. Our lack of private space means we meet up in communal spaces — all that stuff is nice.”
- And Louise, a fellow Austinite, says: “Texas is a driving state and the otherwise-oasis-like Austin is no exception. If you’re walking or biking anywhere, you’re ahead of most Texans and can be proud.”
New Mom, I hope that helps, and I hope other Grist readers will chime in with their experiences. Try not to compare your life to the imagined lives of others (the A/C is probably busted on their Escalades anyway). But don’t let your principles get in the way of your self-care during what can be an overwhelming time. And do feel free to write in again.