Laura's Parenting Column



"The Carseat Wars" — February 1999

      It's a sunny Saturday afternoon. I'm with Justin and Emily and Justin's best friend, Heidi. We've gone out to breakfast, seen a puppet show, and now we're lounging around a friend's front yard. Emily has stripped off all her clothes, as usual. "I'm nakey!" she yells in delight, taking off down the street, buck-naked, running away and looking back and laughing. I chase after her, good-naturedly, scooping her up and delighting in her two-ness.
      When it's time for us to go (after much negotiation and several warnings), none of the kids want to leave. They start chanting in unison, "No go! NO GO!" Finally, I manage to convince Justin and Heidi to head home with a promise that they can wash my car. I try to get underwear and a shirt on Emily, and realize quickly that pressing the issue will mean physically forcing the clothes on her body. I worry about the carseat chafing her skin, but decide to pick my battles and let this one go.
      We head to the car. When I open the driver's door, Emily climbs in, settles in the driver's seat, and pretends to drive. I tell her it's time for us to go, and now is the time she can jump into her carseat herself. She shakes her head, a definitive "No!" and grips the steering wheel tighter.
      This has become one of the great unpleasant routines of my life; Emily resists the carseat (despite numerous ploys on my part, including compassion, humor and bribery), I get mad and have to force her in. It's the part of the day I dread most, especially with the number of comings and goings in our lives.
      I gather my energy around me, the relaxing warmth of the afternoon fading away. I give her another minute to play in the front seat, then tell her, "Emily if you want to do it yourself, now is the time."
      "Not yet!" is her reply. This, and "No way!" have been her favorite phrases lately. I sigh and say, "Emily, if you don't do it yourself, I'm going to have to help you." In this case, "help" is a euphemism. When I have to "help" Emily into the carseat, it's more like pressing a rigid, unyielding board into a place it doesn't want to go. I try to avoid this at all costs, because it's miserable for both of us.
      As a last resort, I try our little carseat song: "Put your bottom in your seat or I'll have to pull your feet." It's a charming little ditty, and it used to work. Now, Emily ignores it completely.
      At this point, Justin and Heidi, who have buckled themselves into their seatbelts, chime in. They're impatient and want to get going. "Emily, we're going to count to three. Ooooooone...Twooooooo..THREE!" They're young and enthusiastic, and I hope, convincing. Nothing happens. Peer pressure has failed.
      Finally, I resign myself to the struggle ahead. I say, "Emily, it's time for us to go. You need to be in your carseat to be safe. So I'm going to put you in your carseat now." She screams, "Not yet!" and stiffens up her entire body. Every cell is resisting me.
      I lift her up bodily and press her into her seat. Her resistance is fierce, her strength beyond what any reasonable two-year-old ought to have. I am using all the physical force I have, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to bend her body enough to buckle her into the carseat. She is rigid and screaming, "No way! I want to do it myself!" I release the pressure of my hands and say, "Okay, Emily, if you want to do it yourself, this is your last chance." She tries to slide out of the carseat instead. I realize we have reached the point of no return.
      I tell her, "Emily, I'm going to buckle your carseat now." I press down again, using even more strength, and finally the buckle snaps in place. I apologize to her for having to force her, and we head home, Emily wailing in fury and outrage all the way.
      Two-thirds of the way home, Heidi informs me in a frightened voice, "Emily's getting out!" I turn around and see that Emily has wriggled her arms and shoulders free, and is standing up in her carseat. Justin starts to panic, "Stop the car, Mama! Emily could go right through the windshield. Stop the car!"
      What I really want to do is ignore what's happening in the back seat and drive home, but I obey my frantic son and pull over in a quiet cul de sac. People are out washing their cars and talking to the neighbors. I imagine that they're all focused on me and my naked daughter, screaming her endless scream.
      I turn around and tell Emily in a calm voice that she needs to get back into her carseat. I say, "You can do it yourself or I will have to do it for you. But we need to get home and you need to be in your carseat." Again, Emily screams, "I want to do it!" but can't bring herself to comply.
      I don't want to have to force her again, but I don't see any alternative. It's too far to walk with three kids and I don't want to set a precedent of making the carseat optional. The other kids are hot and starting to whine. I feel trapped and powerless to alter the course of events.
      Emily's standing up in her carseat, trembling and covered with snot. I say, "Emily, I know you don't want to get in your seat, and I'm sorry I'm going to have to make you, but it's not safe otherwise." And then I begin forcing her in again. I feel grim, determined. I press her body down with all my strength, and she starts screaming, "Don't Vicky! Don't force me!"
      This is the worst thing she could possibly say to me. I am an incest survivor and my naked daughter is telling me not to force her. Now, I just want this nightmare to end. I continue to use my superior strength against hers, inexorably pressing her back into the seat. Finally I get the buckle to click. I apologize to her again, and we drive home. She screams all the way.
      When we arrive, she refuses to get out of the carseat. The other kids turn to me and ask, "Can we wash the car now?"
      Wearily, I look at them and reply, "Not yet." They sense my mood and don't push it. Instead, they run into the house.
      I sit there with Emily, exhausted and spent. Finally, I say, "Emily, do you want a nur-nur?" and she replies in a ragged voice, "Yes."
      I unbuckle her and we head inside. I sit down with her on our rocking chair, nurse her, and in moments she is deep asleep. I get up, go to my computer and write this.
      There are moments as a parent when I have been forced to do something extremely unpleasant, when I have had to hold an unpopular limit or listen as a child screamed, "I hate you." I have witnessed numerous tantrums, mediated endless fights, been kicked, screamed at, and otherwise borne the brunt of my children's strong, unfettered emotions. For the most part I have honored this, glad that my children felt safe enough with me to show me their scared, painful, angry places. But today's confrontation with Emily was harder for me than all the others, because it touched a place in me where there's still a hurt child inside.
      Nothing in us stays untouched when we love and care for children. They reach into our deepest, most vulnerable places, places some of us never imagined when we signed up for the job. Today I felt shaken to the core, but I accept that this, too, is part of being a parent. Emily and I will be growing together for a lifetime, and for me, this was just one of the rough spots on the journey.

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Vicky Rose is the pseudonym of a local Santa Cruz writer whose children are 21, 5 and 21 months old. She and her family are using pseudonyms at the request of Justin, who is 5, and likes his privacy.

© Laura Davis 1999 All Rights Reserved.