I have a theory. The amount of gear a person needs in order to get through their day is inversely proportional to their age.
A person in their twilight years can while away the hours with a crossword puzzle, a trilby hat and a flat white, all put to good use while perched on a stool. A person in the throes of middle age carries a brief-case, dons a suit and gets around in their car, all of which they deem essential. A teenager is lost without a mobile phone, a bad hair-cut, a student debt and a giant chip on their shoulder. And a toddler goes nowhere without a bag of nappies, several changes of clothes, a hand-knitted blanket and the complete works of Eric Carle, lest it spend a moment bored or soiled.
Then you get to newborns. Just days into its life a newborn needs such an enormous collection of things, amounting to many times its own body weight, that just being transported from the maternity ward to home resembles the holiday of a minor member of the royal family.
With this in mind Melanie and I gingerly stepped into the world of children’s gear superstores. Big cities offer a wide range of alternatives, but in Canberra our options are somewhat limited – Baby Bunting in Fyshwick (yes, that Fyshwick) and Babies R Us in Majura have been our destinations of choice.
Of course, online retail offers near limitless possibilities, but buying baby gear requires a tactile experience, so we know exactly what we’re getting. Though with other types of products we are happy to leave the specifics of a purchase to the online retail gods, in this case we want to see the goods up close and feel the texture. The fabric on a blanket may look like the softest of teased yaks’ hairs, but unless we can rub against it ourselves, we can’t be sure.
So it is that we’ve spent many a Saturday browsing the aisles. Given the vast range of needs to be met, the rapid frequency with which children outgrow things and the phenomenal features that can be attached to each item, the selection at these superstores is so vast that anyone venturing within best be prepared.
Baby goods must get manufacturers and retailers salivating. It is the perfect environment for selling enormous volumes of product, and at eye-watering margins.
For starters, first-time parents are approaching the task ignorant to what their true needs are. Unless you have actually brought up a child, it is difficult to know what equipment you do need, and what is surplus to requirements. So it’s easy for a manufacturer to make their product look like an essential purchase with little more than a complicated name and a picture of a smug parent (almost always a mother) and a contented child. Depriving a child of a Steelcraft Snooze N Play Portacot Moonshadow seems tantamount to neglect.
Secondly, parents have almost no appetite for risk when it comes to the welfare of their child. It’s one thing for a person to consider the cost-vs-safety trade-off when making a purchase for themselves, but quite another when considering it for their child. The consequence? Plenty of parents opting to pay big bucks for features they almost certainly don’t need. Generations of kids have grown up with simple change-tables, cots and jumpsuits, with few experiencing any ill-effects, but now manufacturers of those same things have found all sorts of ways their own products could be a death-trap – and so offer improved safety features. While some are essential, many are not. But what parent is going to take the chance?
Thirdly, baby gear often amounts to status goods for the parents. A Hyundai and a Mercedes both achieve the primary purpose of conveying the occupants from origin to destination, but they send very different signals to the rest of the world about the driver. The same is true of much kids gear.
With every purchase a parent has at the back of their mind – what will other parents think? The svelte pram or Lamaze toys may be greatly beneficial to a child, but they are also a chance for parents to show off their style. It should be no surprise, then, that the cost of some prams extend beyond $2000 – a Silver Cross Surf Aston Martin Edition, anyone?
With so much gear on offer, a parent must tread carefully through the jungle.
When it comes to product design, there’s a fine line between cute and tacky. So many items, particularly clothing for youngsters, seem intent to entrench their parents’ idealised image of their child. Young boys’ fashion emphasises primary colours and images of strength, awash with pirates and powerful animals, while the young girls’ items are dainty and delicate, with pastel hues evoking princesses and fairies. Some of the branded gear – we’re looking at you, Disney – seems to take a heavy-handed approach to putting Aladdin or the Little Mermaid or whatever it might be front and centre. Parents seeking to fire some creative sparks and minimise insecurities in their child need to be discerning shoppers.
On most of our visits Mel and I head to the store together and the shopping is a team effort. But on these trips it’s hard not to keep an eye on some of the other couples browsing the aisles. The dynamics vary a lot.
Some pairings wander through the store like a love-struck couple, never straying from each other’s side and stifling high-pitched squeals as they pick cute-as-a-button items off the shelves. Then there are other couples shopping as if out of a sense of solemn obligation, traipsing through to get what they need within the least effort or fuss. And then there are couples where the expectant mother is browsing full of enthusiasm, while their disengaged partner hangs back and spends his time staring at his phone. It’s not hard to picture what the couples would be like as parents, us included.
But short of bringing up the child in the ascetic spirit of a monk, acquiring some of these things is essential. So what’s the best way to do it?
One approach might be to bypass the retailers altogether and make the most of hand-me-downs. We’re lucky to have a niece who not-so-many years ago was a newborn, and so has many things for a baby's room that come in handy. We’re also lucky to have lots of generous friends who have offered the things they no longer need. (There is, of course, great symbolism is parents giving away the newborn-friendly items in their home, for it suggests they think their child-producing days are over.) Another approach is to rely on the guidance of others who have been there before, taking them as a shopping partner to help separate the essentials from the nice-to-haves from the you’d-have-to-be-crazies.
And failing that, you can always take an educated guess, hope for the best and risk the opprobrium other parents strolling past with their Aston Martin. So be it.