In the summer of 2008, I got rid of my car and moved to a brand new city. It might sound brave and freeing, and in some ways it was, but mostly it was just the thing that made the most sense at the time. I moved to a relatively walkable neighborhood, found a job within walking distance of my tiny apartment, and committed to living car-free in a city that happens to have totally abysmal public transit. Since that summer, I’ve been living without a car, and I’ve more or less been happy with that decision. But last year I finally realized my dream of becoming a mom, and there’s just no way to sugarcoat it: Being a mom without a car is hard.
My guess is that needing a car varies quite a bit based on where you are at, and places with more reliable public transit probably make car-free parenting much easier. But in Detroit — a city that lacks a lot of infrastructure and has notoriously unreliable busses — the assumption is that most parents have cars. And that assumption seems to be present in the vast majority of advertising I see aimed at American parents, as well. Yet, I wasn't terribly concerned about how car-free parenting would go for me and my partner. I knew it might be difficult, sure, but before I had a child and was actually doing it, those difficulties were all abstract and unreal to me. Nowadays, however, they are anything but abstract.
My wife and I knew we couldn’t afford to get a car before we had a baby, and to be perfectly honest, we didn’t even want one. I like not owning a vehicle, I like not having to worry about repairs and gas prices, and I dislike driving all the time. We figured we’d muddle through the best we could. We planned ahead the best that we could. We did register for a carseat, figuring that we would be riding in cars with friends and family some of the time, but we also planned a glorious home birth and chose a doctor’s office right on the bus line. And yet, we totally and completely underestimated how complicated our lives were about to become.
In the first place, our baby ended up needing to go to the doctor three times in his first week at home. He was recovering from jaundice and required regular blood testing. On top of that, I was still recovering from a c-section and needed to be able to go get my meds. A week later, my c-section incision was infected and I needed to head to the ER. All of those things required transportation, and I wasn’t well enough to strap a newborn to my chest in the wrap and climb onto the bus. So, in the early and difficult days of postpartum, my little family found ourselves in a logistical nightmare of cabs, getting rides from family members, and essentially begging friends with cars to do us a solid. So you know, add humiliation to the list of very “fun” things I got to deal with last summer.
My family and I can no longer afford to live in a neighborhood where we can easily walk to everything we need, so we often need to go farther for essential items. And when you don't have a car, this quickly gets complicated.
There was yet another aspect I had not foreseen. I’d wager that if you asked parents to list their very favorite aspects of parenting, pretty much no one would say “installing the car seat.” However, for people with cars, installing the car seat is a thing you do. People put them in and leave them in, check them occasionally for safety, and that’s that. My wife and I, not being car people, got the car seat so we would have it “if we needed it.” And boy, did we ever need it. But because we were almost never riding in the same vehicle twice in a row, life became a constant series of putting the car seat in and taking the car seat out. We were constantly lugging the damn thing around, constantly tightening and adjusting straps. The car seat ended up living right by our front door, ready to go at all times, and I came to hate it more than diaper blowouts. The upside of all of that is, of course, that I got really, really good at installing the car seat. These days, me and the car seat are an unstoppable team.
And while things have let up a bit since the awful newborn days (no one is taking my baby’s blood three times a week now, hurray!), being careless with a kid has still turned out to be… complicated. The march of gentrification in our area means that my family and I can no longer afford to live in a neighborhood where we can easily walk to everything we need, so we often need to go farther for essential items. And when you don't have a car, this quickly gets complicated. Because feeding a toddler is kind of expensive, I tend to want to get to the cheaper grocery stores whenever I can swing it. And although he no longer practically lives at the pediatrician’s office, he still needs to go to the doctor for regular checkups. We also have family we’d like to visit from time to time, and you know, might occasionally want to do a fun thing with our kid.
I see my suburban friends who have children with their reliable vehicles, talking about playgrounds and playdates and splash parks. I wonder if my kid is missing out. When other parents want to get together with me and my kid, I know I pretty much have to ask them to come to us, and I kind of hate that. I try to use our totally awesome toy setup to lure them in, but it doesn't always work.
The bus system by us is unreliable and inefficient, and it turns out weather also regularly impedes on our ability to get around. A single, 25-year-old version of me would consider waiting 45 minutes in the rain for a bus transfer to be a “life experience,” but I can’t exactly ask my 1 year old to do the same. The fact is that getting around with a baby or toddler is at least twice as difficult as getting around by myself, and when it’s already kind of hard, sometimes all of the added difficulties get overwhelming. So we stay on our block a lot, and we don’t go out to do as many things as I’d like.
Sometimes, I feel guilty about that. I see my suburban friends who have children with their reliable vehicles, talking about playgrounds and playdates and splash parks. I wonder if my kid is missing out. When other parents want to get together with me and my kid, I know I pretty much have to ask them to come to us, and I kind of hate that. I try to use our totally awesome toy setup to lure them in, but it doesn't always work. Thank goodness there are other children on our block that my kid can chase around, or I’d feel even worse.
And I’ve come to realize this isn’t going to get easier. Eventually, he’s going to need to go to school, and he’s going to need to go every dang day. How will he get there? The school we’d most likely send him to for kindergarten does not have school buses. Biking or the city bus might be an option sometimes, but what about in the winter? I’ve taken the city bus in a snowstorm and by “taken the city bus,” I mean “waited at the stop for an hour and a half until my feet got so cold I started to worry about losing toes.” And once he’s school age, he’s likely to occasionally want to visit friends who don’t live on our block. What then?
Recently, we’ve been lucky. Some excellent neighbors have let us use their car from time to time, and it’s made a big difference in our day to day. We’re talking about setting up a more formal car-share system, which might totally revolutionize our lives. But no matter how you slice is, this isn’t what I expected. I knew that not having a car might make being a mom a little different than the standard image of American motherhood I see everywhere else. I just didn’t realize that not having a car would make being a mom almost impossibly complicated.