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A teal stroller on a yellow background. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $200 I ever spent: A stroller that made me feel welcome in public

I wasn’t prepared for the isolation, and the judgment, that came with becoming a parent.

Another day at the office, but I wasn’t at work. My new office was the mall. My new work was to spend as much time there as I could in order to avoid being home alone with my new baby.

I had little money, and my clunky stroller was impossible to navigate through most store aisles, so each day I budgeted for a small coffee and a completely aimless walk from one end of the mall to the other. I felt lucky to work for a company with parental leave (or “vacation,” as one childless coworker suggested), but I craved company beyond my cranky baby.

Some people will tell you how isolating it can feel when you have your first child: you have trouble connecting with people in the same way you previously did, and lugging around bulky baby gear is an unneeded reminder that you’re not the same person you were recently. All of the childless people you find yourself in contact with seem more rested, free, and focused. It can feel overwhelming, sort of like you’re sinking in the quicksand of new parenthood, weighed down by the many things you need to bring with you anytime you go anywhere. You pack up your car and when you get to where you’re going, you pack up your smaller, second car: the stroller.

Shopping for your first stroller is not very different from shopping for your first car, as a matter of fact; you’re not sure what you’re looking for while simultaneously questioning what each model and brand says about you. Before having a car, I didn’t notice them in a significant way, and it’s the same story with strollers; you can just sub Toyota with Graco and Audi with Uppababy. There are people looking to get from point A to point B and those who care about (perceived) luxury.

Much like car shopping, I was shocked to learn what people are willing to spend on a set of wheels. There are few durable strollers for less than $500, and if you want to get fancy you can easily spend over $1,000 (Bugaboo, I’m looking at you). New parents will pay a premium for convenience out of desperation, and because it’s usually well worth it if it makes their day easier in any way.

We were lucky enough to receive a hand-me-down all-terrain stroller that, at $1,200, was priced more than double what we would consider spending on anything, really. Even though it was in great shape, it wasn’t so convenient when we actually had to go anywhere: the mall, restaurants, even the sidewalk. Baby gear can be bulky, and this stroller was particularly obtrusive, with giant wheels, and as light as a pile of bricks. Pushing it around made me feel like I was piloting a small parade float. After many attempts to awkwardly maneuver the free stroller around the cafes and stores where I had previously felt welcomed, I now mostly felt in the way.

My husband suggested we order an umbrella stroller (those are the ones that fold up tiny, so named because they’re basically like an umbrella with wheels), from Amazon, but it was about as durable as an umbrella, so we quickly returned it and headed to Toys “R” Us. After trying many strollers, we were very happy to leave with the Contours Bitsy Stroller. It was lightweight, handled great, and cost $200, which seemed like a steal when almost every other stroller seemed to cost as much as a new TV.

Gliding the Bitsy through crowds and tight corridors quickly helped me regain my footing in society. Instead of feeling like people were bothered by my baby-pushing presence, I now felt like I was able to carry on somewhat unnoticed. We made an effort to bring the bare minimum of baby gear with us when we would go anywhere with other adults.

Once, my brother-in-law complimented us for traveling light to a family dinner.

“Too bad your brother and his wife can’t seem to do the same …” he murmured, and then began listing the variety of baby gear they had brought along to past events.

As a new and unsure parent, I sheepishly enjoyed the undeserved praise. People (falsely) seemed to assume that the less baby gear you had with you, the more competent a parent you were. I guess the logic was that if you’re leaving your home without all your fail-safes, it’s because you have a good handle on parenthood. In retrospect, I think we were giving into the constant, unspoken pressure of not wanting to seem overwhelmed in any way; we didn’t want to seem like having a baby had turned us into just parents.

This was best encapsulated by our first family trip, to New York City. Eating in a restaurant with young kids can feel intense and stressful under regular circumstances, but in Manhattan it was amplified; most restaurants we encountered didn’t have high chairs or seemingly any interest in serving minors. Once I realized this, the entire trip became about meal logistics and trying to find a restaurant we could all happily eat at without having to wait in line.

Our first night, we waited in line at a restaurant I immediately felt was too adult to bring a baby to: dimmed lighting, an awkwardly small waiting area by the hostess desk, and oh yeah, no children in sight. I spent the meal keeping food off the floor and my son from getting bored or rowdy. The second night we found a fun-looking spot near Central Park that was able to take a last-minute reservation.

We arrived ready to eat, our son in tow, when the hostess informed us they weren’t actually able to serve us; they were more of a “bar-restaurant” than a “restaurant-bar,” apparently.

“That’s too bad,” my husband replied, pointing at our infant son, “because he was going to drink a lot.” The staff politely chuckled as we headed out the door and back to the drawing board, the parents who tried to bring their baby to a bar.

Eventually we wound up at a fancy restaurant in an equally fancy hotel. The host seemed more like an actor researching the role of a snooty restaurant manager, and played the part perfectly; he looked visibly irritated at the idea of us dragging our baby along to dinner at his establishment.

Despite his clear displeasure, we were in luck: they had one table left, and even a high chair. Holding my son in one arm, I folded the stroller into its discreet, compact form with the other.

“Okay,” said the host, far less rude than he had been a moment ago. “That was cool.”

It was the validation I hadn’t known I’d been waiting for, and one of the moments I ended up remembering most from the trip from there on out. For a moment, instead of feeling overwhelmed, awkward, in the way, or totally isolated, I was finally able to feel like a normal person eating in an adult restaurant just like my pre-baby self used to do.

Melanie Westfield, who writes under a pseudonym, is a writer, tea drinker, and lottery player.

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