Baby on board

FOR a long time I didn’t get the “Baby on Board” car sign thing.

I agreed with comedian George Carlin (who described these as the three most puke-inducing words invented), and preferred parodies such as Pit Bull on Board, Ex-Boyfriend in Boot or Warning: Baby is Closer Than it Appears.

Rumour had it that these annoying yellow diamonds were invented after a baby died in a car crash because jaws-of-lifers didn’t realise it was buried in the wreck. Then the urban legend busting website Snopes.comrevealed the prosaic truth.

“Unlike what is implied in the gruesome folklore that has come to be associated with these advisories, their purpose was not to alert rescue workers to the presence of babies at accident scenes, they were instead supplications to other drivers to exercise additional care, reminders that they shared the road with vehicles carrying children.”

This irked me because of the presumption that children had a monopoly on innocence and deserved greater protection than other road users. Surely teenage transvestites were also entitled to move from A to B unmashed. Even naphthalened retirees reeking of carbon-dated cardies seemed to merit a little commuter consideration.

Yet where were the signs reading Mild-Mannered Jehovah’s Witness on Board or Car Contains Ethical Middle-Aged Gay Man?

Apparently the lower one’s age, the greater one’s right to life, a belief conveniently ignoring the existence of toddler serial killers-to-be and ageing pediatricians still able to save rug rats’ lives despite the burden of throat-wattles and exploding nose veins.

Baby on Board signs had the reverse effect on my driving because the parents who suction-capped them to their rear windscreens also seemed to assume that (a) the rest of the world would join them in worshipping their sprogs (welcome to the church of the latter-day pooh-stained spew machines) and (b) as parents they also deserved special consideration on the road because they’d been clever and skilful enough to procreate (something many sewer rats and warthogs managed to do sans assistance or standing ovation).

Then, of course, I cleverly and skilfully had my own baby and everything changed.

Like getting fat in a comfy, long-term relationship, becoming an über-protective parent is something you swear won’t happen to you but does anyway.

When I brought my daughter home from hospital, I didn’t want a Baby on Board alert. I wanted APEC-strength road clearances and a phalanx of those curly earpiece dudes who protect presidents and popes.

It wasn’t that I expected everyone else to fall at the dimpled feet of my magnificent infant. Even under the influence of birth goggles I realised many poor people might inadvertently mistake the perfect being I had created for Just Another Baby.

No, it was more the need to articulate the following, urgent existential shriek:

“Stop right there,” my version of the Baby on Board sign would have howled. “Travelling in this car is a creature of unspeakable vulnerability. She could die if she goes to bed on her tummy. She could die if she goes to bed wearing a hat. I have it on good authority that a cot bumper might strangle her while she sleeps and I’m not even 100 per cent sure what a cot bumper is. Oh my God, is that thing going for her throat in the car capsule a cot bumper? Sorry, no, the head earpiece dude has just informed me. It’s actually just a bit of seatbelt. Anyway. The point is, suddenly I’m responsible for the life of this tiny little human whose sole survival skill is the ability to make me feel like I’d die if anything happened to her. So can’t you please, please tailgate someone else?”

I still lose it when I see one of those Baby on Board signs. Not because I resent the message but because now I share that helpless parental horror at the impossibility of keeping your kids completely safe from the slings and arrows of that bitch, fate.

Still, at least now I can read between the lines and know that — until it’s legal to keep all offspring permanently locked in hermetically sealed security bubbles — tacky talismans will always have their place.

- originally published in The Australian on 07-08-2008.

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