My daughter and I can often be found at the local maternity store. We visit several times a week so that she can play with the display babies. Usually the routine goes a little something like this: I go over to the crib where the display babies are modeling swaddling blankets and hand one down to Sage. She strips it naked and takes it around the store. She makes it ride the rubber horse, she feeds it with the bottles that they have for sale; she takes it up and down the ramp teaching it to walk.  She brings it over to the door and pushes it up against the glass saying,  “look baby cars, look baby moon, look baby trees” as if showing an inmate some tiny glimpse of everything she is missing. She puts it in a stroller and then a highchair. Then she drags it into a dressing room and pretends to change its diaper. As she goes about her routine something magical starts to happen around her. Everywhere all the parents-to-be who are roaming around looking for slings, and BPA free bottles stop what they are doing.  They become utterly distracted by her cuteness. They just lock in on Sage and stare and stare as she plays. They give this wide smile and these sort of longing eyes and I imagine that they are thinking, “This is my future…” As they linger on her, I know that they are hoping to catch her glance so that they can practice loving a kid. They want to interact. They want to connect. Then they look at me, sometimes they make a comment but usually they just give this lovely soft sigh.

Cut to today. Sage is reeling around the store with the display baby, she beelines for the bottles. She inspects each one and then tosses it on the floor. “No, no, no! The baby wants a different one!” she says as she rejects the bottles. Then she high tails it to the stroller display. There is a young couple getting a tutorial on how to strap in their future son or daughter. Sage walks right between them. She throws her baby into the stroller. Before I can reach her she pushes the stroller into the window display. All the other strollers begin to slide off of the little hill where they were so carefully mounted. I tell her “no”. She flails about. I know in my gut that she is moments away from a tantrum; this will be our first official tantrum in a public place. I make a last ditch effort to re-direct her energy. “Sage,” I say, “What if we go change the baby’s diapers!?!”  It is too late. She will have none of it.  I brace myself. Sage is now completely beside herself.

As she begins her melt down I look up and notice that both members of the “stroller couple” are actually averting their eyes. They are actively trying not to register this scene. The husband has directed all of his attention to a button on his coat. He rubs its edges like it is a worry stone. His brow is furrowed. The wife looks out the window and pats her pregnant belly, as if trying to calm her unborn child.  I wonder to myself what they might be thinking. I try to make eye contact but they aren’t interested in meeting my glance. Then all at once it dawns on me, they are thinking the exact same thing that all those other people were thinking all those times when Sage was being so cute and charming. They are thinking, “this is my future” it’s just that the subtext has totally changed. Before these words were filled with longing, they were filled with “I can’t wait”. This time they are full of anxiety and fear, they are filled with “holy shit!”

Someone once told me that when you are a parent, you are always in the process of “trading up”. He said “each time your child reaches a new phase you think to yourself, ‘this is the best,’ and then another phase comes along and it trumps the last.”  I’ve only been a parent for two years but so far this is absolutely true. It does keep getting better and better and better. Each day your kid discovers new ways to be herself and each day you discover new things to love about her. What he didn’t mention, however, is that in this process of “trading up” you actually GO UP, you actually CLIMB UP.  Sometimes you are climbing a reasonably sized hill, like something you’d find in San Francisco but sometimes you are climbing a mountain, and it’s a mountain like Everest or K2.  But unlike the professional climbers who usually frequent these mountains you don’t have a tank of oxygen or a Sherpa to help you along and give you advice like “I think there’s gonna be an avalanche.” So sometimes you are just trudging away and wham, you are in the middle of a whiteout. In thinking about this it makes me want to go back to that maternity store and find that couple who was probably going to drop $800 dollars on a stroller. I’d walk right up to them proudly bearing my two year old as she screams and flails in my arms. I’d just stand there and stare and stare until they finally got up the courage to look me in the eyes. Then I’d say with complete and utter sincerity, “fuck the stroller, buy a good pair of hiking boots and a tank of oxygen.”