Babies R Us

The vast warehouse space that houses the local Babies R Us could just as easily be holding a Best Buy or a Linens N Things or any of the other innumerable chain hulks that infest the Bailey’s Crossroads shopping swamp. That the inside of it feels different at all is impressive; that it exudes commercial-grade maternal warm fuzzies, despite the high ceiling and the girders, is a testament to an insidiously genius accomplishment of interior design. It must take a triple-size cleaning-and-painting crew to keep all the walls and bins that sterile shade of white all the time. The mood music is a carefully crafted mix of songs representing what some focus group must have deemed popular for the median age of current mothers, mostly W-Lite fare but with occasionally alt-hit tunes by the likes of The Cardigans. Nothing edgy, though. All very nice. The closest spots in the parking lot are all labeled “Expectant Mothers Only.” Expensive, comfortable chairs surround the inviting desk where you sit to set up a Baby Registry.

Suanna and I had already registered for some stuff online, so all we needed to do was pick up a Registry Gun. I had been looking forward to using a Gun for years. Back in 1993, the technology of the wedding-and-baby registry industry did not yet include Guns. We had to wander through the jumbled aisles of Pier One with a yellow legal pad, for goodness’ sake! As more and more of our friends got engaged in the years that followed, we heard stories of the Gun — it had a barcode reader and a trigger, and you walked around the store just pointing-and-clicking at the stuff you wanted. I immediately recognized it as a tactless ploy to keep people like me entertained during otherwise tedious registry-filling missions, but that didn�t mean I wasn’t eager to use it. I was bitterly disappointed to discover that, at Babies R Us, no holster was included.

As we got going, I experienced a keen but peculiar sense of cognitive dissonance, a mental tension of conflicting priorities that I found hard to sort out. It was entirely separate from the general feeling of shock and disbelief that hit me every couple of aisles when I saw something innocuous, like a bottle warmer, and thought: “Holy crap, we’re going to actually procreate!” That feeling would bring me to a standstill for a minute or two until the world slowly came into view again.

No, this was something else. Two ideas, colliding. In column one, a familiar axiom: I Dislike Shopping. Even when it comes to things that I’m actually interested in buying, like computer gear, I prefer to do my buying online. An errand-run to Target can give me enough stress and irritation to spoil my mood for the rest of the day. If, heaven forbid, the headline in the paper ever reads “Exasperated Arlington Wife Tosses Husband Out of Eighth Story Window,” it will be because I’ve been a stubborn grump on one too many shopping trips.

Part of my aversion to shopping is unremarkable Y-chromosome genetics, but part is also a keen desire to avoid unnecessary material possessions (with the exception of books, games, and computer gear, of course) and an aversion to crass commercialism and the terrible abuse the English language suffers at its hands. And that crassness, the unapologetic play on the customer’s basest fears and unconscious desires, is in play nowhere more than in the world of Baby Gear. Every sign, every pastel, every picture of a cookie-cutter young blonde mother and giggling baby on every box, conveys the same message: �You “ust provide a cozily ideal environment for your child. This will be exceedingly difficult if you are not as beautiful as the people pictured here, but you can compensate by buying this and this, this and this over here, and that other thing, too. All of it is absolutely necessary, and should you neglect to acquire one of every johnson and gdangus we offer, you are being Negligent Toward the Baby.” In other words, Babies R Us represents, in some ways, the epitome of the evils of shopping.

And yet, here we have column 2, the other side of the mental tension. Unlike most shopping items, we really do need some of this stuff, quite badly. We say “we need a new fan,” or “we need a new wafflemaker,” but these are needs only by certain American middle-class standards that ninety percent of the world’s population would find laughable and not a little decadent. But there’s all sorts of baby gear, from diapers to car seats, that is not only necessary but extremely important. In every other shopping experience of my life, whether it was evaluating bookshelves or digital cameras, at the back of my mind there was always a flippant sense that “it doesn�t really matter.” Now, suddenly, we have to make shopping choices that affect not only our comfort, but somebody else�s safety. Right at the moment when shopping is at its most annoying, it is simultaneously at its most important.

It was enough to give anyone a headache. Thankfully, the registry dynamic made it a little easier. We weren’t actually buying things, just putting them on a list — a list that we could toodle with online at any point. That deferred the shopping stress somewhat, and between that and my trusty sidearm, I was able to last for a couple of hours before the drooling and the vacant stares set in. We still need to do a bit more research and choose between, for example, the three different strollers we shot with the Gun, but that sort of shopping, I can handle. The worst part is over. That is, except for the showers. Ho boy.