Annabel had been home for three weeks when the calls started coming. My brainy neighbor insisted there was no time to lose getting her on the waiting list at Georgetown's preschool extraordinaire. Another friend rattled off five must-shop-at European-designer baby boutiques. I knew things were getting loopy when I answered the phone one day and someone muttered, "Passport. You've got to get her a passport."
Not even a month old and ready for the grand tour. What's a millennium mother to do?
Parents have always sought the best for their children. But once upon a time Paris frocks and ponies were beyond the means of the middle class. Not anymore. Affluent parents with dual incomes have money to burn on the right stuff for their little accessory of the moment. In an era when it's all about giving your child "an edge," no wonder pursuit of the best has become an Olympic sport.
Hanging with two other new moms at the Montrose Park jungle gym in Georgetown, the subject is strollers. There's the Peg Pérego, a sleek Italian number. The foldup Maclaren from Scotland. And the new hottie, the hard-to-get Emmaljunga from Sweden, dripping as much chrome as a Jag.
The consensus: You can justify the $400 tag on the Junga because it doubles as a jogging stroller, so you're really getting two for the price of one. Plus, says Mary, if you live in town and walk everywhere, "you need those big wheels."
We've had similar back-and-forths about highchairs, car seats, and cribs. And though I snicker at this infant version of conspicuous consumption, I am not immune.
The highchair in our kitchen is a Peg Pérego (what can I say? It was black and gray, and it spoke to me). Our car seat is a trendy leopard-print Britax from England that my husband fell for. Though I was ready to splurge on the $295 Kate Spade diaper bag that all the It moms carry, my Belly Basics mailbag that slings across the chest is more comfortable and one-third the price. Somehow we've managed to avoid the sexy-stroller derby. After spinning the Peg Pérego round the store and straining to lift the Emmaljunga, the winner was a humble Aprica. It was easy to maneuver and a featherweight compared with the Junga, vital because it has to squeak up and down the tortuous steps of our rowhouse. And babies don't seem to care what they're riding in. They drool, Junga or not.
Baby chic goes way beyond cribs, strollers, and car seats. Designers from Versace and Prada to Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all have children's lines. This year, Gucci joined the fray with baby shoes sporting the famous "G," and Burberry debuted a clothing and accessories line in baby-blue-and-white plaid.
The millennium baby wears designer garb (think Madonna's little Rocco and Cindy Crawford's Presley); sleeps on sumptuous linens (a Lewis of London bumper-and-quilt ensemble can set you back $800); eats off Tiffany china (check out the new "Animal Alphabet"); dabbles in massage and yoga; and travels in style.
The logic? If mommy and daddy wear Gucci and Burberry, the little boo ought to as well.
It is no coincidence that a megachain called Babies R Us exists in our time. Babies are us. Or Mini Me's, as Austin Powers' Dr. Evil might say.
One friend sheepishly admits coordinating her outfit with her ten-month-old's every day: "At least the same colors." And if I could clone Annabel's cream mock turtleneck and Polartec black bootleg pants in my size, I'd wear them myself.
In the interest of full disclosure: I'm also a sucker for shoes. My mother is fond of pointing out that for a child who doesn't walk yet, Annabel is knee-high in footwear. Black patent loafers, blue leather fisherman's sandals, Mary Janes, and assorted sneakers. But these all slide in under my $10 rule: If it's less than $10, buy it.
Feeding the baby frenzy are exclusive boutiques selling luxuries like Italian glove-leather booties, Web sites devoted to baby gear, and catalogs like the cleverly named Leaps and Bounds and the Right Start, where educational toys, furniture, and timesaving gadgets woo parents. And everywhere there's Baby Gap, purveyor of tiny leather skirts and jackets at almost reasonable prices, especially if you hit the sale rack.
Not that Baby Gap flies in all Zip codes. A college-professor friend was mortified to arrive at a Georgetown baby shower and find hers the only Gap bag amidst an Everest of exquisitely wrapped boutique boxes.
The media have leapt onto the baby bus as well. Newsweek publishes an annual everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-babies edition. Martha Stewart Living recently trained its soft-focus lens on the cult of the baby--everything from vintage sterling-silver spoons to cashmere booties.
Let us also not overlook Buy Buy Baby, the coyly named suburban store that winks at consumers, all the while luring them with upscale nursery furniture, clothing, and toys along with essentials like bottles and formula.
This is not to say that the $5-million baby-products industry is all bad. There are some gizmos I can't imagine doing without. Like the Avent sterilizing system for zapping bottles and nipples in the microwave, worth every penny. Or the BabyBjörn carrier, light-years more comfortable than the Snugli, though admittedly "Snugli" sounds more baby-friendly.
Then there's the wipes warmer, which heats wipes to a more civilized temperature. Anything that minimizes changing-table caterwauling is okay, though the grief I've gotten from older mothers who did without means I keep my mouth shut on the subject.
Those Baby Mozart and Baby Bach videos, which meld classical music with vivid images and are supposed to jog baby brains, have helped us through some rather trying dinner hours. And our latest find--the Ultrasaucer, an activity center with a swivel seat that's said to encourage standing--a favorite of Annabel's (yes, we reluctantly sprung for the top-of-the-line model).
Who knows if videos or those "mind-stimulating" toys have any effect at all--but they do give us a comfortable sense of edge.
Sure, some things are silly: the color-TV nursery monitor; the Diaper Genie, engineered to sanitize and wrap diapers like magic (except it gets jammed too often); and anything that mimics mama. I'd rather croon my daughter to sleep than let a tape do it for me.
Not everyone buys into baby chic--or at least not all of the time. Many moms dutifully save outgrown outfits and baby gear to pass along. Annabel spent her first nights in a cradle a close friend lent us, and I just bundled up a pair of barely worn sneakers and rompers to mail to a pal with a six-month-old.
It's a Tuesday morning at Montrose Park, and Annabel and I are waiting for our mommy friends--a new phrase in my vocabulary along with "mommy group," one that always makes me wonder: Isn't this supposed to be about the babies?
Annabel is not quite up for the monkey bars at eight months, so we're tearing down the slide together with her in my lap. The others arrive flushed and energized from their mom-and-baby yoga class. Mom-and-baby yoga is really yoga for mom, though as Lucy points out, she's able to hold ten-month-old John while doing some of the poses, so he benefits too.
Mary swears by the baby-massage classes she took when Henry was a newborn. These are supposed to help with colic and digestion. Some massage therapists come to the house; others hold group sessions. Demos are done on dolls, while the moms practice strokes on babies. Out in LA, there's probably a baby spa too.
Some days it's too cold to linger by the jungle gym. Should we check out a baby music class or a workout program? What about story time at the library? The chic baby has to have a schedule, after all.
I can't help but remember the words of a psychiatrist acquaintance who rails about turning children into miniature adults by overstructuring their time. So even if Annabel does take a class or two, she won't be getting a Palm Vx anytime soon.
Here at Montrose Park, we studiously avoid the "mommy group" moniker. We're all a bit contrarian, and we've all heard the horror stories. I'll never forget my friend Annie sputtering about a play group studded with Northwest DC notables. Innocently I asked, was it the children? No, it was the mothers. They were too intense. Too competitive. The one-upmanship made it too much work--hardly play at all.
This is not to say that nurturing groups don't exist. A friend in Alexandria swears by her mothers group--and having met these supportive, low-key women, I can see why. People rave about Georgetown's Intown Playgroup, which is almost as hard to get into as Harvard. Churches and synagogues often bring together moms with babies roughly the same ages that evolve into play groups that flourish for years.
Sure, there are climbers who'll do anything to shove their child in with the right crowd--and maybe even advance their own careers and social status at the same time. Schmoozing your way to the top is a way of life in DC, so why should a play group be any different?
t HOUGH WE DON'T LABEL OUR informal park rendezvous, most of our talk is mommy talk. After all, our babies brought us together, not our jobs or a passionate interest in spelunking. I'm a writer, Mary is a lawyer turned interior designer, Lucy writes grants for nonprofits.
So the patter runs along the usual lines. Is organic baby food better than Gerber? Should you make everything from scratch? After all, in some circles you're considered a bad mother if you don't own a food mill.
What's the deal on a baby passport? A friend in Potomac who travels a lot told me she's gotten three phone calls in the past week from new moms wanting to know how to cadge papers--fast. Mary's just come back from London with seven-month-old Henry, so she's able to fill us in and wax enthusiastic about her new Combi travel stroller, which folds to fit into the overhead compartment.
Now we're on to doctors. Who's the best? I've heard from several people that a certain Spring Valley medical practice serves as pediatricians to the stars around here, but they don't participate in any insurance plans.
Does anyone know of a great nanny? Having a fabulous nanny is the ultimate status symbol for both mother and child. Filipino nannies seem to be de rigueur in Georgetown, and though we started out with one, when she left, an equally delightful Jamaican grandma took her place.
At times it all becomes overwhelming. The classes, the clothes, the accouterments. It takes Herculean effort to be a chic baby--and an in-the-know mom.
But whenever things seem too too, I ring Stefanie in New York. Tales from that city are truly horrific: hand-monogrammed burp cloths, baby feng shui, and music classes for 18-month-olds with homework.