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Confession: I’m a car seat idiot

Claire Zulkey wonders when she'll ever get used to the idea that she has two boys. She is the author of two books for young people, An Off Year and Best Frenemies. She and her filmmaker husband live in Evanston, IL. You can find out more...

I thought I could get away with not learning how to install a car seat properly — I was wrong

I like to think I’m a relatively capable mom. I can give two little kids a bath and put them to bed by myself without anybody falling apart. I can take a child on an overnight trip by myself and even have fun. Once, I even helped a child (not going to reveal if he was my own or not) poop in a public park and cleaned up the evidence perfectly. But one area in which I fall extremely short is with car seats.

When I was pregnant for the first time, my husband and I visited a car seat specialist affiliated with our hospital to make sure our car seat was installed right. I was about 15 months pregnant during a hot Chicago summer at the time, so there was barely room for me on the sidewalk, let alone near the cramped quarters of the backseat. So I sort of stood by and let my husband observe while the specialist showed him how the seat fits. Yes, I knew how to get the infant seat in and out of the base with a satisfying click, but if you needed me to install the base, or install the seat without the base, that was a whole other story.

More: Winter car seat mistakes that put babies at risk

Fortunately for me, I never had to do these things. My husband was always on hand to install and adjust the seats. I did, at one point, take our forward-facing seats to the police station to make sure that they were installed correctly (that was when I found out they were about two weeks away from expiring — oops.)

Finally, after that revelation, we bought two new car seats, a booster for the 4-year-old, which doesn’t really need installation, and a new convertible seat for the toddler. “I’m finally going to show you how this seat works,” my husband proclaimed, and he did. Fortunately for me, it’s a really simple seat that utilizes the existing seat belts.

Done and done. Phew! I was able to squeak by without ever really having to learn the intricacies of difficult-to-install seats.

More: Mom shares scary photo to warn parents of common car seat mistake

That is, until Monday. I was on a conference call preparing for my new gig guest-editing this exact site, when I got another call from my younger son’s day care. He had a fever and needed to come home. Problem was, my husband had the new easy-to-install car seat in his van since he took the 1-year-old to day care on his way to work. The lucky thing was that we had an old convertible car seat in our garage. Expired, yeah, but just by a few weeks, so it would be enough for the 15-minute drive home. The unlucky thing? I had never learned the proper way to install it.

I struggled for a while with the latches and hooks and straps, which I tried to get to work based on my faraway observations of my husband and the helpful police officer. I got the seat buckled in, at least, but I knew for a fact that it was not installed correctly. I’m not very religious, but I prayed that day would not be an unlucky one for me as a driver.

I got to day care, got my son in the car seat and got us home safely, cursing myself the whole time for my ignorance. What would have happened if we had gotten into an accident and he had gotten hurt? It would have been my fault, 100 percent.

We learned a practical lesson that day — that if the baby ever seems out of sorts, my husband will just leave the new easy-to-install car seat at day care in case I need to go get my son. But the bigger lesson is: I didn’t squeak by with my car seat stupidity. I never bothered to study, and when a pop quiz came up, I failed.

Don’t be like me — no matter how pregnant you are or how tight the quarters are or how confusing the straps all seem or how handy your partner is, get in there and make sure you know how your car seat operates too. Car seats aren’t fun. They’re awkward and tedious and often filled with crumbs and old milk to boot. But that’s not a good reason to be a car seat idiot like me.

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