I have at least three scars from childhood: one on my chin, one across my right eyebrow, and one somewhere on the crown of my head. Battered from the top of my face to the bottom. White lines, like blanks, where something was taken out of me and never replaced.
I only remember what caused the last one. Still my favorite toy: a battery-powered train engine, metal, about the size of a shoebox and shaped like a silver bullet, with a rubber-necking engineer who would snap from side to side, as though he were looking out the window at something he was about to hit. And he was always hitting something—that was the point. The engine would crash, reverse itself in a wild Y turn, and swing out in a new direction until it smacked something else.
One afternoon when my parents were away, it ran into a stout extra leaf of our dining room table, propped against the wall. Had I understood the principles of gravity and the see-saw, I might have gotten out of the way. But I probably watched the table leaf all the way down, like something out of a Buster Keaton movie, until it crushed me.
My cousin, on leave from the Navy, was babysitting at the time. I remember blood, the ride to the hospital, being told to hold something on my head. I remember the doctor sewing me up and then blowing up the surgical glove into a chicken. But I may be conflating, or inflating, these events—the glove may even have happened during a sibling's visit to the ER. We were regulars.
This isn't a criticism of my parents or the times or nihilistic trains. But now I'm a parent and much of my childhood has been outlawed: the towering Space Age rockets on blacktop playgrounds, the steely Jarts we tossed in the backyard, the wayback seat in the Plymouth station wagon, the one that faced out the rear door so you could perform for drivers following behind like a kind of mobile black-box theatre. We never saw where we were going, only where we'd been. No wonder we had to ask if we were there yet.
Pepin's life is accompanied by warnings, her brief biography a list of ways to die. Everything she sits in, plays with, or moves around in is festooned with them, like the rules to an impossibly difficult game. The Boppy that supports her while she breastfeeds is covered entirely with warnings, in multiple languages, like wallpaper (spoiler: don't put her to sleep on it, tempting as it may be to lay her on a weird horseshoe pillow with a name instead of any available flat surface).
My favorite is the warning on her bouncy chair, a pictograph of what to do (stay with your child while she's in the chair) and what not to do (walk away when your child's calling out to you, as though rudeness itself could be fatal).
This isn't new, of course: manufacturers long ago limited their liability to essentially zero—the Diaper Genie would have to grow a foot and trip Pepin into a smothering pile of her own poop in order for us to fault it—and it's a cliche to lament today's risk-averse America (with the exception, of course, of guns). Never has there been a more cautious people with so little to show for it: lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than 16 other high-income countries. But at least no one will be going to sleep on a Boppy.
Still, Lucy and I haven't pushed it. We haven't put Pepin's car seat in the canoe (even if these people wrote a whole blog about how to do it, canoeing across the country with their baby—the country is Canada). We have a mosquito net for her stroller. We keep her out of the sun, and when she's old enough we'll slather her in what we used to call suntanning oil until she looks like a mime. The worst thing I've done is forget her socks when I was taking her to her grandparents, and even then I ran in to get them—making the worst thing I've done, actually, leaving her in the car seat.
We can't pretend we don't know better. Besides, this is the low-hanging fruit. The real risks are unlabeled, out of sight. What will keep us up at night will be the same things that have always kept parents awake: the kids themselves, little trains that run into things, then do it all over again.
(Photos: Pepin on her Limited Liability Play Mat of Certain and Permanent Death, and the warning on her Baby Bjorn bouncy chair showing the headless horseman's family at home—though neither child appears to actually be in the chair, or have hands.)