Almost everyone who has spent time in the developing world knows the paralysis that can hit you in the cereal aisle of any well-stocked grocery store after returning to a land of plenty. There’s something about trying to pick from 435 types of cereal after you have been confronted with the fact that many people in this world have no choice in what they eat for breakfast – and, indeed, count themselves lucky to have breakfast at all – that is both horrifying and overwhelming.
The particular type of guilty, angry immobility that can ensue when you are smacked in the face by this sort of shocking abundance of choice does not, unfortunately, only strike in the cereal aisle. In the past I’ve found myself overwhelmed in the milk aisle, the cheese section, and when trying to select toilet paper. I also learned long ago not to go near Starbucks during the first three days after returning from Africa.
Yesterday, when I picked up a magazine devoted to comparing various baby-essential products, I was unexpectedly ambushed by a similar dynamic.
I am now almost seven months pregnant, and pretty much the sum total of my material preparation for this baby has consisted of organizing to buy a crib and a set of drawers from friends in Laos and handing out my address to lovely friends across oceans who have posted me a bunch of maternity and baby clothes they no longer need. So in browsing this magazine that someone gave me last Friday, I was trying to do the responsible thing and start to plan ahead.
Maybe I should have left well enough alone.
“What did you do today?” Mike asked me when we talked on skype last night.
“Well, one of the things I did was look through a baby magazine and get totally overwhelmed by adds for 500 different products, each of which had 500 different choices,” I said.
“And each of which cost 500 different dollars?” Mike asked.
“Sometimes more. Strollers and cots and baby carriers and car seats and nappy rash creams and diapers and baby monitors and… There was this one cot – some European design – very cute, round, wooden slats, on wheels. Guess how much?”
“$1200.00,” Mike said.
“Well, if you really have your heart set on a round, European wooden cot on wheels,” Mike said, “then cut out the picture and we can bring it back here and take it to the nice Vietnamese man who made our bookshelves and he can make it for a whole lot cheaper than that.”
“No,” I said, “the cot we’re getting second hand there for fifty bucks will do just fine. But, the point is, I got totally flooded and I’ve decided that I don’t want the baby anymore.”
“Well, to me that statement implies that you have wanted the baby at some point. So, therefore, I think we’re making good progress,” Mike said cheerfully.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “since I left Laos it’s just been me and the baby, no you or Zulu to distract me, and I started to feel quite kindly towards him at times – you know, when he wasn’t kicking me hard from the inside. Overall I’d say I’ve been neutral-positive towards the baby most of the last week. But not today. Now I’ve changed my mind.”
“Neutral-positive is great!” Mike said. “You are making progress.”
“But now I’ve changed my mind,” I said.
“Because of a magazine? You know, plenty of people the world over have babies in places like Laos and manage to somehow do without fancy strollers and round European cots and organic diaper rash cream,” Mike said.
“And $95.00 thermometers that can take your babies temperature without you having to touch them?” I asked.
“Yeah, those too.”
“I think this is the part of the conversation where I’m supposed to admit that you have a point and change my mind back, but I’m not there yet,” I said.
Now, of course, part of my reaction to being assaulted by this magazine was wrapped up in my ongoing ambivalence related to impending motherhood. And maybe part of it was due to just being one week away from the visible poverty of Laos. But most of it, I believe, was simply the burden we feel when we’re “overloaded by options.”
It seems funny, doesn’t it? Most Western societies are founded on the premise that the way to maximize personal freedom and happiness is to maximize choice. Increasingly, however, psychologists are suggesting that past a certain point this equation does not hold true, and that this point is reached long before you have 285 types of cookies and 175 types of salad dressings to choose from.
Barry Schwartz, who delivered a fascinating TED Talk in 2005 called The Paradox of Choice, even argues that what is true of salad dressing is also true of too many available choices related to health care, where and when we work, and perhaps even decisions related to marriage and parenthood. Too much choice, he says, produces paralysis rather than liberation. And even when we manage to overcome this paralysis and make a choice we often end up less satisfied with the result of our choice than we would have been if we’d had fewer options to choose from.
So what’s the answer to this when it comes to baby gear? I don’t know. Clearly I will need to figure out what to do about a stroller and diapers at some point in the near future, but I’m certainly going to limit my exposure to baby magazine issues devoted to comparative advertising. Maybe I’ll just go the old fashioned route and ask those who have trodden this path before me to share their wisdom.
So, (virtual) neighbors. Any recommendations regarding stroller models, cloth diaper brands, baby carrier types, and other essential must-haves, leave a comment!
And, on a broader note, have you ever been overloaded by too many options? What has triggered this for you in the past?