That cutesy 'Baby on Board' decal embodies the enduring terror of parenthood
There it is, dangling in the rear window of the red Honda CRV. There's another, stuck to the bumper of the minivan in front of you at the stoplight. Circle through a Target parking lot and you'll spot at least a dozen of those little yellow diamonds, emblazoned with an urgent message in all-caps: "BABY ON BOARD." To parents, they are protective talismans. To everybody else on the road, they mean a million different things, or nothing at all.
"We saw one the other day, and my 11-year-old said, 'So wait, it's OK to hit other cars but just not that one because they have a baby? What am I, chopped liver?' " says Stacey Smith, 42, of Wilmington, Delaware.
"When I see them, I generally appreciate knowing why a car may be driving slower than other traffic," says Jason Mandik, 38, of Chicago. "I typically give them more of a wide berth."
"I always thought of the baby-on-board stickers as status updates before the age of social media: 'How can I let everyone know I'm a mom now?' " says Greg Seale, 45, of Texas.
When the car decal made its debut in 1986, it was greeted as a fad. But 35 years later, the '80s babies who first rode around in vehicles adorned with the signs are parents themselves. Now they are the ones realizing with sudden, searing clarity what it means to strap a tiny, helpless human in a car and then drive around on roads filled with other speeding, flammable deathwagons operated by people who are probably texting their friends about last night's "Game of Thrones." And because modern capitalism promises a cure - or at least a placebo - for every spasm of parenting anxiety, the decals are still out there.
Slap a sticker on the bumper, and the immediate question - what can I do to feel better about this? - has been answered.
Perhaps we'd rather not ponder the questions that remain. Does this sign actually accomplish anything? When we display it, what are we really telling the people who pass by us? What are we telling ourselves?
The origin story of the baby-on-board decal is a story of the American Dream, the sort of tale that begins with an entrepreneurial 30-year-old man on a harrowing drive with his 18-month-old nephew in the back seat, and ends decades later with that same man selling his $26 million Miami Beach estate to DJ Khaled.
"It was the first time in my life that I felt what a parent would feel, with this little infant in their car," says Michael Lerner, now a 65-year-old investor living in Florida, recounting the long-ago afternoon when he drove his little nephew home after a family gathering outside Boston. "People were cutting me off, tailgating me, and I felt extraordinarily protective and concerned."
A week later, Lerner, then an executive recruiter, got a call from a friend who was representing two sisters with an idea they wanted to sell: a little triangular safety sign to display in a car, with the words "Baby Aboard."
"I don't know if I would have connected so strongly with the product if I didn't have that experience," Lerner says of his white-knuckle drive. He made the deal, tweaked the sign shape and phrasing (" 'Baby Aboard' felt like a boat," he says), and launched Safety 1st, a company that eventually grew to an international brand selling all manner of child safety gear.
"In September of 1984 we sold 10,000 signs," he says. "By June, we were getting orders for 500,000 a month."
But then Lerner's safety sign became something else, an analog proto-meme, hijacked by satirists who marketed snide alternatives; by 1986, stickers declaring "Baby, I'm Bored" and "Mother-in-law in Trunk" were common sightings, and sales of the original baby-on-board stickers dropped precipitously. Meanwhile, some jurisdictions outlawed the suction-cupped version on the grounds that it obstructed a driver's view. Lerner thought his product might be nearing its end.
But it wasn't. "It came back," Lerner says, the sales creeping up again as the popularity of the parody signs waned.
Lerner sold Safety 1st to the Canadian company Dorel Industries in 2000 (he walked away with a cool $38 million). The company now makes more than 70 variations in seven languages (when in Rome, "bimbo a bordo"; for Parisian enfants, it's "bébé à bord"), and more than 12 million signs have sold worldwide in the past 15 years, according to Don Bryce, vice president of marketing for Dorel Juvenile Group.
Safety 1st protects its trademark, Bryce says, but the marketplace is still flooded with copycats and parodies. There are golden retrievers on board, parrots on board, ninjas on board and burritos on board; for nihilistic wisecracks, there's "No baby on board, it's OK to crash into me!"
Rom-coms, sitcoms and late-night hosts have taken cracks at the signs. Homer Simpson's barbershop quartet sang a catchy ode to them. George Carlin, the late comedian, offered a particularly scathing take in a 1988 standup special: "The three most puke-inducing words humanity has yet thought of," he said, unleashing an avalanche of vivid vulgarities before concluding: "Life doesn't change because you post a sign."
This is true. But sometimes a baby changes a driver.
"It always made me snort-laugh and roll my eyes seeing those damn stickers, because, 'Oh, there's a baby? I better start driving safely now! This car is extra-special!'" says Noa Manor Yaghoubian, a 33-year-old mother of two in Tenafly, New Jersey.
Then she visited a friend, whose firefighter husband told her that the signs can act as an indicator to first responders that there may be a wee passenger who had been thrown from a vehicle during a crash.
"I ordered one when I got home," she says. "If a silly sticker would ensure my children are cared for during a traumatic and dangerous event, I'll just add it to the ongoing list of stuff that makes me less cool."
Cannon-Marie Green, 39, of Arlington, Virginia, says she always despised the stickers - until last May, when she had her first baby.
"When I see one now, I know they are as much a request for safe driving as they are a request for patience or kindness," she says. "So when I pass a car with a baby-on-board decal, I send some mom solidarity to the driver because parenting is hard, and we are all in this together."
So what exactly is "baby on board" really declaring to the universe? Is it a self-indulgent boast? An IRL Facebook status? A plea for patience? A magnetic amulet? An illusory grasp at control in a world where we actually have little or none?
"Having children reminds us of life, but it also reminds us of mortality," says Dan Higgins, 43, of Buffalo, New York, who never bought a baby-on-board decal but developed an understanding of why others might as he drove his newborn son home from the hospital in 2012. "That was the moment when I really could relate to what that sign is really telling us. And much to my surprise, it's really a statement of fear."
When he sees them now, he says, he thinks first of the driver, rather than the infant who may or may not actually be present in the vehicle.
ON BOARD, POSSIBLY: BABY.
ON BOARD, DEFINITELY: ADULT WHO HAS RECENTLY BECOME ACQUAINTED WITH THE TERRIFYING FRAGILITY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE.
"We muster a lot of denial on a daily basis in order to navigate the world," says Jessica Zucker, a psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health, "and that gets punctured when we're pregnant or have a child because of how much more aware we are of these vulnerabilities, and how precious life is."
Through the years, humans have blessed ships, traveled with talismans in hand, tucked polished spheres of malachite in their carry-on bags and suction-cupped statues of Saint Christopher to their dashboards. The decal, too, is an illusory shield, Zucker says.
Kari Nixon and Jessica Clements, two assistant professors at Whitworth University in Washington state who are writing a book about the polarization surrounding parenting choices, see the baby-on-board sign as a perfect example of this phenomenon: another way that the decisions we make, the products we do or don't buy, can be conflated with a sense of identity - not just what we do, but who we are.
And there's intense pressure to do, and be, the right thing, Nixon says. "There's this ideal that we should provide a risk-free life, that a mother or a parent is supposed to provide a completely safe place," she says, "and then there is the moment that this becomes clearly and visibly impossible."
So, sure, we can order a decal for four bucks, but that's where our authority ends. "The sign is open to anybody else's interpretation," Nixon says. "We don't have control over that."
What does baby on board mean to fellow parents? To the child-free? To those who want to be parents but aren't or can't be? To the person with a burrito-on-board bumper sticker? To an 11-year-old questioning when, exactly, he aged out of his "precious cargo" status? We don't get to know, unless someone decides to share their thoughts with a shout or a honk or a thumbs-up or a different kind of hand gesture altogether.
What does the sign mean to its creator?
"It's just about love," Lerner says. "That's really what it's all about. It's about parents loving their children, and wanting to do everything possible to protect them. The connection to the product isn't intellectual. It comes from the heart."
"Baby on board" was his success. It is also, still, his wish. The man behind the iconic emblem of infant safety, who speaks with such earnestness about the bond between parent and child, has never had a baby himself.
"Not yet," he says, and adds hopefully, "but I haven't given up."
This article was written by Caitlin Gibson, a reporter for The Washington Post.