Meredith O'Brien: A cool ride is not in the future

Meredith O'Brien

Three kids.

Ages 10, 10 and 7. 

Included among them: Two football players, one fall/spring travel soccer player and one spring travel soccer player all of whose games will be played at various locales around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Many of the games/practices are likely to be scheduled concurrently thus necessitating carpooling with other families, their kids and all their equipment. (The one basketball player and one perpetual ice skating lesson-taker in our family are in the sports mix as well, but their activities are relatively local.)

Throw in a new state law requiring that kids under the age of 8 must ride in a booster seat.

Now, considering all of those factors, try to locate a safe, fuel efficient, environmentally sound vehicle which will accommodate an active family of five that is NOT a large minivan. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, find a replacement for our minivan, purchased when I was pregnant with the now-7-year-old after my beloved teal Honda Accord was totaled by a seasoned citizen who plowed into the passenger side.

While I’ve had many issues with the fact that I currently drive a minivan – there can be no other less cool vehicle on the road than a minivan, which renders you a “mommy” (therefore invisible) to everyone on the road – I must admit that our minivan has been good to us. Seven years ago, I agreed to buy the tan tanker-on-wheels after my husband dragged three car seats (including one infant seat) from car dealership to car dealership trying to find a non-SUV into which the trio of safety seats could fit without having the kids’ seats a tad bit tilted and leaning to the left, and without requiring that I apply excessive pressure in order to snugly buckle everyone in and close the door before anything (or anyone) fell out. The only thing that fit the bill in the non-SUV category was the minivan.

As I assess the car market today, I’m finding that they don’t make “family” vehicles like they used to, especially when one’s definition of “family” is anything more than two children. My husband’s four-kid family lived with one car for much of his early childhood. The three older kids would sit comfortably in the back of the sedan while the youngest kid sat in front on the bench seat between Mom and Dad. (Youth sports weren’t the mad cults they are now, so carpooling for practices and games was a non-issue.)

Plenty of my friends’ parents also had family vehicles when I was growing up, which, in those days, meant a station wagon, which was wide enough to accommodate several people across the back seat, plus any extra kids you threw into the “way back.” Nowadays, any such arrangement that put a young kid in the front seat or in the way back would have you pulled over, fined, sanctioned, placed in the stocks in the town square and mocked by local talk radio hosts for recklessly putting young lives in danger.

So between the legal mandates that kids must ride in a booster seat until either age 8 or until they’re 4’9, plus the safety recommendations from everyone including the American Academy of Pediatrics that no one under the age of 13 should sit in the passenger seat, there really aren’t many alternatives for families with more than two young kids. 

When my husband and I recently looked at some sedans, we found that the back seats tend to be contoured and the “middle” seat can hardly even be called a seat because it’s an elevated hump with a safety belt that’s tough to get to, not designed to for regular use. It’s the lesser seat, the seat for the kid who drew the short straw. Try using that so-called middle seat/hump on a long car ride.

And what do you do with the kids’ sports equipment in a sedan? What about the times when we’ll be carpooling other kids to games and practices (where do those kids go, can’t put ‘em in the front seat)? Should I put them and their stuff in the trunks of these sedans, tell them to be quiet and have them exit the vehicle a block before we get to the practice or game lest I be arrested.

The only other alternatives are the minivan and the SUV. However if you buy an SUV these days, you’re considered either a criminal who hates the environment and wants the cute and fuzzy polar bears to take a permanent vacation or stupid for buying something for which you have to mortgage your house in order to gas up. Sure, there are mini-SUVs which we are considering – some come in hybrid versions which make me feel all faux noble and tingly inside – but while so-called “crossover” SUVs allow all our kids to have full-fledged seats, they have no trunk space, so I can’t go grocery shopping with the kids because there’s no place to put the groceries in my happy, green re-useable tote bags from Stop & Shop. Plus we run into that sports equipment problem again.

Odds are, we’re likely going to be stuck buying another tragically unhip, milquetoast mom-mobile. And as much as the fact that driving a minivan crushes what remains of my ego (which still clings to the preposterous notion that I can occasionally be hip and not all-mommy-all-the-time), today’s vehicles, laws and safety recommendations leave us with precious few options. If there is such a thing as a vehicle that isn’t a massive gas guzzler, that can safely be used to transport three young kids, all their sporting equipment, and occasionally groceries and other kids who cannot yet sit in the passenger seat, I’d love to hear about it, because, from where I sit, it’s likely gonna be a minivan. My candy apple red, mid-life crisis convertible with the super-loud audio system will just have to wait.

Meredith O’Brien -- author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum -- can be found writing about pop culture at Mommy Track’d and blogging at the Picket Fence Post (