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Coveting thy neighbor's stroller

The quest for the best can drive some parents buggy

Sylvie McCavanagh rides in style in her Bob stroller that costs $450. Her mom, Emily, says it was an investment. Sylvie McCavanagh rides in style in her Bob stroller that costs $450. Her mom, Emily, says it was an investment. (katherine streeter for the boston globe)

While expecting her first child, Emily McCavanagh swore she would never become of one of "them." By "them," she meant some of the mothers she saw walking around the city. Members of the high-end stroller set.

"They had this look: iPods and big sunglasses on, coffee in one hand, pushing a brightly colored $800 Bugaboo stroller with the other," said McCavanagh, 35, of Charlestown. "I used to make fun of them."

How pretentious, she thought. But then, as her due date approached, something strange happened.

"I found myself checking out other women's strollers the way I used to check out shoes," she said. "I started wondering what their strollers said about them."

And what not having one would say about her.

One day, she spotted one of them crossing the North Washington Street Bridge pushing a cool-looking "Bob" stroller. Besotted by the bright colors and big wheels, McCavanagh could hold back no longer. She got the Bob, justifying the $450 price tag as an investment. After all, the stroller was perfect for navigating city streets and was easy to store.

Now she pushes her 8-month-old daughter Sylvie around town with pride and admits she gets a bit of a rush when envious parents ap proach her, inquiring about the stroller, reaching out to touch it.

"Some days, I can't help thinking: 'Oh no, I've become one of them,' " she said.

McCavanagh is one of many new parents surprised by a flood of new parental instincts, one of which is stroller envy. It is a curious affliction that makes otherwise sane and secure parents feel woefully inadequate in the presence of hefty-priced prams - the $500 Phil and Ted's e3, the $800 Bugaboo Frog, the $1,000 Stokke Xplory - and ashamed of themselves for wanting one.

While Bridget Moynahan and Tom Brady will surely be seen (separately, no doubt) rolling their new addition around in a top of the line stroller, you're just as likely to find the middle-class parents next door shelling out for these premium buggies. One thing is certain: In the game of keeping up with the Joneses, the high-end stroller has become one of the most coveted accoutrements.

There are a number of factors behind stroller mania, from pervasive celebrity culture to the fact that people are having children later in life when they're more financially secure, says Tracy Pilar Johnson, a cultural anthropologist with Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore who has studied the trend.

"High-end has become synonymous with 'what's best for the kids,' " said Pilar Johnson. "When people have kids, they want them to fit into their idea of who they are, of the identity they've carved out for themselves. 'If I drive a BMW, my child has to have a Bugaboo stroller, etc.' "

Guilt is also a great motivator, she said. Many parents work long hours and may feel less guilty about it if their kids have the best - and most expensive - of everything.

"As a first-time mom I had no idea of the importance of having a high-end stroller," said Sarah Francomano, 35, of Foxborough. "I registered for a Graco, I got the Graco, I like the Graco, but I have to admit that I am embarrassed by the Graco when I take my son into the city. I guess I really am this shallow."

Still, Francomano is bemused by the whole situation. New parents have enough to worry about, she said, without having to ponder the status of their strollers.

"I don't need to feel like I'm not as good a mother because I don't have a $1,000 stroller," she said. "It's not a priority in my life. I look at those strollers the way I would a Mercedes. I know I don't need it, but it'd be nice. That's it."

The celebrity baby boom stokes stroller envy as well, according to Jen Singer, author of "14 Hours 'Til Bedtime: A Stay-at-Home Mom's Life in 27 Funny Little Stories" and the founder of Mommasaid.net.

"Ever since InStyle became the new parenting magazine, buying the best for baby has become something of a competitive sport," she said. "All that baby lust on the cover of People and in the teasers for 'Access Hollywood' has spilled over to regular parents, who, perhaps, believe that if they get the gear celebrities buy for their babies, they, too, will have the glowing happiness that seems to come with it."

But while moms may covet Gwen Stefani's or Victoria Beckham's stroller, dads - who are not immune from stroller envy - yearn for entirely different reasons.

"The women go for the style and quality, the men for the gears and functionality," said Sheri Gurock, who co-owns Magic Beans baby store in Brookline with her husband. "The dads come in with their Consumer Reports and want to test drive everything."

Gurock has learned that once the dads experience the handling and cool features of one of the higher-end strollers, there's no turning back.

"I really like the Phil and Ted's stroller where one kid sits under the other because I think it captures the spirit of bunk beds," said Eugene Buono, 32, a new father from Providence.

While he's prone to stroller envy, Buono said he loathes the way some marketers of high-end strollers prey on parental guilt. "The Stokke is ridiculous. I get that the higher seat brings the kids closer, but someone at a store told me it was to 'elevate the child above the harmful fumes of cars.' "

Buono said he's perfectly secure with his $200 Maclaren stroller, no yard sale special itself.

"I like it primarily because it's light and comfortable for the kid, but also because it's gray and simple, not super padded with patterns that scream 'I have a baby: I surrender,' " Buono said.

The question is, once you've got a high-end stroller, does the envy cease?

No, according to McCavanagh, who admits that even though she has her ultra-hip Bob stroller, she still finds herself checking out the latest and greatest.

"It's those darned colors," she said. "They keep me wondering if there's something cooler. I get sucked in every time."

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