As a parent, I rely a lot on public goodwill. I need a stranger to heave the front my pram onto a train, to pull open a door, to move aside in a lift. And it always unnerves me, this lack of a law to say, “if you see a girl with a giant purple pram and toddler shouting for snacks, you’re required to help her!”.
What is it about going out with your child that makes you into a visitor? As though you use a different currency and speak a different language. You become a question of public convenience. You are required by law to give up your place to a wheelchair user or the elderly, but the notice does not promise you another space. I have no wish to complain about accessibility for others, but merely to ask, where do parents belong in the public space? And the answer is: we don’t, because we are not truly considered ‘the public’. Our presence is the whiff of another world, a place at the margins of ‘real life’. Nappy change, nose wipe and no sleep spark little generic or political interest, and thus such things in public seem enigmatic. The irritation at a crying baby, the disapproval at a toddler tantrum, that fleeting thought, can’t you control your child, have their place in a belief that the child acting like a child should not really be here, in this supermarket, in this moment.
When I climb onto a bus with E-B, my presence becomes large and doubtful. Though I occupy a great chunk of space with stroller, daughter and clunky bags, I also borrow each inch in lieu of a rightful owner. I pay a rental fee, that of squeezing myself in and grabbing at the pram handle to show I’m acutely aware that this space is mine only by grace. The driver’s voice:
“Miss, MISS! You’ll have to fold your stroller, there are too many of you on here”.
I stare at my pram. Its basket is an overspill of nappies, scrunched wrappers and a toy car. I get off the bus.
The truth is, kids don’t minimize well. Sure, there were times when E-B was tiny that I wished she would shrink to pocket size so her screams might be mistaken for the ding of a mobile. I wanted to tone her down to the respectable hum of the coffee shop, and so be free of sideways glances. But I started to question why my splendid bundle and I should be embarrassed out of cafes and shops as soon as we showed a little seam. After all, it’s much harder for a parent to leave anywhere. Anyone who’s seen me red-faced and muttering as I load E-B (in her protesting log pose) into her pram will know this. She writhes and twists, knocking her dummy onto the dirty floor and then demanding her dummy with a desperate face and cupped hands. Then the loading like that of cargo ships: errant socks, changing bag, eczema cream, sudocream, and the battering-ram experience of the ‘push/pull’ door. The social consensus is that excessive noise and disturbance is anti-social. But what if you’re a parent and this ‘noise’ is your life? Then your legitimate, exhausting 24 hour job becomes merely an unpleasant smell in the social space.
When the smells and sounds of childrearing upset the hypostasis of public space, and its majority agreed neutrality, parents must slip seamlessly behind the scenes. Yet when we assume the domestic periphery, we remain, like all humans, rational centres. And this is the secret. That the person washing the dishes, the parent going up to answer the child’s cry, the mother breastfeeding while hearing the buzz of conversation from the other room, are all radically and psychologically present. It is just that, in those moments, we keep a little quieter and breathe a little less.