Some morning thoughts on parenting in public…
Yesterday, I sat in a café working. I was in there most of the day. It is a café I love, one that I recommended in the Guardian a few weeks back. As soon as you enter it there is a Wendy House and a box of toys. It is a very obviously family friendly place. Loads of parents come in after the school pick up or mothers and babies in the morning and early lunchtime. But the food is great. So a lot of people without kids also go there too.
I sat on my computer working, typing, drinking tea at a table in the corner. During about five hours, I counted over ten apologies. All made to me. All by mothers. All apologising for interrupting my ‘quiet space’ with their babies or children.
The apologies ranged from the kind of jokey checks: oh no, sorry to invade you! to the totally sincere ‘is it ok if we sit here, you look hard at work’ to the reactionary sorries when their babies gurgled or giggled or cried or, well, made any noises. Two kids of about three were told off for being too noisy because ‘that lady is trying to work’ and another child told to stop bothering me as he was peeping round the corner trying to catch my eye.
My replies came thick and fast:
Don’t worry! I have a six year old!
I don’t mind, really;
It’s fine, please, I really don’t mind.’
But after a few hours I started to think that those replies I make really aren’t good enough. Because it’s not because I’m ok with children or because I have a child and have also gone through those years of apologising in every restaurant, café, train, bus every time my daughter showed a sign of being human – treading on eggshells every fucking minute so as not to offend anyone around. That’s not what makes it ok for them to ‘disturb my peace’. It’s because babies and children have just as much right to sit in a public space as anyone else. Something I think we so often seem to forget in Britain.
I am working, yes. But this café is not my private land. It is a café, a café which makes it more obvious than any others I know that it welcomes with open, loving, toy-filled arms those smaller and often louder members of our society. And the reason that I don’t mind your babies crying or your toddlers chatting or your children playing is because, even if I did, I have no right to be here any more than they do. But still, nearly every single mother coming in apologised to me before they even sat down. None of the children were being rude or impolite or screaming or doing anything ‘wrong’. They were just being children.
I travel a lot now and I get invited to a lot of infant health conferences, feeding conferences, mothers and parents conventions. Mainly I get asked to go to read poems. Mainly a poem I wrote on being embarrassed to breastfeed in public. And I still find it amazing when some people are surprised that I was. That I was embarrassed to sit and feed my baby, nipple displayed a little more than ever before, publically feeding. I’m surprised because, really, it isn’t just breastfeeding I was nervous about doing in public as a parent, it was bloody everything. Nervous my baby would cry or gurgle or chatter too loudly, that my toddler would try to get attention from the person who wanted a quiet cup of tea, or an hour to eat a sandwich and read a paper. I have trodden on eggshells every sodding day of parenthood, trying not to disturb others peace, or interrupt their space or offend them or be too noisy. And I am so bored of it. My feet are swollen and tired.
When I was working in town planning – six year office job before poetry – I was obesessed with a man called Enrique Peñalosa – a city planner in Columbia whose mantra is: If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.
So I am trying to think of some better responses than ‘don’t worry I don’t mind, I have a child’ to those mums and dads and carers who, like me, tiptoe into public spaces so often, apologising with each sound for the existence of those small people with them they are so desperately trying to look after as best they can.
Move to Italy, perhaps?
Don’t apologise, this is not my space?
You have the right to be here?
Any suggestions would be very welcome. I’m sick of this cycle. It’s not just being polite, teaching children manners, which I’m a big fan of. It is being worried. Being worried to breathe, eat, sit or simple be in public spaces with a child. And it is really tiring. And dangerous for every new parent desperate to be welcomed and to be able to enjoy this time and go to places they want and often need to be in.
And while I’m here – when are we going to have loud as well as quiet coaches on trains?