Are we still living with the insane notion that women and their children should hide out in nurseries and ice cream parlors?
Every Tuesday and Thursday I get to the school where I work by 9:45, though often I get to the block much earlier, and then circle, getting my boy a longer nap. I’ve learned to allow extra time in any plan. I begin teaching at 10:15. If it’s a stroller day, I lock it up out front and then lift my four, then five, then six, now seven-month-old son into his carrier. Some days I just bring a backpack. I need less than I thought I did when I began in October. A few diapers. A fresh onesie. A toy or two. My small binder with the lesson plans. A large water bottle that I’ve learned to carry empty on backpack days. Some mornings I am exhausted. All mornings I’ve already been up for hours.
Hope is behind her desk at the office, and when we walk in she stands with her arms open. Yes, she’ll hold him. “Take your time.” Karan pops in. He is twelve. “Your son is so cute it’s a problem.” He begins peek-a-boo. On my way up the stairs I pass kids ranging in age from five to eighteen. “Where’s Rafael?” “How’s your baby?” One boy looks at me with a deadpan stare, “I like your son.”
My classroom is still in use. I set up my supplies, fill my water bottle, pee. It is lovely to be able to do these things unencumbered. As I leave to retrieve the baby, the students know to set up the tables. Do I need help? I ask them to mess with the broken playpen. When I return they’ve rigged it up with brooms and it holds. Class begins. Tuesdays are Literary Analysis. Thursdays are Personal Essay. Sometimes my boy is snug to my chest in his carrier, sometimes held on my hip, sometimes in the playpen. Sometimes he babbles and shouts and the quieter students have to speak louder. Often they laugh mid-sentence. One sweet, rainy day he fell asleep during the free write and the discussion that followed was quiet and thoughtful. That day, one student called me a “Super Mom” and told me she loved my class. Loud students sit still when he’s around. Rough housing is checked by other students. “There’s a baby in the room!” I’m not sure that I’ve heard even one curse this fall. Once, in the beginning, I nursed, carefully covered, through a discussion. Once, he really started crying and group discussion became solo work time while I stepped out. Once, the academic director floated through, heard him fussing and scooped him for a ten-minute walk, returning him when she had to go teach long division. Students have witnessed countless diaper changes. This week a seventeen-year-old boy held him in his lap while we edited his paper. Students close my playpen for me without being asked. They offer to carry my bag. They know my boy by now; have seen him sleeping laughing crying protesting pooping eating.
And walking through the school building with him is like walking with, I don’t know, the Dalai Lama. People get happy, and reach towards his foot, his back, his hand. And if he smiles at them, they return the grin with faces suddenly shining.
I will not claim that it’s never tiring. And I’m sure there have been moments when students didn’t want to hear him shout into the middle of a class. But it is generally as simple and wonderful as it sounds. With some of these students, this is the fourth year of us working together. They knew me through my first year of full-time teaching, they watched me struggle through the nausea of my first trimester, apparently knowing I was pregnant long before I told them, and now they are with me as I mother.
“Until I became a mother I didn’t think this particular brand of sexism, the old-school stay at home and be a good (quiet) woman version, could touch me.”
The two mothers leaving the coffee shop are flustered.
“Sorry, sorry, we’re leaving and you’re never going to have to see us again.”
They’re trying to make themselves small; to will their strollers to be narrower.
“Sorry, sorry,” they say again, and all this because two people had to get out of their chairs to make space for them to come and go. I want to tell them not to apologize so much or so hard. That it’s okay for them to get a hot drink on a cold afternoon. That cafes are not just sacred spaces for the laptop crowd. Because I’ve done this too. Been certain that everyone hates the sight of me daring to appear in public with a child.
(A whole other topic is that it’s always worse when it’s a white space. Almost as a rule, people of color, and anyone from another country, treated me better when I was pregnant and that’s continued into life as a mother.)
Are we still living with the insane notion that women and their children should hide out in nurseries and ice cream parlors? Until I became a mother I didn’t think this particular brand of sexism, the old-school stay at home and be a good (quiet) woman version, could touch me. But it can. It does. Especially when it comes from people I expected to be allies.
““They have a pumping room but you can’t bring a baby?””
BinderCon is a writing conference for women organized by the feminist group Binders Full of Women. It came to New York this October. Over the summer, I splurged on a ticket, though I hesitated three days over the purchase. I did the math, of costs and time. By the weekend of the conference my baby would be an unfathomable six months old. I would be ready, I was sure, to bring my writer self and my mama self together. I invited my own mother to join me; envisioning a weekend spent passing the boy back and forth between workshops, joining forces for the keynote, going out to lunch. I anticipated a snazzy outfit.
By fall, my body and brain were beginning to return to me. I took my son, who was learning to roll and getting close to full-fledged crawling, everywhere, riding the subway, taking epic nap walks. The week before the conference I sat down with my computer and mapped out the weekend. I am a working writer, a teaching artist—I was excited. I signed up for speed pitch sessions. And, reminding myself to ask for help, to utilize the resources out there, wrote BinderCon to ask about a nursing room. I pictured a couch, maybe even a rug for rolling, hoped for a window, and anticipated other writer-mothers with babes to their boobs (or bottles handy) chatting about their manuscripts. It was a women’s conference after all, and one that was cognizant of the need for gender neutral bathrooms and even a quiet room for those with sensory challenges. I was betting on nice digs.
Instead, I was sent an email informing me that as this was a professional conference no children under 18 were welcome. The emphasis on professional felt especially acid. As if by even asking I had marked myself as not. If money for childcare was an issue, it continued, I could inquire about a stipend.
But I didn’t want a stipend. I didn’t have anyone to pay with it, and I wasn’t comfortable leaving my son for the many hours I’d need to participate in the conference. Besides the point, for me, in seeking an inclusive conference, was the chance to bring the mothers—my own and myself—along with the writer.
My mother was both pissed and confused.
“They have a pumping room but you can’t bring a baby?”
“Yeah, the pumping is for the women who are leaving their babies.”
It took her a while to wrap her brain around it, and once she had, she concluded, “We’re going anyway.”
And maybe I would have. But my boy had had a cold that week and after six snotty, fretful nights I was over it. I was tired. I couldn’t call up the necessary defiance. Besides, I didn’t want to be a renegade, afraid of being led out the door. I wanted to be welcomed as I am, a mother and a writer able to participate in her own field.
I was eight months pregnant when I read Sara Zia Ebrahimi’s piece, “Whose Burden?” here at MUTHA and it rattled me as nothing had since my first trimester.
Community was my plan for the freefall cliff dive I was taking, and every time I panicked, I reassured myself that my husband and I would not be alone in guiding this new person through the world. I was raised by a single mother, and of necessity she brought me everywhere. I began my life with her on the road, and she didn’t pump once in my baby-hood because she carried me with her as she moved around Mexico City. Back in the U.S., as I got older, I read novels and did homework sitting in hallways while she was in meetings and doctor’s appointments and workshops. I went to museums and plays and movies and cafes with her, and together we traveled by bus and train to visit her friends all over the east coast. A rotating cast of her city friends brought me to dance class, watched me while she finished her thesis, and made it possible for her to go on dates. She didn’t have the option to leave her world, and so I was in the world with her.
I knew I would not be a single mother, but I planned to apply the same principles I was raised with to my life with my babe. I had assumed that the arties-the radicals-the activists, surely the feminists, would embrace us. But Sara’s piece, and especially the poison of the Facebook comments directed at her, was my first hint that I might be wrong. Sara was much fairer in her assessments than I’m feeling these days. I’m pissed and have no patience for attempts to exclude parents. Most especially from those who claim to support all genders, races, classes and sexualities.
I’ve spent the last decade working at my writing and teaching it to others. I am a professional and the baby on my hip doesn’t erase that. No one else has the right to tell me what being a working mother looks like.
“I get it. There are always inconsiderate parents.”
I get it. There are always inconsiderate parents. But if I’m at a conference and my baby is crying and I don’t leave the room, ask me to leave or find someone to do it for you. If you’re chatting on your cell phone, trust me, I’ll do the same to you.
On my birthday this July my baby was ten weeks old. In those ten weeks, I hadn’t gone far from home and all I wanted for the day was to leave the neighborhood. However, by the time my husband and I had made it into this new territory, we were exhausted and hot. We stumbled into a restaurant in search of a bathroom and discovered a heavenly space that was cool and quiet with black and white tile floors, huge plate glass windows, and fans slowly turning the blissfully air conditioned air. The tables were empty in the pre-lunch hour. We sat down with sighs and ordered iced coffees and prayed for my son to stay asleep. He did. Until he did not. I nursed him at the table. And then held him while he looked around. A few tables filled. My baby let out a shout and eventually began to cry. It took me a few minutes to re-sling him and his cries amped up. From arrival to departure we were there for about forty-five minutes during which he cried for about ten of them and in those ten we certainly caused a disturbance and if anyone was offended by flashes of nursing boobs, then they had plenty of reason to be offended. Eventually, we had paid and gotten ourselves packed up. On our way out, we thanked the waitress. She gave us a big smile, and said, “Come back anytime.”
How can you support the mothers in your midst?
It’s as simple and wonderful as that.
How can you support the mothers in your midst?
Follow MUTHA to read more from Jade Sanchez-Ventura in an ongoing column, Sling City, where she will write about her experiences in the first year and beyond as a working writer with a new baby in New York City.
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