Leaving the house with a baby or small child is a feat worthy of a medal.
When I first did it with my two-week-old son, I sent my husband a photograph to celebrate. In the photo, my tiny baby is in the newborn insert of the baby carrier. It’s a warm day in March, and I am nervous but proud as I look down at the camera. We made it about two blocks before I headed back home.
Mothers need to know that when we venture out into the community, we will be supported with infrastructure that facilitates our journey. This includes safe footpaths and pram ramps across the road, comfortable places to sit and feed our children, and friendly and welcoming people at our local café or library.
Here I discuss the ways in which mothers are often excluded from community life.
At the supermarket checkout, my toddler sits in my trolley seat, watching on.
I am motioning with my hands for her to come and join me at checkout two. I don’t know her, but I feel I do because she is me a year earlier—her tiny baby in a carrier, and about six items in her basket, including maternity pads.
As she smiles and makes her way over, another woman pulls her trolley in behind me. “Excuse me, I’m just helping this lady,” I said as she started to unpack her things onto the conveyer belt. The blurry-eyed new mum reaches me, and I help her to unload her items.
The woman behind me isn’t impressed and starts yelling that I can’t hold a place for my friend. I try to explain that I don’t know her, but she has a tiny baby, and I want to help. The older woman is incensed. Between sprays about me being a “do-gooder” and saying, “she was a mother of three, and nobody helped her when she had a baby”, the new mother and I make it through the checkout without the attendant saying a word and avoiding eye contact.
The new mother thanks me for trying to help and offers more compassion to the older woman than me. She reflects that perhaps she was having a bad day and was feeling unsupported.
We part ways, and I never return to that shop again.
Jane* went to the library most weeks with her two children. It was a place of respite where she could collect books, and her children would borrow from the toy library. They would stay a while, enjoying the change of scenery and the company of strangers.
On the wall of the toy library was a sign that said children couldn’t play with their loans. It was a strange request and seemed at odds with the reality of small children’s wants. Despite this, Jane did her best to hold the children off until they got home.
One Thursday, the kids were ratty, and Jane didn’t have the energy to stop them from playing with the toys they had loaned. They sat quietly in the shared space, excited by the new items, while Jane read a magazine.
A volunteer from the library came over and asked her to stop her children from playing with the toys. She reminded Jane it was not allowed and that they should take them home. Flustered at having been told off by this older woman, Jane scooped her children up and left.
When Jane told me this story, she said it was lucky this hadn’t happened a few weeks earlier when she was in the depths of a PTSD episode. If it had, she said, it was unlikely she would have been able to leave the house for a week or two.
Jane’s recovery was non-linear, and it took a lot of energy to leave the house with her children. Jane deliberately chose places she felt she would be safe, places that didn’t ask too much of her. She had thought the library to be one of them, but the volunteer’s attitude had proven it wasn’t.
Jane debated writing a letter to the library, but she didn’t have the energy, so she didn’t go again for some time.
I set up my office space and logged on to the Zoom call. I was meeting with a public servant to discuss creating mother-centred communities. Her agency was looking at ways to improve inclusion in public places, and I highlighted that consideration of new mothers’ needs was vital to this task.
We discussed my work with the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s breastfeeding-friendly workplace program, and I explained the checklist I undertook for accreditation. I also talked about research by La Trobe University academics Donovan, Rudner and Amir (2019) about how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly. The strategies they suggest benefit not only breastfeeding mothers but all mothers and caregivers. They include recommendations for spaces that are dignified, safe and physically comfortable.
In the call, we also discussed the needs of people with disability, as I had previously co-designed an accessibility checklist for businesses. In this context, we talked about the need for wide doorways and adjustable tables to accommodate wheelchairs, amongst other things.
The woman nodded and acknowledged the value of these perspectives. She then suggested it would be helpful if I could create a campaign that taught mothers how to use public places. She said it was frustrating when prams were around a table in her local café. She suggested prams should be left outside. I sat quietly for a moment, collecting my thoughts.
I wondered aloud, “would you ask a wheelchair user to leave their wheelchair outside?”. She said she didn’t feel they were the same. I finally told her that I viewed prams as mobility aids for new mums and that prams enable mothers to leave the house with their children comfortably, particularly if carrying them is difficult due to birth injuries etc.
It was clear from this meeting that we would not be collaborators.
Sadly after a lifetime of exclusion, women can be the strictest enforcers of patriarchal motherhood.
Matrecentric feminist scholar Andrea O’Reilly describes patriarchal motherhood as a construct that “assumed (and expected) that all women want to be mothers (essentialization), that maternal ability and motherlove are innate to all mothers (naturalization), and that all mothers find joy and purpose in motherhood (idealization)”.
To enforce patriarchal motherhood is to perpetuate the myth that mothering should be enough for women and that we require minimal support because our abilities are inbuilt. This view, therefore, lets others off the hook and has led to the dismantling of “the village”.
This view also perpetuates the “suck it up” view of motherhood which I am working to dismantle with MGM because it damages mothers and families.
Read my Sharing the Motherload and Home Alone blogs for more reflection on why local neighbourhoods are crucial for new mothers.
Tell us in the comments – What places matter most to you as a new mother?
I love this article and the reflections. Such common experiences. And why does the only wide checkout also have all the lollies? Having a pram opened my eyes to the every day obstacles of people with disabilities. Thank you Sarah!