The Mom in the Mirror

March 13, 2007

She couldn’t have been more than nineteen, maybe twenty, years old. She could have been much younger. She wore jeans and running shoes and a light winter jacket and no makeup. There were half-moon circles under her eyes, deep and dark, and she clutched a Mcdonalds take-out bag in one hand.

The other hand rested lightly on a small fold-out umbrella stroller. I would have known that she was a mother from the circles under her eyes, but it was the stroller made me smile at her when I sat down next to her on the subway. It was facing away from me, and covered in blankets, such that I couldn’t see the very small child within it, but still. A child. I have one, too. I was going to smile at the child, ask its age, make conversation. I’m a mother too!” I would say. Mine’s at home, a toddler. There were, no doubt, many years between we two mothers, she and I, but still. Mothers. We’re of a kind, we are. There is always something to say to another mother.

And then, as she pulled the stroller back slightly to adjust the crush of blankets, I noticed: the child was a baby, a very small baby, newborn. Cradled awkwardly, so awkwardly, in the steadfastly upright seat of the umbrella stroller. The young mother adjusted the blankets, cooing softly; the infant slept, slumped, its heavy, fragile head bent over tiny shoulders, twisting tiny neck.

If the smile froze on my face, she didn’t see it, so intent she was on adjusting her baby, whose tiny, delicate shape was not made for the unforgiving upright seat of her vehicle. But it did, my smile, tired metaphors be damned, it froze on my face and the cheerful words of commiseration died on my lips as new, shriller ones burbled up in their place.

I didn’t speak these words, of course. ‘Oh, but you mustn’t put newborns in umbrella strollers! Do you know that? They mustn’t be kept upright for too long, they mustn’t be pushed along bumpy streets with their backs unsupported, their tiny backs, their fragile spines, their delicate, delicate necks…’ I didn’t want to speak them, and I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because she would look at me – older, smarter, richer, maybe, presuming to know better – and say, or think, bitch. She would ask me, with or without words, who I was to judge her.

And I wouldn’t have an answer.

I sat there, beside her, for what seemed a very long time, sick with uncertainty. Surely I must say something. What if she doesn’t know? She must know. She must know. She does know. She knows but she can’t afford a proper stroller. I resolved to offer her a stroller – I would offer her our second stroller, the lightweight stroller that we use for buses and subways, one that reclines. I would say that we no longer need it, that we’re looking to get rid of it. I would give her my phone number. I would turn to her and I would say… what? ‘Hello, I notice that you’ve put your newborn in an umbrella stroller and wanted to tell you that that is very, very bad for their necks and spines but I’m sure that you know that, you must know that, and so it must be the case that you simply could not afford a proper stroller, poor thing, (cluck cluck), and so I would be happy to offer you one, because I have two.’

Because I have two, one for the snow and the parks and one for the shops and the subway, both of them fine strollers, both of them costing far more than anyone would expect to pay for bits of fabric wrapped around a small fibreglass chassis but costing far, far less than what I would pay to ensure my child’s well-being, than what I would pay to keep us happy and comfortable. What I can pay. What I can pay, and she, perhaps (and only perhaps, for who am I to judge?), cannot.

I never did speak to that young woman; I still feel guilty about this. I couldn’t, at the time, because the right words wouldn’t come; I would have said the wrong thing, I know, I think, I would have given the wrong look; I would have been one of those women. Pinched, critical, judgmental. And I would have had no words to explain to her that I meant well, that I wanted to help, that I understood.

She mightn’t have believed me, anyway. Rightly, too. Because I don’t understand. I can’t, not entirely. I can only imagine that I can.

I need to remember that.

What would you have done?


The above isn’t my meta-post. It was going to be. I’ve been struggling to figure out where judgment, or ideas about judgment, figure into our happy blogospheric/momospheric community. To what extent might our like-mindedness blind us to certain issues/ideas/perspectives? And does that matter? Can we really be radical – can this whole writing-through-our-lives thing be meaningful beyond our own little personal emancipations – if that ‘we’ is a collectivity that is defined by privilege? I think that the answer is yes – not least because the experience of motherhood/parenthood is, to some degree equalizing in that it gives all of us something of the taste of disempowerment, and the more that we speak about that the more that we can dispel myths and misunderstandings about our relative experiences as women, as people. But I still haven’t worked out my thoughts on that.

In the meantime, as I said last day, I’d (we’d) love to hear your thoughts.

Oh, and I’d also love for you to visit the Basement, and my reviews page. Because you don’t have enough to do already.

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    Avalon March 26, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    I come to this a bit late, but felt the need to comment. A number of people have commented about seeing no problem with judging the young mother in this story. Having been, many years ago, very much that mother in the story, I understand all too well how those judgements…spoken or silent….can sting. They can make a person question their own worth, their abilities, their decisions…. especially as a new, young, first-time mother. It seems as if the entire world is filled with women who “know better” and want to make certain that you are aware of it. I was barely 18 and single when my baby was born. My brand-new umbrella stroller was the ONLY baby item that was not borrowed or donated from a charity. As sad as it sounds now ( 23 years later), I was proud of that stupid stroller because it was mine. it was the first thing i bought on my own for my baby, knowing that I would be walking and/ or using public transportation to get anywhere I needed to go. I wanted the best for my baby, and that stroller was the best I could afford. It took she and I to her pediatrician’s visits so that I could assure myself that her donated formula was, in fact, nourishing her, to the free public library to read to her, to the local green to expose her to free concerts and art fairs. It took us to the local YWCA for free mommy-n-me classes. It carried her and I around our neighborhood to the local park where we would feed the ducks and watch the older kids play. It gave us a freedom that we might not have had otherwise. it saved my sanity on many days when I was lonely and alone because it gave us a path into the outside world. So yes, it may have been a cheap little umbrella stroller, but to me and my baby, it was a treasure. Had someone judged me based on the stroller, it might have been enough to push me and my daughter back into the recesses of our little apartment. She would have missed out on so many formative experiences…..all because someone felt it was their right to judge me and my decisions.

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