Is Not Sitting on the Metro a Stand for Mothers-to-Be?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pregnancy, chivalry and the 21st century: Does tradition prevail on the Metro?

I was in the eighth month of my pregnancy when it occurred to me that I'd been offered a seat on the Metro just two measly times. A confrontation with my fellow commuters was inevitable, and it happened one early April morning on the Orange Line.

I picked as victims a pair of middle-aged military contractors sitting beneath one of the Metro maps. The men had been staring guiltily at my beach-ball-shaped middle for two stops. I could see them in the reflection of the window against the dark subway tunnel, as well as my body, which looked like one of those cartoon snakes that swallows some other cartoon character.

Please don't feel defensive, I said. I'm just curious: Why aren't you offering me a seat?

Um, you don't look that pregnant, said the first one, implausibly. AND, he said, you're not supposed to assume a woman is pregnant -- what if we were wrong and you were offended? Some women don't like chivalrous moves such as being offered a seat, the second one added.

A woman sitting across the aisle snorted and made that "pshh" noise people make when they get one of those recorded phone messages saying they've won a car.

In truth, Contractor No. 2 was on to something. Not only could I not have cared less whether people offered me Metro seats, but I'd recently noticed I was taking pride in functioning as though nothing had changed. I'd inadvertently developed what I'll call a GI Jane attitude toward being pregnant: strong, sexy and independent. I enjoyed not only standing on the subway in my very obvious condition but also bounding up the left-hand side of the escalator as the un-pregnant stood to the right. I loved lapping people in the pool, wearing tighter clothes than usual and, for some reason, not taking any help. After years of putting off pregnancy, fearing everything from postpartum depression to extreme nausea, I found being pregnant largely undistracting.

It was only when I realized my fellow Metro riders were also paying little attention to my pregnancy that I began to wonder: Is my GI Jane approach playing down the transformation that's about to happen?

Women of my mother's generation lived pregnancy very differently. Typical maternity garb consisted of loose, flowery, ironically childish dresses. They expected to be offered seats and were treated as though they had an illness. I found it annoying when people would baby me. Some people found me annoying when I did this.

One day in late April, I got on at Metro Center. Lots of people were standing, even though there was one empty seat near the middle doors. A young woman pointed her head to it and looked at me firmly. I smiled and said something about how I sit all day at work. "This train will toss that baby around!" she barked. People stared. "It's good for him," I said with an enthusiastic smile. "Toughens him up!" The woman and her mother scowled. I sat.

As I persisted in making my pregnancy a nonissue, another question came up: Was my nonchalant attitude akin to taking a tiny stand for the modern woman? Is this what makes it possible for pregnant women and mothers to run corporations, political campaigns, professional sports teams and households? It was hard not to notice the praise people give pregnant women who don't look "that pregnant." Or do we kill some of the magic of the period -- and wind up less prepared -- by charging along as though nothing were about to change?

Insight came one day at the top of the escalator at McPherson Square, from a woman who looked to be in her mid-50s and whom I'd just blown by on the stairs. She asked how pregnant I was; I told her eight months. Wow, she said.

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