In this "me, too" moment, thousands of women are sharing the forms of unwanted attention we get from men. Lately I've been more sensitive to the unwanted attention I get from women. This attention has nothing to do with being a sex object, and everything do with being another kind of object with a place in the patriarchy: a mother. Being a mother, or an expectant mother, makes one's body, intentions, and moral choices into public property to be freely critiqued, questioned, advised, and disputed by strange women. I used to find it bewildering. Now it simply infuriates me.
As a pregnant woman I found that unwanted attention from men pretty much disappeared, which was a blessed relief. But the attention from women strangers was only just beginning.
I had passed from being a young liver-damaged mum to an inspiring example of "Old Woman Gives Birth"
"You're having a girl," one woman informed me, walking down the street. "No, actually..." I began. "I can tell by the way you're carrying," she continued, oblivious. "So high!" She resisted the urge to touch my apparently high belly. Not every enthusiastic stranger was so polite.
"You're having twins," another woman on another street insisted. (I was, in fact, incredibly huge.)"No, actually..." I began again, but she was adamant. I don't know what to call this – the female mother-oriented version of mansplaining? The hugeness of my belly was remarked on by strangers and acquaintances so frequently it was impossible to keep track. Remarks often came along with unwelcome observations about how my small frame made my pregnant belly look even bigger.
This was only one aspect of the cascade of advice and opprobrium from strange women that continued throughout my pregnancy and beyond. I was not bold enough to drink a gin and tonic in public but I did continue to drink my one coffee a day, when I could stomach it. A fellow graduate student I barely knew stopped me in the campus lounge one day when I was about eight months along, eyeing the drink in my hand. "Should you be drinking coffee?" she asked. "It's decaf," I replied, feeling that now-familiar spike of fury, and muttered "and you can f--- right off," silently, in my head.
I have met grimaces from men and women when I have breastfed on airplanes and disapproval when I have shaken up formula in a bottle in cafes. And every parent knows the excruciation of caring for a crying baby in public. "He's cold." "Does he need changing?" "He's hungry." "He's teething. Have you tried a cold washcloth/a frozen banana/a teething ring/a rusk/homeopathy?" I think I actually cried when I read a satirical piece in McSweeney's by Wendy Molyneux titled Hello Stranger On the Street, Could You Please Tell Me How to Take Care of My Baby?
The house I just moved out of had three steps leading up to a tiny landing outside the front door. It was my habit to push the baby in his stroller down these stairs to the footpath, secure the brake, and walk back up the stairs to lock the door when I left the house. My key was in the lock one morning a few weeks ago when two women walking by stopped to watch. "I would never leave my baby for even a second," one of them told me, casually. I looked at my baby, who was staring blankly in his stroller about a metre-and-a-half away from me down three steps, and tried to understand how I was abandoning him. It would be literally impossible to lock the door any other way unless I held the stroller precariously hanging over the top step with one hand and locked the door with the other. Yes, a super responsible option!
"Excuse me?" I asked. I was premenstrual. It had been a long night and was already shaping up to be a long day.
"I said, I would never leave my baby for a second!" She was actually smiling.
"Are you serious?"
"I just wouldn't!" Still the smile.
"That is a horrible thing to say," I said. My keep-it-inside muscle had worn right out. There are few worse things than being told you aren't taking good care of your baby; so many mothers, myself included, question and doubt our own capacities constantly and to hear this criticism externalised is kind of a nightmare. And in this case was obviously, insanely, unfair.
It took her a moment to realise I was upset.
"I didn't mean to upset you," she said in amazement, "I just would never..."
Every bit of feminine training tells us to be nice. Every insecurity tells me that maybe she is right, who knows what might happen to my baby in those three seconds my back is turned? But as I get further into my 40s, I find some other internal voice flexing its strength.
"No," I said. "It is just a horrible thing to say." I walked away, quickly, to get ahead of them, shaking and horrified to find tears starting. At least I didn't swear at her, I told myself.
Last week a woman in my local supermarket admired my baby. "Wow!" she said, just a little too enthusiastically; I judged that she was more eccentric than problematically unhinged, and agreed that my baby is indeed fantastic. She put her hand on my arm. "You're really young," she said. I wanted to move on and get my cheese. "What are you, in your 20s?"
"No," I said, smiling, but she wanted to tell me all about how having a baby depletes your body of all the vitamins and minerals. She looked in my eyes. "You really need to cleanse your liver."
"Thank you so much!" Maybe if I kept smiling I would avoid swearing at her, I thought. Hey, I wanted to say, you are clearly unhinged but if I look even remotely as though I am in my twenties my liver is doing an EXCELLENT JOB. Instead I said, smiling, "But I didn't ask you to comment on my liver!" And moved along to the cereal aisle.
The cashier and her friend at the checkout had a different perspective. "Excuse me," the cashier said, "Can I ask you a question?"
At least she is sort of polite about it, I thought. "Okay."
"Is that your baby?"
Not really the question I was expecting. "Yes ..."
"How old are you?"
I told her: 45. She turned to her friend. "See? It's not too late. I'm 35, she's 38" she explained to me.
In the space of a few minutes I had passed from being a young liver-damaged new mum to an inspiring example of "Old Woman Gives Birth!"
"Bye!" My baby waved at them in his cute way, and they said "Awww!" and I forgave them, because admiring my baby gets you a long way, and walked home thinking about how my damaged liver probably does show in my face, and it was the fault of the Californian supermarket for selling my favourite Irish whiskey for $21.99 a litre, and when in the world will other women stop feeling entitled to treat me like a public exhibit of motherhood. No wonder my liver looks so bad.