Like some 6 million other New Yorkers, I ride the subway every day. But now that I’m pregnant I’ve had to change up my routine just a bit.
I smile and position my body where I know the train doors will stop so that I can slide into the car before everyone else. Once in, my movements are exaggerated, sometimes because they can’t help but be when carrying around a watermelon-sized fetus. But even on good days, I purposely keep the dramatic waddle and place a hand on my lower back, hoping it might make me that much more noticeable to the powerful, the privileged, the seated.
No one budges or dares to look up. I softly sigh and desperately try to make eye contact with the other humans on my train. I position myself in the middle of the car where the largest number of eyes have the greatest chance of running into my form. Perchance our eyes meet, and I will follow up with my best, “my whole body hurts but it sure is worth it” unassuming Mother Earth smile. If I’m feeling silly, I’ll stand head on to the sitters so that my pregnancy is literally staring someone in the face. On braver days, I may mouth the words, “Can I sit?”
At 39 weeks pregnant—that means for practical purposes that I am at all times carrying a full-term baby with just my pelvis—my belly cannot be ignored. And yet it seems to have magical, hypnotic powers. Upon sight, those lucky seated become oh-so-sleepy, or entranced by screens. Once through those turnstiles, I become invisible, watermelon fetus and all.
I take the subway at least twice a day, five days a week, and can count on my hands the number of times I’ve been offered a seat during my third trimester. What the hell is going on, New York? Why do so few people offer a seat to a pregnant woman?
Using the power of the Internet, and the drawing from the bounteous well of people willing to share their stories of entitlement and insolence, I’ve learned there are myriad reasons.
For some, it’s an issue of how to know whether a woman is truly pregnant or just has a bulging midsection. To escape an embarrassing situation for all, people—usually men—just stay put. For this very real quandary, a colleague shared his strategy: just quietly get up without a vocal offer.
For the particularly vile, making a pregnant woman stand is an “active and political choice.” They see pregnancy as a predicament of my own making and therefore all that comes with it should be suffered with stoic grace.
Most aren’t so awful, of course. Often it’s clear that people truly don’t see me, even with a belly inches from their face. Psychologists have used the subways for years as a setting for human behavior research and find them to generally be the type of unique place where people must balance awareness of one another with a carving out of one’s own personal space. “Civil inattention,” sociologist Erving Goffman called it. Add distracting devices like newspapers and iPhones and it seems we’ve lost the first ingredient for functioning society: recognizing the simple existence of others.
A Gothamist staffer with camera in tow recently reported a better experience than mine. AmyLove Herrera’s dispatch looked like a reverse game of musical chairs—with riders literally jumping at the chance to offer her a seat. And in 2011, graphic designer Elizabeth Carey Smith conducted a four-month experiment cataloging each subway ride and whether or not she was offered a seat on eight different subways lines. Over the course of 108 subway rides, she found that some 80 percent of passengers—and an equal number of men and women—gave up their seats. “It turns out chivalry is not dead,” she told The Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps 2011 was a more considerate age? But if Twitter or New York City paper op-eds are to be believed, these encounters with the last of Gotham’s chivalrous commuters is rare.
The MTA has long urged riders to be more polite. For a century the city has peppered its trains with signs—with subjects like cats and cartoons—as part of their “courtesy campaigns.” But unlike spitting or graffiti, a ban on rudeness has never been codified. In other words, my right to sit is no stronger than yours.
“Unless you’re doing something dangerous or unsafe to our staff, we don’t tell you how to behave on the subway,” said MTA spokesperson Amanda Kwan.
Other countries are trying more deliberate tactics to end the boorish behavior of straphangers when it comes to mothers-to-be. In Seoul, South Korea, two special seats in each car are covered in bright pink upholstery with floor markers and wall stickers indicating each one is “For Pregnant People.”
London’s Underground gives out “Baby on Board” buttons to expectant mothers that are meant to encourage seat charity and knock down the “I didn’t know if she was pregnant or fat” rationalization.
And in our very own Chicago, while it’s still no crime to sit in the presence of a pregnant woman, the newest subway ads are much harder to ignore. In one, a woman presses her swollen belly against a seated man’s bearded face. And the copy line shames: “Remember, your mother was pregnant once.”
Of New York City’s most recent effort to inspire greater kindness on the tracks, which was launched in late 2014 and includes the controversial caution against “manspreading,” Kwan said, “Some parts have to do with service, like spreading your belongings over more than one seat, or stepping aside to avoid a delay of service. In terms of other ads [like the one encouraging the able-bodied to “Offer Your Seat to an Elderly, Disabled, or Pregnant Person”], they were inspired by our most common complaints to us.”
So, in the hopes that New York City will be bolder in its future efforts, let me register my formal complaint.
On a good day, my back hurts and my head is throbbing. The place where my belly button used to be is stretched beyond recognition. It feels weird and bad and the only relief comes from constantly scratching my stomach like a big ol’ bear. It’s August in New York City and I have 50 percent more blood in my body than I used to so my lower half is in a constant state of swell; my ankles look like baseballs and my toes like pretzel bites. My belly has thrown off my center of gravity and the baby-making hormone pumping through my body has loosened the joints in my pelvis, hips, and ankles, making jerky train rides not just nauseating, but dangerous. My breasts are sore and a small human is doing a headstand on top of my vagina all day.
I also have hemorrhoids, heartburn, and at any given moment am about to pee in my pants.
I know none of this is your fault, fellow rider, but you can do something nice to help all the same. So make your mother proud; give up your damn seat.