Have you ever wanted strangers to come up to you, unannounced, on the streets of New York City and strike up a conversation? As a native New Yorker I have to admit that apart from the occasional exchange about delayed trains with another passenger or being asked for directions, total strangers don’t often come over to talk to me. That all changed after I got pregnant and then had a baby.
While I was pregnant I heard a lot of unsolicited scary pregnancy and birth stories that my forgetful “pregnancy brain” was very unaccommodating about deleting from my mind. These days, pushing a baby stroller around apparently gives people the impression that they can walk up to me and just say anything they want. When was the last time someone walked up to you on the sidewalk and judged you? Try having a kid — it’ll happen to you on a daily basis.
When my baby was two weeks old, my husband and I had to take her to a checkup visit with her pediatrician. We were living with his parents because we had only closed on our apartment the week before I gave birth. Our trip entailed taking the subway from Murray Hill to Washington Heights…where we would have been already living if our co-op board hadn’t taken four months to schedule our board approval meeting.
Standing on the platform a pleasant looking woman in her late twenties smiled down at our little baby girl in her car seat stroller said: “I have a six month old…how old is yours?” When I answered “Two weeks,” the woman’s smile dissolved into a gasp of horror. She half-shrieked: “OH MY GOD you can’t have such a little one on the subway it’s so dangerous all the germs and their tiny immune systems I wouldn’t let MY nanny out with her until after three months and then I got the germ net for the stroller. It’s a mesh net that keeps out the germs. You shouldn’t be on the train with her yet or ever! You could take cabs or a car service. That’s what my nanny does.”
My heart started pounding. Was Clara in danger from subway germs? Though I immediately questioned the efficacy of mesh netting in keeping microscopic airborne germs off my baby…did this woman have a point? Why hadn’t my What to Expect book detailed the dangers of public transportation? I certainly didn’t have a nanny or a car service or even own a car, so my options were limited.
Mentally shaken, I smiled and thanked this apparently well-meaning stranger while silently vowing to ask a doctor for advice. Frazzled and already sleep-deprived, we rode the train uptown. I eyeballed the subway atmosphere looking for free-floating germs that might attach themselves to Clara’s tiny face.
When we finally made it to the pediatrician, I unloaded my worries onto her in a garbled stream that ended with: “Is she allowed to ride the subway?!” The doctor’s advice was simple: “As long as your baby isn’t holding onto the handrail in the subway, she should be fine.”
One day after we finally moved uptown to Washington Heights, I decided to try taking a bus downtown to visit my mother. I have a lot of fond memories of riding the bus around with the various kids I babysat in New York City from the time I was 13 until I was about 23. I got a seat on the bus, with car-seated Clara in my lap. I relaxed a little — enjoying the air conditioning and the view as the bus meandered down Broadway. A few stops later, a middle-aged woman gets on and sits next to me. Without preamble, and without acknowledging my presence, she starts talking to Clara in a baby voice:
“Hewooo wittle one…what is your Mommy doing taking you out on a hot day like this? Is she cawazy? She should be inside with such a wittle baby on a hot day. It’s too hot for wittle babies.”
Another round of unasked for advice — this time directed at my baby daughter who hadn’t even learned to focus her eyes yet.
I turned to the woman and said: “She’s on her way to visit her grandmother. And she’s fine.”
The woman said: “I guess New Yorkers do things differently.”
I said: “Yeah — they do.”
The conversation ended there.
Clara was five months old and I decided to try her stroller out for a spin in the neighborhood. It was a brisk but mild day in late November. I planned to walk 10 blocks to my sister’s apartment, take her dog for a brief walk and then head back home. Clara seemed happy in her coat and blanket. Six blocks into my walk, I saw a middle-aged woman walking down the sidewalk.
As she approached me, she started yelling a blue streak. It took a minute for me to realize she was talking to me. She was, in fact, cursing me out for not having a wind/rain protector on my stroller. You know — those clear plastic shields they put over strollers to keep the rain out? As she kept getting closer, her yelling rose in decibels: “WHAT ARE YOU CRAAAAAZY, LADY! YOUR BABY IS GONNA FREEEEEEZE OUT HERE — YOU DON’T HAVE A WINDSHIELD PROTECTOR WHAT’SA MATTER WITH YOU, YOU BITCH!”
The amazing thing was that she didn’t even slow down — she just marched past me, still screaming — her voice fading with the Doppler effect. I was shaken to the core and promptly began crying. Here I was, a new mom trying out a new stroller and I had apparently made a serious, baby-killing mistake. I spun the stroller around, sniffling, and headed home.
As I walked, I called my husband and found some solace in his outrage on my behalf. He assured me Clara would be fine. By the time I got home, Clara had fallen asleep in the stroller. I left her there to nap and started doing some paperwork at my desk.
Not fifteen minutes later the seeds of doubt planted by that crazy woman began to sprout. What if Clara had in fact been freezing? What if…she wasn’t asleep in her stroller but was in fact suffering from extreme hypothermia? What if she wasn’t sleeping but was in fact, in a cold-weather induced coma? I tiptoed over to the stroller and watched Clara breathing…or was she breathing? I gave her a tentative poke. No response. I blew air on her face and her eyelids quivered then stilled.
I tried to convince myself to no avail that Clara was just sleeping. I ended up taking her out of the stroller, trying to say in a happy voice: “Wake up, wake up, wake up.” She did wake up — she was fine, if unhappy and grumpy from being woken from her peaceful baby nap. She was not frozen.
Did that cursing woman on the street or the germ-a-phobe mother on the subway or the middle-aged tourist on the bus envision the ripple effects their yelling and criticism had on me? That it would affect me for hours? That it would make me cry? Did they think for an instant that perhaps I was an inexperienced, sleep-deprived, emotionally fragile first time mom? That maybe a piece of calmly delivered advice would be more effective than harsh criticism? Or that maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all?
Clara is two years old now and I have become largely immune to the slings and arrows of drive-by advice. (No, it hasn’t stopped.) I have become an expert at being a mother to my little girl. Next time, before you roll your eyes and start to say something critical to a parent trying to soothe a crying baby on a crowded subway, try to put yourself in their position for a minute.
Maybe in that instant the harsh words you were going to say will fade from your lips and instead you’ll try making a silly face at the baby, who just might stop crying. Let’s help each other more. Life (with and without children) is hard enough to navigate without random people telling you you’re doing it all wrong.
Jeannine Jones is a writer living in Upper Manhattan.