The Unseen Daily Struggles of Being a Mom in the City
For people who don't have children, the city's playgrounds, access ramps, and subway handrails are innocuous, or invisible. But when photographer Maansi Jain spent a day in Manhattan with a young mom, she learned to see them in a different light.
"Shopping in Pink." All photos by the author
I don't want to have kids, so other than my own mother, I don't think about moms that much. Then, I hung out with an old friend from school, Emily*, who had a baby last year and didn't immediately ditch Manhattan for the 'burbs. I was astonished to hear that my friend had produced a human in her spare time. She transformed into a working mom, gracefully dealing with other people's bullshit 24/7 while managing to keep her cool personhood intact.
But while Emily has it together, that doesn't mean motherhood in the city is easy. On a recent trip to New York, she invited me to spend a day with her and her daughter, and I was quickly surprised at how difficult even simple tasks—getting on the subway, ordering a soda—become with a kid.
Our innocuous afternoon begins at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design museum; taking Emily's daughter with us is no small feat. I make attempts to be useful as the stroller is packed, the Ziplocs are presorted by genre of item, and the child is dressed. The general pace is glacial, but Emily keeps assuring me it isn't a major inconvenience to strap a child into a stroller just to see some culture with me.
In one glimmering, mirage-like afternoon, I learn to look out for elevators, to spot access ramps sans binoculars, to smile in placating gratitude at anyone who offers small conveniences, and most importantly, to not scream at people who treat us as if we are obstructing half the world, instead of half the sidewalk, with Emily's sweet kid.
Later, when I mention this last lesson to my friend, she shrugs. "Moms are invisible," she says. "On the subway when you're pregnant, if people don't let you sit—is it because they don't care, or because they just don't see you? Most of the time it's willful ignorance." She stays relatively unfazed, because she decided long ago to change her attitude and just let it roll off her back, but even a silent audience can be judgmental. "I remember I used to feel scared to breastfeed in public. Intimidated a little bit. Usually no one comments or looks, but it's so underrepresented in media that we're uncomfortable."
But not everyone ignores you. For pregnant women in the city, it seems there are two options: be invisible, or field constant unsolicited comments. "I feel like I got hit on more when I was pregnant than any other time in my life," Emily says. "There is definitely a fetish there. For eight months of my pregnancy, I guess I was still considered fuckable by society." Other interactions with strangers come couched in supposedly more benevolent flavors. Once she started showing, strangers would approach to offer their opinions on everything: whatever she was eating or drinking or wearing became a topic of potential contention. This is not far off from my idea of a nightmare. "[They] think [they're] being helpful," Emily says. "There's a fine line—there are some things that are obviously obnoxious, but some of the advice is super helpful."
Unsolicited advice givers are in no way creating a paradigm shift with their antics, but Emily's approach to the lessons of motherhood is much more efficient: "When it becomes relevant, find the information." Browsing online, however, she discovered the world was full of dangers. The fear mongering in parenting blogs is the mean older cousin of the abstinence-only sexual education many Americans still receive. The New York City sidewalk becomes "home...to an astonishingly multicultural horde of pathogens"; when a toddler tosses his bottle or binky to the ground, mothers writing online seem to imagine a swarm of germs enveloping it. Never mind that geneticists and other doctors have advised any new parent to "roll their child on the floor of the New York subway" to develop their child's immune system—the idea of a kid touching a subway handrail still makes some moms' "skin crawl."
Still, the internet exists beyond the sensationalist headlines. Whether you need emotional support or tampons at two in the morning when the baby is asleep and you are basically trapped in your own home, in the city you can most likely get it delivered to your doorstep.
After the museum, we stop for ice cream, and Emily's daughter smashes a glass. The waiters are pretty chill and seem used to the ruckus. Her daughter looks on unperturbed as Emily apologizes profusely to the waitress cleaning the pavement.
A friend of Emily's, Angela, who is also a mom, describes the two types of servers she encounters in the city: those essentially cognizant of children and those who are completely clueless. "Some restaurant servers are very aware of kids at the table and bring child-friendly cups and utensils and interact [with the kids]," she says. "At the same time, there are some clueless servers who consistently put hot dishes and glass cups directly in front of my child at the table!"
A big fan of the restaurant baby high chair and New York's many public playgrounds, Angela gives me another helpful tip to pass on: "I appreciate when people say hello to my child. [But] it is not OK to touch a stranger's child without asking first." A child is like a timeless leather bag: very expensive and only to be admired from a distance.
Of course, the difficulties of raising kids in New York are not just logistical—they're also financial. In 2014, the personal finance website NerdWallet, along with Business Insider, published a list of the best cities for working parents; New York City came in 96th, not least because of the high cost of living and child care. While these are a given, less obvious factors, like a long commute and proximity to family, can also be a drain on city-dwelling parents' morale.
Wendy*, an architect who commutes to midtown Manhattan from the Ditmas Park neighborhood in Brooklyn every day (which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour if there are delays), works while her husband tends to their one-year old. "Being a working mom is emotionally difficult, and it is physically exhausting." She adds: "Pumping [breast milk] several times a day at work is not fun."
*Names have been changed