Pregnancy is a crash course in physics. Gravity, once understood as an airy concept connected to celestial bodies and apples, takes on new weight. It’s not weakness so much as an acute awareness of edges, heft, and drag. Life in a big city changes.
And so the casual knocks and bumps of a tram ride become a high-stakes affair. How will I hold myself up now my abdomen has split down the middle? Will this sudden lurching damage the baby? How can I ‘tap off’ without flying through the air?
It’s taken me the pregnancy-transformation to understand how important that public transport special needs chair. Poised in the corner close to the doors, it’s a guaranteed island of stillness and security in a world of push and pull. Seated, I don’t need to brace myself or cling to those around me in the case of sudden stops. I’m protected from the crush of people on overcrowded trams. It also gives me time to plot my next move or relax for a few minutes. After a full day’s work I hunger for that pale-red oasis.
But my goodness it’s a battle for this seat.
Over the past few months, it’s been offered to me once. Most of the time, I board the tram, seek out the chair and find an athletic young thing lounging here, head dipped into a mobile phone. They do not look up. Or simply a healthy, middle-aged human staring blankly into space. I slip into their orbit but they’ve already preemptively erased me from their field of view.
At first I thought I wasn’t visibly pregnant enough. It was my winter coat or deceptive pregnant glow. But now, ‘properly’ pregnant, I know it’s not me. It’s all of us, and our immense indifference or blindness to the bodies with which we share our public spaces.
The fact is we no longer see each other (I know you’re hearing this in the feeble, fist-shaking tones of an old curmudgeon, but please hear it in mine - a young woman with zero nostalgia about the past). We see our smart phones, a blur of bodies, the thoughts and anxieties we carry from work and life. But our attention towards the other has been switched to minimum - register a body-as-obstacle but do not engage.
Mix with this the mood of a the times - a light hysteria, where everyone is on the edge of offence or offending, and all encounters are fraught with unknown danger or difference - and you have a public space that is entirely unsocial. It is instead a giant area through which a public moves, boxed-off in virtual or private worlds utterly disconnected from the here-and-now of bodies, faces, and moving objects.
It’s not just about the seat on the tram. It’s about how we move through public space in general, and the attention and care we give to those around us.
I know because I’ve been guilty of this self-absorbed urban inattention for much of my life. I’ve whooshed past the very old on my bike. I’ve weaved obnoxiously around slow-moving pedestrians, or stared blankly as a woman boards a tram with a pram and two kids. Once I even looked politely past a man with a bleeding forehead, vaguely fearful I would cause a disturbance to the social order if I asked him he was okay.
Not once did I imagine myself into the mind of a tired, elderly, pregnant or differently-abled person. When you get on a tram, for example, it is really much easier if people move aside for you or offer their seat. It makes the world a kinder, softer, more malleable place. It guarantees your place in it.
I get it, of course. It is a well-recognised feature of functional city life that you should be an anonymous in a swell of dreaming, scheming, digesting people. It would be intolerable otherwise.
I understand also that people aren’t really cruel or callous. They’re “time-poor” and weary and want their privacy the moment they step foot from the workplace. And nowadays they can have it - our worlds are so virtual that time on the train or tram spent messaging, studying and podcasting can represent a period of intense concentration, perhaps even self-fulfilment. 50 Shades of Grey was written on a Blackberry on the subway, after all.
LISTEN: When you’re over being pregnant. Post continues after audio.
But at some point in the process of intense urbanisation, it seems we all made a bizarre pact to not just respect each other’s privacy, but totally ignore each other. It’s not your business, don’t engage, we think. Or perhaps we don't think - perhaps perception has been ground down to this anaesthetised stump by virtue of the sheer repetition of bodies.
I think it’s sad that we’ve collectively blinded ourselves to the needs of those around us. Surely we can alter this unconscious pact so that part of our attention is still meaningfully directed to those we share space and time with. It’s not too hard. I've tried it out a little in the past months. Putting away my phone. Paying attention to the people around me. Watching them move, counting their bags, imagining myself into their bodies, stepping aside to let them pass.
It should be straightforward, really. The special needs chair is for anyone who looks old, anyone who looks tired, anyone with a child, anyone, in short, who needs it more than you. It is surely part of living together that every now and then we look up and take stock of the people around us.