Before I got pregnant, I was under so many illusions you might have mistaken me for a Disney princess.
A few weeks ago, I took my 3-month-old daughter to the grocery store for the first time. We’d been huddled in the house between sleeplessness and insanity. As I stood there between the avocados and the bananas, willing myself to grow a third arm so that I could bag up produce while simultaneously cajoling my on-the-verge-of-a-meltdown baby, a woman my age squeezed past the stroller. She shot me a look that shocked me to my core. You know the look: “Hey lady, how about you and your baby move that big ass stroller out of the way.” I was stunned. In that moment, I realized I was the mom that I used to roll my eyes at in Whole Foods.
I found myself staring after her, embarrassed. My big ass stroller was in the way. I was that mom: the one in her own world (a world of sleep deprivation), disregarding the ebb and flow of grocery foot traffic, her kid’s shrieks echoing through the store. I kid you not, I almost started crying right there next to the bananas. Not because of the young woman’s coldness, but because I suddenly realized what a jerk I have been to moms—maybe my whole life.
Before I got pregnant, I was under so many illusions you might have mistaken me for a Disney princess. I worked out five times a week. I had a young adult series coming out with a major publisher and was firm in my belief that a baby wouldn’t interfere with my deadlines. I looked at the hashtags moms used on social media—things like #momwin and #supermom—and found myself sneering at the women who seemed to need an acknowledgement of their parenting accomplishments. I echoed the sentiments that I’ve seen in so many Internet comment sections: You had a baby. It’s not like you discovered a new planet or something. Do you want a medal? When I saw a stroller being maneuvered through the grocery store aisles, my immediate reaction was impatience. Why is she taking up so much space?
What is it about the sight of a stroller in the aisle that gets under people’s skin? I’ll admit it first in case you don’t want to. It’s not just that there’s an impediment to the finely tuned agenda of your shopping list. A mom with a stroller is a green light for disdain, a roadblock that carries certain implications that annoy you on sight: connotations of screaming kids, of women who have done something they want to be recognized for. And grocery stores aren’t the only place where strollers are regarded with contempt bordering on anger. Before I was a mom, even the sidewalk was a place where I was ready to suck my teeth. And the bus! Don’t even get me started on public transit. During my eight years in Chicago, this scene was more predictable then the bus itself: A mother would get on with a stroller, one or two kids in it, sometimes squalling, sometimes numbed into quiet by the wind off Lake Michigan. Then there was always the collective sigh—sometimes just a silent half-roll of the eyes—of the people already onboard, myself included. You could see the thought bubbles rise as everyone on the already crowded bus was forced to move back or, worse, give up their fold-up seat so it could accommodate the stroller: “It’s rush hour.” “Really, lady?” “Ugh, come on.”
But now, as a person with a stroller, the question rises in my mind, long overdue: When was she supposed to go home, if not during rush hour? How would we prefer she get her children home after daycare, after her long day of work? Later? Earlier? After dark? When is she supposed to buy groceries? When is she supposed to be on the sidewalk? I think the answer boils down to the fact that society would rather she not be out of the house at all.
I am incredibly privileged. I work from home – I’m an author who makes her schedule. I love my mother. I have umpteen women in my life that I adore, many of which are mothers. But love, I’ve realized, isn’t enough. One has to do more than love: We have to understand, respect, and value women’s labor. We have to recognize that mothering is labor and that sometimes it is like discovering a new planet. It wasn’t until I saw myself through my old lens that I realized how short I’ve fallen in respecting the women I love.
So, I’m sorry, moms. I’m sorry it took me wearing your shoes to realize how much they can hurt. I’m sorry for every eye roll at your stroller when you were zombie-walking through Whole Foods after a sleepless night with a restless infant. I’m sorry for my sigh when you had to dig to the bottom of your diaper bag to find your wallet. I’m sorry for making you feel like a “sorry” was necessary for riding the bus with your children. I’m sorry for rolling my eyes at your Supermom shirt, your bumper stickers. I’m sorry for sneering at your hashtags, for thinking your accomplishments should be quiet. Instagram is full of people hashtagging their progress in the gym—why do we prefer silence from mothers?
I write this as my daughter sleeps. If I finish in time, I’ll start editing another chapter of my latest book. I know now that these minutes are precious, that every minute you use while your baby—finally—sleeps is a mountain conquered, a testament to your superpowers. And while I’ll try not to be the Stroller Mafia that the Internet so reviles, I will first settle into the lesson you’ve been teaching all this time: Sometimes I’m going to be in the way. Moms take up space while they raise the kinds of strong girls I write about in my books. And there’s nothing to be sorry about for that.
Olivia Cole is an author and blogger from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of Panther in the Hive ($14, amazon.com) and its sequel, The Rooster’s Garden ($19, amazon.com), as well as her latest young adult novel, A Conspiracy of Stars ($15, amazon.com). She is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. Find her on Twitter @RantingOwl.