Sunday, 30 March 2014

Happy Mothers' Day!

On the tube today, after a trip to the Geffrye Museum, which I'd really enjoyed, for its insights into the Middling Class parlour, and the (now-gone) role of the Lady of the House, I found seats for my daughter and her friend, and spied an empty fold-down seat next to them. Both the fold-downs were empty, actually. Across them was parked a Maclaren pram (without its occupant, I hasten to add). I picked my way through the carriage, and started to lower the seat, until I realised it was going to touch the strut of the pram. Not wanting to cause any damage, I moved the pram a few inches back, so that I could sit down.

As the train set off, the pram tipped up, as they do when the handles are overladen. Instinctively I reached out to stop it, and looked up to find its owner had beaten me to it. "That was dumb!" I laughed, meaning nothing very much except a gesture of solidarity towards all the times this had happened to me. "Yes. It was," the woman hissed at me. I was taken aback: it suddenly dawned on me that she was furious with me. She seemed to  think that because I had pushed the pram away, I had somehow caused it to topple over. In fact, it turned out she just hadn't put the brake on. Yet she quite clearly blamed me. I decided to bury my head in my book, but my daughter observed that the woman continued to glare at me for the rest of her journey.

What on earth had I done? My own instinctive analysis is that by even touching her pram, I had, in her eyes, transgressed, and violated her personal space. Yet her family was sitting on two seats, and using another two to park a pram. All I had wanted to do was sit beside the children I was in charge of, and make use of the space available.

Surely the case can be made that on public transport we all need to share? Her aggression was so sudden and spiteful that I can only assume she was tired or having a row with her partner — nothing I did justified her attack.

This kind of public aggression directed my way is something I have only noticed since becoming a mother. I am still bewildered about it. I spend an unnatural amount of time trying to be a good citizen, making my kids stand if there aren't enough seats, getting up for others, helping people on and off public transport, chatting to people on buses. I'm essentially embarrassingly public-spirited. Doesn't make me a saint, but it's my own personal way of keeping the streets free of emotional litter, and it works. People respond for the most part, young and old (other than my daughter, who naturally finds me excruciating). I don't really care if people think I'm mad, what I'm doing is just normalising coexistence in public spaces. I enjoy life a lot more for doing it.

How can it be, I mused, that I have gone from bus drivers calling the police because I refused to fold my pram on a half-empty bus back in the day, to another mother hissing in rage at me because I dare touch her pram? I'm still the same person, the same mother.

Worst of all, I just do not know how to react when this kind of incident happens. It's not that I'm not prepared to stand up for myself. The other day, I had a very satisfactory moment of road rage. I had pulled over on my way up a hill, to let a big van come down it. The guy rolled down, then stopped next to me, and started to indicate right. So he was both blocking me from getting up the hill, and demanding to turn right into the mews whose entrance I had now inadvertently blocked. I groaned and rolled my eyes, and waited for him to realise what he had done, and reverse to let me get past, another van meanwhile pulling up behind me and trapping me completely. I was late on the school run, and the temperature was rising. Then I realised that the guy in the big van was gesturing at me to back down the hill, so that he could make his turn. The part of me that simply cannot stand injustice, especially when it's over tiny petty little issues like this, just erupted. I had decently pulled in to let him past, and he hadn't bothered to indicate his intentions, so he was at fault (not to mention that in theory I had right of way as the person driving uphill).

I got out of my car, slammed the door, stepped across to his open window, shouted at the top of my voice, "I am late to get my kids from school, and you just sit there -- all you have to do is reverse up the hill!", locked the car, and stormed off.

I was a quarter of an hour late to school pick up, and all the way felt both jubilant and terrified. I had left my window half-open — would I return to find the car full of urine? Scratched? Dented? The children were running ahead, very worried. Nothing. The guy had miraculously sorted out his little problem, found some other place to park, and there was my car waiting for me.

I felt oddly satisfied by that encounter. The guy in the van was so utterly shocked by my reaction to his little power play that he didn't say a word. I felt victorious, and not remotely guilty or as if I had overreacted.

When the woman was spiteful on the tube, however, I was paralysed. I have a horror of conflict (despite the big van story), and especially of conflict with women. And in a situation in which I was unjustifiably on the receiving end of a tongue lashing, words failed me. Had I taken up her provocation, there would have been an unpleasant scene, which would have upset my daughter and her friend. I decided to ignore her, and could feel her rage sweeping over me, but focused on enjoying The Golden Notebook. It was probably the right thing to do, but I am still bewildered.

There is quite clearly a gender component to my assertiveness. Whether I agree with myself or not, I am prepared to stand up for myself if a man bullies me (even if it tips over from assertiveness to aggression, ahem), but I have absolutely no weapons if a woman does it. This can only be because I have such a deep-seated view of women as oppressed, as needing my support and help in a world in which they will not receive enough of it, that I am astonished to discover they neither need nor want my heroic assistance. But the woman on the tube seemed to feel both aggrieved and entitled. She wanted a scapegoat.

Or did she? Would a truly confident person, even a tired one, do anything other than laugh at such a trivial incident? Time to put down the Motherload. Happy Mothers' Day.

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