I’ve been thinking about my expectation that we would leave Lily home with relatives or sitters more than we do. We’ve ended up using very little sitter time.
Jeff’s and my social life has mostly been composed of three circles, two well-established and one newer.
The folk dance scene is well-established. Lots of people got into it during the folk revival of the 1970s, and now there are lots of second-generation dancers my age. Both baby boomers and 20-somethings are excited about a new generation coming into the traditions. The activities themselves are fairly child-friendly—you can wear a baby or toddler while contra dancing, and children can start dancing themselves once they’re about 5. Morris is much friendlier to women and children than it used to be (Barbara Morrison recounts a nasty experience at her first Marlboro Ale in her memoir). At this point, my Morris team are 30 of Lily’s biggest fans, and we’re never short of helping hands when we tour with them. I’ve heard older women say that the reason our team has never lacked for members is that it was supportive of young mothers in the 1980s, and those women came back, bringing their daughters and their daughters’ friends. Some other teams lost a wave of women at the point that nobody would help them hold the baby at a gig.
We’re not really active in Quaker circles anymore, but our meeting was very child-friendly, in part because it was founded 30 years ago to be more child-friendly than the other local meeting. As a religion that has propogated mostly through families rather than by outreach, liberal Quakerism has a strong interest in welcoming families. But as with Morris, a few decades ago there was a shift from seeing childcare as something that the child’s own mother was expected to provide at all times to something that was more supported by the community.
Then there’s our third social circle, the effective altruist/rationalist scene (I realize these are separate scenes in most places, but in Boston they’re pretty intertwined.) It’s made almost entirely of young childless people. There are more child-free-by-choice people and more antinatalist ideology, both of which are fine with me. The activities themselves are less child-friendly, in that intellectual discussion is harder to do while someone is making silly squealing noises in the corner. As Lily comes into the awkward age of being too old to play quietly on the floor and too young to follow the conversation, I expect it will be harder to keep her quietly amused. So there’s a question of how much Lily will tolerate adult activities, and how much our friends will tolerate Lily being a child.
So why don’t we just use a babysitter?
Imagine we went to an afternoon discussion group – we’d need to spend time finding and screening sitters, then arrange with one who was available at that time. If we’re gone 3 hours (plus 30 minutes to show the sitter around and let the child get acquainted), at $12/hour, that’s a total of $42. For me, that’s an expensive afternoon out.
Also, maybe this is just me being a first-time parent and believing my child is more of a fragile flower than she is, but I don’t really trust babysitters to do a good job. Our one experience thus far didn’t go well, even with someone I thought completely capable—and a bad evening for Lily meant a bad night for everyone, which meant a bad next day. I certainly remember doing silly things when I was 19 and babysitting (not knowing how to dress children for the temperature, etc). And my kid doesn’t eat well for other people, so leaving her with someone besides her parents creates the risk of coming home to a hangry baby. (To be clear, if using sitters works for your family, great! It just didn’t for us.)
For breastfeeding mothers, being away from the baby for a significant amount of time means needing to pump milk. Bringing Lily with me and feeding her at a gathering is easier and more fun than washing the pump parts, packing it all up, excusing myself to the bathroom during the event to pump alone, and keeping the milk cold until we get home. To be away from her for something as long as a weekend would mean way more pumping and stockpiling of milk than I am willing to do. At this point she won’t drink formula, so we can’t just switch her main food at whim.
I think it’s good for Lily to see more than the same few rooms and toys every day. She’s interested in seeing different places and faces.
Also, I love Lily and I like having her near me. It is not surprising that I would have evolved this way.
The only really negative comment I got when I was pregnant was “I guess that’s okay, as long as I never have to see the kid or hear it.” I’ve never had another conversation with that friend, though I decided not to consider this an actual ban, because he lived in the same house as some other friends whom I didn’t want to stop visiting.
I don’t like dogs, and I’ve encountered service dogs that were about as badly-behaved as my baby (making noise, trying to eat other people’s belongings). But I would never tell somebody I didn’t want to see them if they were going to bring their dog.
The more baby-free spaces are, the quieter and tidier they are. I’m fine with there being spaces that are kept quiet and tidy—performances, parties that have been announced as adult-only, etc. (Some theaters have “baby-friendly screenings” in which it’s understood there will be noisy children. This seems like a good idea.)
But there are a lot of borderline cases. Can I bring my baby to an academic conference? To a panel where I’m a panelist? (I’ve been assuming the answer is “yes” for those two, and nobody has stopped me.) Is a baby babbling or a toddler whispering more distracting than an adult coughing? Or an adult with a hissing oxygen machine? If we would be okay with those adults present, I’d say we should also be okay with a reasonably quiet child. Jeff and I do remove Lily if she’s actually crying, but I think moderate child noises should be considered acceptable.
I recognize the element of choice here—I chose to have a baby, and people who need service animals or oxygen machines did not choose to need those things. But I think supporting the continuation of humanity and the socialization of the next generation can be considered a pretty basic part of human life. I guess if you’re a hard-core antinatalist I can give you a pass, but it means you’re rejecting my company and not just my child’s.
To be fair, lots of people have been really lovely—the museum docent who told me it was fine to feed my daughter in the exhibit rather than searching for a bathroom, the friends who have given over their bedrooms as baby nap space, every stranger who smiles at her everywhere we go.
To welcome children is to welcome parents (and especially mothers), who would otherwise stay home a lot more.
So what can people do to make spaces more welcoming to parents and children?
- Say, “It’s nice to see you! I’m glad you come come!”
- Converse with the parent like they are a normal person. It’s fine to talk about the baby or not.
- Don’t give the child food or objects without asking. You’d be surprised at what kids can tear up and choke on.
- If the parent is having a hard time juggling coat, shoes, baby, and bags, ask if you can hold anything.
- If there’s a quiet space (like a bedroom or a sofa in another room) that you’re okay with them using, offer to let the parent use it for feeding or hanging out with a fussy child. Bonus: now you don’t have to be in the same room with said fussy child. It’s probably a good idea to mention this as a general offer before the child gets fussy, so it doesn’t come across as a veiled “Your child is annoying me; please remove it.”
- Offer to hold or supervise the child while the parent goes to the bathroom or gets something to eat.
- If the child really is disrupting the event, best to take the parent aside and figure out a plan (like removing the child to another room if they’re getting loud).
You don’t have to do all these things if you’re not comfortable with them, but the first one would be a really good start.