A funny thing can happen when you are growing a life inside you. As the connection with that new being strengthens and becomes more real, your ties to the outside world start to weaken and fray. It becomes unpleasant and overwhelming to be in large groups or crowds, and the unpredictability of public spaces suddenly feels threatening. The hard narrow seating, the hit-and-miss temperature of shops and cafés, the loudness of pubs, and the cocktail of smells generated by people amassed in confined spaces. What was once cosy and convivial suddenly feels claustrophobic and unbearable.
Pregnant with my second child, I have learned that these unwelcoming conditions are made worse by a certain societal attitude toward motherhood, and child-rearing in general. One gets a sense, reinforced through the relative rarity of pregnant women public spaces (I was horrified to discover that every high street retailer in Leeds has stopped stocking maternity wear, what can only be a sinister plot to oust us completely?), that gestation is something to be done in private, and never at the expense of the majority’s comfort or convenience (see Robyn Longhurst’s writing on pregnant bodies in public spaces for more on this). As our expanding bodies take up more space, we become more visible and hold power usually reserved for men. On a bus the other day, I firmly pushed back against a man’s thigh as it inched into my already limited seating area. The manspreading owner sheepishly looked down at his hands and conceded the legroom. He had no choice: I was bigger than him, and I held another life inside my own. Pregnancy is not only threatening, it is also irrefutable.
Being pregnant in city centres highlights the confines and impositions that affect humans of all ages, and particularly those who have restricted mobility, or require accessible toilets and places to rest and refuel, due to age or disability. The bustle of human traffic is anathema to calming pregnancy hormones and lower blood pressure, and the need to rest comfortably between errands. As a reluctant consumer in normal circumstances, I now find myself hovering outside shops, paralysed at the prospect of buying something, reminded that I am bringing a baby into a world choked with mass-produced, unethically fabricated things, most of which we have no need for whatsoever. I become desperate to simplify, to declutter and make space, to shut my mind and doors to the toxic fumes of late capitalism and its dehumanising forces.
I am also anticipating the coming months and years in which my offspring is seen as a public liability, at least to those who see urban space as the reserve of grown-up recreation: drinking and eating at a desired pace; relaxed or frenzied shopping; freelance working; art or entertainment – all without the noise, emotional needs and shorter attention spans of small children. When my son was little, Leeds City Museum and Waterstones café became my only two refuges from the streets of Leeds, in which I would eke out coffee dates with other parents before running to catch a bus home. I discovered that going into town had become a box-ticking exercise – my former self not wanting to let go of the pleasures of city life – rather than an enjoyable or satisfying experience. I learned that town centres are not the place for children any more than they are for pregnant women.
Galleries sometimes offer a reprieve, with a chance at contemplation or rumination if your sleeping baby allows it, or your toddler takes a brief interest in art. Child-designed spaces like Tiny Tetley (closed with The Tetley gallery, incredibly short-sightedly, by commercial developers at the end of 2023) are rare in cities like Leeds, but family friendly activities and themed exhibitions are the best options in most cities. They sometimes cater to little ones and usually house a café and clean, spacious toilets.
Still, even in art spaces, parents and carers often feel pressure to ensure their charges behave in adult-sanctioned ways; they must keep them quiet and prevent them from running about or touching things. The rule of most galleries – look but don’t touch – is completely lost on small children, who learn about the world through tactile and bodily interaction. As a pregnant woman I am always desperately searching for soft seating, somewhere to rest my beleaguered bones. ‘Feeding Chair’, first designed in 2022 (fabricated by M3 Industries with Elaine Speight of In Certain Places and Textbook Studio’s Vicky Carr, decorated with artwork by Jade de Montserrat), has recently embarked on its first leg of a UK tour, funded by Arts Council England. Part artwork, part offering to those needing to feed their young with breast or bottle, it speaks directly to the absence of such places in public life (read Joanna Wolforth’s reflection on the 2022 Feed programme here).
‘Feeding Chair’ is currently on show as part of Found Cities, Lost Objects at Leeds Art Gallery, an Arts Council Collection Touring exhibition curated by Lubaina Himid, and with additions from Yorkshire based artists and Leeds Art Gallery collection. It invites visitors to view the city through the eyes of women and gender non-conforming artists, and asks to what extent these groups are valued, welcomed and made to feel safe in urban spaces. Deeply personal works by Mona Hatoum and Sophie Calle sit alongside photographic and navigational interventions by Hannah Starkey and Cornelia Parker, and many others. Through them the city is reimagined or retraced through the individual perspectives of those who are often marginalised, endangered or otherwise segregated in public spaces. As Himid writes, ‘Women traditionally inhabit cities via retail and healthcare venues and, for those with the means, theatres, galleries and cafés… But how can women expand their presence beyond this for everyone’s benefit as the landscape on the high street changes?’
I’m conscious that others experience pregnancy and childcare in public spaces differently (I know other mums who are very good at sniffing out activities and sanctuaries in cities), and that it is partly my entrenched resistance to mainstream capitalism that makes me cynical and suspicious of public spaces. However, the fact that families and procreation generally are pushed out of centres and into suburbs, where houses, with manageable walks to playgrounds, are the preferred nesting grounds. Those who remain in the city pay a price. A friend raising a child in Brussels told me of having her phone stolen from her pocket whilst she was trying to wrestle her buggy into the entrance of her apartment building. My London friends are raising two small children who now have embodied knowledge of daily queues, pollution, transport disruption, and an understanding that life outside the home moves at a rapid pace and is (at least to my small-town sensibility) fiercely competitive. As Gabor Maté recently put it in The Myth of Normal (2022):
‘Thus do materialistic cultures generate notions – myths, in effect – of selfish, aggressive striving and dominance as behavioural baselines, encouraging characteristics that place a lesser value on connectedness to others and to Nature itself. In our present capitalist society… we have become “species-atypical”, a sobering idea when you think about it: no other species has ever had the ability to be untrue to itself, to forsake its own needs, never mind convince itself that such is the way things ought to be.’
In her book Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood (2023), Lucy Jones talks about the ways that pregnant women’s bodies are judged and policed, with nearly everyone feeling entitled to opinions about what we should and shouldn’t put in them, from shellfish and cheese to caffeine and alcohol. Yet, when it comes to collective responsibility, or one of government, industry and agriculture, there is complete and utter negligence. People idle their cars in our faces, farmers sell us food full of chemicals, our mental health is side-lined as collateral damage. My baby will be born with microplastics and toxins, ingested through my body despite my best attempts to keep them out. Humans are porous creatures (to the extent that a mother exchanges cells with the foetus through her placenta) – we absorb each other, and the outside world, even before we are born.
With that knowledge, it’s no wonder we’re pulled back into the safe orbit of home. And yet isolation is equally unnatural for family units. We are not designed to be self-sustaining in small groups; we need community to support us, an extended network and sense of belonging. Postnatal depression is arguably as much the result of social alienation as it is a psychobiological response to the shock of having given birth. Reflecting on her own experience, Jones ponders ‘to what extent was postnatal mental illness intrinsic and biological, and how much of it was an understandable response to the design of modern parenthood?’ The options for women and carers with new babies to re-enter society and be welcomed into it (let alone be celebrated) are too often limited to carer and baby groups, where participants are exhausted and not in the best place to make connections or support other new parents. One thing I blearily remember during my early months with my first baby was a frustrated need to feel part of society in my new incarnation, and a valued one at that.
Some cultures and communities celebrate matrescence (the transition from womanhood into motherhood), honouring the birth of a new mother along with their baby. I like to imagine a UK city that recognises this stage of life, along with other experiences and transitions, and that has corresponding needs built into (not onto) its infrastructure. Here one could safely rest, play, feed, care and convene, without the pressure to buy or fear of not being able to meet basic requirements. A city that puts pregnant, young, elderly, and disabled and divergent people at its centre is one that reflects a healthy, whole society. It also prioritises a need shared by everyone: that of feeling socially integrated. As Jones puts it, ‘Matrescence troubles the idea that we are self-contained individuals, separated from the rest of the living world’. A baby bump is a potent reminder of how we all – each and every one of us – spent the first months of our lives inside a womb. This is our first act of togetherness, the origins of a belonging-in-the-world that is essential to our survival and growth, and that we continue to seek in all the spaces we encounter.
Found Cities, Lost Objects, an Arts Council Collection touring exhibition curated by Lubaina Himid CBE, is at Leeds Art Gallery from 26 January to 21 April 2024. The ‘Feeding Chair’ will tour UK art venues in 2024-2026, alongside new artwork and writing commissions. Audio works, commissioned texts and information about the project can be found at https://www.feedproject.art/.
Lara Eggleton is a writer and editor based in Leeds, and a Contributing Director at Corridor8.