“Whose child is that?”
My breath caught in the middle of my throat, slamming back to the familiar pit-of-the-stomach tumble that all mothers know so well. The call-out — aimed at a mother who dared bring a toddler into the room for an academic lecture — was a jarring reminder of where mothers stand in the social hierarchy.
The event, hosted by a local university's student organization as their annual Peace Week kickoff, featured a keynote by a popular feminist blogger. It was a small crowd in a little theater on the outskirts of campus, and huge efforts were made to ensure that the most marginalized in attendance were the most centered at the event. The theater became an alternate reality, where those with the most privilege were asked to step aside and make room for the people whose voices are rarely heard.
Early in her speech, the lecturer introduced the thesis of Trickle Up Justice. The concept, coined by trans activist Dean Spade, can be whittled down to this: when the most marginalized person in society says, "I'm good," then everyone else is probably good, too, because the benefits enjoyed by the most marginalized will "trickle up" to those with more privilege.
It made sense, and I was vigorously nodding along, until that sudden, curt call-out.
“She's mine. I'm sorry.... we... can leave," the mother in question said.
“Yes, thank you.”
I looked around. Was no one else completely disturbed by this? Was this mostly college-age audience so disconnected from the cultural notion that mothers are dismissable that there was no empathy to be found?
As mothers, we know this call-out and accompanying shame well because we endure being told in one way, shape or form nearly every day that we and our children are not valuable, not worthy enough to be included.
Or more plainly, please move yourself and your obnoxious kid out of my space. Out of my space at the grocery counter, out of my space at the restaurant, out of my space at the library, the DMV, the doctor's office, the concert, the poetry slam and now, the feminist lecture.
I instantly flashed back to the many times that I've quickly left a space, choking back tears of shame and embarrassment because my child had made a socially unacceptable mistake.
Like the time my youngest tripped over his laces and fell into the glass honey jars at the grocery store, breaking the glass into three even bits, the honey oozing in slow motion over the tile floor. Or the time my oldest decided to throw a tantrum on a friend's front porch when he didn't want a playdate to end. At six, he was too big to simply stuff under my arm and make a quick exit; instead, I looked like I was wrestling a greased-up pig in front of the staring neighbors. I cried hard that day.
The hottest tears I've ever cried have been tears associated with being perceived as an inept parent. I don't know anything about the mom who was publicly called out and asked to leave. What I do know is that women who are parents routinely face obstacles like this.
I have a friend who is a single mom who has to bring her children with her to her university classes during her kids' spring break. It's not ideal for anyone, obviously, but using that trickle-up idea, who is suffering the most in that scenario?
Is it the tenured professor who finds himself a bit inconvenienced this week? The 20-year-old bro still hung over from last night trying to hold his head up? The anal-retentive straight-A student who just can't be bothered with this bullshit?
Or is it that mother? The one cloaked in everyone's shameful stares and judgement about her choices? The one society has very neatly built obstacles around to keep her from succeeding no matter what she does? The one doing everything to keep her kids fed and clothed and cared for, to keep herself from failing her classes, to keep from going financially under, and to somehow not lose herself — her intentions, her passions, her identity — in the process?
Calling that woman out at the lecture absolutely served a purpose. It quieted the room, it allowed the presenter to think and speak clearly. But what did it do to further the work; to further justice?
Because I'm a parent and have had to make similar choices and sacrifices in decisions about my time and my education and my children, I considered how hard it must have been for that woman to even make a choice to bring a toddler to that talk. How much she must have valued the speaker's words and ideas to try to contain her baby and listen at the same time. How her life likely didn't hold the privilege or the means to secure childcare for such an event. How even in doing the “right” thing in stepping outside of the room, she still probably felt foolish, "wrong" and inconsiderate.
Our cultural perception that mothers have little to offer is one of our most deeply ingrained beliefs that we hold about women. In feminist spaces, the mother in the room is too close to the image of the singular identity we've struggled so hard to overcome. She is the embodiment of our not-so-distant confinement.
And her stories, experiences, and even her place in the room are being smothered. Our special level of intolerance for even the tiniest of child noises means that often, mothers become another excluded voice in the conversation.
The feminist movement has long identified wage inequality, the lack of paid maternity leave, and reproductive freedom as priorities. We know that these inequities are compounded by race, and gender identity, and sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. The reality is, it is the mothers within those intersections that are affected the most by those issues. If feminism has decided that issues that affect mothers are worth fighting for, isn't it time to centralize the voices of the people that hold the largest stake in the dialogue?
And, considering that mothers aren't only parents, but stakeholders in the larger feminist conversation, I wonder if we couldn't also hold enough space for them to just be in the goddamned room.
In the middle of working on this piece, I attended a Gloria Steinem lecture, and coincidentally, a baby started making noise during her talk.
She stopped and said, "I hear a baby. Do you hear that baby?" I thought, Oh, shit, here we go.
And then she said, "Whoever has that baby, don't leave. We put up with all kinds of noises of things that are unpleasant — babies aren't one of them." Indeed, they're not. And neither are their parents.