New York Magazine recently published a piece that asks, on which subway lines are riders most likely to offer their seat for a pregnant woman? Roughly, the answer is none of them. And unfortunately, riding public transportation can be one of the most challenging aspects of pregnancy.
Pregnancy side-effects strike when they’re least welcome, and many women feel faint on the train. This is common and due to factors such as having an alien in your womb sucking the life force out of you. Symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, cold sweats, nausea, headache, etc. Sitting down really takes the edge off when you feel this way, and that’s why you need to ask for a seat, rather than wait for someone to offer it to you.
In my own pregnancy, to generalize, the women of New York are a kind and merciful facet of humanity, and I was frequently offered their seats. However, I wasn’t always so lucky to stand near an observant and polite lady, and I’d be just as likely to get stuck near a dingus, legs akimbo, who I wished would just look up from his handheld electronic device, eye my swollen midsection, and jump to life to say the magical words, “Would you like my seat?”
Some days I couldn’t help but quietly stew as my stomach hovered over a guy chilling in sunglasses, or as I was struggling to keep my balance in front of a man engrossed in his own inner reflections. I coped by creating humanizing, elaborate back-stories to quell my rage. Surely that could be the only explanation for not offering your seat to a pregnant woman! “Oh this poor guy has crippling Asperger’s. He would give me his seat if he could but he is simply unable to communicate.” Or, “This sad fellow. He’s on thin ice with his boss and his mother is back in the hospital. I bet he’s appreciating this quiet moment to himself.”
The culture of survival in any city has a lot to do with not engaging. The cruel reality is that people are not likely to spring to their feet to offer you a seat if you’re pregnant. Unless you are obviously beach ball-smuggling-sized pregnant, rather than wage the “is she or isn’t she?” debate and risk possibly offending you, it’s easier for someone to disappear into a commuter’s trance.
Once I became visibly pregnant, I quickly learned that anticipating or blithely hoping someone notices you smacks of self-entitlement and a “notice me” nadir that is futile in the subways of New York City. Compounding this empty expectation with the normal hassle of a daily commute during rush hour, and you’re creating a stressful and angry existence.
Dr. Stanley “The Shocker” Milgram performed a study in 1975, since replicated, where (able-bodied, non-incapacitated) participants approached subway riders with the request, “Excuse me, may I have your seat?” to varying results. I think when the study was first conducted in that hazy golden crime-y Sweathog-y era, approaching strangers was much more harrowing than it is today. But still, the default state of navigating through an urban environment is not to connect, and the idea of approaching a stranger is intrusive and intimidating.
The first time I asked for a seat, I encountered a headphones-rocking-out-guy attempting to scoop me out of an emptying “priority” seat. I smiled, pointing to my stomach, and said, “Excuse me, may I please have that seat?” His response was to scowl at me. It’s hard enough just getting to work, do you really want to face your day getting into a showcase showdown with some foolio?
Eventually, after getting body-checked by guys racing me to empty seats, after evenings of simply struggling to not fall over, and mornings of sweating through dizzy spells, I got over my shyness. Every time I boarded a crowded train, I had to plan to approach someone and ask them to get up for me. I am grateful that everyone I asked was always nice about it, and I made sure to smile and thank them profusely. It’s easy to observe the coldness of humanity when you’re passively waiting for something to happen to you, but in my experience if you reach out, people are willing to help.
It’s a shame to have to ask for courtesy when getting around is a challenge. But the idea of asking for a seat is not only about comfort in pregnancy, but extends to kindness for everyone. How can we all act in a way that makes pregnant ladies, older folks, and people with mobility issues feel welcome on the train? We should all be a little more open to seeing who needs help.
Or when in doubt, leave an empty seat for someone else.