Who Needs That Seat More, You or the Preggo?

Pregnant? Don't expect anyone to offer you a seat (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com).

Did a 1978 anti-discrimination law meant to benefit pregnant women help kill chivalry? (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com).

A woman waddles toward you in the Metro station. Her navy blue dress embraces a ballooning belly. It strikes you, as you stare, that she’s pregnant. She keeps approaching, but you stay seated; it’s been a long day, you think, as you wait for the day’s last train. It’s not until she’s standing right before you, meeting your gaze, and asking for your seat that you rise from the stone bench. After all, you’re able-bodied, and she looks unsteady. She probably needs that seat more than you do.

Truth be told, I don’t know what this twenty-something man’s internal monologue sounded like, but had he asked, I would have vigorously affirmed that I needed his seat. With each passing day, my belly grows larger, and I grow more achy and wobbly. Yet, while many strangers see me, few react with kindness.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Years ago, as a college student, I rode the New York City subway as part of a lengthy commute to a summer internship. I commented to my father one evening how strange it seemed that men never offered me their seats. Unfazed, he said they likely never would, fearing a verbal assault for treating me unequally. Well, lesson learned, I began commuting in comfortable shoes (and cheerfully thanking anyone who did offer me his seat).

Unfortunately, not every commuting challenge is so easily remedied. The first time I was pregnant, we lived in Boston. Most T-riders seemed sympathetic that I was nearly as wide outward as I am tall. If the T were crowded, at least one man would typically flag me, offering his seat. Only a handful of times did I ever need to approach individual able-bodied young men. When asked directly for his seat, no man ever refused.

Boston drivers, though, were unbelievably rude. They regularly honked while I toddled my fastest across intersections, protected only by the right-of-way.

It’s that latter experience that followed me to the nation’s capital. Pregnant again, I’m finding Metro rides highly unpleasant. Rarely does anyone offer me a seat. I’m more likely to attract glares, as if my procreating offends all that cosmopolitan Washingtonians hold dear. When one Metro station’s long, steep escalator recently stopped, I was nearly felled by commuters zooming past me, while I worked to move briskly without tumbling.

Traveling with my highly energetic toddler can be even worse. Yes, our stroller helps, but not when strangers block the Metro door – ignoring my “Excuse me,” or aggressively entering before we can exit – at rush hour.

Who are these people, and how did we get here? If I were the only person encountering these things, I might consider my experience a fluke. Yet, I hear these incidents echoed in friends’ stories and Tweets from women in other cities. Have we stopped valuing kindness? Why do we ignore those who clearly need assistance?

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 isn’t helpful in this regard. Employers are advised that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes,” and that is largely a good thing.

However, if the real-world impact is that male employees are advised not to assist female colleagues with logistical adjustments to pregnancy, like lifting heavy items, unless specifically asked – lest everyone be sued – that seems burdensome for the pregnant woman. Why must she bear the onus? If she worries about looking like a diva, she’s less likely to request needed help, whether at work or on the ride home, and men fearing a law suit are less likely to offer.

Men and women are not biologically identical, and pregnancy is when women are at our most vulnerable. While some women have easy pregnancies, most of us are tired and achy, incapable of carrying heavy things, moving quickly, or standing for long periods of time. It seems like backward progress that society has stopped acknowledging these truths.

Yes, Metro seats are typically available on a first-come, first-served basis. But must we pretend that pregnant women are contending with the same physical challenges as the typical passenger? We are not. And really, who needs your seat more, you or that preggo?

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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