Here's why I'll never wear one
Baby on board badges. You’ll have seen them on train and tube carriages across the country, pinned jauntily to the lapel of a maternity coat like an apologetic distress signal. First distributed by Transport For London in 2005, now 300,000 people a year use them. Even Kate Middleton wore a baby on board badge on a 2013 visit to Baker Street Tube during her first pregnancy (when we’re guessing a good service was running on the Bakerloo Line).
The badges seem harmless enough, but I have a problem with them. So much so that when a kind friend produced said badge as a gift for me when I was five months pregnant, I thanked her, cringed a lot, and then subtly filed it in the bin.
You see, whenever I’ve spotted a baby on board badge during my daily commute, two things spring to mind: A) let me hop up and give this woman a seat, because: manners, and B) That tiny, innocent-looking badge has instantly swiped away this woman’s most powerful asset – her voice. It feels like such a passive cry for help, giving other people the opportunity to be kind or not.
For me, the badge negates so many things that women are fighting for – having a voice, being treated as equals, not being reduced to a one-dimensional label. It also plays into society’s fetishisation of motherhood – a supposed sense of entitlement that I was never entirely comfortable with. At five months pregnant, my ‘bump’ weighed less than most other commuters’ handbags and rucksacks, so who needs the seat most here?
Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to have a straightforward pregnancy and I didn’t suffer with morning sickness, whereas I know many who do, horrendously, and for who a seat after a long day is a veritable mirage in the dessert. In which case, politely ask for one. Don’t stand there on the verge of collapse, thrusting your right shoulder out in the hope that somebody, anybody, will notice. It’s not other people’s responsibility to work out our needs. But it is all of our responsibility to work harder on collective compassion.
A case in point is my friend Jenny who was rather aggressively shouted at on the tube by a woman for not giving up her seat for the woman’s pregnant friend. Two days previously, Jenny had undergone major spinal surgery. Frankly, just getting herself into that seat in the first place had taken a gargantuan effort.
To me, the badge feels like a status symbol that’s basically saying ‘My needs take priority over your needs because y’know: baby on board’. But how does that make everyone else feel – those who don’t have a child but have just worked a 14 hour shift and are dead on their feet? Those who would love a child but can’t have one right now? Those who’ve just been made redundant, or been given a life-changing diagnosis? In short, everybody else.
One solution that creative team Olivia and Irene at Grey London has come up with is to produce an alternative range of badges, including: ‘I’m so hungover, please have mercy’ and ‘I’m 65+ but I don’t look it’, as well as ‘I have indigestion: too much kale.’ They make a good point. What if we all started updating our status by wearing a badge? We’d get stuck in a weird vortex of competitive entitlement and one upmanship. It’s ugly.
Thankfully, both TFL and New York’s MTA have followed-up their baby on board badge with the more catch-all ‘please offer me a seat’ badge for the thousands of commuters with invisible disabilities and conditions. Because whilst I think it’s human decency to be kind to one another, I’m just not convinced that mums should be elevated above everyone else. It’s this kind of mentality that sees a parent placing their three healthy, full-of-beans children on individual tube seats while an elderly man stands nearby clinging on to his cane for literal dear life.
So no, I didn’t wear a baby on board badge when I was pregnant for the same reason I didn’t wear a ‘terrified new mum’ badge after I’d had the baby so that the lady in Sainsbury’s would be extra nice to me on account of my haywire hormones and approximately 30 minutes sleep in three days. Because I didn’t want to be defined by being a mum, because I wanted to be treated the same as the next man or woman and whatever life story they’re carrying around with them.
One time, when I was struggling at seven months pregnant having stood for two hours on a broken down train, I did have to ask a stranger for a seat despite the protestations from my inner martyr. He said: ‘Sure’. Because people are nice. No person has any idea what another is going through until they reveal it, which is why compassion for one another should be a given, whatever your circumstances. And that’s the kind of honest tube talk we should be encouraging. Not the non-verbal, badge-wearing, me Vs. you type.
Because for every woman growing a tiny human, there’s another person fighting their own inner battle – crippling grief over losing a loved one, a sprained ankle from a gym incident, a debilitating hidden health condition, back-to-back night shifts just to pay a mortgage. Except they don’t have the badge to prove it.