When worlds collide

In her thought-provoking book ‘Life After Birth’, Kate Figes describes the gulf between the lifestyles of those with and without children, and the naïve assumptions about parenthood that fall away as soon as we reproduce. ‘We delude ourselves that we will be able to socialise as we have always done by organising babysitters or taking the children with us. Then when our children arrive we understand that there are two separate worlds, one with children and one without, which rotate in opposite directions and occasionally collide.’

The planets collided for Figes when she took her two-year-old daughter to lunch at the house of a childless aunt. When she arrived, the joint was only just being put in the oven and there was no snack sufficiently bland to tide over the hungry child. The adults became steadily drunker; the toddler increasingly distraught. As the food finally arrived on the table, the child demanded the toilet. Sitting her on the potty, Figes noticed through a fog of booze that her daughter had already deposited a trail of small turds across the floor. As she attempted to clean up, her child trampled in the shit, spreading it everywhere and ruining the aunt’s white shag-pile carpet.

To any parent of small children, this account will seem comically, horribly familiar. But what strikes me about Figes’s story is that she seems embarrassed rather than apologetic. Serves you right, is the subtle, underlying message. Accommodate my toddler or face the consequences. Figes was in a better position than anyone to anticipate her child’s needs and bring a snack along. The carpet had to be replaced, but there’s no mention of Figes offering to pay. And the next time the aunt invites the family over, she ‘bends over backwards to get a child-friendly lunch on the table by two o’clock’, the implication being that she has learned her lesson.

Last week, during the half-term holiday, I witnessed another small inter-planetary collision in the quiet carriage of an intercity train. I had dropped my sons off at holiday club and crossed over to join the ranks of the child-free for the day. I settled back in my seat, anticipating the opportunity to read the newspaper from cover to cover and doze off for a while. Then, at Bath Spa, a couple with pre-school twins boarded and claimed two unreserved seats across the aisle. Concentration, relaxation, sleep – all the things I craved – suddenly became impossible. The girls’ shrill voices were just as irritating as the incessant trilling of a mobile phone, yet the passengers in carriage A – normally militant to the point of aggression in defence of their right to silence – didn’t say a word.

Perhaps this unusual reticence was due to the fact that the toddlers, although strident, were inquisitive, engaging and (considering their age) well behaved. The middle-aged parents seemed attentive, replying patiently and uncondescendingly to the girls’ endless questions and proferring a small stash of books, crayons and healthy snacks. It would have been unreasonable to ask the children to pipe down – they were too small to comply – and yet it seemed equally unreasonable to inflict their clamour on the occupants of the quiet carriage.

I suppressed my irritation and smiled indulgently from time to time, complicitly signalling my own parenthood. I reminded myself that I knew nothing about the situation. Perhaps the family’s seat reservations had been mucked up, or they were travelling at short notice and there were no other spaces available. At the same time, uncharitable thoughts began to surface. Wasn’t there a hint of smugness in this self-conscious display of modern parenting? The presence of the small group seemed to throw out an implicit challenge to the rest of us: we’re a nice, bookish, middle-class family, so don’t you dare object.

My ambivalence was compounded by the fact that I’ve been in similar situations with my own children. Several years ago, on a long bus journey across rural Wales, my two-year-old son began to wail in frustration. The woman sitting a few seats in front of us flinched theatrically at each piercing squawk, casting disapproving glances over her shoulder, until I went over and politely – but in my best patrician accent – pointed out that I was doing all I could to placate him.

I’m sure I have inconvenienced others – even acted selfishly – in order to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. I recall the occasion when, in my desire to enjoy a civilised Sunday lunch with friends, I let my small sons run around inside a gastropub. They dodged between tables and giggled hysterically, sending their pencil crayons clattering across the wooden floor. Although nobody objected, I now wonder what everyone was thinking. But that’s different; I would never let them make a noise in the quiet carriage, says a small, self-righteous voice inside me. So where should we draw the line?

I don’t advocate a return to the world my grandparents used to inhabit, where women and children stayed at home, out of sight, while the men drank in the pub. Things have moved on; the world is more welcoming to families and undoubtedly a much better place for it. Still, I wonder if these occasional clashes of interests reveal something unpalatable about those of us who choose to reproduce.

Parents consider their small offspring endlessly fascinating, to the point of being unable to see that they impinge on other people’s lives. If we’re honest, it’s all about the nuclear family: most of us don’t care all that much about the children of our acquaintances, let alone those of strangers. So who is more selfish: the couple who remain childless in order to pursue other interests in peace, such as travelling, dining out or going to concerts? Or the couple who have babies because they want somebody to cherish, and then assert their right to frequent restaurants, galleries and quiet carriages with their young family in tow, expecting the rest of the world to put up with the noise and disruption?


13 thoughts on “When worlds collide

  1. vicki

    I agree that there are places not suitable for children. Drinking pubs. Expensive Bistros after 8pm . Funerals. However, if children never experience churches museums galleries etc then how will they learn the ettiquette expected at such places? How do the adults of tomorrow appreciate beauty in art etc. Neither party is wholely right or wrong both need to learn patience and tolerance/ empathy as these are the skills which take a child far in life and form the basis to considerate and well rounded citizens of tomorrow.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      Vicki, thanks for your comment. I agree that small children shouldn’t be excluded from museums and galleries, but if they are very noisy surely there comes a point when a considerate parent should step outside with them for a while. It’s all a question of judgement, and I’m sure that, like most parents, I’ve got it wrong from time to time. Incidentally, I once went to a funeral where children were positively welcome – the woman who had died had a young family herself – and it was a lovely celebration of her life. The children’s presence felt appropriate, there was plenty of outside space for them to run around and a couple of mothers who had brought their own babies along offered to look after the very tiny ones during the service.

  2. Rhyle

    How terribly inconvenient for you having to deal with other people! I agree totally…but it’s not just kids that shouldn’t be allowed to impose themselves on our lives, but men in general, horrible, smelly poor people and not to mention all those horrible dark skinned people from far away places whose names I couldn’t imagine even TRYING to pronounce.

    Dreadful…you have my every sympathy.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      Rhyle, such cutting sarcasm! I’ll readily admit to being selfish and intolerant but I think you’ll find my post is a tiny bit more nuanced than you suggest. Glad it provoked a reaction, anyway.

      1. Rhyle

        No…I understood what you were trying to convey – but thanks for assuming I didn’t. You clearly suffer from that terribly middle class worry of how we are so awfully inconsiderate at times, that we parents really should consider the childless as much as we (apparently) expect them to consider us…if not more so…especially in such sacred places as restaurants and galleries – heaven forbid that anyones dreams of a quiet meal are ruined by a child being a child (heaven forbid that THEY experience these special little places and have their lives enriched). Regardless of your intentions, the piece comes across as almost as condescending and borderline offensive as your above response. Not so much “nuanced” as “off target”. As I say…wouldn’t our lives be much richer and less angsty if there were less of those…other…people we don’t like?

      2. bristolbetty Post author

        I don’t regard being considerate, or showing concern for other people’s interests, as a middle-class trait. If you’ll permit me a crass generalisation, the burgeoning sense of entitlement that allows parents to inflict their noisy children on other people, regardless of context or location, seems much more prevalent among the middle classes. As for my post being ‘borderline offensive’, was it more offensive than your original comment, which equated my attitude towards small children with the views of a man-hating racist?

  3. Emma

    It’s a difficult one. I am single and child-free and love spending time with my friends’ children. However, I also recently went for a meal in a pub on a Sunday lunchtime with a friend I’d not seen for several years, and a couple of families were there with their children. The children were running the length and breadth of the pub, up and down, up and down, clattering over the wooden floors and making conversation impossible; meanwhile their parents sat and talked among themselves, ignoring the children. I felt bad for wanting to stick my foot out when one ran past (I didn’t, of course).

    I have little time for parents who go out in a public place such as a restaurant, pub etc with no thought as to how to entertain their children. Not all pubs and restaurants provide crayons and paper. Kids get bored quickly when adults are sat around chatting, and it is unfair to inflict your bored children on other people for any longer than is necessary, especially if the other people there are paying good money for their meal. It’s arrogant.

    The quiet carriage scenario you describe, however, I would have no problem with, as the parents are keeping the kids amused, even if they are a bit noisy. As you say, they might have had no choice but to sit there. And god knows there is no shortage of adult arseholes in quiet carriages (to the point that I now sit in the noisy carriage!).

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      Interesting. When it comes to the quiet carriage, I think quiet means quiet – no mobile phones, audible music, prolonged conversations or noisy kids. Children in restaurants bother me less as there’s always a certain level of background noise, but in the situation you describe, the kids were clearly ruining your enjoyment and the parents should have stepped in. I wonder how they would have reacted if you’d said something. I’ve behaved selfishly in a restaurant on a couple of occasions myself, and I probably deserved to have someone like you come over and point that out.

  4. Ronnie

    A really interesting piece and something I have often considered myself. It is a shame that we are not generally as childfriendly as some countries. However, as a parent I too relish some adult only space.

    I find it frustrating that there are such a lot of children’s swimming lessons that mean half the pool at my Lesuire club is sectioned off and I can’t relax in jacuzzi, sauna, steam as they are so noisy. I remind myself that kids need to learn to swim and it’s not their fault that I want to swim/relax when their lessons are on. Plus I take my son swimming their now too…so sure their are others who feel as I do.

    Regarding the quirt carriage on the train this too would get on my nerves, although it is doubtful I would say anything in this situation. But this doesn’t just extend to family’s, there are many adults who are seemingly oblivious to others and inflict their phone calls, strong smelling food, loud music, legs spread wide etc on other passengers.

    Since having a child I an more empathetic to families. But as parents we need to attempt to anticipate our childrens needs where possible – placating them with suitable toys and activities, contacting restaurants to preorder, taking snacks and a drink everywhere…Unfortunately, sometimes even this isn’t enough. However, my husband and I have taken turns to eat meals in restaurants on holiday when the dining time/ location was not suitable for our toddler. It is only considerate.

    Children are just people at an earlier stage in development. Those that choose not to have children have options to avoid those with (if they prefer) and those with children have different options – both can be seen as restrictions imposed by the other but in reality there will always be compromises that need to be made sometimes.

    I don’t think either are selfish if they don’t actively, or purposefully, disregard others rights, feelings and decisions.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      Yes, adults in quiet carriages can behave appallingly – much worse than small kids. I think you’re right about compromise. However well prepared parents are in bringing along toys, snacks, etc., we’ve all been in situations where, despite our best efforts, things go tits up and the children start to irritate others.

  5. Lily

    I agree to a point that parents should step out with the children if necessary, bring toys, snacks etc to entertain (disagree vehemently that any space is inappropriate for a child, they have to learn how to live in the real world), however, you usually only see a snapshot of a family’s life. That mother letting her child run around noisily may have been at the end of her tether, had no sleep for the last 2 years (sob), just had some bad news, been getting over an illness etc, and thought “OK, this ONE time, I’m going to let him run wild, I just don’t have the energy to stop him”. I find assuming the best of people helps me deal with them annoying me!

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      Good advice, Lily. Sometimes it’s wise not to judge unless you have the full picture. A woman I know once confronted another parent in the park about his son’s behaviour. Turned out the son had autism and struggled to keep his aggression under control.


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