I am ten days away from my due date and I am in Ghent, standing upright in the turning bit of the tram. I’m holding on to the rails for dear life as the floor shifts beneath me.
There is a middle-aged couple sitting down on the seats next to me, happily chatting. A group of students are behind me in seats, laughing together. There are other commuters, busy on their phones. I am carrying heavy shopping bags that are digging into my shoulders, my back aches, and balancing is a serious challenge with the belly.
The tram stops, and a single seat opens. I move towards it, but I’m not fast enough and it’s taken by someone else. The tram goes on, and so does my white-knuckled grip on the rail. I have been having practice contractions for days, and one rolls over me, making me breathe shallowly. Sweat prickles on the back of my neck. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.
The difference between taking public transport in Belgium and in the UK is huge. The London tube gets incredibly busy in rush hour, but every tube ride I have taken there while pregnant I have been offered a seat. EVERY SINGLE TIME, no matter how heaving. It seems to be the norm that when someone pregnant gets on, you let them sit down immediately.
in Ghent, I have been offered a seat a grand total of four times in my entire pregnancy. Once by an elderly woman, who looked like she could probably use it herself. Once by an older man. Once by a Polish tourist. And once, surprisingly, by a teenage boy. That last one was on an especially excruciating tram ride, I thought I would have to get off just so I wouldn’t pass out. But where so many people ignored me dangerously swaying, this boy saw me and quietly offered his seat.
Four times might sound like a decent amount. But it really isn’t when you consider I take public transport in Ghent twice a day or more.
And yes, I am frustrated enough to actually do the math on this – I started showing early, so I have done around 360 tram or bus rides while visibly pregnant. Let’s say that about 1 in 5 is that busy that it is entirely impossible for me to find an empty seat, that’s 72 times. I was offered a seat 4 of those times, so that means that 68 times in the past few months I have stood there with my big belly, holding on to the rails for dear life. SIXTY-EIGHT.
When it’s that busy I usually move to stand by the priority seats, the ones that have the sign over them of a pregnant person, someone with crutches, and a person with a baby. I stand there, my belly at eye-height of all the people in those seats. And usually, nothing happens.
I do realise that many disabilities are invisible, and it’s possible that the people already sitting on those seats need them more than I do -that’s why I would never ask that they either stand or explain why they can’t in the middle of a busy tram. But I find it hard to believe that all of those times, all those people were physically unable to let me have a seat. They just didn’t want to.
That’s not all though.
When I get off the tram and I am almost home, I still have three flights of stairs to climb. We live in a public building, with a lot of people that we don’t know also taking the stairs all day. Often when I have made it that far with my shopping, someone is too impatient to wait for my slow pace and races past me, more often than not banging into me and my bags. Sometimes it’s with a ‘funny’ remark, such as ‘You look like you’ve got your hands full!’ or ‘That sure looks heavy!’ or ‘Not much longer to go, have you?’
I have not been offered help once.
And maybe it’s incredibly entitled of me to expect people to offer me seats and to help me carry heavy things. After all, being pregnant is my own choice and I should just get on with it. But the truth is that I really can use some help around now.
Last week, at a very obvious 37 weeks pregnant, I fell. I was walking in the busiest shopping street of this city, carrying a bag, and my balance is off enough now that an uneven bit of pavement means that bam – all of a sudden I am falling and I can’t stop myself. I landed on my hands and knees, luckily. My first thought was ‘is the baby okay?’ then ‘ow, fuck!’.
And then I felt embarrassed, falling in public like that. Being the heavily pregnant lady on the pavement. So I looked around, ready to tell anyone who had seen that I was fine. Only, no one had actually stopped. No one was making eye contact with me. My shopping bag had fallen from my shoulder and various bits had rolled out, and it took me a moment to collect my things again and catch my breath while the masses were parting around me, a collection of hurrying legs. I heaved myself up and took a mental inventory of how bad it was, bruised knees yes, but baby still kicking, no reason to go into hospital.
It’s a good thing there wasn’t, because no one would have called me that ambulance.
That incident shook me up a little, but it also made me deeply sad. Jo finds it unbelievable that the people are so inconsiderate here, and honestly, I do too. That’s why I waited all the way to the end of my pregnancy to write this, hoping it might get better when I was hugely pregnant and that somebody – anybody – would be the unexpected kind stranger in this story. But it has not happened.
I am disappointed in you, Belgium. In Ghent, which is supposed to be such a left and liberal city.
You can do better.