Sunday 8 December 2019

'Chivalry's not dead... it's just distracted' - what happened when I put my 'Baby on Board' badge to the test

Irish Rail has introduced 'Baby on Board' badges to help pregnant women get seats on trains. Chrissie Russell puts hers to the test

Chrissie Russell sitting on a DART with her 'Baby On Board' pin. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Chrissie Russell sitting on a DART with her 'Baby On Board' pin. Picture: Steve Humphreys
A rail eye-opener: Chrissie Russell tested her Baby on Board badge on the Dart
Chrissie Russell sitting on a DART with her 'Baby On Board' pin. Picture: Steve Humphreys

I'm crammed into the standing area between doors on a Dart from Dublin Connolly to Raheny.

 It's almost 6pm and space is at a premium. Even grabbing hold of the pole is tricky enough, although we're so tightly packed in, I could probably just remain upright by ricocheting against my fellow passengers.

As the throng briefly parts to let someone off at a stop, I seize my moment and make it to the top of the aisle, where I stand in full view of my seated co-travellers. But no one notices me. Not my pleading face, not my sizeable bump and certainly not the little yellow badge on my coat declaring I have a 'Baby on Board'.

Everyone is ensconced in their phones, tablets and kindles. One chap chuckles merrily to himself, he's so absorbed in his reading material. I'm probably the only one who registers his guffaws. Almost everyone else is even further buffeted from reality with headphones shoved in their ears.

I'm not sure what it would take for me to get people to look up. I'd be intrigued to see if giving birth might garner any attention, but my suspicion is that, even when the amniotic fluid was pooling round his shoes, Kindle man would still be oblivious. Which raises the question of whether there's really any point to the Baby on Board badges being rolled out by Irish Rail.

They are available for free to any pregnant women who request one and the idea behind them is a noble one. "These badges are designed to overcome the awkwardness often felt by women to give up their seat on the train," reads the letter that I get accompanying my two free pins. "Please be aware that it is not mandatory for someone to offer up their seat and we are still relying on people's good manners. However, it can also assist customers to know that you are pregnant as it may not be immediately obvious."

Chrissie Russell sitting on a DART with her 'Baby On Board' pin. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Chrissie Russell sitting on a DART with her 'Baby On Board' pin. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Ah yes, the awkward mistaken pregnancy encounter. I've been on the receiving end of one of those (during one of my admittedly more Rubenesque phases) and it's not fun. But I'm now almost seven months pregnant and approximately the size of the moon - there's no mistaking this tummy. The problem isn't social awkwardness, it's social detachment.

The main rule of public transport these days is 'Don't Look'. Whether it's someone drunk at the far end of the carriage, the child having a meltdown, the teenager being harassed by other youths or the old person sitting opposite that clearly wants to strike up conversation, the reaction is the same: keep your head down.

The Baby on Board badges were first rolled out by Transport for London (TfL) in 2005, and even Kate Middleton donned one on a (rare) visit to the underground when pregnant with Prince George in 2013. They've been hailed as a triumph, with some 130,000 badges handed out for free each year. The success of the scheme has even seen the introduction of a new wave of 'Please Offer Me A Seat' badges for people battling debilitating, yet potentially invisible, conditions and illnesses like cancer.

A poll by TfL found that 78pc of those using the Please Offer Me A Seat badge found it easier to get a seat with the badge and 75pc were offered a seat without having to ask.

And yet the internet abounds with tales of pregnant women finding their badge has little or no effect. There are horror stories of women in the UK being asked to 'prove' they really are pregnant or essentially being instructed to suck it up. I suspect this is because pregnancy is viewed as a lifestyle choice.

People are perhaps happier to give up their seats for someone afflicted by old age or illness, but a mum-to-be? Well she's made her decision - let her deal with the consequences. Never mind that she might be woozy with low blood pressure, trying desperately not to vomit, battling pelvic floor issues and just generally knackered. Never mind that being pregnant makes you feel more vulnerable, more anxious about being jostled about, more worried about losing your balance and the impact on the baby inside you.

I don't like trying to claim priority status or be 'special'. Flaunting my pregnancy or progeny isn't something I'm keen on. I have not, nor will I ever, display a Baby on Board sticker on my car and I'll be honest, wearing one on my person made me feel a bit daft. I suffer badly from 'I can manage' syndrome. Last month my 60-something mother had to eyeball a young man out of his seat for me when I was close to fainting. He apologised instantly, saying he hadn't noticed me, but no one else nearby got up to offer their place to my mam, despite the fact they were all at least a couple of decades younger.

Clearly something needs to be done. Not just for pregnant women, but for everyone on public transport who needs a seat that little bit more than their more able-bodied fellow passengers. I hope the badges do make a difference, but I fear the problem goes deeper than mere visibility.

Baby on Board badge
Baby on Board badge

Eventually, after two or three stops, two people got off the Dart that I was on. Someone close by instantly scuffled into the vacant seat but before claiming the second place, a young lad looked round, clocked me and gestured for me to come down and take it. I don't know whether it was badge or bump that got his attention, or merely the fact that he took a second to look around and see if anyone needed to sit more than him.

Because that's all it takes, a bit of common decency and a brief second to look up - your Kindle can wait.

Irish Independent

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