Ah, summer. Remember summer? When the evenings were pink, the glasses were beaded and the bus windows could never be far enough open? What you might not remember, unless you happened to be travelling on the 55 from Leyton to Oxford Street in mid-June was the sight of a woman, a phone crooked into her neck, wrestling a buggy into the horizontal position with a wailing baby at her shoulder and a packet of wetwipes squeezed between her knees.
Of all the parenting words I cringe away from, ‘multitasking’ is surely one of the least helpful. It speaks of corporate work flow diagrams, collaborative policies, agendas and calm Latin compounds. Several discreet tasks, undertaken and completed in tandem. In truth, for the women and men raising children, multitasking is a neck-wrenching, sweaty, knee-crushing, white noise of constant stress, living four steps in the future and rising chaos. Perhaps the terms ‘clustercoping’ would be more accurate or ‘brainspray’.
And so it was I found myself on the way into town one morning to catch a train. Because my local overground station has no disabled access and all babies love the communal, moving, bell-push container of public buses, I decided to put aside an entire hour, pack some snacks and put my baby (in his buggy) on a bus all the way into central London. When you have a small, immobile, breastfeeding and sleepless baby, the days are unfathomably long. You start to see time not as a horizon of possibility, but rather a constant series of half hour hurdles to be got over until the magical moment when your friends and family finish work and can come and relieve you. So I didn’t mind a long bus journey. It was another hour out of the house.
The first 10 minutes of the journey were just as I’d hoped: we got a seat by the wheelchair park, a woman wearing diamante-studded reading glasses chatted to my enthralled baby and I got to sit down still for long enough to eat an apple. Until I looked down to see my six-month-old child turning slowly puce, his eyebrows puckering into the world’s saddest smile and the undeniable smell of shit wafting in my direction. Brilliant. A shit, a breastmilk shit, just ten minutes in to an hour long journey. I was alone and, because of my train deadline and finite amount of money on my Oyster card, was loathe to get off the bus and head into a café to change him.
I had wipes, I had a buggy that could be clicked flat and I had very, very little shame. So I did it. I picked him up, walked over to the four people sitting on the lower deck and asked politely if they’d mind very much if I changed my baby’s nappy. Then I went over to the driver and asked if he would mind if I changed my baby’s nappy. Get ready to have every negative stereotype about Londoners confounded because, to a man, they were all lovely about it. One guy even got out his wallet and showed me a picture of his granddaughter.
Just as I had got the buggy into position and the poppers on my son’s vest undone, my phone began to ring. It was a work call – one I’d been waiting for all week – and because, as a freelancer, my one great fear is that all editors will forget or shun me, I answered it. I explained, looking up into the bus driver’s rearview mirror at the sheer sight of me, that I was on a bus and the reception wasn’t good, so could I call back in an hour? Now, I don’t know why I thought that poor reception was somehow a more professionally and socially acceptable excuse than mothering but there we are. Chalk it up as internalised misogyny I suppose. I lied, got off the phone as quickly as I could and smiled over at the man to my left who was entertaining my son by playing peekaboo with his two gold top teeth.
I promptly dropped the phone into the bottom of the buggy, shoved a plastic wipe-clean mat under my child’s bum, took off the nappy and got down to what my friend Ben calls ‘an eighteen wiper’. Of course it smelled, of course it looked like mustard and of course I felt bad for the people on the bus. But in my defence, it only smelled as bad as most Pret A Manger sandwiches and I had the whole thing wrapped up in less than two minutes. My son wasn’t yet eating solids and so all we were really dealing with here was digested milk, absorbent knickers and one woman’s sense of self-consciousness.
The greatest accomplishment came, I believe, a few minutes later, when the bus pulled up to a stop that had a bin next to the shelter. I saw my moment. As the doors opened, I leaned out, bent my arm like an NBA star and fired the dirty nappy into the open bin like someone taking a penalty shot in basketball. It soared straight in. The bus doors closed behind me. I was thrilled. I didn’t exactly get a standing ovation from my fellow passengers but I like to think I got a small nod of appreciation from the driver.
And then we were off. Into a big city built for adults but smeared with the bodily realities of all human life. You may think that what I did was disgusting. You might think it funny. But, in that moment, I’m not sure I had much choice.
So, how do you change your baby’s nappy on a bus while taking an important work call? By admitting that some bodies are beyond our control, and appealing to the kindness of strangers