A few weeks before I moved to Paris with my husband and our three-month old daughter, I’m offered kind words from a woman a few years ahead of me into the journey of motherhood. She tells me that she too lived far away from home, from friends, from family, when she had her first child, and well, “It can be really isolating.” These words are offered to me in preemptive solidarity. When I think of them now, I hear – sometimes you will feel isolated, and it’s okay, I felt it too. I made it, and so will you. She leaves me with the advice to try to connect with other mothers, but at the time this advice was lost on me. I brushed it off, feeling confident that my introverted tendencies were well suited to living abroad, that my independent nature would spare me any feelings of loneliness.
And so we arrived, and I didn’t prioritize (or even consider) meeting other people – other mothers, other English speakers. I was new to Paris, new to baby lugging devices, new to public transportation, new to the French language. But my daily use of the metro with a baby in tow quickly taught me a lesson in perspective, in humor, and in the value sharing the experience of being new.
Now, there are plenty of metro stations with stroller accessible entrances and exits. And a lot of times, I’ll stick to using the ones I know. But inevitably while out exploring, we will encounter the dreaded turnstile-only situation. And usually, my response is this: (1) Remove baby from stroller (2) Fold stroller while holding baby (3) Throw stroller over turnstile (4) Kick stroller under gate (5) Put everything back together on the other side. Doable? Yes. Ideal? No.
So, when I came across a turnstile that looked wide enough to push a stroller through, (not understanding that no matter how wide the entrance, the distance between the three metal arms would never allow the stroller to pass) you better believe I tried. I tried, and I failed. Passersby witnessed me frantically unbuckling my child, who by then was making every effort to lick the shiny, germ-filled metal bar that rests inches from her face, and struggling to partially fold and force the stroller through while also squeezing baby and myself between the turnstile arms. Frazzled and embarrassed, I huffed my way through the station, and spent more than a few minutes trying to shake off my frustration. I did not see the humor.
But the thing is – finding the humor, it’s really important. It’s what makes it easier to appreciate the small things, mistakes and all. And it’s not always easy. Less so when you don’t understand that you’re not the only one here (fumbling through, getting stuck in the turnstile).
Baby-wearing seemed like a good solution to this problem. And it was. It felt so freeing to just walk. No stroller pushing, no stroller carrying – simply walking with the occasional kick or grab to remind me of her presence. After a particularly long day of sightseeing, we go home using a route that I know has a turnstile-only exit. But not to worry, we’ll fit just fine. And we do. Except that after we fit through the metal bars, the plastic gate that is supposed to open, allowing us to pass, does not budge. I push a little harder – nothing. The student behind me sees what has happened, and tries to swipe his pass, allowing the metal bars to turn again and, hopefully, the plastic gate to open. But it doesn’t. And so, there I am, stuck between the turnstile and the gate, wearing a baby. And I am able to see the humor.
A woman realizes what has happened, notices that I’m getting ready to try to climb my way out of the situation, and begins speaking excitedly to me in French, pointing to the baby in a way that tells me she doesn’t approve of my strategy. She gives a final gesture for me to wait before disappearing – I assume to go find an attendant to fix the problem. I know how few and far between these attendants are, and so, I am not hopeful.
At the same time, I don’t want her to go through the trouble of running around the station only to come back and find that I’m gone. So, I wait - at first. But a train has just arrived, and a crowd is coming. People start talking to me, maybe asking me what’s going on, maybe offering to help. I respond the only way I know how, “Ça va,” which I understand to be some version of “It’s fine.” And standing in the turnstile, wearing a baby, telling passersby – It’s fine, no problem here - I see the humor.
After a few minutes go by, I realize the absurdity of standing there waiting when I know that I’m perfectly capable of climbing over without my baby sliding out. So I take the next offer for help, handing over my bag, putting one hand on either side of the gate, and carefully lifting myself over. My helper kindly offers to swipe me through a functioning turnstile, as I’ve used up all of my tickets, and we are finally free to walk the quarter-mile home. I don’t waste time shaking off my frustration, my embarrassment - I’m already laughing.
And my newfound ability to see the humor, I owe it largely to the connections I’ve started to make with other mothers. Slowly I realize that my introversion does not (should not) equate to isolation. And once I started reaching out, making the effort to talk to other mothers who are encountering turnstiles (literally and metaphorically) of their own, it helped me to see the humor in this experience – the experience of being so new to so many different things all at the same time. Each time I tell the story about the times I climbed over a turnstile, I am met with the laughter of recognition, of beginning to see the little things that feel so uniquely frustrating as not so very unique after all, of realizing that we’re all in this (learning as we go) together.
And so, when I travel the metro, I’m often reminded of the importance of a good sense of humor, the ability to look back and laugh, or better (and harder) yet, to find humor in the midst of an unfortunate situation. Better still, to find someone to share it with.