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The mum flâneuse: Why public space is especially important for mothers

A 19th century figure who drew artistic inspiration from lengthy walks through the city, the flâneur spent his days unencumbered by schedules or responsibilities or, god forbid, young children. But these days, writes Thomasin Sleigh, the city streets are the realm of the pram-pushers.

My baby is a pram-happy baby. Especially when he was very little, still in his mole-like newborn phase, the pram was one place where he would nap. As he grows older, he still likes the pram, and now it’s a place where he’s unlikely to grump, making it a welcome reprieve as we wait for this agonising first tooth to emerge. So I am out in the street a lot, patrolling suburbia. This weekday world is new to me as a nine-to-five office worker; it’s a time I haven’t been part of before. I am drafting a new map of my suburb, a map of the weekday, daytime (and very-early-morning still kind-of-the-night) activity. I watch houses being built, note the progress of each day, and see gardens change and bloom as the year rolls over into summer.

On a sunny Wednesday, after a series of rainy days, the walkway by the sea is full: there are two pregnant ladies; road-workers buying coffee at the coffee cart; a man with a bull terrier straining at its leash; and the mums, so many mums, mums with prams, mums with clambering toddlers, packs of mums with circling children, mums with babies in baby-carriers. There are, of course, dads out and about, but the beachfront at 10am on a Wednesday is 90% women, and feels like a feminine space: a safe but fluid social zone where women can look and are looked at. Now that I am one of them, these mums, I see them everywhere, and I am worried, in this moment when we live in our own social media echo chambers, that I hadn’t noticed or considered these women before. Who else don’t I see?

I take shy looks at the other mums striding towards me. How old is her baby? Did she have any sleep last night? What sort of baby-carrier does she have? Sometimes I attempt a small smile as we move past each other. The smile tries to say: “Look at us, we are sort of the same, both looking after small humans on a Wednesday morning, moving them about in the same way—I understand a little of your experience.” Of course, I can never know what these strangers are going through, and the specificity of their lives, but because we are both out in public space with our children this connects us in a fleeting moment of shared understanding. Or perhaps when I see myself reflected in another woman the narcissistic part of my brain flares up.

I recently read a great book by Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse, which talks about how women, in both works of fiction and real life, walk and take part in cities. The flâneur (taken from the French verb flâner, ‘to stroll’) is a character, a literary type, who wandered the newly cosmopolitan streets of nineteenth-century Paris, watching the world and being inspired by the city, the masses, and the spectacle of consumerist modernity. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire expanded on the idea of the flâneur in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (a stock text for any Art History 101 course), describing him as an artist, a “passionate spectator”, who seeks solace and draws inspiration from the urban crowd.

Various writers and academics have argued that the flâneur can only be a man, given the restrictions of women’s leisure and their access to public space. Elkin’s book counters this by presenting a fascinating cultural history of how women have walked in cities, explored public space, and enacted the possibilities of the flâneuse, the female version of the flâneur, a term that Elkin has invented for the purposes of her book. Elkin writes about her own experiences of walking in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, and also weaves in the lives and work of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn; film-maker Agnès Varda; writers Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand; and the artist Sophie Calle.

It’s a fantastic book. You should read it. But as I wander the streets with my baby, I’ve been thinking there is a figure missing: the mum in the street – the mum flâneuse – the woman who has to walk and walk and walk to get her baby to sleep and keep them that way. This woman truly understands, as Elkin puts it, “the liberating possibilities of a good walk”.

Lauren Elkin, left, and her book, Flâneuse

Just as the nineteenth-century Parisian flâneur drifted on the borders of society, the mum flâneuse observes strange places at unexpected times: cavernous Mitre 10 Mega at 7am, the empty grounds of a primary school on Sunday afternoon, the sewagey bit where the river meets the harbor, McBun Bakery and Café just before closing. The mum flâneuse inhabits the streets, the river walkways, the footbridges, the playgrounds, the parks, and the libraries—the public spaces of the citizenry. The mum flâneuse observes, takes note, and considers. Commuters move through the city in straight lines, but the mum flâneuse moves in detours and exploratory patterns (depending on terrain), which gives her the possibility of stumbling upon the unexpected, gross, and delightful, or, as Baudelaire called it, “the fugitive and the infinite”. Sometimes though, if the baby is asleep, she walks in circles, dodging anything that looks like it might make a loud noise.

The mum flâneuse is, however, lacking one of the central attributes in the definition of the flâneur. The flâneur is singular, unencumbered; he is able to roam far and freely, wherever his whim may take him – as are the flâneuses Elkin writes about in her book. But the mum flâneuse isn’t alone. She has her baby with her. She is depended upon. Mothers and babies are a double – or often a triple or more, when there are other children involved. The mum flâneuse differs also in that her impetus isn’t leisure or idleness: it’s necessity, the necessities of getting out of the house, or getting her baby to sleep, or running an errand. But she is still out in the world, pacing the streets, smiling at the other mums, taking part in the city and urban space, looking and being looked at.

So often the role of the mother disappears in the Venn diagram of society. Artists, writers, commentators, flâneuses: the positions are mutually exclusive. You can be creative and productive in the way that society values and understands (have a neatly delineated profession or output), or you can be a mother. Even Elkin’s book, which can be read as a feminist revision of a male archetype, doesn’t account for the possibility that mothers too, have an important part to play in the fabric of cities and are frequent inhabitants and participants in urban space.

In our current moment, with noises being made about the semi-privatisation of our Great Walks, the impact of austerity measures on public libraries (even as demand for their services ramps up), and casual disregard for the water quality of our rivers, we need to claim and acknowledge the importance of safe and healthy public space which allows women to move freely, connect with each other, take part in a community, and look after their children. I feel heartened by the millions who attended the recent Women’s Marches across the world so that “all women…are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.” Because they’re out there, everywhere in the streets, women and their kids, the mum flâneuses, undertaking what is surely the most important artistic act of them all: creating and caring for another human being.

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