Freedom for my child – Jo’s story

Over the coming month #City4Kids is our focus – Newcastle Council are worried about families and young people leaving our city and with good reason too. Our politicians must start thinking about families, and start talking about what the city should offer to our young people. We have to ask. What is it like to grow up in Newcastle as a young person? What is it like to bring up children here? Jo Ellis, one of our members, came to our last campaign social evening with her newborn son. Here are her thoughts:

The last time I was on a bike was twelve weeks ago. I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant, looked like I’d swallowed a football, and cranking myself up hills, however slowly, required more oxygen than my poor constricted lungs really wanted to provide. I’d come into town to meet a friend, and she was scared to let me sit down on a sofa in Marks & Spencer lest my waters broke.

But I was elated, as I had been for most of the pregnancy. I was proud of still being active; and proud of looking nothing like a cyclist. I have a certain bolshie streak which used to lead me to say “Well, I don’t see why anyone should be scared of my knickers” when people expressed surprise at me cycling in a skirt (I’d be sitting on the damn things, anyway). Similarly, I liked being on a bike despite not being young, male or Lycra-clad, despite going at about five miles an hour, and despite having a very obvious baby on board.

(And don’t we just need a bolshie streak! Anyone, I think, who owns a bike will at some point meet some annoying prat who tells you that it’s far too dangerous to actually ride one because of all the traffic – just before he gets into his Range Rover. Get pregnant as well, and it’s even worse.)

I am told that cycling is “good for childbirth” because it strengthens the abdominal muscles, and so, indeed, it proved. A few days after my last trip to town, Son and Heir emerged; and a few days after that I felt pretty much as I had done beforehand, only considerably slimmer, with a baby in tow.

But I haven’t been on a bike since then, because for the foreseeable future almost all journeys I take will be “me and Son” rather than “just me”. This is annoying.

Sentimentally, because it would have been good to have taken Son on a ceremonial Baby’s First Ride; practically, because I used to know how long it took me to get to places, and now I’m always late. Even more than I used to be. And philosophically, because now I drive Son round all the time, and I don’t like that. I don’t want him to think that the private car is the default mode of transport, or that he’s not a real citizen until he’s got a gas-guzzler of his own. When he learns to ride, I want him to think of his bike as a tool of liberation, rather than a cumbersome toy to be played with only in certain supervised circumstances. And I’m willing to go through a stage of being Embarrassing Mum to achieve this (but I’m not cruel: I will try to avoid giving the other kids cause to say “Your mum shows her knickers off”).

So, what are my options? Detailed and well-informed comparisons of the different means of transporting children on bikes have been produced by Cycling UK and Cyclesprog Unfortunately, the methods suitable for babies seem to be a) expensive and b) not commonly available. The commonest advice is to buy a child seat when the baby is old enough to hold his or her head up – about 6-9 months.

“You don’t need to wait that long,” says a friend, “people in other countries cycle round with their babies on their backs all the time.” She’s got a point. They do. And putting Son into a sling is generally the best way of getting him to stop crying, where boobs fail. As Cyclesprog point out, though, to carry a baby in a sling on a bike would be illegal in the UK for safety reasons; I’m willing to quarrel with the authorities over my own safety, but not over Son’s.

That’s irritating, too – feeling my maternal instincts being employed to force me into a car. But, you know, it is only six months. I ought to be able to content myself with brief and delicious contraband trundles out to choir when I’m able to leave Son and Heir with his daddy and a bottle of milk.

What seems clear is that in the UK, at least, we still lack the critical mass of cycling mothers that would make this – surely not insurmountable – problem something that it would be worth the market’s while to solve. As ever in discussions of cycling, it seems to me that the solution will be reached when we have an adequate and safe network of cycle paths. Only this will normalise cycling for all – even mothers of babies. Only that will give Son, as a child cyclist, the freedom that I want for him.