The phenomenon of “manspreading” is nothing new. Men feel comfortable taking up plenty of space, and they often feel entitled to it in spite of the fact that it may be rude (or inconvenient) to others. Manspreading was never on my radar until funny articles started popping up on my social media feed. It’s not something I experience much since I don’t take public transit very often, except it sort of happens everywhere. And after reading so much about it, I wondered what might happen if I tried manspreading as a mom (momspreading?) everywhere I went.
Manspreading is really only a problem on public transit, but it happens absolutely everywhere. Sitting in a lecture hall, manspreading happens every couple seats. Sitting in a cafeteria or restaurant, it’s rarely women who are taking up so much space that waiters and other patrons can’t get around them. Do I even need to mention movie theaters? Walking down the sidewalk? You better move aside for men, because they're manspreading all over the place all the time.
Most of the time, guys don’t even know they’re doing it. Manspreading is a cultural phenomenon. Men seem to be conditioned to feel comfortable taking up more than their fair share of space in the world, while women, on the other hand, are conditioned to make themselves smaller and move out of the way. But for women with kids, it's a whole 'nother story.
I decided to try manspreading for a week to see what it felt like to take up more space in the world. Except instead of tried and true manspreading, I'd give momspreading a try: I'd take up as much room as I needed to accommodate myself and my kids without feeling guilty about it. I wondered if people would notice or react differently to me if I was brazenly open-legged at a dining establishment, or walked in a straight line (without moving aside for men) on the sidewalk. I wondered if it would make me feel more comfortable or free.
I was about to get a lot more than I bargained for.
Why don't I feel entitled to that space if not for my kids? Aren't I worthy of space too?
On the first day of my experiment, I mostly observed and mimicked men in public, which was a really weird, borderline creepy thing to do. Oh, you’re taking up the entire aisle with your cart and power stance in front of the one type of cereal everyone needs? Let me try that. Spreading both arms across the back of whatever you are sitting on is a solid choice, I will take note of that. Aggressive comfort seemed to be the name of the game, though when I mimicked these poses, I felt far less comfortable than these men seemed. In every case, not only did the men not notice what they were doing, they didn’t notice I was miming their behavior, either. Their comfort seemed to come from being blissfully unaware of their privilege.
I wondered how often I did the same thing when consumed in mothering, while taking up space with bags and strollers and a baby strapped to my chest. Unlike manspreaders though, at least my "privilege" came from a sense of "I need to keep these children alive/not-screaming-in-public/fed" rather than simply feeling entitled to space all on my own. Then I wondered, why don't I feel entitled to that space if not for my kids? Aren't I worthy of space too?
On the second day of my experiment, I decided to walk in a straight line wherever I went. At school drop-off and pick-up, on the sidewalk, around the store. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal, simply not stepping aside for men, but I quickly learned that it was a huge deal. While at school with my kids, dads were more than happy to step aside (especially since I have to tote around a constantly tantrumming toddler and a baby carrier) but when I was out in public, it was a different story.
Taking up space without my kids was a totally different ballgame, and it seemed that my space as a single woman was far less important than my space as a mother.
I went to the store without my kids, and before I even got in the door it was like a high-stakes game of chicken: Will this dude move aside as we are both heading on a collision course? We’re both going to hit the doorway around the same time, oh god, oh god. Please look up. Please see me. I know you see me. I know you do.
The conclusion? He literally walked right into me. I felt super flustered and embarrassed, and he looked, well, shocked. We exchanged apologies, but I was shaking from the adrenaline the rest of the trip (in which I did not dare to continue my straight-line experiment, because my heart could not take it). Taking up space without my kids was a totally different ballgame, and it seemed that my space as a single woman was far less important than my space as a mother (with kids in tow).
I decided on the third day of my experiment that a trip to the movie theater was in order, because I had a very deep need to see Star Wars. Movie theaters are often prime real estate for momspreaders. It’s dark and you don’t even have to face the person you are offensively bumping knees with as you spread out with your mom bags and multiple treats required to keep your children quiet.
I had experienced manspreaders at the movie theater many a time, but never had I dreamed of being a manspreader — or momspreader — in a movie theater. Luckily, I didn't have to. My normal full-to-the-brim mom bag was left at home for a date night, and I was free to move about the world without all the gear that comes with toting around three kids. I didn't even bring a purse. I simply handed my wallet and phone to my husband and out we went. It felt totally freeing not to be weighed down by all the gear, and not having a need to momspread in public for once.
I have to admit, I wasn’t constantly thinking about momspreading throughout the week. There were moments when I forgot and had to remind myself, but the most notable moment was on the fourth day while I was grocery shopping with my kids. It was super crowded and maneuvering the cart was super difficult in the sea of Winco shoppers. I wasn’t thinking about momspreading. I was on a mission to get in and out before my daughter had one of her signature meltdowns. I said “sorry” as I had one of those awkward back-and-forth, who-should-go-first moments with a male shopper. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t be sorry.”
I swear for a moment I thought about hugging this stranger in the middle of that overpacked grocery store because he was so right. How often do I apologize for my existence instead of simply saying, “excuse me”? (I realized, a lot.) I didn’t say sorry by accident. I said it because it's a reflex. I don’t want to be in the way. I don’t want to be a bother. I don’t want to take up space. It’s so deeply engrained I don’t even realize it. Perhaps this man had the best mantra of all for my momspreading week: Don’t be sorry.
On the fifth day of my experiment, my son’s school had a spaghetti feed which was a family affair and prime momspreading time. While I often feel the need to apologize for momspreading when I'm out in public, it's completely and totally acceptable within the confines of school events. Every mom is loaded up with gear and snacks and spreading out as much as they need. These are my people, my moms, and they get it.
While I was sort of hoping to use this event as a chance to meet some new moms, by the time me and my other two regular friends had sat down, we had already momspreaded our stuff all around us. The three of us had taken up a whole table that would have otherwise sat at least 12 people. I wondered how often my momspreading put me out-of-reach, if all this stuff was getting in the way of me connecting with other people as I struggled to deal with everything I was constantly packing around?
On the sixth day of our experiment, we had a family get-together to watch a football game. I don’t care much for football, but I do care deeply for food, so I’m OK with my husband’s family cramming around the TV to watch dudes run back and forth across a field with a ball for hours on end (seriously though, I don’t get it). I just want something smothered in BBQ sauce and I’ll be happy.
Having a baby in tow always entitles you to more space as a momspreader, and if that meant getting a comfy seat at a party, I was going to use it to my advantage.
Unfortunately, the plate of BBQ-smothered mini wieners I left in my seat while I went to tend to one of my children was overshadowed by my father-in-law by the time I returned. Though I hadn’t noticed it much before, my father-in-law is a super manspreader. He had his arms across both chairs next to him, including the one with my delicious plate of game-day food. Normally I'd simply pick up my food and move to another seat, but it was time to confront the manspreading with, well, momspreading.
I picked up my food and my baby and sat down under my father-in-law’s arm, which he quickly moved aside. Having a baby in tow always entitles you to more space as a momspreader, and if that meant getting a comfy seat at a party, I was going to use it to my advantage. He shifted his weight away as I spread my legs to comfortably eat my plate of food while feigning interest in sports. He didn’t mention it, but I could tell my momspreading made him somewhat uncomfortable. And to that I must say, it’s a two-way street, friend.
I thought by the final day of my experiment I would be starting to feel more comfortable taking up space in the world, but all this momspreading made me outrageously uncomfortable. I didn’t feel free or empowered or entitled. I felt rude. I felt like a jerk. Being hyper-aware of the space I took up as a mother left me feeling conflicted about the way I moved through the world. I wasn’t looking forward to yet another day of being in the way.
I momspread on the sidewalk as I took my kids on a walk around the neighborhood, not bothering to move aside for anyone, but I realized that unlike my grocery store encounter on day two, people were moving aside for me well in advance when they saw me with three kids. Even men were quick to step onto the street to give me plenty of room, so long as my kids were with me. I realized I was allowed to take up space, but only for the sake of my children. There was a weird hierarchy of who gets to take up public space, with kids at the top, men in the middle, and women at the bottom. As I thought back over my week, it was true in every instance. A woman who isn’t with a man or children is the one who moves aside. It was a strange realization to have. I don’t think anyone I encountered did this consciously, but it was there, a subtle pattern of who was worth more space.
Did Momspreading Put Me In Touch With My Entitled Side?
While I expected to feel a little bit more comfortable taking up my fair share of space in the world, I felt the exact opposite by the end of my momspreading week. I wanted to shrink away for a week to compensate for all the space I had been taking up over the past seven days. I felt rude for constantly getting in the way of others, or not being considerate in a crowded room.
At first I felt angry that there were so many men who did similar things out of a feeling of entitlement, who didn’t even notice that anyone was inconvenienced by their overtaking of space. By the end of the week, however, my feelings were more convoluted. There was so much societal conditioning going on that I never realized. I was more aware of being complicit in momspreading situations like the school event or how I constantly apologized for taking up space like at the grocery store. I still think manspreading is rude and problematic and should be addressed, but perhaps it’s time I start being more aware of my own behavior as well — and stop quietly moving aside for men.