Two-month-old babies don’t constitute a key demographic for most of the city’s cultural sites in the best of times, and even less so in the pandemic. Still, the mothers of two-month-old babies have to go somewhere before they go stir-crazy staring at the tummy time mat for seven hours a day. When I first found out I was pregnant, my own mother was so excited that I’d be having the baby in late spring: “Oh, there’ll be so much you can do!” she said excitedly, imagining lots of time at the park and the splash pad, long outdoor lunches and merry picnics with friends and family. But of course, by the time the baby was born, I was not feeling encouraged to have regular outings of any kind, anywhere, with anyone. I needed to give myself a little pep talk before I took the baby into the grocery store yesterday, and nervously flubbed my order at Just Salad twice before managing to make it out of the store with a Tokyo Supergreens that I ate with one hand while holding her to my breast with the other on the PS 321 playground. Outdoor dining for mother and daughter! #justsummer2020things
The centerpiece of the day was our visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I rolled her up to the gate in her stroller, my mask in place despite the ninety-degree weather. We were greeted by a kind docent who asked me to keep said mask in place and reminded us that dining facilities and water fountains were unavailable (although I was welcome to bring my own water). With that warm welcome, we made our way down Cherry Walk and around the Rose Arc and through the Cranford Rose Garden.
Obviously, the two-month-old baby could not have cared less; she slept through most of the visit, somnolent from heat and motion. I gamely explained cherry blossoms and pollination, identified butterflies and read the fanciful names of the hybrids and teas. She rubbed her face against the newborn padding of the stroller (she’ll outgrow it soon, but she’s still small enough to need the extra cushion), pffted her tiny lips, and dozed some more.
The Japanese Hill and Garden were half-closed; the Shakespeare Garden and the Children’s Garden were completely off-limits. And while I am fortunate to be able to largely put aside the fact that I spent $19.54 to wander a half-closed garden with a sleeping baby for an hour, it still left me with a hollow feeling. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to help pay for the apiarists and the pullers of weeds, the kind docent and the perspiring crew with their rakes; for the integrated pest management and the gravel and the seeds and the mulch, and all of this especially now. But it’s still a reminder that nothing is normal, as much as we’d like it to be, and that we’ll pay full price to be reminded.
Then again, if I am salty about the lack of extravagant welcome offered my child, into a season of heat and disease and anxiety and despair and looming fascism, I am reminded that far too many mothers’ children are not welcomed at the so-called best of times. The unwelcoming begins before children are born, when BIPOC women struggle to access quality care in the days leading up to labor and delivery and during the birth process itself. It continues when children are separated from their parents at our borders, when the very act of bringing them constitutes love and courage that I pray I will never be asked to demonstrate so fully and nakedly; it continues when some children are taught to seek out the police when they need help, while others are taught to not even make eye contact with an officer, to be sure to stare straight ahead and keep hands visible and answer all questions loudly and clearly.
And to all children, the message from our government and workplaces is clear: your arrival is a burden to be borne as quietly and quickly as possible. We will not support your parents to stay home and care for you in those breathless, sleepless early days. We do not care that your mother cannot bounce and rock you to sleep because her lower abdomen is fragile and aching with the pain of the incision that opened her body to bring you out into the world; we do not care that your father sees her pain and wants to ease it, but needs to be at work the next day all the same. And while we call your parents back to work, we certainly do not care what happens to you. There is no help for your parents to choose and pay for day care, or to seek flexible work arrangements that would enable them to care for you themselves. If you slip through the cracks in any way, there is the shrugging of shoulders and the pointing of fingers.
I sat outside the locked Children’s Garden with her for a few minutes to rest my feet and take a few sips of water. (I had indeed brought my own, as I was reminded that I had to do.) The baby continued to sleep, sweetly unaware of all this; her parents had welcomed her into their hearts and home, after all, and wasn’t that enough? For her, it mostly is. She is lucky to born to parents who themselves have been lucky, and whose parents were lucky, and so forth. She will wait for the Children’s Garden and it will wait for her. Other children are the “neighbors in need” to which the sign alludes. They are hoping that the garden can produce some food, even in this barren season, even if they cannot dig their small hands in the soil and enjoy the fragrance of the roses and the hum of the bees and the butterflies.
The Children’s Garden is indeed closed. What would it take to truly reopen it, for all children?