Have you ever worn shoes, melded to someone else’s feet? Sandals or boots, tailored to someone else’s arches — the curvature of their heels — from years of wear? It’s a strange feeling. It exacerbates the obvious fact that no, these were not made for you.
That’s a little like operating as a woman in any of the world’s many public spaces designed for men: office buildings, factories, modes of public transportation. “It’s a man’s world” — you know the tune. Most of the venues in which we spend the vast majority of our lives are simply not designed for women.
But harder, even, than navigating these spaces as a woman, is doing so as a mother. While still combatting all the difficulties that accompany operating as a woman in a world made for men, these women are either managing pregnancies, breastfeeding, or caring for real, human children.
For that reason, we asked three different innovative 3M employees — all of whom are mothers — how they might redesign the central spaces in their lives to make them more accessible. Ahead, read how we all ought to consider rebuilding the world for new and expecting mothers.
For all the progress we’ve made in tech and design over recent years, somehow, the classic playground setup remains frozen in time. It’s one of few things sheltered from the effects of aging. In fact, most of the playgrounds in our local parks are nearly identical to the ones we played on as children. They weren’t safe or particularly innovative then — and, well, little has changed.
“I spend a ton of time at the playground with my kids,” says Raha Been, strategy and business development manager at 3M. “I just want it to be a comfortable, enjoyable experience for all of us.”
Been suggests we start with a simple amendment: benches with 360-degree views. As it stands, most playground benches line just one particular corner of the playground — but as children move, there’s little space for parents to follow. And for pregnant women like Been, chasing a child around with nowhere to sit is truly unmanageable. All she needs is a set of benches that offer visibility, no matter where her son has determined he’s going to play that day.
“Beyond that, safety is definitely not a priority,” she adds. “There are some easy steps we could be taking to keep kids from getting hurt on playgrounds.” To start, she suggests we rethink the materials we use: Not only does the heavy metal typically utilized all but guarantee injury upon impact, but when in the hot sun, it often becomes too hot to be functional in the summer months. And on that note, Been suggests a little shade.
After playground structure itself, Been notes that most parks would do well to step up their public bathroom game — and for mothers with small children in need of changing tables or comfortable spaces to breastfeed, this is a must. “It would transform my whole playground experience,” she laughs.
The Parking Lot
While perhaps not the sexiest of spaces, parking lots are, well, essential. They’re a necessary gateway to plenty of more glamorous venues — and plenty of practical ones, as well. But for all their utility, they are certainly not designed with mothers in mind.
“I know this sounds silly, but it is shocking how few parking lots — whether they be at grocery stores, gyms, banks, offices — have dedicated spots for families with young children or expecting mothers,” says Reilly Goodwin, sustainability manager at 3M. “For pregnant women, even a walk across a parking lot can be both exhausting and dangerous, if icy or uneven.”
As Goodwin sees it, a selection of central, convenient spots ought to be reserved for pregnant women and parents of young children. And beyond the placement of these particular spots, Goodwin clarifies that they should be wider than your standard parking spot. “People who design the parking lot layouts clearly have never tried to load a carload of groceries, a stroller, a baby, and a car seat into a vehicle with no extra room.” The attempt to corral small children while schlepping cargo into the back of a car when you’re inches from another vehicle — either in motion or already parked — is often as terrifying as it is inconvenient.
To ensure the safety of both drivers and pedestrians when traversing parking lots, Goodwin also suggests that all shopping carts be equipped with headlights. Often, in poor weather or at night, it can be difficult to spot folks making their way back to their cars — or the cars, themselves. The headlights would help to guarantee a safe store-to-car journey for shoppers.
It’s something of a miracle that most of us manage to drag ourselves out of bed and schlep our way to an office building five days a week, even without having given life to other, smaller people. So I’m sure you can imagine: When you’re either pregnant or responsible for dragging any number of small children off to their respective schools, daycares, and morning activities, that whole getting-to-work process is made infinitely more difficult.
For this reason, 3M product development specialist Bridgette Shannon feels it’s high time we put a little effort into making office spaces easier on mothers. “If you’re pregnant and working close to your due date, everything is so hard on you physically,” she says. “Then, once you have kids and you’re back at work, it’s impossible to not spend so much time stressing about them. No part of it’s easy.”
To alleviate some of that stress, she suggests we start with private break rooms in all office spaces, designed to cater to mothers. These days, as more and more office buildings are converted to open floor plans, private space feels like a necessary luxury. Shannon’s break room would be designated for everything from breastfeeding and napping to making phone calls to doctors, schools, partners, and children themselves. “When pregnant, swollen feet are often such a hassle,” says Shannon. “What if you could actually relax somewhere and take off your shoes?” While in the workplace, it’s important for pregnant women to have spaces where they can shelter themselves from the demands of professionalism (we’re talking lounge chairs and the freedom to remove your shoes without appearing wildly unprofessional).
Alongside the amendments available for mothers, Shannon suggests that offices be required to supply in-house babysitters and a playspace for children, so new mothers aren’t left feeling as if they have to choose between the ability to ensure their children are cared for and their professional lives. “It’s an admirable thing!” she says. “The office should be more supportive!”