Where Families Belong

Reif Larsen published an essay in Friday's New York Times that struck a deep chord with me, comparing as it did the struggle of family travel in the United States with getting around in Europe, specifically Scotland, where places accommodate the needs of parents with young children better. In his essay, Larsen laments the absence of nursing rooms and the dearth of highchairs in the Newark airport and reports a distinct feeling of being unwelcome wherever he and his wife took their young child when they lived in the United States.

While I haven't sensed the same animosity aimed at my offspring ("It was as if people secretly wished we could stow our child in cargo so that we would not disrupt their game of Candy Crush," Larsen writes), I agree that we need better facilities everywhere for caregivers of young children in this country. That very idea has been on my mind ever since I first left the house with my 6-week-old son. We've now traveled to five countries as a family, and everywhere we go, I pay special attention to the ways parents and children are either implicitly included in or excluded from public space. 

Take Vancouver, British Columbia, for example. We travel to Canada about twice a year to visit my husband's parents, and each time we go, I find more great examples of how the city accommodates families. Let's start at the airport.

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The Vancouver airport features family "washrooms" between each and every bank of male and female toilets. No need to hunt around on unknown concourses - they're everywhere you'd find a regular restroom and are available to either parent.

© Darcy Kitching 2014

The family washrooms include one of the most important, and, in my experience, least considered, features known to diapering parents: a changing space integrated with a sink AND a trash can. This beautiful built-in makes it virtually effortless to clean up a baby's bottom and keep yourself clean, too.

The family washrooms also offer plenty of hooks and benches, allowing parents to put the diaper bag down and sit comfortably without having to pile everything on the floor (although these floors are considerably less grimy than in most restrooms, I'm still grateful that I don't have to sit or change my baby on them). These washrooms are also big enough to wheel a stroller into.

Right outside of this particular washroom is a wonderful children's play area with slides, climbing structures, a maze, and soft flooring. Families can relax, children can play, and either parent can take the tiny one for a change and a feed whenever needed. We love this place.

Another place we spend time in Vancouver is Granville Island Public Market. Last year, I discovered the wonderful nursing/changing room there.

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This room meets the needs of parents and also functions as an emergency care room. It's a great private space for anyone who needs to step out of the action of the market for a while to care for themselves or others. Though it doesn't have a toilet, this space does have a sink with a wide countertop and a pull-down changing table.

Vancouver's TELUS World of Science museum also accommodates families - particularly nursing mothers - beautifully. I found a comfortable nursing room there when we visited last year.

© Darcy Kitching 2015

This room features two-way glass, letting moms sit contentedly and feed their infants while other family members play in one of the museum's fabulous children's discovery areas. Here, mothers can find cozy chairs and a changing table, though no sink or toilet.

Our experiences in Canada fit with Reif Larsen's observations of the deeper commitment to accommodating families in the British Commonwealth countries than in the United States:

In Britain, there are way more resources devoted to children than in the United States. This is a generalization, of course, but in my experience it’s very apparent that for the Scots, family always comes first. This is reflected not just in a general attitude of the Scots toward work as a necessary but nonessential part of life (“Work stays at work,” they will tell you), but also on a legislative level, as can be seen in the incredibly generous (and mandatory) maternity and paternity leave laws (52 weeks in Britain).

There is also an infrastructural commitment to children in public places. At the Edinburgh airport, you can find three large soft-play areas in the terminals, ample highchairs and dedicated lines for families. You can preorder baby milk, which will be delivered to you at your departure gate. There’s even an entire cushy room devoted solely to nursing mothers. Set up a boombox with a little MC Hammer and bring sufficient string cheese and you and your baby could have a pretty nice layover in there.
— Reif Larsen, New York Times, May 1, 2015

As I've shared ideas about my mission to improve places for families here at home, I have received some wonderful stories and pictures from friends with young children as they have discovered great spaces for caregiving - spaces I call "Baby Havens."

My friend Liz and her family just returned from Scotland, where they found a room Larsen and his own family have surely delighted in, too. This lovely space in Edinburgh Castle is situated between the men's and women's restrooms, so it is accessible to both parents.

© Liz Rafert 2015

Liz loved the natural light in this space, the hooks for her bags and jacket, the comfortable nursing chair, and the integrated sink/changing table (my favorite feature!).

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The room is lit by skylights, pictured on the left, and it also offers a conveniently located vending machine stocked with diapers.

While traveling through the Geneva airport recently, my friend Muratha and his family discovered an equally inspiring baby-care space.

© Muratha Kinuthia 2015

There's that fantastic changing table/sink combination, and a great play space to occupy little ones while families wait for their flights. This space also features a feeding area with high chairs and a rest area with cribs. For weary young-family travelers, spaces like this can reduce stress and make big transitions bearable.

Family restrooms and baby-care spaces in the United States, when available, tend to offer fewer amenities than shown in these examples from other countries. They may have pull-down diaper-changing tables, but these are typically located away from the sink and trash cans; they may have child-sized toilets, but rarely offer a comfortable chair for nursing or feeding. I have found a few places that truly meet the needs of parents with young children in the Denver/Boulder area, but the families I have talked with agree that we need more, and better, caregiving spaces.

Where have you found families belong? I'm collecting more examples of places that work and recruiting help with documenting them. Please get in touch with me to share your stories: darcy @ placesmakepeople.com. Happy travels!