It was the fall of 2008, and I was five months pregnant with my second child. I was on Bloor Street, running an errand on my bicycle. It was just before three in the afternoon. Cars honked, pedestrians jay-walked, and drivers rushed to find parking so they could run their errands before three p.m., when parking meters expired. I rode carefully, training my eyes on the driver seat of each parked car, wary of car doors that might suddenly open. Without warning, a large, white sedan pulled up in front of me and cut me off. Fortunately, because I rode slowly, I avoided slamming into it, with only a minimal amount of wobbliness.
Still, I was shaken. And when I’m shaken, I tend to speak up. Using my feet, I propelled myself up to the driver’s window. The driver was in his late sixties, with white hair and a mustache, who looked like a kindly, elderly European man, the kind you might find playing Bocce in a local park. I put on my most pleasant expression — what I consider my teacherly expression, left-over from my days as a university instructor, and meant to be stern but informative. I considered removing my helmet so as not to appear threatening, but changed my mind: being on a bike with a large belly, I was precariously balanced. A miscalculation on my part might cause me to topple over. I gestured for the driver to roll down his car window. He looked up at me. I smiled encouragingly. He locked the door and gave me the finger.
I have to admit that at that time, I was a poor Karate-Ka i.e. I hadn’t mastered the ability to keep my temper. (Actually, I still haven’t conquered this particular challenge.) “You almost ran into me!” I yelled. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed his crime. A middle-aged woman watched from the sidewalk. “He cut me off!” I said to her.
“No, he didn’t,” she said. She looked at me. “I’m a driver. I know all about you cyclists.”
I stared at her. “I’m a driver too,” I said. “We need to share the road.”
I knocked on the driver’s window. “I’m pregnant!” I said.
The woman pedestrian spoke up. “That’s right,” she said. “You’re completely irresponsible, bicycling while pregnant.”
Flash forward to a karate class taking placed one week later. I was in front of the class, demonstrating a kata called Ken-Zaki Sho Dan. Like all katas, the kata involves a series of block and attack sequences meant to mimic a real defense situation. This particular kata also requires the martial artist to perform three jumps. I was coming up to the first of three, and had to decide whether to jump. Up until just before the first jump, I was uncertain. Sensei and thirty of my colleagues — men, women, children — watched. As I went through the blocks and punches, they were quiet. All I could hear was the rasping sound my Gi sleeves made when they came into contact with my body.
I thought about people wondering if I was going to jump. I imagined there was something censorious about their thoughts, just as there had been in those of the pedestrian stranger, who had spoken so vehemently against me bicycling while pregnant. I hesitated. As I approached the jump, my intense focus — and sheer momentum — took over. I jumped. High. I landed in a solid kiba datchi stance, my arms crossed in front of me in an X-block. I moved forward, completed the remaining two jumps, and finished the kata with a final flourish of the arms, a double upper block. I bowed. The class clapped. The baby kicked, assuring me that everything was well. As indeed it was: both baby and I were fine. A middle-aged man, a friend, approached me. “I was watching you,” he said. “I wondered whether you were going to jump.”
In her book Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman notes that mothers in particular are prone to being watched by other people. Yes, mothers are often watched; we are all being watched. My bicycling encounter and my dojo demonstration are analogous to many of the activities I engage in regularly, such as karate, parenting, and writing. In each case, you balance your needs and those of others; your perspective and that of everybody else. You encounter other people’s approval or censure. This is what life is about, then: whether raising children or practicing a sport (or, indeed, writing a blog), you’re doing your best to balance your desires and those of others and, almost always, you’re doing this in front of an audience.