The Politics of Bathroom Changing Tables


When my daughter was about a month old, my husband and I took her to a restaurant for the first time. We were very proud of ourselves for making it out of the house and into the world with an infant. When you’re a new parent, the world looks different than it did before.

My husband and I are what you might consider a “modern couple.” We share in the parenting duties, at least as much uneven family leave will allow. He had to return to work two weeks after our daughter was born, leaving me home alone with her most of the day. But, when he’s home, in the evenings and weekends, he’s often is the one to change her diaper, figuring it’s the least he can do, given that I breastfeed her every two hours and haven’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep since she was born.

So, when we arrived at the restaurant, a kitschy independent barbecue joint, and knew she needed a diaper change — as evidenced by the concentrated grunting and telltale sounds of a diaper being filled — my husband grabbed her and headed to the bathroom.

I was relieved to have a few precious moments alone. I took off my sweater feeling sweaty and overheated. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the cashmere I was wearing or my fluctuating postpartum hormones. I downed the glass of ice water at the table, perpetually thirsty from constant breastfeeding, and picked up the menu to see what kind of barbecue would satisfy my iron-deficiency cravings.

But, before I could even scan past the appetizers, he returned saying that the men’s room didn’t have a changing table. He shrugged with a sorry look and handed the baby to me. “You want to see if the women’s room has one?” I sighed and scooted my right way out of the booth, slung the diaper bag over my shoulder, and headed to the ladies’ room. There was the changing table.

Before I had a kid, I barely even noticed things like changing tables. I know now that most public women’s rooms have one. But, many men’s don’t. When we’re out together in public, I’ve started changing our daughter just as a default, because we’ve had enough thwarted attempts for my husband to do it. I’ve now started to ask him when he returns from a public men’s bathroom if there was a changing table inside.

That’s is the thing about experience. New experiences inform you about some aspect of the world that you were blind to before. And you often don’t pay attention to the politics of how this world around you is constructed until you need to engage with it in a certain way. The fact that I now have been tasked with public diaper changing means that I really pay attention to where changing tables are located. 

And this is an aspect of the world that is, frankly, sexist. It both reflects and perpetuates the dominant care-taking gender roles: women change diapers, men don’t. My husband couldn’t change a dirty diaper in that restaurant even if he wanted to, unless he went into the women’s room or changed our daughter’s poop-filled diaper on the dining table.

I’ve started to think that second option would be the appropriate move. If the restaurant staff or any of the other patrons complained about the smell, we would have to kindly explain that my husband is the one who changes the diapers, but that this restaurant didn’t provide a changing table in the men’s room. 

Maybe by saying these things out loud, rather than enduring them quietly, by calling attention to a structural failing in the way our world is organized to those folks who don’t usually pay attention, we can start to change more than just dirty diapers.