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Letter from America  

By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell  

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesI will have to give myself a timeout when I next hear some young woman (her joy almost palpable) say to me, “We’re pregnant!”  Yup, I’ll have to go sit in a corner of a quiet room to compose myself; otherwise, I know I will blurt out something I will later regret.  Having been pregnant more than a few times, I can say with absolute certainty that, with the exception of baby ‘n’ me, there is no “we” in pregnancy.  Oh, I can understand the intent--or is it hope?--behind the expression “we are pregnant.”  It is the belief--or is it hope?--of the woman who employs the first-person-plural pronoun in the announcement of her impending arrival that the father of her baby is and will continue to be fully invested, not to mention wholeheartedly and enthusiastically involved, in what is, after all, the product of a joint effort.  If she was lucky, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable joint effort.  Yes, that “we” is completely understandable.  Understandable, but patently ridiculous.

What kind of investment are we talking about here?  Who is likely to suffer an occasional, more frequent, or—ugh!--continuous wave of nausea for a month (or nine)?  Who will have the final say-so regarding the desired birthing plan?  Hospital, at home, with a doctor in attendance, or a midwife?  My own wish for a birth experience was merely that my first child would not be assisted into this world by the same United Parcel Service delivery guy who helped my mom’s friend in the rushed delivery of her seventh or eighth baby a few years prior.  Once reassured that that particular scenario was unlikely to be repeated any time soon, I did consider all the options.  

I sought the advice of some older friends and chose Frank Hardart, M.D., as my obstetrician.  The son of the founder of the celebrated (now-defunct) Horn & Hardart restaurant/cafeteria chain, Dr. Hardart was himself the father of six children. He had a warmly professional bedside manner; most important, in my view, was that he was the OB most respected by the nurses at (the also now-defunct) St. Vincent’s Hospital in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village.  If he was good enough for them, he was good enough for me.  The fact that he was the direct descendant of the man who invented a unique and efficient method of delivering food to hungry hordes of thrifty people crossed my mind as well.  I envisioned my future self on the afternoon of my exact due date:  I would be attractively attired in an immaculate, crisply ironed hospital gown, glowing and rosy cheeked, with nary a hair out of place.  With a twinkle in his eye and after only a minimal and effortless wait, a scrub-suited Frank Hardart would place a prettily-packaged bundle in my arms.  (Don’t laugh.  What did I know? No amount of book smarts prepares the expectant woman for reality.)

Nowadays, pregnant women have more options than I had back in the 1970s.  A woman today might believe that giving birth in a kiddie pool set up for that purpose in the living room of her apartment is a good idea.  Then again, maybe not:  She might, after a particularly searing contraction, want to kick that pool clear across the room, through the sliding doors, and out onto the balcony, where it will teeter, then drop, contents and all, on the heads of passersby below.  Note the operative word in that last sentence:  SHE.  The father—i.e., the other individual in the “we-are-pregnant” duo—would never entertain such an idea.  Why would he? Is it his belly that will forever bear remnants of stretch marks arranged in a pattern resembling a street map of Tokyo?  For that matter, did his belly balloon to the size of the Astrodome in a matter of weeks?  Did he have to push a 17-pound bowling ball through an itty-bitty bodily orifice?

“We are expecting,” a friend’s daughter gushed to me recently. I was as overjoyed to hear her good news as I was happy to hear the words she used to deliver it.  After all, a couple can be expectant, even eagerly expectant.  Back in the 1950s, when readers of newspapers (remember them?) rarely, if ever, saw the word “pregnant” in print, some gossip columnist coined the coy euphemism, “infanticipating.”  You would probably agree with me, though, that “we are infanticipating” sounds just a tad too cute to a generation so accustomed and inured to hearing “preggers” and “knocked up,” doesn’t it?

What is somewhat surprising to me is that today’s tabloid readers will still find no shortage of coy euphemisms.  “Baby bump” is one of them.  No magazine is considered complete without a photograph of some female celeb with an arrow superimposed on the photo and pointed directly at her abdominal region.  “Baby bump?” reads the caption, encouraging fans of the woman to speculate wildly about her status.  Baby bump!  I never noticed the juxtaposition of those two words prior to the late 1990s. The ubiquitous “baby bump” is now such a cliché that we are due for something new to replace it.  That will not happen, though, until thousands (if not millions) more pregnant Facebook members have posted photos of their own baby bumps, taken at monthly intervals between the announcements of their pregnancies and the actual births of their babies.  Take a look at a couple of them.  You will probably notice that they all feature a profile view of a pregnant woman at various stages of baby bumpiness. She might be wearing a fitted shirt, stretched taut against her skin; you might even catch a glimpse at her discreetly bared bump. What you will not notice is a corresponding picture of the woman’s “babydaddy” (with or without his own shirt).  Baby bumps don’t lie:  If anyone needs proof that the expression “we are pregnant” is long overdue for delivery to the deepest recesses of our memories, these photos serve the purpose.

Now, I happen to believe that the enceinte female body is beautiful.  I am glad that gone are the days when women had to hide their pregnant tummies in public.  No longer does “confinement” mean exactly that:  A pregnant woman was confined to her own home, lest she offend the refined sensibilities of her neighbors! I am delighted that the presence of dads in the delivery room is no longer the exotic novelty it once was and that pregnancy is no longer a taboo topic of conversation in mixed company.  As open as we are in talking about pregnancy, however, we have failed to emphasize one aspect of it:  Neither carrying nor siring a baby makes a woman out of a girl or a man out of a boy.  Furthermore, just as parking herself in a garage for nine months will not turn a woman into a Chevrolet, neither does a pregnancy automatically render her a mother. To be sure, pregnancy gives a woman some time to get used to the idea of mothering, but transformation from pregnant woman to true mommy occurs after a baby is born.  Same with her partner:  His involvement during a pregnancy and birth is appreciated, but relatively uncomplicated.  As Dr. Hardart, while tapping me on the tummy with his fetoscope, used to remind this impatient patient in the last weeks of my first pregnancy, “That baby is a lot easier to take care of inside than outside!”

A baby will emerge in its own good time, with or without the assistance of a doctor, midwife, husband, partner, or UPS delivery man.    Whether a baby goes home from the birthing center or hospital in the arms of its birth mother and father or goes home with adoptive parents, it is then that the journey of motherhood and fatherhood begins. Only after a few sleepless nights and the changing of a dozen dirty diapers should a couple use the first-person plural in sharing their brand-new status with others:  “WE are parents!”

May God bless each and every one of them!

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