After I finished torturing willing teenagers with impressions of Freud, I hopped on a plane to visit my heavily pregnant sister in the US. That’s where I caught it, really – the baby. They are known to be contagious. Towards the end of my visit, our Dad arrived to help out with the impending arrival. One afternoon at the groceries, my sis heaves herself out of the car, grumbling about the weight of the bump, and Dad, nonchalantly pushing a trolley, observes “Well, that’s what you get for messing around with boys.” Then we all laugh like drains. Dad would have blown a cigar smoke ring in triumph, but there was no time to light up between car and shop door, what with this being California. I think you might actually get arrested for doing so, or at least legitimately mown down by a yoga-hard soccer mom in a Hummer. The last thing you’d see would be a bumper sticker saying “My child’s an Honours student!”
I recall his words a week before my first scan in October, when my mother calls to say they’re thinking of coming to visit in the early spring.
I figure I should break the news.
It goes like this:
Me: If all goes well, in May, you and Dad will be grandparents again.
[Silence. Tumbleweeds sweep through town.]
Mum: What – with you?
Me: Uh, yes.
Mum: Oh my oh my oh my GOD! Come here and speak to your daughter! Oh my! I think I need a beer.
[Enter Dad]: What’s wrong?
Me: You know when you said in August “that’s what you get for messing around with boys?”
Dad: Have you been messing around with boys?
Me: Only one. And you’ve met him.
Dad: Oh dear. I think I need a cigar. And I’ve just run out. [He collapses into a chair.]
Later in the week, my sister rings to say “I think Mum’s on the port. You have, finally, driven our mother to drink.” This is all the more remarkable as she was raised by Scottish Presbyterians.
But really, they are delighted, if a little shocked, and gradually, I tell more people without provoking substance abuse.
In the main, people are overwhelmingly kind and congratulatory. They tell me what a wonderful thing it is to be a parent. They proffer advice, ranging from counsel about prams (“get a German one!”) to no holds frankness about the birth process (“after I had my first child, I wanted to kill the natural birth guru who said enjoy your labour. I thought I was going to die!”) I also hear:
“Try a toothpaste with baking soda to help the vomiting” (this does indeed help).
“This is your time to be selfish. Be selfish. Get people to do things for you.”
“The year of the dragon is the luckiest year to have a baby!”
A Mexican colleague comes up to me, sparkling, and, with no preliminaries, gives my bump a full hands on investigation. “It is a boy!” she cries. I figure this is a cultural thing, so I’m willing to let this one go, and it gives her so much pleasure to be right.
“Are you sure you want a hospital birth?” This one amuses me the most as it comes from someone who rents out birthing pools, we are five minutes from a major national hospital, and I live in a residential house at a school. I’m pretty sure that giving birth in my flat while my students prepare for their finals upstairs contravenes several Health and Safety directives, not to mention the staff code of conduct, and the bounds of good taste. Watching, or even hearing, a live birth does not count as Biology revision, Ofsted will be glad to know.
Only one colleague lurks, conspicuously saying nothing, and I suddenly, freshly understand the folktales about the bad fairy at the feast. This awareness is an instinctual companion to the way in which my sense of smell has been altered: a canny biological self protection against harm.
The best part is telling my students. In our first house meeting after the Christmas break, I make the announcement. “Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been putting on a little weight. It’s not because I have eaten all the pies … .” On hearing the word “baby”, they burst immediately into applause and start cooing. They are all overwhelmingly sweet and solicitous. One points triumphantly at another and says “A HA! Rosa SAID you were but we said, you can’t SAY that about people!” Rosa covers her face, wailing “You’re not supposed to TELL her that!”
They ask lots of questions; some become distinctly and rapidly broody. Well, I say, some of you do Biology so you probably know a bit about this business. “But we’re not doing pregnancy ‘til after the mock exams!” they exclaim gleefully. I stop myself from launching into a joke lesson: “When a man and a women love each other very much, or even if they don’t, and they lie very close together ... .” Instead, I emphasise the vomiting through week 17 in an attempt to put them off, thereby channelling their mothers in a more suitably in loco parentis professional manner.
As the weeks pass, they frequently ask how I am and how the baby is. When they learn his name, they take to addressing him directly. One, in fact, often issues this order: “Now be a good boy and let your mummy sleep! You must be like the archangel Michael!” (This may, of course, account for his nocturnal thrashing about: said archangel was a sword-wielding dragon-slayer.) If he one day messes around with a charmingly insistent Lithuanian, I won’t be surprised.