As soon as her precious bump becomes visible, every pregnant woman will come to realise that the whole world seems to have an opinion, a question or a piece of advice. From nuggets of wisdom such as, 'Make sure you sleep now, because you'll never sleep again!' to questions about the sex of the baby and observations on the size of her belly, a pregnant woman will hear it all.
At best, these questions are annoying but at worst they can be deeply upsetting. Before I realised how distressing society's habit of discussing a very personal experience with a perfect stranger could be, I was as guilty as the next person for taking part. Until, very abruptly, my perception changed.
From twenty weeks into my second pregnancy, I knew that my baby girl was unlikely to make it to birth. Diagnosed with a serious heart defect, she was not expected to survive the pregnancy. And even if she did hold on long enough to be born, we knew that the prognosis from there onwards was not good.
For twelve long weeks from diagnosis to Grace's early arrival, all I could do was wait. Wait to see if Grace would stop moving or if she could fight a little longer. My friends and family obviously knew of our situation and were supportive and tactful.
However, my bump didn't carry a sign announcing my baby's probable fate to the world. I was still subjected to the usual barrage of questions and comments from well-meaning strangers. Strangers who were blissfully unaware of how hurtful their musings on and queries about my pregnancy were.
'You must be so excited!' beamed the lady at the supermarket check-out. Actually, 'excited' was the last word I would use to describe my emotions. 'Grief-stricken', 'terrified' and 'distraught' were more appropriate. And yet even that selection of words didn't do my feelings much justice.
'Have you got the baby's room ready? Which buggy did you go for?' a fellow pregnant lady asked me at a toddler group. I heard 'Your bump is massive, are you sure it isn't twins?' on a regular basis. My bump was 'massive' because the problem with Grace's development caused extra amniotic fluid to surround her.
There were two ways to deal with comments from strangers. I could tell the cold, hard and uncomfortable truth. Or, I could pretend I was painting the baby's room pink, whilst shopping for prams and stocking up on breast pads.
I only told the truth once. The result of sharing intimate details about my baby with a stranger was a rather awkward exchange that both of us could have done without. From that moment onwards, I decided I would just say what people wanted to hear. Pretending to be excited about my pregnancy was soul destroying. Yet the pain caused by lying was easier to deal with in the moment than other people's reactions to the truth.
After we lost Grace, my tummy took a long time to shrink down - in fact it has never properly returned to its pre-caesarean size. I was given exercises to help with this, but I just didn't feel like doing them in the midst of such grief. Rightly or wrongly, I found comfort in food and drinking wine. Consequently, I still looked pregnant for months after my pregnancy with Grace had ended.
When I was out and about with my two year old daughter, people naturally assumed I was pregnant. After all, I had a big belly and I wasn't pushing a new-born baby in a pram.
The questions and comments continued. A few times, I responded to the 'when are you due?' question with a frank, 'I'm not pregnant'. This resulted in much embarrassment and awkwardness, while the person who had asked the questions couldn't get away fast enough.
And so I resorted back to the approach I had used before Grace was born. I just went along with what I was expected to say. It seemed so unfair and cruel that after losing my baby, I then had to pretend to be an excited pregnant woman. But it was the quickest and easiest way to field the questions I was continually being asked. I wanted to talk about Grace to my family and friends, not to strangers.
After a couple of months, I couldn't deal with it anymore. I found a better solution. I just stopped going out.
I began to make a huge effort to diet and try to lose my post-caesarean belly. I was a mess. Dieting and exercise were the last things I wanted to think about. Yet I pushed myself because I understood that if I were going to be able to leave the house again without being asked about my 'pregnancy', it had to be done.
Every bump has a background and carries a story. On the whole these will be happy stories. However, you just never know. I have learned from experience that if you don't know someone's situation then you will be assuming. Assumptions can be hurtful in most circumstances and this is no exception.
Don't get me wrong, I was never angry with the strangers who made comments and asked questions about my pregnancy. I didn't blame them for upsetting me. It is deemed to be socially acceptable to discuss a women's pregnancy with her. Perhaps it is time for society to rethink this.
In the same way I would never ask a childless couple why they don't have children; I will never again ask a pregnant woman about her belly.
So if I see you in a coffee shop or at a play group and you are sporting a beautiful bump, I won't say a word to you about it. I realise this may seem odd, as you have probably become accustomed to comments from strangers. I apologise if I seem rude. You may think that I'm not interested in you. But please know that I am just playing it safe - in case you're not excited or happy or any of the other things you are supposed to be. You probably won't appreciate my parenting advice and my assessment on the size of your bump anyway. And, unless you choose to share your pregnancy story with me, it's really none of my business anyway.Suggest a correction