In the club: Siobhan O'Connor on the perils of an Irish pregnancy
Words by Siobhan O'Connor. Pictures by Aileen Dillon.
It's an exclusive society and until you get in, you're in the dark.
The pregnancy and baby club has various levels of entry - mothers on their third or fourth kid are the gold members; their accolades are their burgeoning brood, and they have dozens of stretch marks to prove their merit. The newbies like me are bronze members; we need to suck it all up and take guidance from the experienced ones who have seen it all before. It's a daunting club to join. The ultimate unknown.
The joy when you see those two coloured lines popping up on the pregnancy test is like nothing on Earth. I felt blessed, and now, seven months into my pregnancy, every time I feel a little nudge or a soft kick in my stomach, I thank the man or woman upstairs for the tiny miracle inside me.
But rarely are you told that this elite club, which so many women my age desperately want to access, can be terrifying, and the way people react to you is mind-boggling. I came off the pill aged 36, and two months later, I fell pregnant. I was one of the lucky ones, and I still have to pinch myself, because after age 35 your chances of conceiving are almost halved and the term 'geriatric mother' is bestowed on you.
Once you get into the club, the rules are blurred, and the members vary profoundly. You have the hard-core, scaremongering mothers who are dying to tell you the gory details of childbirth; and then the placid, hippie-dippy earth moms who tell you how much they miss being pregnant and how they adored being big and beautiful.
Type B swear by a 'natural birth' without heavy-duty pain relief. "Gas and air is all you need," they say. Who needs an epidural when you can hypnotise yourself through the torture and really feel every agonising push? Seriously, though, are we regressing to the cavemen era? Why punish yourself further by being a martyr and refusing the pain relief on offer?
During my pregnancy journey I have never had so much advice thrown at me. It's flabbergasting how everyone has an opinion, and they're simply bursting to tell you how hard it will be, and how your life will be over once your offspring arrives. They always end on a positive, though, saying, "But it's worth it; the best thing I ever did was have my baby".
"Say goodbye to lie-ins and get all the rest you can now, as you'll never sleep again," said one knowledgeable club member; "Buy dark pyjamas and towels for the hospital bag, and big black knickers to fit the sanitary pads," said another.
On the upside, this is one of the only prestigious clubs in the world in which you don't need to worry about your weight. You grow and you glow.
However, it doesn't mean you don't feel self-conscious. Pregnancy should be a time where you throw caution to the wind and relax about your body image, but then society expects you to slim back down to your previously svelte shape within weeks of giving birth. Even my doctor has been warning me about how tough it will be to shed the pounds I've already amassed.
Twenty-nine weeks on - which is when these pictures were taken - I'd already put on two-and-a-half stone. When I hopped on the scales in the surgery and saw 79 kilos [12st 6lbs], I turned to the doc and said, "Sure, that's not too bad, is it?" She was being cruel to be kind and responded, "If you continue like this, it will be a nightmare to get the weight off - you should really only put on two stone for the whole term."
The issue for me is I never had a sweet tooth until I became pregnant, and now all I want to do is scoff cakes, down tubs of ice cream and mill into chocolate. I want to do the whole 'eating for two' thing and succumb to the cravings. For God's sake, booze is gone, so gluttony is all I have!
You feel like you're walking in quicksand as you carry your bundle around. There's nothing attractive about being pregnant. Gone is the sexiness, and I've found a new word creeps up when people want to say something about my appearance. "Aww, you look lovely!" It's as if I am some sort of fat, cute, cuddly, china doll.
People don't know quite how to react to a pregnant woman whose body is housing a human, and the comments have been, quite frankly, extraordinary.
"How are you going to carry that around for another three months, the size of you!" said one randomer, adding, "My God, you are blooming - you are just so huge, you mustn't have long left?" To which I responded, "I'm only halfway there."
The worst experience was when a fellow journalist, who prides herself on her lean physique, uttered in front of a showbiz reporter, "It's so funny, we've never seen Siobhan fat until now." I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or punch her in the face.
At a same-sex wedding recently, I was struggling to manoeuvre myself off my seat to go to the loo. Trapped nerves are a common pregnancy symptom, I've discovered, and as I hobbled along attempting to shake off the pain, a male wedding guest, who was half-cut, laughed in my face, slurring, "What's wrong with you, ya big lump ya?" while another jokingly said, "Do you have to hold in your tummy now that you are damaged goods, so the fellas will look at you?"
When I decided to write about the baby club, I had an offer to do a specialised pregnancy photo shoot. Aileen Dillon could not have been more reassuring when she called me to discuss her style. Her passion for these intimate shoots was palpable, even on the phone.
For well over a decade she lived in LA, where pregnancy shoots are really popular, and many of her clients made her sign non-disclosure agreements. I was hemming and hawing as to whether to do the photos; I guess when your body is changing, you feel very self-conscious. The idea of baring all was daunting, and I was nervous. But I gave it a go.
I felt vulnerable at first in Aileen's studio, with only a chiffon scarf or my hands to cover my modesty, but then, as the camera clicked away, I felt surprisingly at ease.
It was, in fact, empowering. I felt the shots were artistic, a celebration of life.
It wasn't about how perfect my body was. I just figured that I may never get this opportunity to do such special pictures again, to document this incredible miracle growing inside me. I was smiling, thinking, "There are two of us in these pictures", and I felt proud.
Besides folks commenting on the bump and my body, another common societal norm is the feeling of the belly. I thought this phenomenon was gone with the Flood and people had more cop, but I swear I seem to attract a flock of feelers.
At a charity function one evening, an ould lad called me over for a chat. I assumed I knew him, but when I got up close, I realised he was a stranger. He hurled himself at me and started rubbing my stomach as if he was blessing himself - I swear, some punters think the baby is the second coming of Christ.
The gatekeepers of the prestigious club are the 'all-knowing' midwives. Unlike the obstetricians, these pragmatic characters give you the real deal, and there are no holds barred when it comes to the truth about the labour ward.
The early pregnancy class in Holles Street is designed for first-time clueless parents; it's a one-hour, one-stop-shop jobbie - I was so excited.
As I'm in the 'geriatric mother' category and have waited until my 30s to become a mom, I wanted to absorb as much information as possible.
The senior midwife welcomed our group into the lecture theatre and it felt like we were in the wrong room; had we descended on a comedy gig? "Don't cross your legs, ladies; avoid the varicose veins, you don't want to look worse off when you finish the pregnancy than when you started." This wacky lady meant business, and had the room in hysterics. "This is a bottom hospital, not a brain hospital, folks. Get used to it."
The hour-long crash course was jam-packed with invaluable titbits on what to expect during pregnancy and its aftermath, peppered with colourful demonstrations from the larger-than-life midwife. Lifting her leg up onto the stool, she drew our attention to her nether regions, much to our shock and amusement.
Pointing to the aforementioned area, she boomed: "Lads in the room, listen up, as you'll have to help. The perineum is the area here between the legs. Massage this area to prevent tears during the birth," adding, "There's no need to be squeamish, ladies; it's perfectly normal and natural, and if you do tear, you'll heal easily after delivery."
From the corner of my eye, I spotted a girl in her early 20s bawling. Her young boyfriend had his arm around her. "Ah pet, it's a shock to the system, I know, but having a baby is the best day of your life," said the gregarious midwife.
As I sat there with my partner, John, nervously chuckling along in the most entertaining class I'd ever been to, it hit me - we had reached the point of no return. We were in the club, and there was no going back.
This was our new reality, and despite the trials and tribulations of the never-ending nine months and the fear of God being instilled in me, I couldn't be happier.
Robbie Williams compared the birth of his two children to his favourite pub burning down; my dignity will be left at the door of that delivery room, but the sacrifice will be worth it. All we pray for is a healthy baby, and I'm so glad I'm finally in the club. You cannot buy happiness, happiness is born.
Photography by Aileen Dillon, see aileendillon.com, or tel: (086) 880-2819
Hair by Niamh Patterson at Aidan Fitzgerald, 12 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 288-6479, or see aidanfitzgerald.ie
Make-up by Lisa O'Connor, War Paint Inc, Belmayne, Dublin 13, tel: (087) 295-5521, or see warpaint.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine