BLOG: What I didn’t expect when I was expecting
'Pregnancy sucks. Making a human being is really hard," announces Elizabeth Banks in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a new film which looks at five-interconnecting couples experiencing the thrills and humiliations of having a baby in Los Angeles.
The film which takes its name, but little else, from the overtly practical self-help bestseller, makes clear that Angelenos don’t do hard.
They do iced cinnamon mochaccinos, vegan spray tans and yogaerobics; they do dog tarot, goat placenta facials and non-ironic cowboy boots, but they don’t do moon faces and varicose veins – and they certainly don’t do fat.
I wish I’d been given a rule book when I first moved, five-and-a-half-months pregnant, to LA last year; that the scowling customs official at LAX had stamped my passport with one hand and handed me The LA Pregnancy Bible with the other. Had I been warned that pregnancy in LA wasn’t going to be the gradual, introspective slowing down that I’d imagined, but a battle of the bumps in which only the fittest, leanest and most obstetrically-learned would survive – I’d have left the novels and maxi dresses at home and packed my hiking boots.
By that stage, of course, I’d already broken Rule One and told people that I was expecting. “Darling, you could have got away with saying that you’ve had breast implants and air-travel-induced oedema for at least another month,” frowned my actress friend when I told her the news. “Out here you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant until you absolutely have to.”
This threw me. Back in Britain people can barely wait for their 12-week scan before blurting out their condition to a few close friends and relatives (and by that I mean one’s hairdresser, postman, electricity reader… et cetera), but I had waited more than five months. Back in Britain people are, well, proud.
In Los Angeles there’s pride and there’s excitement – but it’s hidden beneath layers and layers of abject fear. For the next nine months – to quote Nabokov – “the tiny madman in his padded cell” will be running the show and you will be forced to relinquish all control over your own body.
For a community of women whose lives are centred on imposing order on their minds (through therapy) and body (through dieting, exercise and every other means at their disposal), that loss of control is downright terrifying.
Here’s where the Pregnancy Plan comes in. Rather than buy one in from an underdeveloped country, you’ve taken the unorthodox step of making a miniature human being yourself.
That kind of selflessness demands a strategy. Everything from the internal (every pregnant woman I met in LA had had an amniocentesis and more sonograms than I have wedding photographs) to the external (are you seriously going to let your body decide whether you gain 23 or 70lb?) needs to be impeccably choreographed.
That means employing an army of people to “manage” your pregnancy. You’ll need a celebrity obstetrician (Jessica Alba’s has a waiting list), a nutritionist and a parenting philosophy guru. Then there’s the dermatologist for pregnancy facials (Biba de Sousa is top choice for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills), the personal trainer, the pregnancy Pilates instructor and the reflexologist.
You must also have a photographer on hand for the “Bump and Belly” snaps (think Demi’s Vanity Fair cover, only with more airbrushing, mounted in your hallway for all to admire), a crystal reader to predict your child’s nature and an acupuncturist to perform the popular “Quiet Baby” ritual at three-and-a-half months (“It really works,” one mother assures me. “He almost never cries.”)
Then there’s the paediatrician. “Have you started interviewing them yet?” I was asked at six months pregnant. Interviewing? Don’t you just take whoever you’re given? And doesn’t a baby have to be ill to need a paediatrician? Wrong again. Paediatricians are like it-bags in this town: you want J-Lo’s, you want Katie’s; your baby may never need them but you’ll flaunt them with pride.
It was only when I’d settled on the least “starry” doctor I could find that I noticed Beckham’s football shirt hanging behind his desk: “Thanks for everything you’ve done for us – luv David and Victoria.”
Lying about how far along you are is de rigueur (if someone’s “tiny for eight months”, it’s usually because they’re five or six), but that little porky will only get you so far before you’re left to Havisham-out your pregnancy in the Malibu beach house. Still, when the optimum pregnancy physique means looking like a snake that has swallowed a beach ball, pregnancy binges are off the menu. So while I was advised to cut out all fruit (too sugary) and gluten (too tasty), and my trainer had me working out every other day until two days before I gave birth, back home my pregnant friends were inhaling whole trays of Krispy Kremes.
Out in La-La Land, where pregnant women get a slap on the wrist for gaining more than 3lb a month (25lb is the recommended grand total) the weekly weigh-in becomes an increasingly torturous affair. At eight months I’d rip the clips out of my hair if it helped wipe the frown off the nurse’s face when I stepped on the scales.
I blame Beyoncé for turning pregnancy into an Olympic sport. She gained only 22lb (a meagre one and a half stone). “Most of that was water,” she assured journalists. Meanwhile Milla Jovovich was nearly deported for gaining 70lb when she was pregnant with her daughter in 2007.
Pictures of her waddling contentedly through the streets of West Hollywood, a fried chicken thigh in her mouth, still adorn the fridge doors of pregnant Angelenos – a modern morality tale if ever there was one.
Ask Kim Barnouin, the vegan author of Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven – A Gutsy Guide to Becoming One Hot and Healthy Mother, why motherhood is no longer an excuse to let yourself go, and she’ll tell you that when it comes to waistlines, there are no “time out” moments for the LA woman. “There’s an impossibly high bar set by famous women,” she shrugs “And the pressure on those women – Victoria Beckham, Heidi Klum or Beyoncé – is still greater. I hear pregnant celebrities talking about how quickly they’re planning on losing the weight when they’re done all the time.
“A single thought dominates their entire pregnancy and that’s, 'Can I get back to my pre-pregnancy weight quicker than anyone else?’ As every new mother knows, there’s only a month-long window before a woman has to show themselves and their baby to the world.
“Rather than enjoying those miraculous few weeks, these women would rather concentrate on the pleasure of someone saying, 'I can’t believe you just had a baby!’” says Barnouin.
“It’s about the satisfaction of getting that recognition, about showing that you’re still in control – even when you’re a mum.”
For some Hollywood mothers, vanity or ambition (why miss out on a film role simply because babies have such an absurdly long gestational period?) can mean going to extraordinary lengths. “If pregnancy were a book,” the director Nora Ephron once said, “they would cut out the last two chapters.” Out here women try to do just that.
“I’ll have pregnant women asking to have elective caesareans at 35, 36 or 37 weeks,” one obstetrician tells me. “They get bored of being pregnant. Or they want to avoid the stretch marks and the excess weight – most of which goes on in that final month because the baby needs it.
“Although it’s completely unethical, some doctors will do it.” Just as unethical is the C-section/abdominoplasty combo, a combined caesarean and tummy tuck, which some surgeons will do, even if most don’t recommend it.
“We usually get women to wait three months before they have a tummy tuck – where we tighten up the muscles and pull the skin down,” says the plastic surgeon Dr Alex Villicana. “Combining a C-section and a tummy tuck can be dangerous but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t doctors who will do it.”
Due dates are enshrouded in secrecy – not to avoid the banks of paparazzi outside Cedars-Sinai, but to give the scarring time to heal. There’s another reason too. “Even after the event, people never tell people what the birth date was,” the actress friend explains. “Natalia Vodianova back on the catwalk after 'two weeks’? Miranda Kerr back in bikinis after 'a month’? All I’m saying is: check out the size of their babies.” Which may go some way to explaining why some actresses’ sons or daughters look to me like toddlers in their first publicity shots alongside their super-slim mothers.
And now for the final “chapter”. You’ve filled in the Placenta Apothecary forms (everyone who’s anyone has their placenta ground down and made into capsules, like Mad Men actress January Jones – thereby promising eternal youth); you’ve completed your prepared childbirth course – having mistakenly spent an hour at the Jewish Expectant Parent Workshop, my daughter’s bound to be an overachiever – and you’ve bought the La Perla “birthing gown”. Hospital-robe blue isn’t everyone’s colour.
Once the anaesthesiologist is on standby for your big moment (unlike us, Angelenos aren’t into gratuitous pain), there’s only one thing left to do – and that’s book the “birthing suite” at Cedars. For $2,673 (£1,786) a night you can have a modest two-bedroom affair with a flat-screen television, but ideally you want the $3,784 (£2,446) three-bedroom option.
You never know when you might want to have people over. Plus this one has facilities for an in-house beautician; why waste those precious minutes in between phantom labour pains when you could be getting a French polish? Plus a complimentary smoothie maker – oh and it overlooks the Hollywood sign. And in LA, that’s as natural as your childbirth is going to get.