I am not alone. In my tummy, curled up and waiting for a moment to unfurl and press the exit button, is a baby. If being pregnant is a group affair that invites comment and anecdote, being nine months pregnant is a catalyst for other people’s panic. People want to know, need to know, exactly when the baby will arrive, perhaps in case you have it on “their watch”.
Exactly when a baby will be born is one of the last great unknowns in life: something nobody can predict. These days, you can find out the sex of the baby, pregnancy tests can even tell you when you conceived and you can genetically screen for certain conditions. But if you leave nature to take its course, you cannot dictate the precise day when a baby will arrive, no matter how rich or powerful you are. I rather like this uncertainty, the triumph of nature over technology and "progress". When the baby is ready, it releases a hormone that crosses the placenta and triggers action stations. Imagine the take-off scene from Thunderbirds with palm trees parting, but perhaps a bit more slowly.
As soon as the baby swell becomes visible, people feel able to comment openly on your body in a way that happens at no other time in this country. (Italy is a whole different matter, where every kilo put on or lost in everyday weight fluctuation is debated.) The only correct thing to say to a pregnant woman is that her bump is the perfect size. Not "Isn't it small?", as this will induce worry that the baby isn't growing properly. Nor must you go to the other extreme, as this will trigger concerns of gestational diabetes. The bump is lovely: nothing more, nothing less. Anyway, what do you know?
People will think that because they, too, were pregnant, once, they can tell you what happened to them. This is charitable and generous, but no matter what your labour was like, never think it will be the same for someone else. It's not a good idea to use words such as "It was so painful I thought death would be a release" or "I felt like someone was going at me with a machete" to a pregnant woman. Neither is it helpful to share the fact that you have had dreams that the expectant mother dies in labour, as my Neapolitan relatives are wont to do with me, delivering the news in stage whispers, or stuffing fists into their mouths as I enter the room, in some sort of pretence at trying to keep this "vision" to themselves. If I die, I'm taking you with me.
But when you get to nine months, all of this goes on to a whole new level. Everyone thinks they are the first person to tell you - nay, that you will be covered in gratitude that they have told you - that you are huge and you're having a pony/quads.
Everyone thinks it's nice and caring and involved to bug you, day and night, "Anything happened, yet?" - not realising that three dozen nice, caring and wanting-to-be-involved friends have already asked that day. No wonder animals go to ground before birthing. I have started looking for places to hide so that I can get in touch with my inner mammal. I play around with automated replies to email and texts. Finally I ask my boyfriend to play gatekeeper and answer the phone and keep the world, mostly, away.
My boyfriend has not been idle. In between cooking for me ("I'm starving NOW"), picking things up off the floor for me ("I can't bend down. If I do I won't be able to stand up again"), he has been busy working his way through the "things to do, things to have on hand" list (we are hoping for a home birth). On Wednesday he knocked on my study door. "Do you want to keep the placenta?" he nervously asked. "I don't know yet," I replied truthfully. "I may lotus it for a while" (this is when you keep the placenta attached to the cord, to the baby, until it falls off naturally). "Only cos if you want to keep it, I need to find a box for it . . ." He looked at me, then away. "You won't want me to . . . eat it with you, will you?"
His look at once betrayed wanting to do the right thing - what I wanted - and yet being totally horrified at the thought of placenta pie/omelette/smoothies or whatever else he had, in the moments before, discovered was possible by typing "my girlfriend might want me to eat her placenta" into Google.
"No, of course I don't want to eat it, or you to eat it, or anyone to eat it," I reassured him. His face relaxed. I continued: "However, you know we mustn't sever the cord from the placenta until it's stopped pulsating or it'll interrupt the placental transfusion . . ."
"Yes, yes, I know that," he sighed, triumphant. I interrupted him: "Only if you do and you don't hang on to it, the placenta can move across the room of its own accord, like those headless chickens do." His face tensed again, and I could see him trying to work out if I was joking (I was), but also imagining that it might very well be possible, so mysterious are the placenta's powers.
If all goes to plan and I don't end up on the operating table again like last time, sliced open like a great white shark (I'm thinking the scene in Jaws where the car licence plate tumbles out), I have requested a large Martini after I give birth and just after the baby's first feed (the thinking being it won't feed again for a few hours). It's all very well being a hippie-ish, breastfeeding, pregnant, home-birthing, placenta-eating/ carrying mother, but sometimes you just need hard liquor and two olives.