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“No, being pregnant at Christmas does not mean my body becomes public property”

When Emma Ledger found out she was pregnant last Christmas, she was full of hope for a magical festive season. But she soon realised her pregnancy meant people felt entitled to comment on everything from her diet to her choice of reading…

I love Christmas. I live for the over-indulgence, merrily grasp at any opportunity to wear sequins and even look forward to the low-level family tension.

However, I did not enjoy last Christmas when I was pregnant.

My boyfriend and I found out we were expecting in early December, a ‘happy surprise’ that I imagine was similar to how Mary and Joseph had felt a couple of millennia before. But as well as developing a newfound respect for those two, I quickly reasoned that our news would make Christmas even more magical. After all, what could be more special than being pregnant during a holiday that’s all about celebrating birth and a hopeful future?     

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But for me, the most wonderful time of the year soon became the most judgmental time, too. I found it sobering (pun very much intended) to experience the festive season not only without booze, but with the addition of unsolicited and unwelcome advice from family members, midwives, yoga teachers and complete strangers about what I should and shouldn’t be eating, drinking, doing, buying or even reading.

christmas mulled wine
Pregnant at Christmas: what business do strangers have commenting on whether pregnant women drink mulled wine at Christmas?

It started, as things so often do at this time of year, in the pub. “Not for you I hope!” smiled the landlord of my local, clocking my ‘Baby on Board’ badge as I paid for three mulled wines. They weren’t for me, as it happens. But what if one of them had been? What business was it of his? In the moment I was too stunned to reply, instead offering a pathetic people-pleasing smile and taking the drinks to my friends. I couldn’t understand why he felt entitled to comment, and later wondered if bartenders the land over would be policing me for the duration of my pregnancy.

The next time it happened, while I was buying my morning flat white, completely blindsided me. “Do you mean decaf?” asked the young, male barista. It took me a second to realise what he meant; that I shouldn’t be having caffeine. I’d read up on the advice around this (as well as scare stories about the toxicity of the decaffeinating process) but because I was battling the dual first trimester gifts of near-constant nausea and extreme fatigue, I was clinging to coffee like a life raft. I absolutely did not mean decaf.

My subsequent back and forth with the barista – during which my pregnancy hormones surged – was not my finest moment. Yet again I was left questioning how it was that people, in these cases men, felt it was acceptable to comment on a woman’s choices just because she was now carrying a child.  

I have lived in London for over a decade, where broadly speaking no one strikes up conversation with strangers unless absolutely necessary. For example, if you are on fire. I remember initially finding this disappointing, but I’ve grown very accustomed to living however I want to live with no expectation of comment or criticism. Now that I was pregnant, everyone knew something about my life. Something deeply personal. And it seemed to lift the cloak of anonymity I’d lived under and give everyone license to impart their opinion.

Over the next couple of weeks the comments became a daily occurrence. I was warned off Brie, Camembert and cured meats by friends, endured an uncle ‘just checking’ I wasn’t drinking wine, and fielded concerned comments from my boyfriend after I ordered sushi. The real low point was a yoga teacher banging on about a study she’d read about ditching plastic containers when pregnant in order to avoid miscarriage.

christmas tree bauble
Pregnant at Christmas: it should not be a collective effort by the public to enforce pregnancy ‘rules’.

It is pretty unthinkable that anyone would feel like it’s OK to comment on someone else’s choices and body under the guise of good health at any other time. The ‘advice’ might be well-meaning, but it feels especially hard to swallow during pregnancy. It’s a time when women can already feel overwhelmed by the barrage of conflicting information issued to them by doctors and midwives, not to mention the myriad advice found in online rabbit holes.

I should say at this point that I’m not an idiot; I’m aware that smashing back whisky when pregnant would be unwise. I understand that the recommendations around avoiding certain foods are repeated as the safest course to protect the unborn baby, even if the risks are profoundly unlikely and there is a distinct lack of statistics to back them up. But it should not be a collective effort by the public to enforce these pregnancy ‘rules’. 

In her book The Madness of Modern Parenting, writer Zoe Williams sees this as “a new kind of patriarchy”. She says that “something has happened around the language, perception and presentation of danger in the area of gestation… any misstep will cost you your healthy child”. Risks during pregnancy are now so overstated that Williams cites that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service reports women requesting abortions “because they’re so anxious about their alcohol intake in the weeks before they realised they were pregnant”.

Of course, the festive season came and went and the tide of opinion and advice didn’t wane. It ramped up as soon as I was visibly pregnant, and then grew along with my bump (which invited more unwelcome attention from people touching and rubbing my stomach).

It was last Christmas when I first learnt that to be pregnant means to have a body that temporarily becomes public property. This year, with a four-month baby in tow, I’ll be toasting Mary and Joseph with a vat of mulled wine – while steadfastly ignoring the comments about alcohol when breastfeeding. 

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