So, I got pregnant. Which is a good thing, because a large part of the motivation for giving up my nice old job was the impracticality of conceiving a child when you and your husband are on separate continents. This time last year, I thought: my biological clock is ticking! By January, I was thinking: or maybe not so much ticking as stopped? Now every doctor I meet says ‘because of your age’ several times each conversation. 36 has never felt so old. I must finish my novel quickly, so I can get onto one of those best new novelist lists with a cut-off age of 40 and feel young again.
If becoming a parent is meant to turn you into a Tory, suddenly keen to castrate sex offenders, put the interests of your child before the good of anyone else in society, and indulge in a level of consumer spending with which you could restart the Portuguese economy, then it seems to be turning me into a raging nationalist. I was never as homesick and as irrationally pro-British as I have been since getting pregnant. Because how can one, realistically, contemplate getting through a pregnancy without either Mothercare or the NHS?
When we were growing up my sister and I had an odd attachment to the Mothercare catalogue, and on one notable occasion I bet her that she couldn’t spend an hour-long car journey cooing over the babies in it. She won. I’m not going to wax too lyrical about Mothercare, but there was something immensely reassuring about the layette list they used to feature in the catalogue. (Obviously, I don’t know if they have it any more BECAUSE I AM IN EXILE.) And there is a sweet Mothercare woman with a West Country accent who pops up on the Mumsnet sidebar and says sensible things like ‘don’t buy too many babygros’. In American baby shops, you have to learn a whole new language: buggies are strollers, cribs are bassinets, cots are cribs, babygros are onesies and nappies are diapers. Thus far I have not been able to bring myself to say any of these words out loud; if this condition persists we will have to do a lot of internet shopping.
But this is as nothing compared to the horror of trying to get through your pregnancy in a country where there are signs up in supermarkets saying ‘GOVERNMENT WARNING: According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.’ I’m sure the Surgeon General has her merits, but frankly I don’t trust her in the same way I trust Zoe Williams, who convincingly demonstrated a couple of years ago that there is no known risk to drinking up to 10 units a week in pregnancy. And trust is what this pregnancy is turning out to be all about. It’s all nice and fun playing at living in another country, until you start having to make serious decisions about your life and the life of your unborn child based on the advice proffered by the US government, a random assortment of doctors, and the simpering platitudes of What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
To be fair, the doctors have been fine. But they are obstinately unwilling to pretend that they are secretly working in the NHS and doing everything according to a British timetable. They say things like ‘you’ll have to check whether your insurance would cover a nuchal fold’ and ‘have you had your annual gynaecological exam?’ and ‘I’ll just do a quick ultrasound’. What I am after is being signed up for a nuchal fold test without any fuss. I want nice standard scans at 12 weeks and 20 weeks and not a lot of other weird scans that reveal the baby to look like a blob (8 weeks) or a glowing death mask (16 weeks). I want to sit in a shabby NHS waiting room with coughing pensioners and old copies of Reader’s Digest, not a half-empty private waiting room with soft pastel furnishings and posters about umbilical cord blood banking. Above all, I want to avoid all unnecessary kneading and prodding of my breasts, inside my vagina and around the back of my shoulders. (God knows what that last bit was about.) And where are the midwives? What fun is any medical experience if you can’t indulge in a passive-agressive war of patronising remarks with a nurse along the way?
What’s more, it’s not just the alcohol. Americans tend to give up caffeine altogether while pregnant, too. And they have some weird thing about not eating ‘deli meats’ or smoked salmon. Which, along with everything else you aren’t supposed to eat – rare meat, liver, blue cheese, Brie, soft eggs, 15 kinds of fish, bagged salad, anything precooked and chilled – basically leaves you on a diet of crackers, boiled cabbage and cheddar. Instead, I am adopting a moderate approach. I eat things I know I shouldn’t and then spend most of the next day googling ‘toxoplasmosis’ and ‘listeria’.
But I am well into the second trimester now. I no longer feel sick or exhausted, I have a visible bump and have even bought some maternity jeans. I have decided not to think about the birth for a few more months, though I was alarmed to learn that American hospitals do not offer you gas and air and that the one where I am giving birth says quite a lot of highhanded things about how – I paraphrase slightly – they will probably ignore your birth plan and make all the decisions themselves because they know best. Still, since my birth plan is ‘get me and my baby out alive’, I am going into the whole thing with just two simple demands that I hope they can go along with. And we will be visiting Britain in July: first stop, Mothercare.