‘My name is Offred. I had another name but it’s forbidden now.” So begins The Handmaid’s Tale as it introduces a future world where a plague of infertility has created a subclass of women whose sole job is to become baby carriers for the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. The phrase seemed familiar.
“I’m a mother but I used to be someone, I had a job, I had a title.” So begins a chat with a friend’s daughter about her experiences of pregnancy and new motherhood in a world where a plague of opinions has created a group of young women who feel they can’t do a thing right.
But, I protest to her, it’s always been like that — busybodies in the streets, maiden aunts with lots of opinions, grandmothers with advice from the 19th century. Oh no, she says, “It’s worse, it’s much worse and it comes from everywhere.” And then she tells some of the stories she and her friends swap at mothers’ club.
There’s the friendly neighbour who advised her in pregnancy that coffee wasn’t a good idea, then queried whether bub was dressed warm enough for a stroll and, on hearing that bub was going to childcare warned “there’s bound to be separation problems”.
Another friend, with a particularly round belly in the late months of pregnancy, was resigned to family and friends patting her tummy like it was a dog’s head but she almost punched a man on the train who gave her belly a rub as he delivered advice about the gender of the baby, the imminence of birth and the ability of mum to handle both.
There’s the lorry driver who yelled out of his window that pregnant women shouldn’t wear heels; the waiter who presented the main course with the proviso that she shouldn’t be eating for two; the shelf-stacker who peered at the newborn and declared she must be a premmie; and the office worker who entered the lift, glanced at his colleague and said, “You look like you’re ready to pop.”
Now, this is all well-intentioned and many people think women should accept it and smile nicely — like those handmaidens who waft through their days murmuring “blessed be the fruit” to each other. But the ferment is growing in mothers’ clubs, where they may sip herbal tea and avoid soft cheeses, sushi, nuts, spicy foods and certain brands of sunscreen, but they swap stories of insurrection.
One group of mothers likes to play with these social scolds. They reverse the circumstances and ask, “Is that OK?” For instance, my friend could yell to her neighbour that drinking coffee is bad for nerves; she could question whether the neighbour needs another cardigan when she steps out for the day and, if her dog goes into a kennel, she could warn of the separation anxiety her mutt will feel. Is that OK?
The friend with the bump could go up to a bald man in a train and rub his head while offering advice on what baldness means, how long it will take until all his hair disappears and whether he’ll be able to handle it. Is that OK?
To the lorry driver, they could warn that tight shorts will heat up his testicles and fry his future fertility. To the waiter, they may suggest he swaps the Friday-night pizza for a Saturday morning run. To the shelf-stacker they may comment that his shortness must be heritable. And to the office colleague who can pick an imminent labour across the foyer, they may say: “You look as if you’re about to take a dump.”
It’s rude, isn’t it? And we’re just playing around with the privacy issues. We haven’t yet asked where the single neighbour got her early childhood experience, how the lorry driver picked up his expertise on lumbar lordosis or whether the shelf-stacker is an obstetrician who moonlights at Woolies.
A lippy shelf-stacker won’t unhinge your average new mum but they face this from so many people and so rudely that we’d forgive them if they decided it’s too much. One day they may say: “A plague on your opinions, we’re not doing this again.” And we all know what a future of infertility looks like. We’ve seen the series. But, for young mums, it’s not that far into the future. gmail.com