The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Macken.deirdre@

‘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.

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