I feel sorry for Kate Middleton. It’s bad enough to be vomiting around the clock. And now every tabloid and every newscast in the world is focused on her belly. The poor girl is barely pregnant! We used to be superstitious about these things. What if something goes wrong?
Needless to say, the global media monster doesn’t care how Kate feels. “She’s got a CRUMPET IN THE OVEN!!!” blared TMZ. No doubt we’ll soon be treated to informed speculation about precisely where and when the royal couple managed to conceive.
The royal fetus is the biggest human-interest story in the world, despite the fact that he, or she, or them is no bigger than a tadpole. Imagine achieving celebrity status when you’re minus six months old. From now on, Kate is just a walking womb. She’ll be scrutinized for everything she eats and drinks and wears. If she bites into a corned beef sandwich, someone will denounce her for exposing the kid to listeriosis.
Why are we so fascinated with royal reproduction? It’s not simply that kingdoms and dynasties are at stake. Female fertility is the most ancient and powerful of all the mysteries. The oldest sculpture of a human being yet discovered is the Venus of Hohle Fels, a tiny figurine carved from a woolly mammoth tusk around 40,000 years ago. She has enormous breasts, a monumental stomach and grotesquely exaggerated private parts, with shrunken limbs and a microscopic head. Kate does not resemble her in any way. But Kate is a fertility goddess, nonetheless.
Kate’s plight is scarcely unique. Every woman discovers that, once she’s pregnant, the only thing people notice is her belly. Strangers feel compelled to stroke it, and offer unsolicited advice. Back when babies were a dime a dozen, no one paid much attention to what pregnant women did. But now that fertility rates have plummeted, pregnant women are policed more heavily than convicts on a chain gang. God help them if they’re caught with a beer.
Nothing could be more banal than having babies. Yet, for most of history, the voyage through pregnancy and childbirth was fraught with peril. In 18th-century rural England, 25 women died for every 1,000 births. If the baby didn’t kill you, the doctor with his unwashed hands probably would. Royal women had it even worse. If they failed in their duty to deliver a son and heir, they could have their heads chopped off. Kate will suffer no such fate: She’ll merely have a lifetime of being hounded by the media.
Even though pregnancy is safer than ever, expectant woman are as anxious as they’ve always been. They’re told that one wrong step could doom their child. In medieval times, they were supposed to stay indoors with the windows shut because fresh air was bad for them. Today, they’re told to avoid hot tubs, caffeine, tuna fish, bean sprouts, endocrine disruptors and nail salons. What hasn’t changed is the certainty that everyone will give you free advice.
In the old days, pregnancy was often a deeply private, even shameful matter. Pregnancies weren’t official until the baby began to quicken in the womb. When I was a kid, a woman wasn’t supposed to tell until she began to show. In the event of an early mishap, much public misery was avoided.
But today, the fashion is to flaunt it. Expectant mothers tweet the happy news to the entire world as soon as they’ve finished peeing on the stick. Some of them videotape their pregnancy tests for YouTube. Instead of swathing themselves in comfortable maternity tents, they stagger around in skin-tight tops with their belly buttons popping out. They commission artsy nude photos of themselves and get their gigantic bellies cast in plaster. Every woman has become her own fertility goddess.
A fetus gets no privacy, either. It often has a Facebook page, complete with ultrasound pictures. Fathers, instead of being banished from the birthing chamber, are expected to coach the labour, videotape the birth and tie the cord. I’m sure Kate will have the sense to avoid most of these excesses. Still, I imagine the tabs are already scrambling to get their hands on early pictures of the royal fetus. In the age of celebrity, nothing is too private to be off limits.