My 'bump' is not up for discussion

More than 1800 Australian parents each week are now diagnosed with debilitating mental health illnesses such as ...
More than 1800 Australian parents each week are now diagnosed with debilitating mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Photo: Louise Kennerley

When was the last time you saw a heavily pregnant woman lose her cool while out shopping and start hurling groceries and expletives? Well, watch this space.

If one more person decides to comment on the size of my "bump", it will be time to demonstrate my down and dirty fight moves.

In just a few days I am due to give birth to my second child and, yes, my stomach is larger than normal. Inside it is stuffed a (normal size) baby, placenta, umbilical cord, uterus, amniotic fluid, bladder and all the other gelatinous bits and bobs required for the creation and maintenance of life. An amazing biological phenomenon, but certainly not exceptional.

Unrealistic expectations ... pin-up yummo-mummo Miranda Kerr.
Unrealistic expectations ... pin-up yummo-mummo Miranda Kerr. Photo: Chris Colls

Yet a staggering number of people seem to assume that when a woman is pregnant her body becomes public property, and happily mouth off about its notable attributes. (Malodorous baldy man with the large beer GUT, I'm talking about you. Oh, the irony.)

In the past week I've been on the receiving end of at least a dozen of these observations. One stranger told me I must be having twins because my belly was "so huge". Shopkeepers held group discussions with other customers about my high/low, big/small, "tidy" (?!) stomach and tried to prophesy the baby's sex based on its "pointiness". "It's a boy," they cried. I lied just to confound them.

On the way home, Mr Beer Gut at the petrol station decided to drop his pearl of wisdom with a lascivious chuckle. "You know the way to get the baby out is the same way it went in," wink, wink. What, do you mean sex? Did you really just try and crack a leery sex joke with me? Retch.

I draw a blank trying to think of other situations where this commentary is acceptable. We don't think it's OK to chime in about someone's goitre, their fake boobs, mind-boggling obesity or cancer headscarf, visible as they might be.

This pregnancy free-for-all is a symptom of a society that increasingly expects women to primp, pluck and preen until they conform to a "glowing", passive, yummo-mummo appeal, ready for the public gaze.

Peruse a pregnancy mag and you'll find advertisements urging women to splash out on maternity lingerie ("He's going to love your new cup size"), tidy away any hair "down there" with a pre-birth wax and beauty treatment, and seek out the latest celeb-endorsed maternity frocks. Post-baby, we're told it will be easy to "snap back" into shape if we simply don an elasticised belly wrap and spend the next three months holding our breath. Corsets had nothing on this kind of torture.

Heaven forbid you might want to use the limited time before baby arrives to discuss the real stuff like, oh, I don't know, the paucity of quality childcare, the massive task of juggling family with self, the gender pay gap, the drudgery of domestic chores or freaking out about your changing identity.

Warm and genuine inquiries can be uplifting, in moderation. A sympathetic smile from an elderly woman who passes as you struggle up steps in 35-degree heat is like a balm, as is the teenage shop assistant who carries your bags and mutters "good luck".

But as pregnancy stereotypes vacillate between the bovine "natural mother" and careerist cyborgs, it's little wonder that many women struggle to cope with burdensome ideals.

Recent research by the Post and Antenatal Depression Association (PANDA) found that more than 1800 Australian parents each week are now diagnosed with debilitating mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It noted the media were guilty of reinforcing unrealistic expectations of motherhood, for example, promoting celebs who seem to be coping exceptionally well. Cue drooling morning TV hosts interviewing Miranda Kerr.

Ultimately, this approach denies women the chance to experience pregnancy, birth and early parenthood for what it really is: a challenging, transformative, visceral and joyful process that is neither "tidy" nor predictable.

When a woman is pregnant this world lies ahead of her. Perhaps she is terrified, perhaps she is elated, but she has the right to dip her toe into its uncharted waters without constant commentary - especially from perves at the petrol station.

Miki Perkins is a journalist at The Age on parental leave