I listened to a conversation on the bus yesterday while pretending to read. An extremely pregnant woman was trapped in a window seat, surrounded by adoring strangers who plied her with questions about diet, exercise, vitamins, and her due date, offering improvements and suggestions to each answer she reluctantly provided. Pregnancy, I was reminded, is a very public state that can sometimes cause normal boundaries to disintegrate. It also seems to grant permission to family-and to perfect strangers on the bus, apparently-to comment and direct and provide unsolicited counsel.
The summer I was pregnant with my daughter, I was crowded into a house in Egypt with my husband’s family, and was the recipient of advice from a group of well-meaning already-mothers. Forget the fact that I had books on birthing and raising a baby-they already had babies. I was clueless.
That summer, I remember, I longed for Coca-Cola. The ice-cold green glass bottles were never large enough, and my mother-in-law humored this craving, once a week accompanying me down the dusty road to the small neighborhood market for this special purchase. We were the only ones awake at the unforgivingly hot hour of 1 in the afternoon. She performed the ritual of five sharp knocks to the tightly closed shutter of the shop window, which was opened by the owner, Nabila, sleepy and smiling, baby on her hip and toddler at her heels.
Coca-Cola, please, I would order, somewhat desperately.
Nabila smiled knowingly as she passed the bottle over the counter.
It’s not good for you.
This much I knew.
But from my mother-in-law: Everyone knows that if you drink too much Coca-Cola when you’re pregnant, your baby will be born with no hair.
This was new. And ridiculous. But Nabila nodded sagely, holding up the bald baby in her own arms, living testimony that the words my mother-in-law spoke were very plainly fact.
As the weeks wore on, I found myself the recipient of unwarranted (and mostly silly) guidance and information on every possible movement that would influence a successful pregnancy. I should not swim (the baby will get dizzy), I should not sit directly under a fan (the baby will catch a chill). I should not walk too much, read too much, or eat too many eggs or bananas (all tremendously bad, for no particular reason, for the baby)-all warnings and direction that made me want to scream and act out in defiance.
If I followed all of these dictates, I explained, soon all that would be left to do in my pregnant state would be to sit, to which my mother-in-law nodded. Yes. Sitting was good.
So I sat. I sat, and thought of all the babies born in the very house I was sitting in: my husband and his two brothers and three sisters. A handful of nieces and a nephew, and even a neighbor child or two. They laughed and talked and played around me, my mother-in-law the vortex in an unrelenting whirl of activity.
And it came to me very suddenly one day that while I’d never had a baby, she’d had several. Maybe (and just maybe) there was a kernel or two of truth in all of the well-intentioned recommendations being tossed at me. Maybe even a universal truth-something like: For every piece of pregnancy advice, there is an equally valid and opposite piece of advice that may apply to some other woman, somewhere, sometime.
When my daughter was born, months later, she had no hair.
Too much Coca-Cola, I thought, immediately.
Wives tales, wisdom-really, who am I to say?
Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.