It's a gorgeous summer day in southern California. I am at a beach barbecue, surrounded by people in skimpy swimsuits. This being Manhattan Beach, we're not talking Average Joes here; these are the most perfect human specimens to have evolved from a Pilates-obsessed monkey. My usual response to finding myself in a place like this would be to want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon and/or cut off my dangly bits with a steak knife. But not today, because today I am CWC: Chubby With Cause. Today I am six months pregnant.
Six months: the sweet spot. Big enough to show, but not so engorged that I feel like a billboard for Alien 5: This Time It's Serious. The second trimester has been kind to me, and I am feeling all of the things the books say I should: feminine, serene, and intuitive, if maybe a little gassy. But most of all, I am in a state of emotional ecstasy. I spend the majority of my waking moments thinking about my future perfect motherhood with my future perfect baby. And when I do think about it, like now, it's in soft focus, with lots of drapey material, dappled sunlight, and James Taylor music. I feel so happy I could puke a rainbow.
I'm sitting at a picnic table with friends when a woman in a bikini walks over and asks if she can borrow a bottle opener. She is friendly, attractive, and very fit, except for her exposed tummy, which is taut yet full. There's no mistaking it, this is a belly full of arms and legs. Sizing up the bulge, I take her to be maybe five months along. Then again, she's in such great shape she may be fixing to squirt out a kid in the next ten minutes.
I smile and give her a knowing wink; she gives me a knowing wink back. You know that wink -- it's the one shared between Mac owners, VW-bug drivers, and closeted gay rugby players. The wink that says, "Hey, you! It's me! We're members of the same tribe" -- in this case, the pregnant-goddess-lifegivers tribe -- "and isn't life fan-friggin-tastic?"
So we're smiling and winking and basking in our perfect pregnant goddessness, when finally I touch her hand and lean in to speak.
"How far along are you?" I ask.
She tilts her head and blinks, then says, "I'm not pregnant."
You might think that the force of my foot lodging itself so deeply into my mouth that it tickles my esophagus would have rendered me speechless, but no. In fact, before I can stop and take a moment to slam my head into the lifeguard stand, I ask another brilliant question:
"Oh! So, did you just have a baby?" That's what I said. "Did you just have a baby?" With added guttural emphasis on the word have.
"Did you just have a baby??" Bikini Lady looks so deeply into my eyes that she makes contact with my dead ancestors and shames them for having contributed to my gene pool.
"No," she says flatly, "I did not. Just. Have a baby."
"Oh," I say, and then feel a sharp pinch on my leg. It's from one of my friends who is mentally recording this moment so that she may remind me of it on a regular basis. Her talon-like grip wakes me from my moron trance, at which point the verbal tripping begins: "I'm sorry, it's just that you're so fit -- and gorgeous -- I just thought -- you're so fit -- except for the -- you're just so gorgeous and fit!"
Bikini Lady says nothing. So, to fill the silence, I reach in and pull out the last device left in my empty, rusting toolbox: "I'm sorry, I don't know what I'm saying. I'm drunk."
Bikini Lady looks at me like I've just sprouted an armpit on my face. She uses the bottle opener to crack the beer that was in her left hand all along (apparently I'm not only insensitive, I'm legally blind as well), then walks away, kicking up sand with her perfectly pedicured un-pregnant feet.
As I sit in the suddenly way-too-hot California sun, I contemplate my triple-salchow faux pas. For all I know she has a tumor the size of a pumpkin in there. Or it could be she just has weak abs -- maybe she's eight weeks into a 12-week workout regimen and next week she's going to start working on her core, I don't know! Or even worse, what if she had been pregnant? I can't even go there ... And then to try and skate out of it with the "I'm a pregnant alcoholic" excuse? Wow. Now I'm embarrassed for my ancestors.
I've grown philosophical about my beach-blanket blooper. I realized it was the moment I became aware that nothing about pregnancy or parenthood would ever conform to my expectations -- particularly the ones about myself. Sure, becoming a mother may have changed me, but I am no more intrinsically intuitive, serene, or feminine than I was (or wasn't) before I reproduced. And most days that's an oddly comforting thought -- though probably not to a certain bikini-wearing lady with weak abs, who just wanted to enjoy a cold beer on a hot day.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.