Congratulations to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, on the impending arrival of their first child and the concomitant media frenzy that will take royal watchers through this long winter into spring, whenever that is.
All pregnant women become items of public interest — unless you’re looking for a seat on the subway, of course — but there is nothing like a royal British pregnancy to focus the personal hopes and dreams of people on both sides of the Atlantic on the body of a woman who they’ll likely never meet and certainly never know.
As a citizen of both countries, I’d argue that Americans are actually the bigger culprits here. I’ve noticed that many British people regard their monarchy with a healthy degree of skepticism, especially at a time when many children in the country are living in conditions of severe deprivation. Meanwhile, immigrants who marry British citizens (and who aren’t members of the royal family like Markle) are put through a grueling and expensive process to be allowed to stay with their families.
There is nothing like a royal British pregnancy to focus the personal hopes and dreams of people on both sides of the Atlantic on the body of a woman who they’ll likely never meet.
By contrast, Americans who are interested in the House of Windsor tend to overlook the broader implications of a tax-funded family that presides over a democracy by divine right, dazzled by the appearance of a fairy tale and separated from the nastier realities by 3,500 watery miles. Instead, they’re focusing on important questions like whether the child of the Sussexes could become the U.S. president and British monarch simultaneously (answer: yes, if there’s a series of tragedies, the birther movement is vanquished, and the royal child doesn’t renounce their U.S. citizenship to avoid double taxation of their royal fortune).
Of course, Markle is hardly alone: Almost everyone is pregnant in public these days, except for Kylie Jenner. As such, those of us who are expectant mothers are all experiencing versions of what royal women have endured for generations: intense consideration of our bodies as if they are no longer fully our own, but vessels of other people’s expectations and assumptions. In addition to whatever else we gain, we also must endure the heft of other people’s opinions, examinations and analyses of our physiques, speculation on what kind of mothers we will be and of course, endless debate over whether we are good or bad pregnant women.
The themes of public conversation that blossomed with regard to the new royal pregnancy are predictable: How easy is it to get pregnant at the “geriatric” age of 37? (As a pregnant 37-year-old I say: not your business unless the expectant mother cares to volunteer the details). Is Markle going to hide or "flaunt" her baby bump? What will the baby be named? Will Markle do too much work or too little? And, of course, most important: how much weight will she gain?
In the Age of Instagram it seems to have become more important than ever to make pregnancy adhere to maniacal standards of beauty and ease. A quick search of many a pregnancy-related hashtag — #12weekspregnant, for example — will throw up a preponderance of images of conventionally beautiful women doing yoga poses, drinking smoothies and sporting expensive outfits. But these #pregnancygoals are not attainable for many women, even those who are princesses, simply because pregnancy can be an immense physical challenge.
I hope it won’t be a challenge for the Duchess. But the sad truth is that contemporary royal expectations for their women will demand that she live her journey in public, and with a smile, and while always wearing nylons, regardless of how she feels.
This will especially be the case if she wants to keep up with the family standard set by her sister-in-law. The sheer thought of having one’s in-laws dictate your public presentation in pregnancy is chilling. I am beyond grateful to be seven months along in my pregnancy and (knock on wood) healthy so far, but the first five months crippled me; I threw up with such frequency that sometimes my esophagus bled and one of my fillings fell out. I didn’t put that on Instagram, but luckily People Magazine wasn’t expecting updates.
And yet, many people responded to my tale of woe with “just like Kate Middleton!” Alas, I had to assure them, I had little in common with the Duchess of Cambridge. For while we might have had vomit in common, I didn’t have a royal doctor on speed dial or a makeup artist available to de-green my complexion. (One person did smile and say, “well, at least all the throwing up means you’re staying skinny!” demonstrating that even in pregnancy staying slim is still considered a priority.)
Now that I am approaching my due date, the pregnancy message boards that I read in search of solidarity are full of conversations about what to pack in one’s hospital bag, including the perfect outfit for your photogenic Middleton-esque departure. (I plan to wear whatever I arrive at the hospital in, unless it’s too gross, in which case someone will have to bring me fresh sweatpants.)
The fact that a royal woman sprung back into her high heels and nude tights within hours of giving birth is one more sad reflection of the royal family’s stringent standards when it comes to femininity. It would be great to see Markle — an apparent feminist — defy this trend, but if she doesn’t, who could blame her: It may just be the price that you pay for marrying a prince.