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Womb names

Albrecht Durer's Rhino

On New Year’s Day, I found myself in casualty with decidedly iffy blood pressure. While she hooked me up to an ECG, the nurse tried to distract me with some light conversation.

‘So, do you know if you’re having a little boy or a little girl?’ (Can I say here and now: we don’t need to use the word ‘little’, people. Babies tend to come out rather small).

‘We find out next week.’

‘Oh really? I didn’t find out with mine. I wanted a nice surprise. All the midwives say that you push harder if you don’t know the sex!’

I find it hard to imagine being overtaken with such ennui that I couldn’t be bothered to see through labour, just because I knew whether the baby had a penis or a vagina – and believe me, I am generally susceptible to ennui. But more than that, both of us felt that the information was out there, and so we ought to know it to. We hated the idea that the sonographer might know the sex of our baby while we didn’t. We also thought that it might be more efficient to only agonise over one list of names, rather than two.

As it happened, finding out we were having a boy has meant a great deal more to us than that. Initially, we were both struck by the feeling that it got us no closer to understanding this mysterious person who is about to change our lives so radically: it told us nothing about his personality, his tastes or his feelings.

But within days, he had acquired a womb name, which seemed to spring from nowhere. One moment, we were going though all the names in our respective families, and laughing at monstrous possibilities of names like Albrecht, which abound in H’s Swiss relatives. The next, we were saying, ‘Oh, Albrecht’s on the move,’ or, ‘What colour shall we paint Albrecht’s room?’

This had caused a few raised eyebrows amongst friends and family, and we’ve got used to explaining that we’ve settled on Albrecht for now because it’s the one name we’re absolutely certain we won’t choose when he’s born. Yet we’re both quietly getting rather cosy with those stacked Germanic consonants. It’s got a ridiculous grandeur to it that’s rather sweet. Herbert is now openly wondering if it wouldn’t at least make a good middle name.

I was pretty certain that we wouldn’t adopt a nickname for the baby before he was born. To be honest, we just couldn’t think of anything (unlike our friends, all of whom seemed to come up with something witty and apt, like The Bun, The Tadpole, The Bean and The Squidge). I tried to make The Homunculus stick for a while, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Too ambitious, as ever.

And yet ‘Albrecht’ has done a lot more for us than just making conversations easier. Somehow, with a name, he’s become a person, too. In the time since that 20-week scan, so many of my early fears have fallen away. I no longer agonise over whether my life will be destroyed; I no longer worry that I won’t manage to bond or do a good enough job.

Meanwhile, Herbert seems to have found it easier, too. He’s been able to think about the things that they might both enjoy together, and the things that he wants to offer to his son. He is developing ambitions and desires around this future life. Maybe this would all have happened anyway as the pregnancy went on, but there has been something about having a name that’s eased the transition for us. Now that we’re imagining a person rather than a screaming baby, we’re looking forward to meeting him. We’re no longer afraid that we won’t bond, because we’ve already started the process.

If anything, I will probably push all the harder now that I know the sex of my baby. Hopefully, we’ll find something a bit more suitable than Albrecht to name him; but then again, I realised yesterday that he would have the great artist Albrecht Durer as a namesake. And if nothing else, at least it’s unique.

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Sex? Yes, I remember that…

I have a confession to make.

No, not the sort of confession you’re used to reading from me; quite the opposite in fact. Since I’ve been pregnant, we’ve more or less given up on sex.

I know; it’s disappointing, isn’t it? We really ought to have a better handle on such matters. But the thing is, nothing feels right at the moment.

For a start, I just can’t get into the zone. Whereas the Seductions taught me that I could create the right mood for sex if only I was committed to trying, pregnancy has turned that upside down. If I’m not already turned on, nothing can drag me there. My body is expressing utter disinterest in sex, except in nightly, lurid dreams that wake me momentarily aroused, before it all drains away again.

The practicalities aren’t easy. Every tiny bit of genital contact sends me running to the loo. My vagina feels sore. My breasts feel weird. The pregnancy-induced asthma, which is triggered by the merest scrap of physical activity, does not make for the attractive kind of heavy breathing. And what’s more, some atavistic hormonal drive tells me that everything is potentially unhygienic. The same impulse that lately seems to forbid me from eating anything from a tupperware, seems also to be on high alert for such filthy habits as kissing and oral sex. Everything, frankly, smells a bit funny to me anyway. I’m worried that I don’t taste or smell as good as usual, either.

Herbert, meanwhile, is treading a careful line between his own disinterest and my rampant paranoia about my unattractiveness. I get the distinct sense that he’s not at all sure that sex is a good idea right now. He’s not one of those men who thinks he might accidentally prod the baby, but he’s slightly unconvinced that I’m robust enough for sex at the moment. He’s in full-on nurturing mode, making sure I’m properly rested, fed and watered; he seems to prefer to take care of his own erotic urges without troubling me. I sometimes wish he was a bit less polite about it all.

I’m sad not to be having sex; I miss it. When I was limping through the first trimester, women cheered me up by telling me just how randy I’d feel after 20 weeks. Sadly, I haven’t even had a glimpse of that; I can only imagine that my randiness is lost in the same gestational black hole as my pregnant glow. But then, if I’m honest, that never sounded much like something that would happen to me in the first place. When I hear other people’s experiences of pregnant urges, I’m left with the same slightly murderous feeling that I have towards women who tell me how much they love being pregnant: well lucky bloody you!

Personally, I can’t wait to get back to a body that does the things I expect of it: basic stuff like breathing, not wanting to puke in the mornings and being able to walk around the shops without having to sleep it off afterwards.

Sex, of course, isn’t the be-all and end-all. Pregnancy brings about new opportunities for intimacy, the special things that only get shared with your partner. We’re both a bit in love with my perfect dome of a belly. It’s still lovely to make contact, skin-on-skin, and now H can put his hand across my bump at night and feel the baby moving between us.

And, like all the difficult aspects of pregnancy, none of it is forever. In a few months’ time, I’ll find myself with a different body all over again, with problems and feelings that I can’t predict. Sometimes, the changes feel relentless. But then, I suppose we knew that when we started this.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on sex in pregnancy – or ways to feel intimate when sex isn’t on the cards.

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Bump-feeling and other unexpected pleasures

I am not a social kisser.

I am English, and we simply have no social conventions for it. It is therefore an unpleasant moment of embarrassment for all concerned – how many? Where? When? In fact, because I hate it so much, I routinely end up mis-timing the social kisses that I’m obliged to endure. I once licked a colleague’s ear due to a mis-kiss. More than once, I have kissed vague acquaintances squarely on the lips for the same reason. The whole thing is an endurance and ought to be banned.

Basically, I’m not keen on physical contact with anyone but my very nearest and dearest. Even handshakes sometimes leave me wondering if we couldn’t have got away with a respectful nod. So, I naturally assumed that I would hate bump-feeling with a passion.

I had been warned: strange old ladies leaping out from behind the racks at Marks and Spencer to grab you in the middle. Inappropriate advances from colleagues. I even took the precaution of tweeting: ‘If anyone tries to touch my bump, I will fucking bite them.’ Actually, that might have been in capitals. You can’t be too careful.

But then, it happened to me. I was standing in a cafe, waiting to be served. The woman next to me began to chat, I mentioned I was pregnant, and she got all excited and immediately reached out and stroked my emergent bump.

And the weird thing was, I liked it. It was sort of sisterly and appreciative, like I was a cake, and she couldn’t resist tasting the icing. It was totally sincere. After months of feeling sick and generally awful while having nothing to show for it, it felt good to be allowed to see pregnancy as a privilege, something that was an objectively exciting thing. I felt a little bit like I was being welcomed into a community in which my experiences of the world were acknowledged.

We don’t do much to mark rites of passage in our society. In fact, we deliberately turn a blind eye as childhood segues into adulthood, afraid as we are of drawing attention to that burgeoning fertility too soon. Sure, we celebrate weddings, but quite rightly we don’t expect it to form any sort of a community; I’ve no more in common with other married folk than I have with someone single.

Since I’ve been pregnant, I’ve noticed that I get treated more kindly by the people around me. Complete strangers go out of their way to ensure I’m alright. I’m almost invited to feel vulnerable, if that’s what I want, and I’m hugely grateful for it, because the whole experience has left me feeling a bit more pathetic than my usual self. And, for the first time in my life, I feel as though a rite of passage is being marked – not in any fixed, ceremonial way, but through a multitude of small gestures that acknowledge the changes I’m going through.

Now that the baby is moving inside me, having a bump is rather fun. I can now independently feel that he is fine as he swooshes around, without needing a medical intermediary. It’s endlessly fascinating (and a bit appalling) to see it growing every day; Herbert and I amuse ourselves every evening as I get undressed by declaring, ‘Bloody hell, it’s enormous! Surely it can’t get any bigger!’ ad infinitum.

What I really want to say, constantly, is I’m pregnant in thousand different voices: I’m pregnant (wonder); I’m pregnant (terror)I’m pregnant (excitement)I’m pregnant (queasiness). In any other context, this would be considered a bore; but instead, those who understand it because they’ve been through it themselves, all conspire to say it back to me: you’re pregnant! they say in chorus, and it feels like a blessing.

Now, I’m inclined to invite a little bump-feel, just in case people are too shy to ask. ‘Would you like a feel?’ I say, in the same way that I will, in a few months’ time, say, ‘Would you like a hold?’ Maybe one day, my own fingers will twitch to feel someone else’s bump, just to ignite the memories.

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Mama Reindeer

On our final day in Norway, we get up early to find the minibus that will take us out to Whale Island to meet native Sami folk and their reindeer. I am so tired that I feel sick, but I don’t want to miss this one, last expedition.

I feel better once we arrive. The drive takes us through the snowy Lyngen Alps, behind which the sun is rising, staining the mountains rose pink. We pass fjords where people are swimming, despite the unthinkable cold. Eventually, we pass a herd of reindeer and a Sami lavuu (which to my ignorant eye, resembles a Native American tipi), and stop at a wood cabin nearby.

There, we are greeted by a smiling woman named Trine, who ushers us in to get into warm clothes. It’s so cold today, she tells us, that we should put snow suits on over our coats, and rabbit skin deerstalkers over our existing hats. I have to ask if there’s anything big enough to fit over my bump, and suddenly I am the centre of attention. This is the first time in the holiday that the people around me have really been aware in pregnant; after all, bulked up in our various layers, we all look like zeppelins. But now I am being admired for leaving the house at all, it seems, and asked how I’m feeling, and when it’s due, and do we have any names yet. We proffer Albrecht, which apparently isn’t nearly as funny to Norwegians or Americans.

We are shown to a little caravan of reindeer sleds, which are all tied together, and staggered so that the reindeer that pulls the person behind you walks by your side. I am the first to be seated, alongside what I soon realise is the most docile of the reindeer, which is pure white with gentle eyes. Once we have trotted around the frozen lakes, Herbert tells me that his reindeer kept giving him wild, terrifying looks. This is possibly because he has a reindeer skin draped over his lap; he proved too tall to fit into any of the snow suits, and so has to find other ways to keep warm. When H asks if he can stroke one of them, Trine tells him, ‘Well you can, but bear in mind that the reindeer hate you.’

‘Do you notice how scruffy their antlers look?’ she asks us. ‘That’s because they’re due to fall off soon, before the Spring comes. These are all castrated males, but in the wild, they use their antlers to fight over the females. Around February, they shed their antlers, and soon grow another set, but they’re soft for a few months, and tender because the blood vessels are near the surface, so they avoid fighting until they’re hard again in the Autumn.

‘Meanwhile, the females’ bellies are swelling, and they have their young just when the males’ antlers are softest. So the females keep their antlers for longer, so that they can defend their babies against predators, because the males can’t look after them.’

Despite the snow suits, the cold is setting into our bones now, and so we are taken into the lavuu for some reindeer soup (yet another reason that the reindeer hate us). As I finish my bowl, Trine hurries over to replenish it. ‘You do not have your antlers, Mama Reindeer,’ she says, ‘so we must fill you up with soup instead.’

I well up; she’s summed up exactly how I’ve been feeling all this time, like I’m missing some defence or other that I’d normally expect to have.

 

*

 

That night, we walk down to the waterfront for a final meal, passing a group of Japanese women who are gazing into the sky.

‘They won’t see the Lights in central Tromso!’ I say to H.

He squints into the space above him. ‘Hang on,’ he says, ‘there might actually be something there.’ We walk to the water’s edge, where it’s darker, and above us see a huge arc of dark green light, stretching from the other side of the fjord, right over the top of the city. It’s like a final farewell from the lights, a bonus for all the hours we’ve put into per suing them over the last few days.

We eat in a restaurant that we can’t really afford, except that by now, we’ve become so immune to Norwegian prices that we’ve stopped worrying. I eat cod’s tongues and local duck, and Herbert eats cured lamb and reindeer fillet, washed down with beer from the town’s brewery.

‘I genuinely feel like we had one last adventure,’ I say to him. ‘I feel a bit more satisfied now.’

‘There’s no way we could have taken a child on this trip, not for a good few years. It was too cold, too many late nights, too much time being cooped up. It was definitely better with just us grown-ups.’

‘It’s funny though, because at the same time, I don’t feel so bad about losing that anymore. We’re just heading for a different sort of adventure now, aren’t we?’

We chew on for a while, and then Herbert pauses and raises his glass, and says,

‘To the Northern Lights!’

I chink it with my glass of water.

‘To the Arctic!’

Chink.

‘To the reindeer, who hate us!’

Chink.

‘Hey,’ says Herbert, ‘to Albrecht.’

‘To Albrecht,’ I reply, ‘who kind of made all this possible.’

 

 

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Under the Lights

‘I’d say the chance of seeing the lights tonight at 80 per cent,’ says Anna, our host for the evening. I try to fight a sense of disappointment at this; after all, the sight of the Northern Lights over Tromsø made the news on Sky in the UK last night. ‘It’s a very good chance,’ she says. I glance over at H; he’s trying to arrange his face into a picture of optimism, too. I wonder how we will justify the cost of this holiday to ourselves if the Aurora hides from us.

As the boat wobbles its way under Tromsø’s bridge and out into the open fjord, we are served a proper Norwegian supper of roast cod (caught onboard earlier in the day), baked potatoes, bacon and onion sauce. Despite his long-standing antagonism to eating any form of marine life, H declares it ‘fine, actually.’ High praise indeed. We chat to the other people on the tour, but it’s half-hearted. We’re not here to make friends. Frankly, I’d tread on their heads if it meant getting a better view of the Lights later. As it is, I continually crane my neck to glance out of the window and scan the sky, a futile gesture with the cabin lights reflecting the room back at me. ‘The skipper will let us know if he sees anything at all, don’t worry,’ says Anna.

I fidget with my clothes; the cabin is too warm for even a jumper, but I’m conscious that the lights are capable of only showing themselves for three or four minutes sometimes, and that’s roughly how long it will take to get all my gear on again. I wonder aloud to H whether it would be a better strategy to just tog up and sit out on deck, rather than waiting indoors. ‘Problem is,’ he says, ‘we’d end up getting cold and then missing them while we’re defrosting inside.’

Just as we’re sipping our berry tea, though, Anna casually wanders in and says, quietly, ‘Well, there’s  a little showing in the sky, only worth seeing if you’ve never viewed the Lights before.’ That’s enough for us; she might as well have screamed, ‘Man the lifeboats!’ We both scramble to pull on fleeces and coats, and I hang my video camera case around my neck. I pull on my hat and gloves as I get on deck, and gaze up into the sky, not sure what to expect.

Barely perceptible, there are two vertical streaks in the black sky above us. If I hadn’t been told they were the Aurora, I would have assumed they were smoke; they seem low in the sky, like displaced, thin cloud, and are tinged greenish. As I’m watching, though, they seem to spread in an arc which I could almost believe is centred on our boat. They are thin, indistinct and whitish; they don’t glow or dance. Rather, they shift imperceptibly over time, sometimes massing into a dense patch which is the palest green with edges; other times disappearing altogether. The only thing that stops me from believing that they are drifting smoke from some aged fishing boat is their crisp bottom edge. Their base is a perfect, clear curve, but their upper limit shifts and smudges. They are frustratingly elusive.

‘What did you think?’ I ask H, after we’re out of the earshot of the other passengers.

‘I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘I mean, I’m glad we saw them, but they weren’t what I expected.’

‘Same as that. I’m glad we got to see them on the first night; it takes the pressure off. If we don’t get another chance, at least we’ll be able to say we had a sighting.’

‘Yes,’ says H, ‘but I don’t quite feel satisfied.’

‘It just wasn’t dark enough.’

‘No, I think that too. I want to see them against a completely black sky now.’

We both walk on in silence, knowing that this commits us to a great deal more expense. But equally, I need something more than this. I have not travelled all the way into the Arctic Circle to wonder at a patch of mist for an hour.

 

*

 To kill time the next afternoon, we go to Polaria, a museum of the Northern Arctic, which suddenly seems like a cheap activity at ten pounds a head. It’s a pleasant surprise: we try a Norwegian waffle with soured cream, local brown cheese and berry jam, and then watch a film about the Northern Lights that, briefly, leaves me feeling like I understand how they’re created. Then, we walk over to a pool where four bearded seals live, and spend an undignified amount of time standing in a perspex tunnel beneath them and cooing like people who have never seen animal before. They corkscrew over our heads over and over again, and we gasp every time. Then we watch them being fed, their trainers getting them to jump, high-five and dance their thick whiskers for the crowd.

Afterwards, I can’t help saying to Herbert that I wish we’d had the Albrecht [the baby’s womb name] with us already today, because we’d have enjoyed it even more through his eyes. I expect him to shrug, but he doesn’t; instead he says, ‘yeah, I know exactly what you mean.’ In the gift shop, we spend a long time choosing him a fluffy polar bear, so that we can one day tell him that he visited the Arctic before he was even born.

 

  *

 

We head out on our coach journey around seven that evening, and drive for a couple of hours in the darkness. We marvel at the steadiness of Norwegian drivers, whose tyres are covered in studs. In England, this sort of weather is enough to shut down the whole country. Great outcrops of rock surround the roads, glazed in thick, shining ice, like miles and miles of frozen waterfalls. The lights are dimmed in the coach so we can all watch out for the faintest streak in the sky, and the atmosphere is muted, expectant, watchful.

Finally, the coach performs a u-turn and parks in a lay-by, and we’re told that we’re going to walk down onto the banks of a fjord to see if there’s anything to see. The onboard thermometer registers -12, and I wonder if perhaps they might wait for a surer bet before dragging us out into the cold. The sky looks unpromising as we tramp into the snow – black and starrily beautiful, but no lights in sight. There’s a refreshing lack of regard for health and safety here; all of us, young and old, slip and slide down an icy bank, onto a frozen shore so dark that we can do nothing but constantly trip and stumble. We are trying to get away from the road, with its sodium streetlights ruining the view.

It’s bitterly cold. Herbert tucks his scarf up around his face so that he looks like a bandit. I pull my hood up over my hat. This means I can’t turn my head, but it’s a small sacrifice to make. The cold finds every tiny gap in our clothing. The fjord stretches blackly before us.

‘There are some lights emerging,’ our guide calls, and points to a faint streak directly in front of us. It doesn’t look like much; even less than last night’s display. But, as we watch, we see other patches appearing to the left and right of us. One seems to grow up from behind the nearest mountain, and then spread across the sky in vertical ridges, which flare and smudge into each other until the sky is full of them. They are mainly green with the tiniest hint of pink at the edges; you can actually see them travel across the sky. Every now and again, they dance, their bottom edge flowing like a rippling skirt. It’s breathtaking.

The Northern Lights look different in photographs. The long exposures intensify their colours and make their forms cleaner-cut. I now realise, too, that every film I have ever seen of them has been sped-up. In real life, the Aurora seeps slowly and mysteriously across the sky, gradually morphing into new shapes like ink dissolving in water. They are not bright lights, but rather a subtle glow: the stars can still shine through them.

Watching them is a constant process of doubt; after a while, I realise that we’re all using the language of Most Haunted, squinting in to the sky and saying, ‘Can I see something manifesting over there? Maybe a faint glow above that hill? Yes, yes, it’s getting clearer now!’ We might as well be looking for orbs. But therein lies their reward: they are a subjective encounter. You get the sense that everyone sees a different display.

We watch them slowly unfold for an hour and a half before we are forced to give in and head back to the coach. I don’t want to leave them, but my knees are aching, and my feet are so cold that I can no longer feel them. Just as we are taking one final glance, we watch one star shoot between them, and then another. ‘Make a wish,’ I say to Herbert.

 

These photos were taken by Karen and Anja of the Arctic Guide Service that evening. Sadly our own cameras weren’t good enough!

 

You can listen to my Audioboos from Norway here.

 

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Bring on the Armoured Bears!

I am not really the kind of girl who owns a wardrobe full of practical, sturdy outdoor wear. In all fairness, even if I did, this probably wouldn’t have helped me much when heading to Tromso at the end of this week. I am getting the distinct sense that no-one expects you to cross the Arctic Circle at 23 weeks pregnant.

No normal clothing fits me any more – not my warmest snow coat, nor my waterproof, nor my thermals – and there’s a distinct lack of maternity ski wear available. Perhaps this, finally, is my gap in the market, from which I will make the millions I’ve always dreamed of. But I doubt it somehow. Most pregnant women are simply too sensible to brave the snow.

I have solved the problem, I think, with a pair of 42-inch-waist men’s thermal walking trousers, which I bought in the Hawkshead online sale, and which  I’d like to pretend were a loose fit. I also bought a truly horrible XXL men’s jacket, which closely ressembles the sort of thing you see football managers sporting on a Saturday afternoon. All I can say about these garments is: thank god they were heavily reduced. If I’d have paid full price for them, I think I might have sat down and wept.

So, I will not be looking glamorous in Tromso. I will instead be looking like a rotund girl guide leader who’s wandered too far from camp. I will also, I suspect, be looking more than a little matchy-matchy with Herbert, who has bought exactly the same set of garments. We will even be modelling identical  Asda men’s thermal Long Johns underneath it all. Just call us Harold and Hilda.

Still, at least nobody knows me in Tromso, and so won’t be able to witness my sartorial fall from grace. And, of course, it’s very much not the point. We’re making this journey in order to cross the first item off our bucket list, and probably the biggest one too. We’re hoping to see the Northern Lights.

I’m not entirely sure that I should have waited until now to go and see them. Quite aside from the fact that we should be saving our pennies at the moment, instead of spending them, most of the things I’d really love to do in Norway are out of the question. Skidoos and saunas must be avoided, and I’m quite incapable of staying up after ten o’clock, let alone sitting up all night in the hope of an elusive sighting. And even the more relaxing trips – like a ride in a husky sled – seem to last about 6 hours, which would stretch my pregnant endurance levels to their limit.

But, still. I just have to accept that I can’t tackle this holiday in the way I could have done six months ago. I will have to take lots of rest, and target all my energies towards the things that matter. Being in Tromso (rather than taking a cheaper package trip to Iceland) means that we’ll have the best chance of a sighting of the elusive lights, which are currently at the height of their brilliance. But it also means a slightly more pregnant-friendly environment, too. It’s reassuring to be in a city, with cafes, shops and, dare I say it, hospitals, nearby.

All in all, I wish I’d been a bit more adventurous with my holidays before it became difficult. I’ve spent years saying, ‘I’d love to see the Northern Lights one day,’ without ever seriously thinking of doing anything about it. For all its inconveniences, maybe I should be grateful for the deadline that pregnancy has given me.

 

Gorgeous footage of The Northern Lights:

 

 

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Storify: your pregnancy bucket lists

 

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