One of the challenging aspects of having a baby in Pakistan is that it is culturally inappropriate for a woman to be obviously pregnant. Pakistan is a conservative society and it is generally held that pregnant women should remain indoors. I’m not sure whether this is because the sight of a pregnant belly is considered somehow shameful or because women considered to be in such a fragile condition are expected to remain at home in order to be protected – but whatever the reason, pregnancies are generally concealed from public view as soon as they become obvious.
This is rather odd, of course, since Pakistan as a nation deeply welcomes and treasures children in a way that Western countries have stopped doing. When eating at restaurants the waiters are more than happy to take care of our kids while we finish our food at a more leisurely pace, while the sight of one of our blonde-haired children is enough to make passing ladies stop and pinch their cheeks admiringly. Yet this aspect of Pakistani culture is entrenched, and when I announced to our landlord that we would soon be welcoming our fourth child, I did so in hushed tones, as though quietly informing him that I had a bottle of whiskey hidden in my car.
“Our fourth child will soon be joining us” I said quietly one morning. “So please forgive us if there is more noise than usual”.
“Ah” he said, gravely but kindly. “I quite understand”.
We exchanged knowing nods and shook hands as though engaging in some dodgy business transaction, and went our separate ways.
The thing is, we can’t afford for my wife to retreat into the house and become a hermit for the last trimester of her pregnancy. We have jobs to do, children to take to school, shopping to manage, and nobody to support us – no nearby relatives, no mother-in-law to move in and take charge for three months as a Pakistani mother-in-law would do. So we were forced to disregard this aspect of Pakistani culture – regretfully, of course, since we do everything we can to respect local customs, but what else could we do?
So for the final three months of the pregnancy we went about our business as though guilty of some weird secret, covering up the increasingly conspicuous physical evidence of our child’s imminent arrival with baggy clothing and hurried shopping trips. I doubt we fooled anyone. It’s astonishing how perceptive Pakistani people are, particularly women. I’m not too concerned, though. Our child’s quickening in the womb was made evident not just by my wife’s swelling belly, but in our smiles, and in our trepidation, and in a quiet and private sense of joy.