i’m new at this publicly pregnant thing.

wandering (waddling) through the aisles of Canadian Tire today, absentmindedly looking for some kind of contraption in which to store the overgrowth of plastic bags that has taken over our mudroom, i noticed people looking at me funny. not unkindly, just…intently. expectantly, even. it took me a minute to realize that my protuberant belly – and not my haircut or the spinach in my teeth, as feared – was probably at the root of the gazes. i offered a vague smile up to the strangers. they beamed in return. and then they swooped. and the questions, complete with belly petting intense enough to warrant a slot on the sports channel, began.

it seems there are four basic queries that everyone – or at least every female between the ages of forty and ninety-seven – considers herself obliged to ask of a visibly pregnant woman. the script is preset: ‘when’s your due date?’ ‘do you know what you’re having?’ ‘is this your first?’ and – if question three be answered in the negative – ‘what do you have at home?’ i’ve spent most of the very pregnant part of this incubation in a maternity hospital rather than out in the wide world, so i’m only now, at 35 weeks, starting to see this pattern emerge. and i am only beginning to process my answers into a litany suitable for strangers.

it shouldn’t be complicated. i’m due on the 18th of May (to which i inevitably get either a comment on what a nice time of year that will be to have a baby, or a raised eyebrow at the vastness of my belly so far in advance of due date). i’m having a little boy (which reaps much praise, though i suspect/hope most would be equally banally enthusiastic if i were having a girl). and no, this isn’t my first. but what do i have at home? well, no one. a kitten? i tried that deflection, which got me looked at severely. in the discourse of public pregnancy, one apparently does not stray from the acceptable script.

but the script does not really have room for my answer. we had a son. his name was Finn. he was a 26 week preemie, sprouted with tubes and incomprehensibly loud machines that tried pointlessly to keep his collapsed lungs functioning. he grasped our fingers in tiny hands, fingertips black from lack of oxygen. he had his father’s toes. he delighted us, and changed us…he made us parents. and he died in my arms at 11 hours old, last April.

now it is April again. Eliot called it the cruellest month, but April has been kind to me so far, this year…i am big of belly once more, and free suddenly to roam about the world at will. the baby i’m carrying is far along enough to be born safely and without major complications, should he decide to come soon. i am happy, full of grace. and still, i am stumped, when it comes to this script about babies – this public discourse of cheery questions and belly patting. there is no polite way to announce to a perfect – and perfectly benevolent – stranger in the middle of a grocery aisle that my firstborn died. the stranger doesn’t want that information. she doesn’t really want any information about me as a human being, though there is no rudeness intended in the exclusion: she wants to participate in the ritual conversation my belly invites her into, pat said belly, wish me luck, and disappear, never to see me again. me, i find myself wanting to disappear in the middle of the conversations.

and yet, perversely, i delight in the normalcy of them. i didn’t get far enough along in the first pregnancy to really experience them – i was whisked out of public and into a hospital just at the mysterious “is she pregnant or chunky?” phase of bodily blossoming. and when i was confined to bed at 25 weeks in this pregnancy, somewhere underneath my terror for the baby and for us, the everpresent fear of being heartbroken again, there was a much more mundane little voice whining quietly “poor bonnie.” i expected to be in bed for the rest of the pregnancy. and i secretly grieved the rites of passage, however irritating in practice, that i thought i’d miss out on again – the belly patting, the unsolicited advice, mostly just the general goodwill extended to those carrying the next generation. i also grieved the fetching red maternity shirt i’d saved up for but still not gotten to wear because it was too huge.

i wore it yesterday. it stretches now, over the belly – i almost missed its window of wearability. and the cashier at the market asked me the usual questions, and i lied. and felt plastic, and strange…but safer, less exposed. this baby is not my first: i’ve been through labour, had my milk come in, gazed into the small face of my newborn. but i left all that out. i smiled, and said “yes, it’s my first.”

i don’t want to dishonour Finn by pretending he never existed. he was my first, and he was wanted, and loved. those who know me know about him. but what i’m realizing is that the discourse of pregnancy is not about him, or me, or even the new baby-to-be, not as individuals: these women with their shopping carts and their questions are not asking to know me. they are initiating me, rather, into public motherhood, wherein my child (and my interactions with him) will be the focus of plenty of inane inquiries and repetitive questions and proud sharing of minutiae. all of this will be a first for me…and i am ready and waiting, and kinda psyched.

but i don’t think i’ll mourn the end of all this belly patting. :)