'Who's up the duff then?' demands Beth, spotting the saved-for-a-special-occasion Laurent Perrier. My hand creeps sheepishly upwards. Jaws droop downwards, as if the duff is a creek and I am without a paddle. This lasts a split second - but registers like a nine-month term - before erupting in to ecstatic oh-my-gods as the bottle is phallically opened, poured and rather unfittingly spilt.
'I am coming to the realisation that we weren't put on earth just to go to the pub,' Paul had mused a year ago. In the pre- (and not to mention fairly anti-) natal days, this was dismissed by all as too unwieldy a comment to focus our double vision on. In my eighth month, the pub is still the setting, but nothing else is the same. For me, because drinking bloody Virgin Marys seems inappropriate in every way. For the others, because I have just asked them to extinguish their cigarettes. More subtly, because the bump has protruded into everyone's lives. The state of their vision makes it twice as large.
'Congratulations!' booms the boss, yet his eyes darken with thoughts of how he'll be affected by my eternity leave. Only on reassurances of duties resumed within six months do his eyes light up at the thought of a baby around. And then the lunge to feel the tummy when he realises it already is. Neatly giving weight to the theory, expounded by my colleague Maziar, that the pregnant tummy is unique in its ability to break the British no-touchy, no-feely taboo. Even more so when the thought of a baby swells into something more tangible - the bump. Although part of me, it's become a thing in its own right - a public right. Sign of new life, rite of passage; to the extent that my excited mother congratulated my partner, Matt, not on his news, but on his sperm.
Pregnancy is obviously about sex, but sexy it has hardly ever been - in the mainstream media at least. That all changed in 1991 when a nude and pregnant Demi Moore posed on the cover of Vanity Fair. Controversy ensued and the US cover was censored with a piece of paper in a plastic wrapper. Unsurprisingly, it was not despite, but because of, this that the image became iconic and was assimilated into popular consciousness. A decade ago pregnant images of high-powered women like this were discussed in terms of having - or at least wanting - it all. In today's cultural climate the baby and bump often come across as a life/style accessory. Look at Posh Spice, Madonna, Allsaints, Kate Winslet, Iman, Zoe Ball, even poor old Ben Elton…and not forgetting television's Waynetta Slob who wails '…but I want a braaan baby, like the other girls on the estate.' Back in Central London, it seems a baby doesn't give you sleepless nights, but an extra dimension. And matching cocktail? The Slippery Nipple.
The appeal of the bump is that neither the romantic ideal of a gurgling cherub - or you - has yet been put to the test. In the media, of course, they never are. Hardly a glimpse of the toils of pregnancy or labour, and after birth (oh, sicko, certainly none of that) no sign of the exhaustion that ensues. Magazines like Hello! and OK! are kept going on the glut of celebs dying to show their fresh faces, fabulous tummies, and 'personal joy' at their new babies for a bit of PR. The babies are never crying and thank heavens you can't scratch 'n' sniff. Bar the squashed and bewildered look of those new born - yup, even to the stars- the peachy image is complete. Mind you, I bet they don't rock their babies or roll their prams once the paparazzi disappear: their nannies do. Lucky for some; but then I once heard a woman explain '…it's not my fault that I'm no good with the kids. I've only had them three years.' Perhaps, like Posh Spice and the rest, she was too busy down the gym getting her shape back so her body showed no sign of change.
Indeed, the most high-profile change for Ms Victoria Adams was not her baby but her subsequent conversion to Mrs David Beckham; noteworthy here because media pregnancy is still about being in the right club. Brooklyn Beckham is always pictured in domestic and/or parental bliss. Scary's baby to a Spice Girls dancer - who she then split from - came around the same time but was not pictured as much. Madonna's child Rocco was christened (al)most respectably on the day of her marriage to Guy Ritchie. Zoe Ball announced - most publicly - that she was leaving work to find more private fulfilment within the marital home. Since then she has re-emerged in her public role, but feels the need to stress that it's OK; the Fat Boy's at home with the kid. Moreover, it is significant that it was the most famously married-to-Bruce-Willis Demi Moore who popularised the pregnant image in the first place and not Neneh Cherry, who had in fact appeared on Top Of The Pops back in 1989, in what should have been her 'confinement' as one complaint put it. Her bare tummy was difficult not only because it was working, active and sexualised but because it was decontextualised; without man or home in view. Ulrika Johnson disappeared from the pages of Hello! Half way through her pregnancy when she found out her baby had a hole in the heart. Then the father left before they were out of hospital. She only re-appeared once her daughter had been treated and there was a space for her the lifestyle media could deal with; the interview in which she tells us how she overcame all the odds.
It's partly to try and minimise difficulties like these that the medical establishment has historically intervened in maternity - to the extent that hospitalisation is the most dominant image of birth that we consume in the West today. With the Americanisation of the British health service this model is increasingly shot through with the mentality of consumerism - about choice and control. For instance, IVF is appealing because it gives more women reproductive choice. From there it's only a short step to seeing the logic in controlling that choice and creating the designer baby. Still a controversial idea, yet the success of websites like Genius Sperm Bank show how comfy we've actually become with the idea. Genetic engineering eliminates chance once and for all; boy or girl, clever or really clever. In this light, the Demi Moore pose has been described as looking like a woman clutching a shopping bag. The pick'n'mix baby is acceptable practice in Britain on medical grounds, but increasingly we hear cases where parents simply want a child to order. If it sounds like I'm describing a brave new world, not ours, then just think how common it is to ask whether the parents are hoping for a boy or girl; a pretty pointless question if we were really happy with the idea of nature running its course. And so it is in this current climate, where the rhetoric of patient as customer and the idea of the perfect baby is so widespread, that people are bound to be disappointed and looking to get, through litigation, their money-back guarantee.
It's thrilling that ultrasound scans can enable us to see a baby moving in the womb, yet their real purpose is to scan it - like a cover girl - for 'imperfections' or a normal rate of growth. Both have obvious benefits yet it's the first taste of the baby being shaped and sized up for our constructed adult world. 'It's too small' the midwife tuts stretching the tape measure over my belly as I lie on the hospital bed, my nether regions exposed towards a no-exit sign stating, quite understandably, THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. 'You are clearly working too hard and stressed,' she continues, 'I don't wish to worry you, but you need a sizing scan.' Contrary to her wishes, I'm with the door on this one. Then alarm turns to sadness as I know it's just the beginning. If it's a girl then it'll never hear that again, as no girl is small enough. If it's a boy small will be the bane of its life, for no member of the male sex can be big enough. (Two weeks later I'm told that in fact it's not small, it's just the way it's sitting.)
Most at odds with the media's soft-focus image of pregnancy is the rawness of birth itself. Yet by removing it from view, as hospitalisation also does, it seems we have created a fear of the unknown; I've lost count of the times I have been asked 'Are you scared of the birth?' 'No,' I reply defiantly. 'I'm actually really excited.' But I start to be jittery once I've heard it enough.' Similarly, in pathologising maternity the medical establishment have normalised the idea it's a painful 'condition' that needs to be dealt with. So it's easy to see why some people have started to welcome and increasingly freely choose to have a Caesarean section, which (glossing over the fact it is major abdominal surgery with its painful - and often much slower - recovery) seems to have maintained the image of being a painless birth. Presumably chasing this dream, a girl I know paid £11,000 for a Caesarean and five days in a private hospital that she could pencil into her diary months in advance. If one just ignores the middle bit, it does seem rather appealing; mum-to-be went in coiffed and manicured, and the baby came out to a champagne reception. But when I ask Charlotte if they think the new mum will have any more, with a smile she says 'Only if it becomes fashionable to have a second.' 'Too posh to push,' Rachel, who's a midwife, tells me they call it in the trade. Yet recreational surgery doesn't seem so bizarre in a culture where choosing to cut up and re-arrange our faces is, not only on the rise, but a trend. Symptomatic of this was a recent TV discussion on whether the NHS should offer Caesarean on demand for a (much smaller) fee. Medical 'experts' presented the topic as being about the human (consumer) right to 'freedom of choice'. The system of ideas and practices, which leads so many women to make this choice, wasn't given much thrift at all.
'Natural' childbirth is supposedly the exact opposite of the IT girl's birth-free birth. It's often trivialised by the establishment as 'alternative' - intermittently a feminist / tasselled earth mother / Notting Hill thing to do. Yet equally problematic is the way those who advocate it sometimes grab the moral high ground and present it rather romantically as 'inevitable' and 'as nature intended'. Unsurprisingly, some women feel disappointed when they can't, live up to it. Yet it's not surprising they can't because it is simply another fatiguing image of how women should ideally be. The hospital midwife delivery - which by far the greatest number of people have - sits somewhere between these two 'extremes'. In a parallel with the reductive way different lifestyles are presented in the media, these methods are often presented, in Britain at least, as mutually exclusive - both physically in terms of where they take place and in terms of 'what they say about you'. The National Childbirth Trust don't actually push one choice over another, as many believe, but try to demystify practices and penetrate rhetoric in order to empower the expectant couple with knowledge, confidence and - lo and behold - excitement. Oh, and a voice.
So of course I bounce along to the hospital with my birth plan in hand and the motto 'babies are born, pizzas are delivered' in mind. Only to be regarded wearily by the obstetrician with that 'I know your type' look and the words, 'In my experience, the most troublesome births happen to women who think they know what they want. My advice is to just listen to the midwife.' So much for all the NHS spiel about 'customer centredness'... So I feel lucky that my partner, Matt, over eight weeks of ante-natal sessions has been primed not only to be the supporting new man, as you'd expect, but an attendant Anne Robinson. You might not want her cuddling you during the birth but negotiating a zillion doctors wielding foot long needles? Safe you'd feel indeed.
Although it's easy to berate the media for showing trite images of how we ought to live our lives, there are at least many lifestyles to choose from; so we can get away from baby mania should we choose. And no doubt will; for consumer logic tells us that now the bump has been the 'in' thing for a while, it's pretty soon bound to become 'passé'. Hastened no doubt by the line, propounded by the theorist Mary O'Brien, that there's a new class division between those who breed and those who do not. Economically, she says, girls in the club don't come out on top. Yet when you (it's too late for me) zip down to the clinic to get kitted out for the consequence-free shag, it's amusing to find they still call it family planning. Historically, a most pointed choice of words, but perhaps today they are more apt to describe the designer baby trend. Yet with this kind of steadfastness, it would be a mistake to think the medical world is immune to the vacillations of fashion. For while the media may be trying to cultivate our taste for babies right now, the extreme edges of genetic science are trying to modify babies to fit our tastes. An odd idea, considering tastes change. Imagine the dreaded put-down: 'Jeez, your kid is so Nineties.' At least in the media, views of the baby and bump can change because, in the end, they are only modifying images not real people. And lastly, the life-style schmooze makes maternity look wonderful, not stressful and ridden with pitfalls. Offered the choice, I know which attitude I'd rather have.
And so for the all protestations about the consumption of just about every last thing on this planet, it's impossible not to be complicit to some extent. Forget No Logo, Clare from my ante-natal classes called her little girl Biba after the cult Sixties clothes shop. As for me, I would justify my early cravings for pie and chips as the baby tapping into the Nineties trend for back-to-British cuisine. Later on, seated in a London design store in front of a contemporary Jasper Morrison lamp and listing its pros and cons over a Fifties Louis Poulsen , the baby prods me in the bladder for the first time ever. And, tuned in to my bump as every mum should be, I instinctively translate: 'Ooh, it wants the Morrison.' A stylish choice of course and thrifty too -well, in context, that is- for it cost £100 less than its retro competitor. This child, it seems, is shaping up nicely.