Last Wednesday wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve felt like high-fiving Rashida Jones. I loved her in Parks and Rec, almost as much as Leslie Knope did. She co-wrote an episode of Black Mirror (is anything cooler?) and I swooned slightly when I discovered her dad was Thriller producer Quincy Jones and her mother was Peggy Lipton of Twin Peaks fame. But if I met her now, I’d sidestep all that and high-five her for her secret baby. In fact, no – I’d do the I-had-a-secret-baby handshake with her, because me and Rashida? We’re part of a club.
Announcing the birth of your secret baby is a little tricky – anyone who’s ever had a secret baby knows that. Do you send out cookies with the secret baby’s face on them? Plan an elaborate firework display with a finale in the shape of the secret baby’s name? Go old school and place an ad in the paper, hoping the relevant authorities (a.k.a. schoolfriends you haven’t seen in 15 years) will see it and send a 'Congratulations on your Secret Baby' card? Or take to Facebook and post a candid shot of yourself looking totally serene as you breastfeed like a pro? The possibilities are endless. However you do it, although tricky, finally announcing the arrival is the fun part. Keeping your baby secret for 40 long, pregnant weeks? Less fun. Much trickier.
Just ask Kylie Jenner, who wasn’t spotted in public for months until she surprise-delivered baby Stormi and hit 'process' on an 11-minute-long video entitled 'To Our Daughter' which, to date, has almost 75 million views on YouTube. I’m not saying my global following is anywhere near as big as Kylie's – in fact, my global following mostly consists of my mum – but the anxiety I felt about sharing details of my pregnancy on social media – actually, with anyone beyond my closest family and friends – was fairly intense, so, like Kylie, I kept my gestating baby a secret. (I still haven’t made her an 11-minute-long YouTube video either; the unfortunate absence of a film crew on retainer has somewhat hindered my progress on that front.)
The innate anxiety attached to Western birth culture allowed me to massage my fears (along with my perineum), blowing innocent worries way out of proportion.
I have suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) for many years. As a condition, it’s characterised by feelings of extreme anxiety that sometimes seem to have little basis in reality – you know, your boyfriend misses a bus, his phone dies and by the time he gets back 15 minutes later than scheduled you’ve set up a Facebook group and notified his relatives he’s missing. I manage my GAD with a combination of antidepressants and therapy and most of the time, I’ve got it on lock.
When you’re pregnant, though, you’re often encouraged to act on intense feelings of anxiety – to visit the hospital if you’re worried your baby isn’t moving enough, to avoid eating all the best cheese, to repeatedly apply oil to prevent perineal tearing, that sort of thing. I spent my entire pregnancy very unwell, constantly losing faith in the capability of my body to carry my baby safely, and certain that this meant I could lose her at any moment. The innate anxiety attached to Western birth culture allowed me to massage my fears (along with my perineum), blowing innocent worries way out of proportion – and intersecting the constant turmoil I was in about my baby’s health was another anxiety, fed by the looming presence of social media.
The idea that people I didn’t really know might see my growing belly, become somehow invested in my baby, and that if I lost her, I’d have to enter into a vicious, repetitive cycle of telling people, over and over again that she was gone, was too much to bear. I told close friends and family that I was expecting a baby, but I shut out everyone else. The people I’d joke with daily on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter were neatly compartmentalised away. My partner and I had left London, our home of many years, the year before and moved to a place where neither of us knew anyone, so keeping my bump under wraps wasn’t too difficult. I simply stopped posting photographs of myself online. My parents and sister knew I was pregnant, and my very best friends knew (from the second I turned down that first tequila). But unless I saw people in real life, I didn’t share; I was scared to.
Mother-of-one Laura Murphy, 36, felt the same. Having miscarried a previous pregnancy, she worried about writing anything on social media when she became pregnant with her son. "A few of my close university friends found out after, once he was born – I sent them a photograph and said, here’s my baby!" she laughs. "But because of previous experiences – having lost one – the last thing you want to do is post on social media that you’re having one and go through that whole embarrassment, to have to take it back if you lose it again. It’s not something you want to publicise for the world." Murphy still hasn’t posted anything about her son on Facebook. "You also just don’t know who’s out there, who’s looking," she says.
My husband was on the phone when I took the test, and in that moment, as I stared at the two pink lines, there were only two creatures that knew about the existence of my baby: me, and her.
Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist who focuses on the family and the author of Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life, agrees. "Initially social media was seen as a warm social space, where people could share information easily and safely. That image has changed dramatically in the past few years," she explains. "It began with growing awareness of how we could be mocked or bullied for things we had revealed, and how what was shared could invade our privacy. More recently the exposure we fear is vast and menacing. When parents share information about pregnancy and children, they now balance the joy and pride they want to express on social media against the exposure to unknown dangers, whether from sexual predators or manipulative political groups."
For me, on top of the constant, buzzing fear, there was also a tiny, precious pleasure in keeping it a secret. My husband was on the phone when I took the test that told me I was pregnant, and in that moment, as I stared at two pink lines on a litmus strip, there were only two creatures that knew about the existence of my baby: me, and – maybe – her. It felt right to keep her private, to stop anyone else from knowing about her before she even knew herself.
Now she knows herself, alright. She knows that in a fruit hierarchy, blueberries come top (she pronounces them "blooblys", FYI). She knows she can refuse to kiss her mummy if she wants to (consent starts at home, you know). She knows that she can throw her unwanted potatoes on the floor and her faithful servant, the dog, will lick them up in seconds. And I know her now, too; I know she is robust and brave and, without doubt, my proudest achievement, and that sharing the odd photo of her on Facebook won’t jinx her existence (wasting potatoes might, though – who does that?). It gives me a little buzz when people I haven’t seen in years comment to tell me how beautiful she is.
Still, I’m glad that she was only mine for those first nine months. Murphy agrees. "Even when I went for my first scan, the woman went, 'Oh! A lot of people sit here and put it straight on social media,' but I thought that was so bizarre. The last thing on my mind was to publicise it. It’s a personal thing, for me and my partner."
I want to high-five Rashida Jones because her baby is out in the world now, and the world will want to learn about him, but for a few sweet, quiet months, she was able to keep his existence private, to grow him and get to know him all on her own. We can all learn a lesson from the resolve it must have taken to maintain that precious intimacy on a planet where, whether you’re famous or not, everybody wants a piece of you.