Should the Duchess of Sussex skip the post-baby royal photos? - harpersbazaar.com

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This month, the Duchess of Sussex is expected to give birth to an already world-famous royal baby. We don't know what gender the child is, nor the specific due date, or even where the baby will be born. It's also unclear as to whether Meghan will stand on the steps of the hospital and pose for the international press just hours after having the baby as the Duchess of Cambridge did with her three children.

The latter detail is already garnering airtime – last weekend US parenting site Fridababy published an open letter[1] in the New York Times addressed to the duchess, urging her not to follow tradition and stand on the steps flawlessly smiling for the cameras to appease the press.

"What the masses criticised is a society that tries to hide women's pain"

The company's CEO, Chelsea Hirschhorn, wrote, "You'll smile, you'll wave, you'll be radiant, but between your legs will be a whole different story. Spoiler alert: bringing a new life into the world usually starts with your vagina, and the aftermath is a mess. The bleeding and swelling will linger, peeing will burn, and sitting like your old self will feel like a herculean feat. And if it's a C-section, there's a whole host of other issues to tend to.

"Skip the pomp and circumstance of the baby parade," she concluded with humour. "Let the headlines instead read: 'Prince Brings Royal Baby Out Because Mom Is in Bed Sitting on a Pack of Ice.'"

Now, this is a divisive issue. Whether or not a royal woman or any woman decides to leave the hospital hours after birth in heels and with pristine hair and make-up is entirely up to her. The Duchess of Cambridge was criticised for being inauthentic, but there are many different postpartum realities and some women feel better than others. Some women shoot out their baby on the toilet, others spent days in agony on a hospital bed. There isn't a standardised version of childbirth and no woman should be pilloried for their experience or be told that their post-hospital exit is unrealistic.

And yet Kate's serene departure from the Lindo Wing in 2017 prompted a lot of criticism because of the idealised picture it offered of childbirth. You don't need to be a parent to appreciate the huge physical and emotional effort it must have taken a presumably exhausted Kate to – just seven hours after giving birth – get in the shower, put on her adult nappy, get her arms inside that Jenny Packham dress, have her hair blow-dried and her make-up applied, then to pull her tights or stockings up over her swollen legs before sliding her feet into a pair of heels.

"There isn't a standardised version of childbirth and no woman should be told that her experience is unrealistic"

Next, she was presumably marched to the hospital entrance, propped up by her husband, to face a gaggle of snap-happy photographers and journalists, where she dutifully smiled and waved beatifically. Never are the pressures of royal women quite as obvious as they are post-birth. No one is criticising Kate for putting on some mascara and lipstick for a presumably obligatory photo opp. What the masses criticised – and the reason so many mothers reacted by sharing their own very contrasting pictures of their postpartum states[2] – is a society that tries to make women mask their pain, a world that tries to obscure their truth.

We can slam the royal family for following this path, but part of the reason they do so is because they will be relentlessly hounded until they give the press something to run with. And the uncomfortable truth is that, as much as we berate the press for such inexcusable intrusiveness, the press want that shot because it sells newspapers and sends huge numbers to websites. It's because the public wants it.

Although a lot of women, particularly in the UK, leave the hospital hours after given birth, they are typically allowed to do so in their pyjamas or tracksuit bottoms, hair undone and fresh-faced (or as fresh as any woman can look in the immediate aftermath of childbirth). Lest we forget, labour hurts and the effects are far from pain-free. At the very best, there's the heavy bleeding, soreness and indescribable exhaustion. Some women leave the hospital bow-legged. Others are reeling from spinal injections. We don't talk about any of this much because women have historically adopted stoicism to appease societal expectations. There is still a systemic belief that women should find child-bearing, postpartum and motherhood easy, that if a mother (or father) admits to finding it a challenge that they have somehow failed a test they were never given the brief for[3]. It is maddeningly linked to not being very good at the job.

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The Prince and Princess of Wales with Prince William in 1982 and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince George in 2013

Getty

This is changing, but slowly. Keira Knightley articulated her own visceral recollection of childbirth last year[4]. "My vagina split," she wrote in an essay, describing "the shit, the vomit, the blood, the stitches" and the "blood running down my thighs, arse, cellulite". The actress went on to talk about Kate's very differing post-baby hospital exit: "Look beautiful, look stylish, don't show your battleground Kate." The media covered Knightley's words as a personal attack against Kate, a complete mistruth. Knightley was rallying against an establishment that demands women conceal the realities of childbirth while "our bodies splitting, our breasts leaking, our hormones raging".

Prince William Kate Prince Louis
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince Louis on 23 April 2018

Getty

It's no doubt an issue that the Duchess of Sussex will have given ample thought to in the weeks leading up to the birth of her first child. Meghan may well breeze through labour and depart the hospital beaming with her newborn looking as polished and sunny as ever. But such a decision does seem incongruous with the values of someone who has long committed herself to giving a voice to women, empowering them and shouting about their truths. The Duchess of Sussex has not played by the rules since becoming a royal, talking passionately and with candour about issues she cares about[5]. Her wedding itself defied convention, and already it's been rumoured that she will not have her baby in the Lindo Wing where Kate and Diana, Princess of Wales, both gave birth.

"These photo moments exist so that the public never questions what the royals are actually for"

Meghan will be damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. If she refuses to wave serenely, babe in arms, messy bun intact, outside the hospital then she will be criticised by the right-wing conservative media for not curtailing to her royal duties, amplifying the comical 'difficult woman' tag that she's been lumbered with. And there's the Palace's rules to consider – whatever the Queen says goes. The reason royal women are paraded out to the press post-birth like showponies in heels is the same reason royal weddings come with so much inexplicable pomp – for the monarchy to survive it must be noticed. Royal babies and weddings and the accompanying photos reinvigorate international interest in an institution that must fight for relevancy. These moments are marketing tools, so that the public never question what these people are actually for.

If Meghan follows her royal baby-making predecessors and is the picture of glossiness and beaming smiles, then she will be attacked by those who say she is letting women down in not representing their reality. Either way, she'll be castigated, but all we can hope is that the decision is made on her own terms - something Meghan has, given the restraints of the monarchy, proved adept at. Being the modern every woman has never looked more of a challenge and the princess fairytale ever more opaque.

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