It was one of the scariest things I had ever done, but it was a step I had to take.
Boston Globe writer Jill Terreri Ramos, on joining a pregnant women’s group.
“You hold him, I’ll hit him.”
I had shot heroin on the South Side of Chicago. I had worked with dangerous farm machinery, the kind that–in the blink of an eye–can take away a limb or tear off your scalp if your hair is too long, as one farmer had warned us “hippies.” I had gone numerous times into one of the most notorious whorehouses in Missouri, a place where an argument over poker or craps could turn deadly, and from which more than one of my friends had emerged with a bloody nose or a knife wound.
But none of that prepared me for Metrowest Moms-2-Be, the scariest pregnant mother’s group in the 781 area code.
“Who’s the new guy?” a woman whose name tag said “Meghan” asked the group at large when my friend Sally introduced me.
“Him?” Sally asked with feigned innocence. Her credibility was on the line as much as mine. “He’s not sure if he’s pregnant, but he’s showing signs of hormonal imbalance.”
“Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules. You have to bring the croissants every week!”
“Wild mood swings?” Meghan asked curtly.
“Yes,” Sally muttered. “And increased urination.”
“Did he miss his period?” a woman named Caitlin asked.
“He’s never even had one,” Sally said with finality. That, I thought, should stop the questions.
“How about his breasts?” an older woman–probably delayed pregnancy for her career–named Nancy asked.
“They’re very tender,” I said, coming out of my shell at last.
“Let’s see,” Meghan said, and before I could stop her she had grabbed one of my nipples through my shirt and was twisting it violently.
“You don’t look pregnant–you just look fat.”
“Ow!” I screamed. “Stop it!”
“Maybe he’s telling the truth,” Caitlin said. “Still–we don’t let just anybody join the group.”
“What . . . what do I have to do?” I asked after I’d regained my breath.
“There’s a two-night initiation ceremony,” Nancy said with a glint of menace in her eyes. “It involves a raw onion, a Kitchen Magician and a live sheep–among other accessories.”
I got my courage back when I heard those words. I had successfully resisted a high school initiation, challenging the wimpier senior members of the club–debaters, band members, audio-visual crew–to try and make me, defensive captain of the freshman football team, wear some goofy outfit to school. They–not I–backed down.
“I don’t do initiations,” I said, and to my surprise, the women seemed to ease up a bit. They were like a pack of wild dogs–show fear and they advance, resist and they lose the mad courage that infects people when they’re part of a group. As Charles Mackay famously said, “Pregnant women go mad in herds, and recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Charles Mackay, giving you the gimlet eye.
“She’s kidding,” Sally said, but I noticed she winked at me. “You just have to sign up for refreshments, hold a meeting at your house when it’s your turn, compliment other members’ interior decorations profusely when you’re at their houses, and swear an oath of silence.”
“Really?” I asked, incredulous. I knew that La Cosa Nostra enforced a code of omerta, but a mother’s group?
“You better believe it, pal,” Nancy said. “If we find out you told tales out of school, I’d fear for your God-forsaken soul.”
She had the look of a Presbyterian about her, one I knew well from my wife; the air of casual violence they can affect to make you “see things their way.” “You’re not really going to wear that?” they’ll say as you start to get in the car to go out on Saturday night. You get the message without having it spelled out in black and white.
“Scared? You have every reason to be.”
“Okay, that won’t be a problem,” I said.
“And no ‘blogging’ either,” Caitlin said, making little air quotes to express her contempt for the on-line writer’s life.
“Agreed,” I said.
“That includes all ‘social media,’” Meghan added, again with a slightly-threatening tone in her voice. “No Facebook, no Twitter, no LinkedIn . . .”
“LinkedIn is really different,” I began. “It’s a business and employment-oriented social networking service that operates via websites and mobile . . .”
I saw stars, and it wasn’t Oscar night. It was Meghan again, slapping me upside the head from her perch on the wicker Restoration Hardware sofa.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“You don’t seem to get the message,” Meghan said through gritted teeth. “If we let you in . . . and that’s a big ‘if’ . . . you’d better behave yourself.”
“Or there will be hell to pay,” Nancy said.
I was silent for awhile, then took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll play by your rules.”
“That’s better,” Nancy said.
“The whole counting contractions thing–you’d really keep me away from a playoff game for that?”
“So . . . what exactly do you know about being pregnant?” Caitlin asked.
“I took classes,” I said. “Education has been very important in my life.”
“Where?” Meghan asked.
“Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.”
“You didn’t make any lame jokes about Brigham’s Ice Cream, did you?” Nancy asked.
“Maybe one,” I admitted. “Most of the comic possibilities were lost when they shortened the name of the hospital from the ‘Peter Bent Brigham’ to just ‘Brigham.’”
“What comic possibilities were there?” Meghan asked.
“Read ‘The World According to Garp,’” I said. “I can’t repeat it in mixed company, but there’s a joke that involves a colloquial term for the male sex organ that has passed out of general usage.”
“I wish my husband’s sex organ had passed out of general usage,” Caitlin groaned as she tried to get up out of her chair to go to the bathroom.
“No, the organ is still around, it’s the slang term that’s no longer used.”
The four women eyed each other with looks of exasperation, then turned their most withering glances at me.
“Men,” Caitlin fairly spat out. “They’re so humorless!”