February 16th, 2021 / posted by paularath

A maternity dress that didn’t quite make it to nine months.

It was a mistake to go to a traditional Nigerian tailor in Lagos – a man – to have my special maternity dress made. What’s worse, I neglected to ask him if he was a father. Clearly he was not. Or he would have had a more realistic take on how a woman’s tummy grows as the months go on. This got me through to about 7 1/2 months.

But oh well. I love the embroidery and I can still wear the dress, and every time I wear it, I am taken back to my strange pregnancy in Nigeria.

The nine months in 1974 leading up to the birth of my beloved son, Duncan (my only child) was an adventure all the way.

At the time, my ex-husband, Dick Graham, and I were living in Apapa, Lagos, Nigeria. We were pioneering for the Baha’i Faith, and pioneers must support themselves with jobs. Dick was working for a Canadian advertising agency and I was freelancing for women’s magazines, focusing on the issue of the importance of breastfeeding your baby.

You see, it had become quite trendy for Nigerian women to NOT breastfeed. They thought it was more “western” and “sophisticated” to give their babies formula. However, the water in most parts of Lagos was dreadful and women often didn’t know the mix ratios, so babies were dying of malnutrition. Such a tragedy and totally unnecessary.

Unfortunately, I hardly got to wear this dress because, unknown to us, we were illegally in Nigeria. The ad agency had our passports and were committed to renewing our visas. However, unbeknownst to us, our visas had expired in February, and the complex Nigerian Indiginization Decree signed in April meant that Dick was one too many expats for the ad agency to retain legally.

Yikes! We didn’t learn of this until June, when I arrived at the airport to take a plane to London to meet my parents for a road trip to Scotland. The military police escorted us home and we were put under house arrest for several days. Oddly, I never worried about it. I was in this sort of blissful state and I chose to believe the agency when they blithely said  “Don’t worry. We’ll get you back to Nigeria.” I flew off to London while the agency sent Dick to Ghana. We never returned to Nigeria and we lost everything: house, car, pets, possessions.

A traditional Nigerian embroidery design

I had a wonderful trip with my parents, although it’s a bit tricky when you’re seven months pregnant and on Scottish country roads with no petrol stations and thus, no bathrooms. My father got quite used to dropping his daughter off near farm fences so I could, well, you know.

Eventually, Dick joined me in the U.K. For awhile we thought I might have the baby in London. I did get a little prenatal care, but the National Health Service would not kick in until after the due date. So we reluctantly flew to Pennsylvania, to Dick’s family, where Duncan was born.

Sadly, I have precious few memories of my time in Nigeria. It was learned a few years later that if a woman takes Paludrine, a drug commonly used to prevent malaria, during her pregnancy, she is likely to lose a lot of short term memory. And boy did I! It’s really a shame.

Close-up detail

I do have one clear memory, though. My parents and I were staying in a beautiful lodge in Pitlochry, Scotland. All the guests had gathered to watch the BBC News. It was the night Richard Nixon resigned his presidency. I had never been so embarrassed to be an American, and we were the only ones in the room.

I still wear the dress occasionally, and I only have happy memories of the excitement I felt carrying Duncan. And, regardless of not knowing where we would be living for a few months, and where he would be delivered, he came out just fine!

Please return for the next installment of “What I Wore.”

Paula Rath

What are they saying?
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Duncan Graham
February 17th, 2021 at 4:43 am

i didn’t know about this dress! it still looks great (and you in it). are you aware of whether the embroidered patterns being specific to pregnancy and/or fertility, or not?

February 18th, 2021 at 9:45 pm

It’s a pretty generic design, as far as I know. It’s not event specific and I’m not sure if it’s even tribe specific, although the tailor was Ebo.

Duncan Graham
February 17th, 2021 at 4:44 am

*are specific
i meant to write.

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