Valerie Malas watches the royal wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton live on television at the Globe Pub in Chicago, April 29, 2011. The pomp, the glamour, the conflicts, the characters — when it comes to the United Kingdom’s royal family, the Americans can’t seem to get enough. AP Photo/Paul Beaty, File

Ever since 2013, when Kate Middleton appeared on the steps of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, clutching a 27-hour-old newborn but already wearing high heels, I have not been able to look at her without thinking, Oh honey, no. It was tradition, we were told, for British royalty to muster themselves to exactly these hospital steps ASAP after giving birth, and so this is what Kate had done: delivered a baby, gotten a blowout, plastered on a wan smile and waved to the cameras. Any mother watching the spectacle could only hope that before Kate left her hospital room, a nurse had slipped her the good ice pads.

The ostensible reason for the St. Mary’s tradition was a benevolent one — the public was always excited to meet the newest Windsor. I imagine the unspoken reason was a little more sinister: If monarchs don’t produce the new baby quickly, rumors start to fly. Massive health issues? Changelings? Wait too long and a Piers Morgan type is going to start hinting that the whole pregnancy was a hoax. It’s a princess’s royal duty to nip that in the bud. By the birth of the Princess of Wales’s youngest child in 2018, she’d shaved down her stirrups-to-stairsteps routine even further, appearing for the public a mere seven hours after Prince Louis was born.

I mention all of this because, as you’ve already been informed if you follow tabloid gossip, Catherine has apparently gone missing. Last month the palace released a statement saying that she had checked into a hospital for a “planned abdominal surgery.” She would be staying there for 10-14 days, the statement read, and then would abstain from public appearances until Easter. Her last public sighting was at Christmas.

You might notice that Easter is still a month away and so we’re right on schedule — she’s not missing at all. But that hasn’t stopped a flurry of rumors: Prince William at the last minute canceled one of his own public appearances earlier this week, vaguely citing “personal matters.” Royal watchers exploded. What were we dealing with here? Massive health issues? Massive marital breakdown? Show us the princess!

*If you came to this column hoping for theories on where she is or what she’d had done, alas. I would like to say it’s my own sense of propriety keeping me from stating any here, but really it’s my editor’s. Personally I have been sucked into no fewer than four text chains of women — always women — speculating about what kind of planned abdominal surgery keeps one in the hospital for 10-14 days plus an additional six weeks of downtime.

“My sister-in-law is having a [REDACTED] next Tuesday,” one friend reported. “But she’ll be out of the hospital by the weekend so I don’t think Kate’s having that.” Were we curious about the princess, or merely curious about how serious things have to be before a mother of three is allowed to take a health-related sabbatical?

Britain’s Prince William, left, and Britain’s Kate, Princess of Wales, attend a ceremonial welcome for the President and the First Lady of the Republic of Korea at Horse Guards Parade in London, England on Nov. 21, 2023. Charles’ illness comes at a awkward time, as his daughter in law, the Princess of Wales, has also had her own health issues, having recently been hospitalized for two weeks following abdominal surgery at the private London clinic. The former Kate Middleton won’t be returning to public duties until after Easter and that will prompt other members of the royal family to pick up the slack. Chris Jackson/Pool Photo via AP, File

Kate was undoubtedly aware that her prolonged absence would cause a stir — Meghan was the rumpus-causing American daughter-in-law; Kate has always been decorous to the point of boring — and this, to royal fans, makes the absence even more notable.

Here was a woman who believed so deeply in the importance of appearances, and in the steadying role of the monarchy, that she had pushed something the size of a watermelon from her body and still greeted the international media by sundown. In the course of her time in the public eye, she has made stalwart public appearances through a whole manner of maelstroms: while cruel rumors spread about the state of her marriage, while her brother-in-law’s move to California imploded the family, while quarantining during the pandemic. If this time around she hadn’t even waved from a balcony, what could possibly be going on?

Here is what I hope is going on:

I hope Kate Middleton recovered smoothly from her planned surgery, ate some Jell-O, considered waving in a photographer, and then thought — No.

I hope she finished her hospital stay, packed up her bag, thought about alerting the BBC, and then thought — No.

I hope she made it back to Windsor, queued up Hulu, considered the idea that she could ring up her makeup artist and stylist and be camera-ready within an hour, and then decided to watch the third season of “Only Murders in the Building” instead.

In short, I hope that Kate Middleton realized that she had put in for her sick leave, and so she was going to take every minute of her sick leave. Because what are the alternatives? Either she makes a public appearance and looks still weak, and then everyone comments that she looks weak, and she’s left to politely thank everyone for their concern while inwardly seething that she is still weak, you dimwits, and that’s why she’s staying out of the public eye. Or, she makes an appearance and looks fabulous, held together by support garments and a good bronzer, and everyone wonders why she’s not back at work yet.

The preoccupation over the Princess of Wales’s whereabouts is not about concern for her health. It is about the fact that when a public figure gives you a large chunk of themselves, you start to think you deserve all of them. It is about a family with a poor track record of transparency, and a woman who has tried to be so transparent, so photographed, that when she sets up a totally reasonable boundary, it gets translated into a wild conspiracy theory. If you want to get political about it, it’s about how the monarchy succeeds via the people-pleasing power of princesses, and falters when one isn’t around to perpetuate the fairy tale.

Oh honey, no. You have more than put in the time. Twenty years of service, producing heirs and photo ops and tabloid gossip. Have a good rest. See you at Easter, or at the Spring Bank Holiday if you need some extra time.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. In 2022 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the field of commentary. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.”

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