Most people, when they have learned about my pregnancy, have been absolutely lovely about it. Nearly all of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances have been nothing but supportive and I am so grateful to have these wonderful people in my life.
But sadly, whenever anyone asks me if I’ve had any problems or struggles along the way, the honest answer is that the biggest problem, the biggest discomfort, the biggest inconvenience has been other people and the way their attitude towards me has changed.
Many people tend to focus less on me as a person, how I am and what I’m up to, than they do on my pregnancy and my plans around that. Sometimes I have found myself feeling as if certain people see me as nothing more than a pregnancy on legs. This gives me a mental image of a classic Humpty Dumpty illustration with myself as a gigantic egg (complete with face and legs).
I found that pregnancy being seen as public property even extended to the time before I told people I was pregnant. People’s expectations of women, all the “when are you having children” questions and so on is a whole other article in itself, but when you are trying to conceive it becomes painful and frustrating as well as annoying and invasive. I gave up alcohol during that time and immediately found that I couldn’t order a non-alcoholic drink at a bar I have been a regular at for years without the staff raising their eyebrows, asking why and making comments like, “ooh, not drinking eh?” in suggestive tones. Friends and acquaintances asked straight out, “you’re not pregnant are you?” I found this very taxing during the first few weeks and months of pregnancy when I wasn’t yet ready to tell people the news. I don’t really do social lying, so it felt very awkward to have to deflect this with responses such as, “there is more than one possible reason why someone might want to drink grapefruit juice, and some of those reasons are personal!” You don’t get people asking “you don’t have cancer do you?” if someone decides to give up smoking and has a dreadful cough. It’s hard not to sound defensive.
One particularly obnoxious person, a friend of a friend whom I’d never met before, told me straight out that she didn’t care whether someone was ready to tell or not: if they were pregnant, she wanted to know. This is a great example of people’s (generally women’s) reproductive capacity and pregnancy being seen as public property rather than the private and personal issue it is unless we decide to share it. This person only cared about the pregnancy of a woman she didn’t even know, and not at all about that woman herself: her wishes, privacy or anxieties. She didn’t care if someone was reluctant to share the news because they were in a high-risk group for miscarriage and couldn’t face the potential trauma of having to tell people over and over again that they’d lost the baby because the news had spread and people were asking about it. An estimated 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriages, nearly all of which occur during the first 12-14 weeks. That’s why, in case you didn’t know, most people don’t share the news until after their first scan around that time where they can see if all is well. And this person didn’t care that someone’s pregnancy, which might well be one of the most exciting things that’s happened to them, was their news to tell and not hers to triumphantly guess.
Imagine if you had been building yourself up for weeks to make a big announcement about something you’d dreamed for years would happen, you’d happily rehearsed in your head how you would say it, and then just as you had got everyone sitting up and listening, someone blurted out “Don’t tell me” and made your announcement for you. Now imagine the same event, but that you never wanted this thing to happen or for people to know about it. The event is unwanted and you are going through a great deal of pain, fear and guilt about the situation you have been forced into. You might even feel ashamed of being in that situation, even though it isn’t your fault and you haven’t done anything wrong. Now imagine people coming up and guessing that you are in that situation, telling others and asking you invasive questions about it. Why should pregnancy be any different from other such situations; why should it trump our bodily autonomy and consent?
So, would you like to know how not to annoy someone who’s pregnant?* Good. Then have a think about whether any of the following would annoy you, and if so, please don’t do them.
*NB I don’t say “pregnant women” as a generalisation, because some people who can become pregnant don’t identify as women. If you think that’s “political correctness gone mad!!!” frankly I don’t care – I don’t want to exclude people just because they’re in a small minority, and it won’t hurt you if I use impersonal pronouns in my own work. (Pregnancy issues for trans/genderqueer people is a whole other article!)
People talk to you as if you are dying of some terrible illness
I noticed a few months in that people had stopped asking me how I am. Instead of “how are you” when we meet, they now say (in a hushed tone, with a concerned hand on my forearm), “How are you feeling?” as if I had been really, really sick.
Let’s get one thing straight: I appreciate the fact that they care about me. That’s the most important thing. It’s very nice to know that people are concerned about my welfare.
But I’m not ill. I haven’t been suffering from appalling morning sickness, or mysterious bleeding, or painful bloating, or any of the other problems a lot of people experience in early and second-trimester pregnancy. If I had, then it would make perfect sense to me when people check in to see how I’m feeling (as long as I didn’t mind sharing that information with them). But I haven’t, and one thing I really hate is being mollycoddled.
Another thing people do – although I have to say it hasn’t really happened to me – is try to police one’s eating habits and activities. “Should you really be eating that?” “Is it OK you doing that? Do you want me to do it for you?” Again, this comes from a place of good intentions and concern, although perhaps more for the foetus’ wellbeing rather than the mother’s (please don’t forget we are still people, too). But it really isn’t anyone else’s place to tell someone what to do with their body. The person you’re talking to is the one who has discussed with their doctor and midwife what they should and shouldn’t do and they have more than likely consulted other people and read up on it too. They also know their own bodies a lot better than you do.
People talk to or about you as if pregnancy is shameful or dirty
Anyone who knows anything about our social history will know where this comes from. In the past, women were shamed, marginalised and even incarcerated for becoming pregnant outside of marriage, because it was considered morally wrong. Despite the fact that someone had to impregnate her and that it would clearly be much easier to do that without her consent than without his, men were never subjected to the same level of judgement and they still aren’t.
Fortunately, we have moved on from that judgemental and oppressive time.
Well, sadly, there are still a lot of rather negative relics from that era and pregnancy is one thing that really seems to bring them out. Personally, I strongly dislike the phrases “to fall pregnant” (which implies falling from grace or becoming “lowered”) and even “how far gone are you?” because that comes from a time where you were basically excluded from society if other people didn’t approve of your personal relationship and circumstances when you conceived. It sort of implies that there’s a point of no return, after which you are, well, gone. I personally prefer “get pregnant” which implies gaining something (i.e. a foetus, embryo, whatever stage you’re at) and “how far along are you?” which suggests the idea of pregnancy as a journey and I think that’s quite nice, but it’s really up to the individual. These are such little things, but they build up over time. People almost certainly don’t consider the implications of these sorts of phrases, but they do come from a place of pretty extreme misogyny and they don’t reinforce the positive message that a much wanted and anticipated pregnancy is a really wonderful thing. I wouldn’t want to police the words and phrases people use when they’re generally acceptable to most people, but I still think it’s often a good idea to think about where what we’re saying came from and what it might imply to some people.
You might think all of that is quite petty and insignificant (I mean, all words and phrases have origins and some are bound to be less savoury than others), but one that really grated on me was when someone referred to my pregnancy as my “condition” – that last word said in a stage whisper behind a cupped hand, as if “pregnancy” was a dirty word or being pregnant was some appalling infection resulting from filthy habits.
I completely understand that some people will use that sort of language because of the era in which they grew up. Some people therefore aren’t completely comfortable saying “pregnant” or “pregnancy” because a long time ago it was considered indelicate and they haven’t managed to move on from that time for whatever reason. I respect that: after all, it’s our experiences that make us who we are. But I expect people to respect me in return and not refer to my pregnancy as if it’s something embarrassing to be ashamed of or to hide. You implying that it is also implies that I’ve done something icky or embarrassing that you’re ashamed to associate yourself with and that’s rather insulting. Sex isn’t either of those, if you’re mature enough to talk about it like an adult.
Even if you’re a close friend, family member or even a partner of someone who’s pregnant, please remember this is their body you’re talking about so their opinions and feelings do matter and it isn’t about you. I’d respect your wishes if you were pregnant and preferred me to refer to it as your “condition,” or perhaps we could compromise on something we’re both comfortable with. How about referring to me “expecting a baby,” which has always been seen as rather genteel, and leave my body and medical status out of it altogether?
People touch you without permission (in the general region of your intestines)
People, this is literally the worst thing I have experienced in pregnancy. The. Worst.
I knew beforehand that people did, for some reason, like to feel up pregnant women who have a “bump” (incidentally, I hate that word used to describe a visible pregnancy, but I realise it’s not rational hatred so won’t go on about that). I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of people who would do it when I didn’t even look pregnant.
People, from those I know reasonably well to complete strangers who’ve overheard me informing a friend that I’m pregnant, have reached out and, before I can move to stop them, started touching, rubbing or patting my stomach. Without so much as a by-your-leave or even a warning.
Please don’t do this. It really is very rude. Especially if you don’t know the person well enough to be sure of their boundaries. I have always hated being touched anyway, except by people I know and trust enough to have established different boundaries with them. Doing it to someone you don’t even know, without their permission, is a pretty strong violation of their right to bodily autonomy and personal space. Come to think of it, so is doing it to a close relative!
The abdominal area is one of the most sensitive and vulnerable parts of the body. If you look up to see a football flying towards you at speed, your immediate instinct will be to bend forward and/or to shoot your hands out in front of you, specifically protecting your face and stomach (and breasts, if you have them). So it isn’t generally expected that you will touch random strangers there and I expect most people wouldn’t take too kindly to it because, like that football, it instinctively feels like a threat. I see absolutely no reason why that should change just because somewhere in that person’s body is a small bundle of cells that might one day grow into a baby. The person carrying the pregnancy is still the same person they were before the pregnancy and I don’t suppose you would have done it then. We don’t suddenly want people to put their paws all over us the moment we conceive – quite the reverse if anything.
When someone’s pregnant, that instinct to protect the vulnerable abdomen actually feels many times stronger, so imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for us to be randomly touched. For me (every pregnancy is different), my skin has also become so sensitive that any touch is quite uncomfortable even if I’m expecting it. And yes, it is important to consider my feelings when you want to invade my personal space and touch my body. It’s not about the baby, who doesn’t even know you’re there (and isn’t even a baby yet). And it certainly isn’t about you.
People often say it’s human nature, some people are just touchy-feely, and so on. I’m not arguing with any of that, but why should it override my feelings and wishes about my own body? I’m not less important or less human than you because I’m pregnant, and I have a very real human instinct to protect myself from unwanted touching. I mean, you could also argue that it’s human nature to hit someone who’s making you angry and some people are just bad-tempered, but we don’t think that makes it acceptable, do we? Again, if you have some weird urge to invade my personal space and cross my boundaries, then your action stops being about you and starts being about me. It’s OK to have that urge – nobody is telling you how to feel – but if you really want to touch someone who’s pregnant (or not!), you need to consider their personal boundaries and how comfortable they are likely to be with you, and more importantly ask their permission first. It’s a simple question: it can’t be that hard to ask.
The first time someone did this, I was 13 weeks pregnant. The foetus was about as long as an iPhone is wide. What was even the point? Even the person who is pregnant can’t feel anything from within at that stage, so what exactly are people expecting to get out of this bizarre interaction? As one pregnant woman said to me, “They don’t rub my partner’s balls and say well done, do they?”
Once, I was so annoyed that I pointed out that the baby wasn’t developing in my intestines. It’s much lower during the stage I was at: just above the pubic bone. To help with this anatomy lesson, I pointed for them – it’s about where the top of your underwear usually is – and also helpfully pointed out where I am expecting the baby to finally emerge from my body. I then asked them if they thought it would be appropriate to touch me there, too. For some reason, this seemed to put them off.
People start planning your life for you
This is a difficult one, because it is about people who are offering help with the very best of intentions. It feels a little ungrateful to complain about that, but it is a bit much at times…
“Ooh, you’ll have a lot of stuff to buy! You’ll have to start thinking about that soon. Let’s make a list…….” “Have you booked your antenatal classes yet? You need to do that.” “I love baby clothes shopping – let’s make a date and we can go together.”
Calm down, folks. These are my plans to make, not yours.
I know it’s exciting. And, once again, I know it’s one of those things that come from people’s kindness and wanting to help out and make sure I’ve got everything I need. But I’m afraid it actually feels really invasive and sometimes a bit interfering, partly because I can guarantee you are not the only one doing it and there are only so many shopping trips and lists we can make on other people’s whims. It’s even more exciting for me than it is for you, so please, please don’t take that away from me.
If you want to offer your help, that’s really nice of you. But it would be even nicer if you did that by asking the person if they want help with anything and what you can do, rather than assuming they haven’t already made plans and don’t know what they’re doing. When everyone is telling you what to do and when to do it, it gets really overwhelming and, although it’s well-intentioned, pretty damn annoying. Your intention is one thing but the end result can be quite another.
Some people have been wasting their time telling me I need to do this and that and book such-and-such an appointment. I then have to gently point out that it’s the midwife’s job to sort these things out with me, and yes she has done it. I don’t need an amateur midwife as well as a qualified one.
But thanks for your offers of help. That’s a genuine thank you. The thing is, if you know me well enough to involve yourself in my plans, then you will know that I am the sort of person who has something of a flair for planning big events and projects and that I really hate other people taking that away from me. That’s very specific to me but I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb: if you don’t know someone well enough that you’d offer specific help to plan their wedding or birthday party, don’t do it with their baby. You can always ask, rather than assume.
People talk to you as if you had never heard of having a child and have no idea what it entails
Again, trying to help is a very honourable and well-intentioned thing to do. But so is thinking about whom you are doing this for: yourself or the person you propose helping? Do consider whether you actually are helping or whether your actions might in fact be rather invasive.
I think this one is actually a lot worse for expectant fathers, but I’ve had my fair share of it too. For some reason, people seem to think that somehow I’ve managed to reach 32 years of age without having heard or read anything about having children.
Yes, I know childbirth hurts and you will never feel anything else like it.
Yes, I know not everyone is able to breastfeed and things don’t always turn out as you expect or want them to.
Yes, I know you stop having a proper sleep pattern.
Yes, I know bringing up children is full of difficult choices and your ideals about yourself as a parent and about your child aren’t going to be a perfect match for real life.
Yes, I know it “changes your life” and “nothing can prepare you for being so absolutely overcome with emotion.” Just because I haven’t felt it doesn’t mean I don’t understand or have somehow got to where I am without having any awareness of it. Also, it would be nice if you let me discover that latter one for myself.
And so on.
It’s one thing sharing your personal stories and experiences, which are always welcome and useful (remember every pregnancy is different, though). It’s another thing to speak to me as if I can’t possibly have picked up information from the many people I know who are parents, the vast amount of reading I’ve done and general observation, films and TV, books, Google, whatever. In my case, I’m a literate and well-educated woman in my 30s with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity and who has been planning to have children for a very long time. I’m not a naïve teenager who was brought up in an isolation chamber and has never switched on the TV.
Some people seem to think that because they’re parents and I’m not, I can’t possibly know anything they know, even though they’ve talked about NOTHING BUT their children since the day they first found out they were pregnant. You’d think they’d realise one might have picked up something along the way.
They’ll still actually know more about parenting than people without children, of course. But we might not want a lecture and there is such a thing as too much information. One needs to start with the basics and then figure the rest out for oneself. We’ll know when we want help or advice.
You are quite right if you tell me that no amount of knowledge can equal the actual experience of having a child (again, as if I didn’t already understand that) but you are wrong if you think that telling me about yours makes any difference. Every pregnancy and every child is different and there are always going to be unexpected complications along the way that are different for each one. You can’t pass your experience on to me, only your knowledge. And chances are I’ve heard it before.
Personally, if I want to know something about having kids and I don’t think Google is the best way then I will ask someone who has kids, especially if they’ve experienced the same complications. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell someone who’s pregnant about stuff or offer them useful hints and tips. Just don’t assume they know nothing about it at all. Put another way, it’s not what you tell people, it’s how you tell them. And if you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it right but some people aren’t and it is annoying.
My mother tells me her own mother was an absolute nightmare for this until she pointed out “I’ve had more children than you have now: I know what I’m doing!” Well said, but I’d go one further: nobody knows more about caring for your own baby than you do.
And please stop treating fathers-to-be as if they don’t even know which end of a baby is which. Like us, they tend to be capable of reading, listening and observing. “Oooh, you know you won’t be able to go to the pub every night, don’t you?” “It’s hard work you know!” “Don’t forget they poo and cry and need feeding! It’s not all fun and games!” Yeah, by the way, these guys are adults. They aren’t stupid. It’s really kind of sexist to assume that only women should know anything about child-rearing.
You feel really tired all the time