I remember clearly the day a woman came in to drop something off at my office and told me she could tell my baby’s gender. She did so by grabbing my butt. I was so shocked, I froze and completely lost any ability to retaliate. Did this just happen right in front of everyone? It did, because for some reason, people lose all sense of boundaries when it comes to pregnant women.
And I’m not alone in this experience. When I requested my friends’ worst pregnancy stories on Facebook, I got nearly 50 responses within a few hours. Women started responding to each other; childhood friends, first-city-after-graduation friends, work friends—they all began to interact, reassuring each other, exclaiming over the nerve of people, commiserating over the sheer hell that can be wrought by hormones and a single insensitive remark, and sometimes even laughing at the more egregious lapses in judgment.
I was a very obviously pregnant woman—adding 50 pounds to a five-foot frame will do that—but that didn’t make the non-stop comments any easier to take. “Well-intentioned” people asked me so often if I was having twins that I started to wonder if the doctor had made a mistake. I was also an actor at the time, so my body image was already wacko. I was accustomed to zealous weight maintenance and constant self-scrutiny, which made me a prime target for hurtful preggo commentary.
To add to everything else going on, I was in a new city and feeling isolated. If I’d had more “mom friends,” other women who had experienced this, I might have understood that, far from being singled out, I was experiencing the same “helpful” feedback that many mothers-to-be enjoy (ha). From my Facebook post, I learned that my running friend was told by her obstetrician during an examination that she was “what we’d call a really good heifer.” Someone asked a former co-worker if it was awful being so deformed. A neighbour said she was constantly fat-shamed by her own endocrinologist, even though she lost weight while pregnant.
It seemed like each person I met knew precisely what I was doing wrong and how I was damaging the baby—and told me on the spot to save me that pesky doctor’s visit. My husband learned to recognize the warning signs that I was about to bite someone’s head off for dispensing poorly timed advice, especially when I was hungry, tired and bloated—hey, wait, that was all the time! My sister-in-law told me about the time when the barista at Starbucks admonished her for ordering regular coffee instead of decaf, which her doctor had recommended that she try for the migraines she was suffering. When my colleague got angry at work, her boss told her, “Calm down, you know stress is bad for the baby.”
I was also floored by how freely people advised me on returning to work, breastfeeding—you name it. Each time I was told why my intentions were wrong. People advised me on the dangers of leaving my child with a caregiver, the damage caused by giving a bottle too soon, and why I needed to avoid sushi (I did), lunch meat (I didn’t) and alcohol (I did, but my OB for my second pregnancy told me to go ahead and enjoy a celebratory glass occasionally. “My own wife did,” he told me). It seemed to me that any choice I made was going to harm my baby forever.
It took a Herculean effort, but I tried to maintain the belief—or maybe delusion—that these comments came from concern and care. This is what kept me from bludgeoning strangers with the nearest heavy object. People say things about fertility treatments and IVF; they speculate about genetics—an adoptive mom I know grew so tired of people remarking that her child’s red hair must resemble the father’s that she finally told them, “I can't really remember.” People talk without thinking about the effect of their words. Sometimes I wanted to just stare at people until they realized how awful their comments were. But my feet were too swollen to stand up for that long.
Ultimately—and after I was no longer pregnant—I reached the conclusion that people say things because they want to be involved, or because they want to seem wise—or maybe they’re just giant jerks. Whatever the reason, moms deserve more consideration and compassion.
So here’s my advice: if you have to say something to a pregnant woman, tell her she looks radiant. If you must give advice to a mom, tell her she’s doing a great job. Parenting is heavy lifting, regardless of whether the baby is on the inside or the outside—we’d all do well to make that burden a little bit lighter when we can.