Sunday, March 24, 2013

Someone asked me about being pregnant

On Friday morning a co-worker asked when I was due. Even with my prosopagnosia and a staff of over 500, I felt sure the two of us had never properly met because I pretty much have every middle-aged Latina in my workplace memorized. And I certainly didn't know this one well enough for her to be asking such a question.

I said, “What?” She asked again when I’m due to have my baby. I looked at her blankly and then said with vague hostility, "I'm not pregnant."

"Oh! I'm sorry!" The woman clearly felt terrible about her mistake. She said someone told her I was pregnant.

"Um, I'm Regina. I don't know if we've met?"

Now the stranger introduced herself.  I'm not sure if Maria Julia (not her real name) was just trying to cover for her embarrassment or if someone else has really been discussing Regina Rodriguez-Martin's pregnancy, but I asked just in case, "Who told you I was pregnant?"

"Oh, I don't want to say," she demurred with a smile.

Since I had started putting on weight in October, I had kind of been waiting for this mistake, so I clarified, "I've gained 30 pounds in the last few months, but not from getting pregnant. I’m just fat." I paused while Maria Julia nodded placatingly.

"I don't even want kids," I pressed. "I'm married to a man who also doesn't want kids. I don't even like kids. And I'm 46 years old. I'd have a hard time even getting pregnant." I wanted to be sure that if there were an actual rumor, it would end here.

"Oh, that's fine." Maria Julia tried to assuage me. "You're 46? You look great!"

"Thank you," I said distractedly. I was still trying to imagine who else might think I'm pregnant. The idea was as amusing as it was irritating. Eventually I let Maria Julia lead me into other topics for our first discussion as acquaintances of five minutes. It was a weird conversation, but I guess we won't forget each other now.

Later I decided that being mistaken for being pregnant is actually fine. It would be funny for women to watch me suddenly gain 30 pounds, but never hear me announce being pregnant or see me have a baby shower. Then June would come and go and I'd never give birth. Psych! Damn baby-obsessed people.

Then I imagined having a baby shower. What the hell? I’d get my co-workers to buy me my favorite cake and an expensive gift that I can return for cash, and at the end of the party I’d go, “Punked! Ha ha! You just celebrated thirty pounds of pure fat!"

For the rest of Friday I wondered why women think pregnancies are everybody's business. Why is all this baby stuff treated like public knowledge? What if someone doesn't want to talk about her pregnancy? Why do even strangers impinge on women's privacy this way?

As I discussed this with various people, in person and online, one response I got was that if you know a woman is pregnant, it feels rude if you see her but don't mention it. Even if you don't particularly care for her or feel like talking about it, if you see someone who you know going to have a baby, there's almost a social obligation to comment on it. It's just polite. But even the women who told me this said they wouldn't inquire if someone were pregnant because the risk of offending her is too high. Being asked if you're pregnant when you're not, usually leads to a crisis of body image ("Am I that fat?").

Someone else put a positive spin on it. She emailed me that among people for whom a new baby is a wonderful thing, commenting on a pregnancy feels like joining in the celebration. Even strangers will try to connect with a woman who looks pregnant because it's a way to share joy, "doubling it." When I read this I said to myself, "Oh, yeah! Ninety-nine point nine percent of regular people think another baby in the world is a good thing. I always forget that." Seriously, I forget that. We're in the tiny minority, those of us who think life is endless pain that no woman should put another innocent human being through.

Another friend (who knows I'm against parenthood in general) chided me for feeling offended by the question at all. He saw it as an honest mistake made by someone who was trying to be nice. I don't suggest that Maria Julia wasn't trying to be nice. Everyone who makes the mistake of assuming a non-pregnant woman is pregnant is undoubtedly trying to be loving, inclusive, supportive or at least friendly. The problem is that talking to someone like that is always risky.

The most common problem is that when you ask a non-pregnant woman when she's due, she will feel fat for the rest of the day (or week or year). In the past the question has really messed with my self-confidence (yeah, it's happened a few times to me). It can be a painful question for other reasons, too. Maybe the woman recently had a miscarriage. Maybe she's having fertility problems. Maybe she would love to have a baby but has recently learned that she'll be unable to do so. Questions like that, however well-intentioned, are very personal and there's no way to know what could come up if you're guessing wrong.

Me, not pregnant.
Pregnancy is just too loaded a subject, people. Leave it alone. I'm amazed by how many people don't know that and who just blunder into it like Maria Julia did. Between fertility problems and body issues and motherhood pressures, people, just leave it alone. Unless the woman herself (or maybe her mother or partner) has told you that she's pregnant, don't ask when she's due.

Yes, Maria Julia was trying to be nice, but "I didn't mean it that way" is no defense for offending someone. Questions about if someone is pregnant are very personal and can be painful no matter how nicely they are asked.


Mick said...

Can think of occasions where the same thing has happend, its a dangerous subject, people are definately offended to differing levels.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Mick. The male friend I refer to in the post still doesn't understand why I found the question offensive. His confusion suggests to me that many people just don't see pregnancy as a personal, private topic. Apparently pregnancy is okay to discuss right out loud as long as you're being nice. There's no equivalent male condition that it's okay to ask about right in front of everyone. The pregnancy thing is yet another indication that women's bodies are seen as more public than men's.

Anonymous said...

I would never ask someone something like that. She might be pregnant and not willing to share, she might have gained weight, she might have a medical issue, it could be the shirt she's wearing, who knows? I know someone is pregnant when she tells me she's pregnant and not before. Just my theory and it's served me well.


Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Ceece. Yes, I imagine someone who might be newly pregnant but doesn't want to announce it yet. Someone asking her if she's pregnant puts her in a very awkward position. It's time for us to re-evaluate our cultural assumptions about what's appropriate to ask someone you don't know personally.

cindylu said...

I've been asked once and I actually felt more embarrassed for the person asking. In this case, she was a new co-worker. I happen to like her and really didn't want her to feel bad about the question.

Now that I'm 5 months along, no stranger has asked and the lady at the nail salon said I just looked like I gained weight (true). Friends and family do ask how I'm feeling, but they're always fine with a very general response ("good!" or "no nausea!"). I don't mind those questions since they're close family. The weird thing will be when everyone starts reaching for the belly. Which has already started...

Anonymous said...

Regina,I am one of your biggest fans. I love your writing. I chose to post a comment on this "weight" post because it deals with such an important and painful topic. What I want to say: you rock!

I teach Chicana/o Studies at a state university in California. I also just read you post on music, over and over. I'm a performance artist/academic. The comments about being "cool" were hilarious!

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

cindylu - let me know how much you feel your personal space is compromised during your pregnancy.
Anonymous - thank you so much! What a nice note. Writing is the only way I can rock these days, so I'm glad to hear it.