As usual, I’ve fallen down on my blogging, but I have a good excuse, I swear. DH came home from deployment ahead of schedule! And a couple weeks later we found out we are expecting a baby! Then the holidays, then our much anticipated honeymoon, then SURPRISE find out we’re PCSing across country shortly. So much change, so much exhaustion, and precious little half-caf coffee.
Homecoming was incredible, and in typical fashion, flawed. The flight was delayed so many times one of my friends called it the “countdownupdownup”. After hours of blow drying hair and makeup and choosing an outfit, we stood on the flight line in pouring frigid rain in the dark for half an hour when the flight was delayed another 10 minutes on landing. They touched down 15 minutes before the magic cutoff where you the get the following day off from reintegration, so the next day he was up and reintegrating at 9 am. Boo-oo.
Obviously all that didn’t sap much mojo, and here we are trying to sell our house, starting out my second trimester, starting to pick out maternity clothes. Which brings me to the main thought that got me thinking I need to write this out as I got thinking about it. What the heck is it about a pregnant belly that people feel invited to touch, when a few months ago they wouldn’t give you the time of day? Surfing maternity clothes I’m shocked at the number of shirts that cutely, hilariously, even aggressively, warn people off uninvited belly touching. I knew it was a thing. I was aware it happened. But enough to make shirts? Apparently yes, because a number of tips for new moms columns and even my week by week pregnancy book advise on deflecting nosy questions, unsolicited advice, and belly touching strangers. I can see how motherhood is a powerful bond between women, and some, especially very outgoing women, will feel like they’re part of the same club, and therefore friends, and therefore it’s fine to be touchy and ask questions just like a friend. Flawed logic but with all the best intentions.
It makes me laugh, but also sad, that there are things like, the snappy canned response to someone asking “Do you know what you’re having?” is “We’re hoping it’s a baby” (DH said I should say, “My husband hopes it’s a puppy”). Because seriously, most people on a daily basis wouldn’t ask you squat about your personal life out of the blue. And most mothers should remember what it was like to be constantly peppered with questions and advice from family and friends even before they go out in public. I mean, weeks ago it was getting tedious just answering “How are you feeling?” a few times a day to the small circle of loved ones in the loop (my solution, by the way, was to create a private Facebook group with almost daily updates so I don’t have to answer a bunch of texts–much better). And that was before I had an even remotely visible bump. So why, especially women who have been there themselves, do they do it?
I want to believe, I do, that people just want to be friendly and supportive. And probably in some way to share vicariously in the happiness of new life. When it comes to touching, there’s actually an easy answer. If you feel awkward asking permission to touch a woman’s belly, it’s definitely not appropriate to do it without permission. End of story. If you’re friendly with someone and feel comfortable asking, do ask, but be prepared to accept “no” gracefully.
If you’re one of those people who tries to go around sharing encouragement and striking up conversations in the check out line with anyone and everyone, it seems to me obvious that there are other ways to share encouragement with a pregnant woman besides touching or asking–both of which are, in a sense, taking. What would be giving rather than taking? What would be encouraging without intruding and opening the door for conversation without making the reply potentially fraught? How about an offer of help. What if, to reach out you say to the pregnant woman waiting in a long line at the sandwich shop “I remember those days, I’m happy to hold your place in line so you can rest your feet until its time to order”. In the check out line, “Would you like help getting your bags out to your car?” To which she might reply, “I’m fine, thanks” and that’s the end of the conversation, she might gratefully accept, or might stay and chat. You could offer a compliment, “You look gorgeous, I love that shirt.” And she might sigh and say “I don’t feel like it, but thank you,” and thus begins bonding about maternity fashion and swollen ankles. Or she might say thanks and go back to checking email on her phone.
People who want to talk will talk. They will take the opening you offer to bend your ear and usually shift their stance to be conversational. People who don’t want to talk will give a short reply and turn away, but at least probably turn away feeling a little better to have had a brief positive interaction. I realize most people who ask questions see it as striking up conversation or being friendly, and pregnancy, like a team t-shirt, make it easy to pinpoint a topic. And for most people, a question may be the best way to get things started. But pregnant women get a million questions a day from people they know way better than you, a stranger or casual acquaintance.
The word on the street from the blogs and articles seems consistently to express that questions or unwelcome touch comes across to most as “taking”, it requires energy just to find the right response that balances politeness with asserting one’s boundaries, such as deciding how to answer “Do you know what you’re having?” Do you say “No, we’re not finding out”, “Yes, but we’re not telling anyone”, “It’s a boy/girl”, “We’re hoping it’s a baby”, or to ignore the question completely because you’re hormonal and fed up and not sure you can answer nicely. It may be her last nerve you’re on if it’s already a sore subject, like if family is badgering mama-to-be to find out the gender when the couple has decided not to. It can also cause a sense of being violated if she feels compelled to answer questions so as not to be rude. It can also depend on the day, some days you feel like talking, others you don’t. When I started buying baby things here and there, the cashiers would sometimes comment “Oh, someone’s having a baby!” which gave me the chance to say “Yup” and hand over my credit card without elaboration (and on that day, even the observation felt like a question I didn’t really want to answer) or on another day to say “Yes, it’s pretty exciting, this is the first pair of little shoes I’m buying” which got her going about her daughter in law who is expecting and how difficult it is not to use her employee discount to buy up every tiny pair of shoes, and we both smiled. Offering something opens the door for conversation without creating expectations beyond a simple “Yes, please” or “No, thank you”. And some women do want to scream from the rooftops that they’re having a girl and they are so excited even though their back hurts and oh the baby’s kicking give me your hand and want to tell you all about the nursery color scheme even for the five minutes at the Starbucks counter. Trust me, they won’t need hardly any prompting to share their joy.
These are just my thoughts on how to offer support and camaraderie with the pregnant women you encounter in a way that’s more likely to be received as it is intended. I know just about everything related to pregnancy and child rearing are controversial, so take my two cents as seriously or not as you wish. For laughs, I’ve included some of the aforementioned shirts: