When I was pregnant with my son, I remember feeling surprised by the loss of control over my body—and the fact that other people viewed my experience of growing a human as a free-for-all to say whatever they wanted.
It’s tricky: For the majority of the time, most folks do mean well and are only trying to be friendly. However, that can easily shift into awkward comments and intrusive actions, which can weigh heavy on an expecting mother’s mind and heart. So here are 9 things to keep in mind—what to do or say, as well as what to avoid—if you’ve got a pregnant mama in your life.
1. “Were you trying?”
Upon hearing the news of my pregnancy, my father asked, “How did this happen?!” True story. I responded, “Well, we had sex,” to his extreme embarrassment. I knew he meant, like, “Tell me the whole story!” since my husband and I were not pursuing parenthood at that point in our life, but it was awkward to be asked such a personal question, even by a family member.
From my viewpoint, there is only one scenario where it is acceptable to talk about if someone was “trying”: If they bring it up. Because here’s the deal—and this is applicable to literally every life situation—if someone wants you to know something, they will tell you. Or not. Seriously.
The whole “trying/not trying” thing is straight-up personal information nobody else needs to be privy to except the two people who were having sex in the first place. Whether one’s journey to pregnancy involves many years of waiting, an unexpected surprise, expensive and painful fertility treatments, a one-night stand, any number of miscarriages before or in between children—let the person having a baby take the lead on this one. Instead, offer sincere congratulations, and leave it at that.
2. “You don’t look pregnant! or You look so pregnant!”
Pregnancy feels so intensely private most of the time, and yet, it’s not. As your belly continues to grow, it becomes this very public topic, and you can’t do much to hide it even if you wanted to. (Unless you are a celebrity who can afford to be whisked away to a private island to enjoy your nine months in peace.) It can be jarring to feel like your body is on constant display for commentary regarding physical appearance, such as:
I knew you were pregnant, you look so tired!
I thought you had put on a few pounds . . .
You’re not showing at ALL.
Well, your boobs are definitely bigger.
You look skinny; I hope you’re eating enough for the baby.
Are you sure there aren’t two in there?!
Wow, your feet are so swollen.
Look at that big belly poking out!
I could go on and on, but you get the point. As a pregnant person, you’re already dealing with the nonstop changes: expansion, swelling, aches and pains, and so the nonstop scrutiny of hmmmm how is she putting on the WEIGHT in a world that prioritizes thinness and athleticism can really mess with your self-confidence.
So, what should you say to someone who is pregnant? Any variation of “You look wonderful!” “You’re glowing!” works wonders.
3. “How are you feeeeeeeeling?”
Note: This is not the same as asking, “How are you?” You see, when you’re pregnant, people stop casually asking, in a normal voice, how you’re doing. They start saying, “How are you feeeeeeeeling?” with a concerned look and a head tilt to the side. Which, sure, that’s not so bad . . . once or twice. But getting asked this question in the way every single day of your pregnancy (sometimes multiple times a day by the same person) is repetitively weird and annoying. It contributes to the stereotype that pregnant women have all the feels, all the time; they’re crazy, man, any second they’re going to blow up with rage and nonsense and demand you bring them a pint of ice cream with pickles on the side.
Hormones are indeed no joke during pregnancy, but you’re still yourself besides the whole growing-a-baby thing. Yeah, you’re tired, and sometimes endlessly hungry, and sometimes a whole bunch of other not-so-pleasant things, but you don’t necessarily want to chat about it all day long. One friend said she felt like she was wearing a sign around her neck that said, “Hi! Talk to me about pregnancy!” when she wanted to talk about literally anything else. On the flip side, it can be an easy conversation starter with strangers or acquaintances, which can be helpful in small talk situations.
Better questions: “Can I help you with anything? What’s new? Want to grab a snack with me?” Again, if the pregnant person in your life wants to dive into her laundry list of complaints, she will. And that’s your opportunity to be a great listener and reassure her that she’s doing such an amazing job building a human being with her body.
3. “Aw, I want to touch your belly.”
Ask yourself this: Would you touch this person’s stomach if she weren’t pregnant? No? Then don’t assume it’s OK now. There’s a tiny but important thing called consent, which means you ask before you touch, always. Even if it is a close friend or family member. Even if you are pretty sure they won’t care. If they decline, say “No problem!” and move on, and if they are completely, 100% onboard, then go for it. But respect their body and their space by asking permission first.
4. “Is this your first baby?”
Someone I know had a miscarriage, and then got pregnant afterwards. She shared that people often ask, upon seeing her pregnant belly, if this is her “first,” and explained: “This is a very hard question for a mom who lost her first baby. Sometimes I tell the truth, depending on the situation, and other times I say yes and instantly feel guilty like I’m not remembering my first baby. Even though I can’t really blame the person who asks the question, because I asked it, too, before I knew the pain of losing a baby.”
When I heard her say this, I was like oh my God, I’ve totally asked that question and I’m a terrible person. The truth is that I haven’t experienced the loss of a baby, so it had not occurred to me to think about how it might feel to answer such this type of question. Now, I think twice. Of course you can’t know what other people have gone through, but you can certainly be mindful of how you phrase questions, and be prepared for the fact that it could lead to a difficult conversation.
5. “Wow, it’s about time!”
One of my co-workers said that pre-baby, someone asked if she was going to have a baby or “just” work forever. JUST. Cue eye roll. The whole “it’s about time!” and “wow, we thought you’d never have kids” or “I assumed it was never gonna happen!” is simply rude. Despite the traditional societal narrative that suggests female worth equals procreation, it’s completely fine to take your time when deciding to become a parent. Some people aren’t ready for kids yet, some want to be in their relationship sans-kids for a while, some prefer to travel extensively or save more, and some are going through other major life transitions like a move or a career shift.
Usually people say this kind of thing to couples who have been together a long time without becoming parents yet, but there’s no need to make a big speech to someone about your surprise over their choice to start the parenthood journey. Besides, you don’t know what they’ve gone through: maybe relationship trouble, therapy, infertility, miscarriages, stress, financial problems, mismatched priorities, etc. Don’t assume people who don’t have kids yet do or don’t want them. Everyone has their own reasons, and their own timing.
6. “Labor is going to be so awful.”
For some reason, women like to compete about whose birth story is worse . . . which is unhelpful and scary to the pregnant person listening. Yes, labor is hard. Yes, it can be extremely frightening and result in complications or trauma. Yes, it is very painful. But the pregnant person already knows that or is already worrying about it, so don’t contribute to the fear! Instead, share the positive birth stories you’ve heard or had; women are less likely to talk about them but it is really reassuring to know that it’s not all doom and gloom. Every woman gets through it on her own terms, so focus on providing comforting words of support like, “No matter what happens, you’ll get through it because you’re strong” and “You’re going to be such a great parent.”
7. “You should . . . “
Speaking of labor: There are a lot of ways to do it. Medicated, not medicated, in the hospital, at home—and for some reason, once people get on a roll about how terrible labor is, they also like to tell you how you should have a baby based on how they had a baby or their friend/sister/mom had a baby. Friends, there’s no medal for doing it one way or the other. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “That’ll never work”, “Just wait” and “Yeah right, you have no idea” . . . and it was like, OK, well then let me figure it out! An acquaintance put it perfectly: “Don’t ask questions if you only plan to the judge the person on the choices they are making; if you have a ‘correct’ answer in mind, and you only want to know if they are doing the ‘right’ thing, keep your question to yourself.” Boom. Mic drop.
My suggestion? Preface advice with: “Can I share my experience or point of view?” That gives the pregnant person a moment to recognize they’re about to receive advice, so they can mentally and emotionally prepare if they’re already feeling defensive or sensitive. Or make it about them, and ask the question: “What do you hope for your labor and delivery experience?” You can absolutely disagree or share information with intent to educate but ultimately, it’s not your call.
8. “Isn’t pregnancy AMAZING?”
One of my best friends, Jami, said: “Everyone talks about postpartum depression, but I wasn’t prepared for prepartum depression. It was hard to come to grips with the fact that I didn’t feel like a floating mother goddess. It took nearly eight months to feel okay about being pregnant.” For a lot of women, pregnancy is not all rainbows and butterflies. Some people are really sick the whole time, or sad, or struggling for a variety of reasons; others adore the experience and feel fine all the way up ’til the end. The point is, don’t assume you know what it’s like for them. Ask open-ended questions like, “What’s your experience of pregnancy been like so far?” Be a good listener, and reinforce that it’s completely normal to feel a wide range of emotions. Pregnancy might be amazing one second, terrible the next, and meh after that. It’s always changing, and that’s OK.
9. “You’ll never sleep/go out/have sex again.”
Having a baby is stressful, duh. But I hated when people made it seem like a baby would ruin my life. It felt dramatic, depressing and unfair. (And also, um, if you’re pregnant, not much you can do about it now, right? Ha.) Most of all, it turned out to be false. Relationships and lifestyles obviously must adjust to a new little babe in the mix, and it absolutely takes time to find your groove again on all levels. Hard phases of exhaustion, disconnect, and boring nights on the couch happen; however, they don’t last forever.
I’ve also found that the people who say these things? They’re probably the ones struggling. So if you’re throwing out such words to pregnant friends, do a self-check to see if maybe you’re the one who needs improvement in the sex, social, or sleep fronts. To the person about to have a baby? Don’t freak them out. Say, “I’m happy to babysit if you need a nap or a date night!” Let your friend know you’ll be there to remind her of who she is in addition to being a mom later on.
Obviously, many people wholly embrace these overly personal or semi-annoying questions and comments just for the joy of welcoming a child into their family. But pregnancy is a weird, funny trip, and a good chance to practice being thoughtful with your words.