What to Say (& Not to Say) to a Pregnant Woman?


July, 2019

In the beginning, pregnancy is a blessed secret shared by only those closest to you (or those that observe you running out of the room to throw up… or your boss, when she finds you curled in the corner of your office for an afternoon nap.) You hold within you a life-changing secret! One day you are standing alone, staring at a pee stick in your bathroom, but in a few weeks you will begin to tell friends and family and soon will follow a flood of advice, well wishes, and some pretty strange comments!

Many years ago when I was a first-time mom (who is a very private person by nature,) I was greatly put off by these comments. Being young and lost in pregnancy fog, a witty rebuttal always seemed to be just out of reach.

Of course there are some genuinely rude or mean people in the world, but most people who are clumsy and inept at commenting on your burgeoning pregnancy, generally mean no real harm. Still, your feelings are at stake, and heaven knows that your feelings are on overdrive!

The most common remark is possibly the most difficult to hear – “you are huge!” or the common variant “are you sure you aren’t having twins?” This may be followed by the next person who says, “Is everything OK? You don’t look big enough to be six months.” While ridiculously crass on the face of it, I have a theory that this blundering assessment of your progress also carries with it a somewhat charming need of friends or strangers alike to comment on the new life growing within you. Perhaps our culture simply doesn’t have a way to communicate – “Wow, I notice you have a baby in there, and babies are great! Without babies, there would be no future and no human race!”

I comforted myself by trying to reframe their comments as supportive. Judging by the frequency of such comment by otherwise reasonable people, I would suggest that there is something deep in our DNA that draws our attention to new life, but mostly we aren’t very competent at communicating about it appropriately.

Here is some solid advice for those who are tempted to comment on the appearance of a pregnant women, whether she is just sporting a tiny baby bump, or heading into her 41st week, try this:

“You look lovely!” It’s simple; it’s sweet, and multi-purpose. In fact if there is any doubt whether the recipient of the comment is actually pregnant, I would totally play it safe!

For the unlucky recipients of a crass comment on size, you can go several directions. One smart and kind friend of mine retorted, “Thank you! It is my job to nourish a healthy baby,” while another communicated her offence and felt much better for it, “I am sure you don’t realize how hurtful that sounds”

Advice flows freely to the pregnant mom – everything from speculations on gender while standing in the line at the grocery store (“you are carrying high/low, it’s gonna be a girl/boy for sure,”) to solutions for swollen ankles (are they that obvious?) Even worse is the nearly compulsive need to tell you about dire outcomes and cautionary labor stories. One of the best retorts I ever heard was delivered with great compassion from a clinical therapist who said, “I am curious why you felt it was necessary to tell me that.” I heard about another person who discouraged an over-zealous sharer by saying, “That story was really intense. What is the most important lesson you learned from that experience?”

In general, there are a few polite show stoppers to keep in your back pocket, like:

“Why do you ask?” “That is interesting advice,” “Thank you for noticing, but my midwife is very pleased with how I am progressing,” or even, “well if it is twins we will all be very surprised, won’t we.”

Walking the fine line of diplomacy between shutting down a boundary-crossing cad, while not offending well-meaning Uncle Ernie is definitely a learned skill and worth a little practice. In the end protecting yourself emotionally is the end goal, and doing it in a way that doesn’t spawn toxic “retort regret” will make for a less stressful pregnancy. Invest your energy in direct responses to shape the behavior of co-workers and family with whom you have to interact frequently. Let the comments of strangers roll off or find humor when you can. Then surround yourself with affirming friends who tell you that you look lovely, because you do!

For the first three months, your baby bump can be mistaken for a need to hit the gym and cut out the cupcakes. Most of your friends don’t share those thoughts directly with you, but by the time you announce everyone seems to feel free to let you know that “they are so happy to hear this since they have been talking about how you have been letting yourself go lately.”

As pregnancy moves on, most parents are looking for a little advice and find themselves attracted to stories of birth. Every parent faces the realization that it was much easier to get that baby in than it will be to get it out. Reality TV and sitcoms offer little help with over-dramatic or overly ideal births “packaged for TV” stories that take exactly 30 minutes and rarely reflect the messy realities of birth.

(Condensed from The Seven Secrets of Waterbirth, by Barbara Harper)