Editor’s note: Our regular contributor, April Wallace, captured this conversation with her friend and fellow writer, Sierra Bush, who is currently expecting her first child. Whether you’re an experienced mama or newly pregnant, we’re sure you’ll recognize some of the common things people say when they find out or notice you’re pregnant (as well as how those comments often land on you — the one carrying the baby!) They’ve also included a few helpful suggestions for better types of questions and/or conversation starters with pregnant acquaintances, friends and family members.
THINGS NOT TO SAY TO A PREGNANT WOMAN
By April Wallace and Sierra Bush
Unless you’re putting your child in physical danger or through mental and/or emotional abuse, there’s really no need for a stranger to step in and say something. BUT that’s never stopped people from interjecting before, and the bad habit probably won’t end by the time my friend Sierra gives birth to her baby girl in October.
Sierra and I got together over coffee (drank in amounts safe to consume by pregnant and breastfeeding women….) to discuss the many nosy things strangers, acquaintances—and yes, friends and family, too—say to women while they’re with child.
“Was it planned?”
Myth: If everyone and their mothers didn’t know that this couple was hoping to have a child, that means the baby was “an accident.” So we’re allowed to ask whether he or she really was (or wasn’t) planned.
Fact: Everyone is allowed to change their minds, whether it’s about something small like what to order at the local coffee shop or something big like whether or not they want to become a parent. But ultimately, if you’re not one of the two people who created that baby, it’s none of your business. Asking if someone’s unborn child was an accident can only lead to bad feelings. Think about having to admit that your pregnancy was unplanned and wondering whether the people in your life saw you as irresponsible. Imagine someone who has been trying to get pregnant for ages and who has been private about their struggle with infertility or miscarriages. When someone is announcing their pregnancy, they’re asking you to share in their joy, not dump bad sentiments and poor expectations upon them.
SIERRA: When my husband and I got married, we wanted our faith in every aspect of our lives and that included our decision to bear children. While we wouldn’t have minded waiting several years to welcome children into our marriage, we knew if we got pregnant the day we got married we wouldn’t have been able to thank God enough for our new chapter in life. However, explaining that to others wasn’t something we were using as a conversation starter, so we decided to play it safe and say, “We would like to wait.” Somehow, announcing we were expecting our baby girl came as a “surprise” to everyone, even though we’d been praying for her for almost five months before finding out God had answered our prayers. When we were expecting support, we got unwarranted questions about our family planning methods. When we needed prayers, we were getting pressured to expand our family.
APRIL: My husband & I were together for 3 years before getting married, and we had been public about not wanting to have children. It was the truth at the time and we just didn’t want people pressuring us about it. He’s older than me, and I had some specific career aspirations. But once we got engaged, things changed for both of us. I liked becoming a stepmom, and it got harder to imagine my life without having a child of my own. My husband was surrounded by coworkers starting their families and pretty soon he was imagining ours growing, too.
What to say instead: A simple, heartfelt congratulations, interest in the due date and/or your plans until then always went far in my book.
“How are you feeling?”
Myth: This question is all encompassing. It means “How is baby?” “How much longer until we meet him/her?” “How is the pregnancy going?” And it has one answer: “Everything is great, I love pregnancy. Thanks for being so kind as to ask.” We’ll smile as we share this moment of understanding that everything’s right in the world.
Fact: Not everyone likes being pregnant. There, I said it. In fact, if we’re being honest, there are a TON of things about pregnancy that are unpleasant. You’re tired all the time, your hormones are out of whack, you’re gaining weight (who doesn’t LOVE that?), and quite literally everything gets more difficult. But just because we don’t enjoy pregnancy doesn’t mean we don’t love our babies or that we’ll become bad mothers.
SIERRA: In our world, as former newspaper reporters, if we don’t want to know something, we won’t ask. I default to this in everyday conversation and tend to get a little annoyed when others either ask me how my pregnancy is going and expect a simple “okay” or ask out of common courtesy. Please take this as permission to not ask me how I’m doing if you don’t genuinely want to know. Because if you ask, I’m going to tell you about the morning sickness that lasted well into my second trimester; the leg spasms that plagued me and took my sleep the last half of my third trimester; and the fact that all I want is a bloody steak and an overeasy egg. And I’m going to expect you to engage me in conversation, despite the fact that my pregnancy has been more physically demanding than others you may have heard about. I’m not looking for sympathy – I’m simply answering your question.
APRIL: I always hated this question. It’s like the pregnancy version of the auto-pilot “How are you?” that need not be answered (and if it is, it’s not listened to). When you’re really uncomfortable or in a lot of pain and someone asks you how you’re feeling, sometimes the only real help can be empathy. Show a little shock and concern that these things are possible for the human body! On the rare occasion that someone did, it always gave me a little laugh and made my day that they understood exactly how bad things have to get sometimes to bring a baby into this world.
What to say instead: If you’re prepared to hear a real, honest-to-god answer, then by all means ask away! If what you really mean is “How’s that baby doing?” “How long until his due date/birthday?” “How’s the nursery coming along?” or something else, then ask that. No need to dance around this vague question where neither of us are quite sure what the other is seeking.
“Are you excited?”
Myth: This shows how excited you are for the expecting couple.
Fact: This is the same song, different tune as “Was it planned?”
SIERRA: No. God has chosen us to be parents and my first thought was to abandon the baby on my doorstep in a cardboard box after I carried her for more than 9 months and birthed her.
Yes, I’m excited! And I think that goes without saying. Instead, ask me what I’m most looking forward to or how pretty she’s going to be (just like her mommy, cough.)
APRIL: Oh she definitely will be!
When someone asks this, you are apparently only supposed to say “Yes!” I usually answered with, “Well, I’m nervous. I have so much to learn and so much to do before my baby gets here!”
What would people say if I’d answered with complete and total honesty: “Yes, but I’m terrified. Help me!”
What to say instead: I wouldn’t mind hearing “You must be so excited” or “I’m so excited for you!” That always made me feel warm and fuzzy, as if the person sitting across from me understood that despite all the difficulties, this was still a special time in my life and my family’s world.
“What are you having?”
Myth: This is a non-offensive conversation starter for pregnant women.
Fact: No one, and I mean no one, is entitled to this information outside of the parents—and they are perfectly within their rights to wait to find out when their baby enters the world, or to keep it to themselves until that day. Even then they may struggle with their own feelings of gender disappointment, if they were hoping for a boy and got a girl or vice versa; or have any number of reasons that things didn’t turn out the way they had imagined for so long.
SIERRA: A friend of mine waited until birth to know the gender of her baby, and so in preparation for the baby shower, I called her and asked, “Do you prefer grey, yellow and other gender neutral colors for baby?” She told me that actually no, they wanted all colors and were fine with exchanging items once they found out the gender. I heard from several people that they were upset with the couple’s decision to be “surprised” because they needed to know whether or not to get them bows or bow ties.
You know what that baby is going to want? A soft blanket, its mother’s milk, and sleep. You know what the parent’s are going to want? A soft blanket, a warm meal, and sleep. Let’s do away with the notion that the color of a blanket matters and rest in the fact we’re blessing someone else’s growing family.
APRIL: This question really bothers me because honestly it doesn’t matter if your baby is a boy or a girl. Your baby is a baby and how wonderful is that news? If I say “I’m having a boy” and you, a stranger, or my neighbor, or a friend of a friend wants a girl, then am I supposed to care about your feelings? I don’t think so.
More bothersome is how aggressive some people are when they ask the question. I was walking through the supermarket when a woman called out this question loudly a few yards away from me without any preamble. (Seriously, no other greeting or question before it.) I was so irritated that I flat-out ignored her and kept walking as if she hadn’t said anything. Now I wish I had said, “With any luck, a human.”
What to say instead: One way of getting around the gendered elephant in the room is to ask whether the mama-to-be has any hopes in particular for a girl or a boy. I always find that leads to more interesting conversations. For example, she may not have a preference, but maybe her husband has high hopes for a boy, or for some reason the extended family is desperately hoping for a girl. It easily alludes to the why, which takes you on a more interesting chat than a simple “I’m having a boy,” or a frustrating round of “why I don’t want to know yet.”
“You’re so big!”
and other comments on weight or size
Myth: Talking about a woman’s changing body size is OK right now because she’s pregnant. She’s basically two people at once and that means it’s inoffensive and open for conversation.
Fact: No woman wants to go there, especially with someone other than their spouse or best girlfriend. And that’s a double no when it comes to strangers. Weight gain, belly size and shape, how you carry, comparisons to that person and other people they know? Just no.
APRIL: I remember in your second trimester, I showed up one day and told you how much I love your baby belly because it was just so cute and perfect. And you told me that people were already saying how big it was. What’s up with that?
SIERRA: Yeah, pretty much this whole time I’ve had to joke with people that I married a YETI. My husband is big and tall, and I’m tall, so genetically speaking our baby won’t be tiny. But that hasn’t stopped them from making comments about what they think about how I’m carrying or how much they think I weigh.
APRIL: Our bodies make the babies that we’re able to birth. If you and your partner are both petite or slender, chances are you’re going to have a little bitty baby. If you’re both tall, then your baby’s going to be bigger.
Even though I had tiny babies, my belly did get huge. I’m 5’2”, so my baby house could only go one direction—straight out. That made me a magnet for this kind of conversation. I was weightlifting at the gym when I was 36 weeks, and stopped to rest for a minute between sets when an older woman told me that taking a break wasn’t going to help me lose weight. I wanted to yell back, “What do you think this is, tacos?!” I once even got a phone call from my dad who was trying to figure out in a not-so-subtle way whether there were any chairs left in the house that I could possibly fit in. Not cool.
WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL OF THE WAY OUR BODIES GROW while pregnant. And pointing out our girth and physical oddities just means our self esteem is taking more hits. I think we should be doing the opposite. We should build women up. Their bodies are doing such incredible work, they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of it!
What to say instead: I’d stay away from commenting on a pregnant woman’s body, period.
“Can you have that?”
and other health-policing comments
Myth: All pregnant women are walking this earth with a complete lack of knowledge for which foods and drinks are harmful to their babies. It is my duty to educate them.
Fact: Millions of women have pregnancy apps that update them quickly and easily with necessary information critical for their unborn children. Some even have quick search features to look up food and medication safety on the spot. So even if someone isn’t buried beneath a stack of books like Sierra and I tend to be, they are likely to have the information at their fingertips.
APRIL: Probably my least favorite food and drink related assumption is that pregnant women can’t have caffeine. I don’t drink a ton of it to begin with, but I drink a cup of coffee each day religiously and I love a cup of green tea in the afternoon. Even though you can consume a certain amount of caffeine safely during both pregnancy and breastfeeding, I found plenty of people quick to judge about this one. What’s worse? I’m pretty sure that plenty of the bystanders bringing this to my attention don’t even know exactly why caffeine might be detrimental to an unborn baby. They’ve just heard that somewhere and are repeating it.
One day toward the end of my first pregnancy, I was struggling to find enough energy to make deadline and sat there uncharacteristically drinking a can of soda as I wrote an article. One of my editors happened to walk by, saw it and said “Wait! That’s not in your diet!” “No… but do you want this article or not?”
SIERRA: Do you know how many milligrams are in a small, iced latte from your local coffee shop? Do you know how many shots of espresso they put in that latte? What about how many milligrams are in each shot of espresso? I can assure you – I do. Because I’ve taken the time to read information from nationally recognized organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics. Have you?
If not, let’s sit down so I can tell you about how many milligrams of caffeine I can safely consume while growing my baby girl. And how many hot dogs I can eat. And how much lunch meat I can have. And how much shrimp I can have. And how I can have some pink in my hamburger. And how….
What to say instead: It never hurts to say “Can I get you something?” A pregnant lady appreciates snacks more than you know. I always had fun with the conversation about what I was craving currently, and what my conversation partner craved in their experience.
“Does your baby like it when you work out?”
and other jabs at maternity fitness
Myth: As soon as a woman finds out that she’s pregnant, she should go to bed and remain there as long as possible, preferably until she births the baby. But if she must get up, she should not lift anything or move any faster than a snail’s pace.
Fact: Staying active during pregnancy is beneficial for both mother and baby’s health.
SIERRA: Not that it’s any of your business, but my right leg is about half an inch shorter than my left. Thus, I naturally have hip and leg pain that was exacerbated when I became pregnant. Especially when my baby girl became bigger – I carried straight out front and low, so when I moved I felt e v e r y t h i n g. Thus, things like walking, hip stretches, even weight lifting really helped strengthen the muscles I needed to not only keep good posture, but carry her without causing further damage. When my doctor suggested kick boxing or a dance class, I couldn’t help but become excited – I’m not the bubble girl everyone thinks I am! But when my chiropractor told me not to walk my 35 pound dog because he was afraid I was going to pull something, all I could do was stare at him in disbelief. Is my purse okay to lift or should I drag my husband with me everywhere I go, too?
APRIL: With this one, some reactions are downright funny, like the older woman who tried to passive aggressively tell me I shouldn’t be at the gym by asking if my unborn baby liked it when I worked out. “I don’t know, I guess you would have to ask him…” Or someone similar who told my pregnant friend she wasn’t allowed to enter the fitness center “Um, yes she is…” Others, though, are uncomfortable. Like young-ish men who used to stare at my belly a little too long while I was using the leg press. And the older men who would inexplicably interrupt my reps to ask if I’d let them use the machine. Do they think I’m not really working out here, or what?
What to say instead: Way to go! Staying active at this point can be so hard, but you’ve got this.
Unsolicited advice and snide remarks
Myth: By telling you something I seriously struggled with, I’m doing you a service. You won’t be totally blindsided.
Fact: If there’s one thing a pregnant woman doesn’t need help with, it’s finding something to worry about. No need to tack onto our list. Let us enjoy any happiness we can find amid it all, even if it’s in ignorance. We’ll find out the truth soon enough.
SIERRA: Breastfeeding. Vaccinating. Parenting. Sleep. I’ve heard advice about it all and I can tell you one thing – I’ll take it into consideration.
Parenting advice 30 or so years ago was operating off of a vaccination schedule that literally had less than half of what our babies today get vaccinated for. HALF! Parenting advice today lets you know that if your babies watch television before they’re two, they’re more prone to tantrums, disrupted sleep schedules and stunted social skills. My point? There is a single column in which the parenting advice you have offered me is actually going to be useful – human behavior. And even then? You haven’t even met my baby yet. Let me seek out your advice when I need it. If I need it.
APRIL: While I was pregnant, I heard a number of ridiculous things. “They’re so much easier to deal with while they’re still in the womb!” was one lady’s way of telling me to enjoy the final peaceful moments of my life.
One I heard many times from many people was, “Oh good, you’ll love boys. Boys are easier than girls.” A colleague once told me “Right now you think you want them to talk and walk, but you don’t.” I laughed in her face and she said, “No really, you don’t.”
Someone else who I worked with regularly implored me that “Boys don’t learn at the same speed as girls, whatever you do, wait until your boys are six to start them in kindergarten. They’ll catch up eventually and get more scholarships in the end than they would have if they started at the same time as everyone else.”
I think at the time I just chalked each of these up to the quirky things that come with being pregnant, but now I see it more as a reflection of each of those people and how their expectations of parenting clashed with their reality one way or another.
What to say instead: How can I help (or support) you? When your baby comes, if you need anything, you’ve got my number.
Other hot button topics
There is not enough time in the world to cover all the odd things people say to us when we’re pregnant, and don’t get us wrong, we want to talk about pregnancy. Clearly, we have a lot to say on the matter. But here are a few that you might want to take the pregnant lady’s lead on: birthing style, intentions for breastfeeding or formula feeding, vaccinations, sleep schedules and other parenting methods. If you start to bring these up and feel like your pregnant conversation pal is attempting to shoot lasers at you from her eyes, it might be time to switch to the weather or how the Razorbacks are doing.
April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to two beautiful and curious baby boys and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her babies while they’re still babies. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction.
Sierra Bush is a native of Northwest Arkansas and loves to try new restaurants with her husband, write in any of the great coffee shops and walk her dog, Winston, on the trails. She and her husband are expecting their first child, a baby girl due October 2019.