Modern Manners: Pregnancy Etiquette—What to Say When She’s Expecting

Courtesy of VOGUE

Courtesy of VOGUE

Courtesy of VOGUE. Ask any woman what is some of the greatest rudeness she has ever known, she will tell you it was when she was pregnant. Strangers, coworkers, family, and friends—people will say the most amazingly impolite things when you are expecting, and that, of course, is aggravated by the fact that every man, woman, and child seems to have stronger opinions these days on motherhood, medicine, career, and parenting than they do even about politics.

Just ask Marissa Mayer. The news that she is taking the top slot at Yahoo has been overwhelmed by the media response to her announcement that she is six months pregnant and plans to return to work quickly. “Get Out of Marissa Mayer’s Bedroom, Already!” declared the Huffington Post, defending Mayer’s right to enter motherhood her own way, and some of the other high-profile women whose baby bumps currently are the subject of great public fascination (Reese Witherspoon, Claire Danes, and Gisele Bündchen) can no doubt relate. There’s only one polite thing to say when someone tells you she is pregnant: Congratulations.

I asked some pregnant or recently pregnant friends, however, for some of the best-worst remarks they’ve ever heard,  and here is their list:

—Was it planned?
—Do you want it?
—How long have you been married?
—How did he react when you told him you were pregnant?
—Were your in-laws pleased?
—I don’t care how pregnant you are, I insist you still be a bridesmaid at my wedding.
—We’re waiting until the economy stabilizes before we start our family.
—What sex is it?
—Are you sure you’re not having twins?
—Will you breastfeed?
—Overpopulation is a real global problem, so we want to adopt.
—Are you coming back to work? Really? I bet you won’t.
—It takes a long time to stop feeling guilty when you come back to the office.
—I could never be a stay-at-home mom.
—You’re awfully skinny for someone so far along.
—It’s going to be a long, hot summer for you. You don’t know what you’re in for.
—Don’t worry. Your face will be the first thing that slims down after the baby.
—White jeans? That’s bold.
—You still haven’t had that baby?
—I hope you’re not going to have that baby here! (Usually said in elevators.)
—That’s nothing. When I was pregnant . . .
—We have two nannies, morning shift and night shift, and that way if one of them is sick the other one can cover.
—How much weight did your doctor say it was okay to gain?

Then there are the people who want to touch your belly. Some of them will ask first, but some will just reach out and pat your sweater. This is a real don’t. “I have never felt compelled to rub another person’s belly, pregnant or otherwise, so I just cannot understand the eagerness those have to rub mine,” says Moda Operandi cofounder Lauren Santo Domingo, who is expecting her second child this fall. “I recently had an intoxicated woman poke around at my stomach as if it were some sort of party trick,” she adds. “Many act as if pregnancies are public events in which all are allowed to take part, comment upon and discuss. Call me old-fashioned, but for me, being pregnant is highly personal, somewhat sentimental, and not at all for public consumption.”

Before we propose some appropriate responses to any and all of the above offenses, let’s step back a minute to remember, as Lauren’s comments point out, that at the crux of pretty much all our Modern Manners dilemmas is privacy. What we most often consider rude is when someone fails to respect our boundaries and personal space. And in today’s high-speed world, the lines between what’s public and what’s private are constantly blurred. I told a male friend I was writing about the rude things people say to pregnant women. “Why can’t you ask a pregnant lady questions?” he asked. “It’s in the public domain.” Really? I don’t think so. A woman’s body isn’t public, and pregnancy isn’t a public event unless she chooses to make it one. The model Adriana Lima likes taking to Twitter about being pregnant with her second child while newly pregnant Giselle Bündchen isn’t commenting. We should respect each.

Of course, it goes both ways. Where pregnant ladies are sometimes rude is when they offer too much unsolicited—the key word here is unsolicited—information. It’s one thing to tune intoKelly Ripa’s show when she is interviewing a certain pregnant reality-television personality and get an earful. What did you expect? It’s quite something else to make a business call to and receive a full-blown account of a recent trip to the ob-gyn. The same goes for that expectant coworker whose constant conversation is more medical chart than business-as-usual.

How much you say about your pregnancy, when you say it, and who you say it to is always up to you, decided by your intuition and timing. Feel free to answer any uninvited question (especially those from coworkers, acquaintances, and those repeat offenders who constantly overstep their bounds) with something like: “Thanks so much. I love it when people are so interested in pregnancy, especially mine, but we’ve decided not to discuss it.” Then change the subject to some pleasantry, check your phone, consult your watch—disengage. If someone lobs any comment or opinion that you find offensive or hurtful—insistence that you breast-feed, or what about the overpopulation problem—a very direct “thank you for sharing your opinion with me,” should end this. You are under no obligation to defend yourself or explain your stance on the matter. Just change the subject. Walk away. Remember a phone call you have to make. Check your to-do list. Turn to the person on your other side at dinner.

And about the people who want to touch or rub your belly? Keep something in front of yourself: a glass of water at a party, your hands folded in an elevator, an iPad, a pocketbook. Isn’t that what Grace Kelly did in 1956 when she didn’t want a photographer to take a picture of her pregnant? She used her Hermès Sac à dépêches to block the snapshot. The photograph was published in Life, and the result was fashion history: the Kelly bag!

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