“My acquaintances, my friends, my dears: How thoughtful of you to ask.”
Judith Martin, our Miss Manners, kindly suggested this response to a question this writer has heard often lately, a question that is rather personal, if you think about it.
But people don’t think about it: There apparently is a lack of boundaries between other people and pregnant women. So it might seem OK to ask an expectant mother, “Did you plan this?”
This question, and its counterpart, “How do you feel about this?,” are probably at the extreme end of the range of questions. “I bet you really want a girl this time” is maybe less so, but this might be ill-received by a woman who is quite happy to be the mother of boys.
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” also is a common question now.
Odd, this attitude.
“When a pregnant woman begins to show, there’s a major role change,” says Robin Akert, an associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “There’s a lowering of taboos, in a sense.”
People would never casually ask comparable questions about one’s marriage, for example, she notes. The pattern “must be cultural, because basically everyone does it. In some eerie way, people know it’s OK to treat a pregnant woman this way.”
Some women may welcome it, she says.
“They may need it. Pregnancy is kind of a difficult thing,” she says.
A pregnant woman may become a lightning rod for other women’s feelings, says Susan Seidman, a New York City psychologist who teaches at Fordham University in New York. The expectant mother will hear things triggered by others’ emotions about the decisions they’ve made, ambivalence about having children, and so on.
“There’s a mistaken belief that pregnant women belong to the world - as if we’re all pregnant together,” she says.
The comments and questions one gets are not mean-spirited.
Rather, Akert says, people are in awe of reproduction and, with their remarks, try to connect with the excitement of childbearing.
“It does make sense” that people try to become involved. In a broad sense, a pregnant woman can be viewed as “doing this for all of us, the whole species. And it’s a wonderful thing.”
It is. But this well-intentioned attention can be tough to take.
There are two common misconceptions about pregnant women, Martin says: “that a woman’s womb is public property,” which makes it a suitable topic for polite conversation, “and that it is entertaining to a pregnant woman” to discuss what could go wrong.
Miss Manners does not allow rudeness as a response to rudeness. But neither should a woman feel required to answer prying questions.