Pregnancy and parenting for the perplexed
At no other point in my life have I felt like my body was open for commenting upon by complete strangers. Sure, like many women I’ve had random people come up to me and compliment my clothes or hair, or try to make a pass, or wolf whistle as they ride by on their tiny BMX-style bikes. But nothing like the kind of earnest, engaged, and totally unanticipated comments like what being a visibly pregnant woman has inspired in the crowds.
Friends of mine who have been pregnant report much the same thing, and compared with some of their stories I’ve not had it too bad. For example, one of my very best friends who recently had a baby in Santa Monica, CA, was standing in a queue at the local cafe having just put in her coffee order. A man behind her in the line looked ostentatiously at her large belly and loudly said “I hope you haven’t asked for any sugar in that coffee. Sugar is poison.” Which was news to her (to the barista and me as well). Her response was to turn back to the cashier and loudly ask for a large cookie, then stalk off muttering to herself.
I have had dirties from people when ordering a coffee, which I try to do when I’m with a friend on a quick break from work precisely so I can be mid-conversation and not run the risk of being the subject of comment. The sister of another friend of mine, at about 8 months, asked for a glass of wine in a restaurant when celebrating at a family function. She was refused. Why people think it’s their business to comment on what you put into your mouth when you’re the one incubating a baby is a bit beyond me. It’s not something that you would do in any other situation — first off notice, and second off comment on — the food or drink that someone completely unknown to you is choosing to consume. But when it’s a pregnant woman? Everything you do is open slather. While I don’t want to go into the various advice/myths/opinions around health during gestation here, it’s worth noting that pregnant women are in general treated like they have an implied social contract with everyone to a)take unsolicited advice often based on opinion or hearsay and b) be grateful for the attention. This is, needless to say, highly patronising. Broadly there seem to be two kinds of interfering social reactions: the paternalistic scare-tactics of how irresponsible Activity A is, or the no-sense-of-personal-space physical encounter.
My own little story is the latter. I work on a large university campus near the centre of town. I was walking through the first week crowds (to get a coffee as it happens), surrounded by groups of lost and befuddled first year students, all glowing with that particular aura of youth that is not ever evident to the actual eighteen year-olds themselves but only to those around them. I’d already been asked for directions by about 4 people — I guess a pregnant woman is a reassuringly safe person to approach. Rounding the corner to the broad avenue near the cafe, I was accosted by another leggy teenage girl, clearly lost with her friends, who asked me for directions to the Carslaw Building. I pointed the building out to her (it was within sight), and as I said “It’s just over there” her friends turned around and caught sight of me. One of them literally lunged forward, both hands outstretched as though I were a drink of water and she was dying of thirst, and grabbed onto my belly with both hands shouting “OH MY GOD YOU’RE PREGNANT!” Her friends looked scandalised. The words faded from my lips. She dropped her hands and blushed. All I could think to do was raise my arm again and point at the building, and repeat “It’s just over there.”
It’s like, being visibly pregnant, you have no personal space any more. Certainly I’m not saying that everyone starts touching you, because thankfully that’s not true. But it seems like there are some people for whom the sight of a rounded belly is just too much, and it overcomes any sense of social distance that would normally come into play. Most of my friends — even if they’re super keen to, and really curious — don’t touch my belly. In fact the more keen ones will normally say “I’m not going to do that super obnoxious thing and just touch your belly,” at which point I usually tell them they can if they want to since they’ve sort of warned me they’d like to. But yeah, it’s weird. I mean you’d never go up to another physically different person and grab their body, stating something loud and obvious about it. Can you imagine walking up to a really slender person and touching their arm while saying “Wow, you’re really thin, do you have anorexia or a metabolic disorder?” Or someone with green hair you spot on a bus — you wouldn’t loudly say “Hey, you’ve got green hair, does that interfere with your job prospects?”
I think it has something to do with the idea of potential. For some people the excitement and curiosity they feel is too much, and it floods their normal filter in a way that green hair or thinness doesn’t. They love babies, and they think they’re expressing that.
Or maybe they’re just grabby busybodies.
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