“When are you having more children?” “Time for Another!” “Why Doesn’t ___ Have Kids Yet?” & other comments that don’t mean to hurt, but can.
This post has been mulling around in my head for a while, saved as a draft for weeks, as yet another pregnancy announcement has come. Spring is a time for new beginnings, fresh growth, and the celebration of new life. I so get it! I love pregnancy, I’ve been through a few myself, but even so, I really think we need some education on the appropriateness of the question “are you pregnant?” and it’s variants. I know that some will feel their feathers being ruffled by my words, feel defensive, or offer an explanation/apology–but please hear me out, you apologizing to me is not the goal.
What I’m hoping to do is to help you see the bigger picture. Fertility is not guaranteed, you see. The saying “Curiosity killed the cat” is relevant here. Sometimes things are not as they seem, and by asking, you may be opening up someone’s wounds. Since this question is often said from a purely curious stance, the real answers can make the person being asked feel unsafe to share. The person you’re asking may very well be asking herself, “Do I want to go into my marital problems / fertility struggles / traumatic pregnancy loss with this well-meaning stranger? Do I want to share the tragic details of my son’s death?”
Bear with me, because I am not here for finger pointing: I’ve asked these things myself, even though I know better. Five years (and 2 healthy kids!) after my first miscarriage, I still get the wind knocked out of me when people ask me these questions.
Appropriate responses to this question if you’re being asked by someone who doesn’t know how personal it is can show grace and mercy, but they can also teach a very valuable lesson. If you’re the one who’s experienced the hurt of pregnancy loss or infertility, believe me, I know how frustrating it is to be the one who has to give the grace and show the mercy when it feels like the asker hasn’t done it for you just by asking.
So here’s what I’m asking you, dear reader, to consider: first, don’t be afraid to get a blunt and uncomfortable answer. Sometimes that is what it takes for us to learn that we’ve said something inappropriate or overstepped a personal boundary. If you are uncomfortable or hurt by the response, let it move you to action. Do not put your feelings of embarrassment on the mom (or dad, too, but I think I’m writing mainly for mothers), it is not her job as a bereaved mother to protect you from embarrassment. Rather, it’s your job to learn healthy and appropriate ways to engage with people on a personal level that is beneficial.
Remember that your curiosity is a very personal question to someone else, so err on the side of safety and kindness. This isn’t “too PC,” this is decency!
Not everyone grows up, gets happily married, and has 2.5 kids easy-peasy. Death, sadly, is part of life [see also: Adam & Eve in the Garden 😉], and we will do well by our children not to shield them from this reality. Talk about the cycle of life when it comes up with your kids. Sometimes babies die, sometimes pregnancies end too soon, sometimes mommies and daddies can’t have the babies they want (or the way they want). I recently began talking with my oldest, as it comes up, about death and even our miscarriage. She doesn’t understand all of it, and my goal is not to make her unnecessarily sad or fearful, but to teach empathy and raise my girls with a realistic expectation of life and death. One of the hardest parts of recovering from my miscarriage was the broken lifelong presumption and expectation that I would be able to have kids when and how I wanted them. I always believed it was just a given. The reality of loss and death and my lack of control over it was especially challenging because I just had no idea it was really a thing that could happen these days.
Next, resist, with everything in your power (and then some) the desire to respond to infertile or bereaved or miscarrying mothers with unhelpful at-least-isms: “at least you know you can get pregnant,” “at least you can always adopt,” “at least you can carry a baby to term,” “at least you already have living child(ren)…” Please understand these things are not helpful, even if you genuinely want them to be! Don’t make promises you can’t keep, like “you’ll get pregnant again, you’re meant to be a mom, I feel it!” Oh, sweet lady, you don’t know that for sure, and that on top of so many unknowns just makes that mother feel like more of a failure. I know, you don’t mean to, rarely people do, but grief is funny that way.
What you can say if you make the mistake of asking is, “I’m sorry I overstepped by asking.” “Thank you for your courage in sharing with me.” You can also say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I don’t know what to say,” “That must be so hard for you,” and “Thank you for trusting me with that information.” You don’t have to draw a personal connection. Resist the urge to compare stories because inevitably it steals someone’s joy and in the comparison game no one wins.
If you feel the need to ask a woman anything, and your curiosity just cannot keep it together, I recommend the tried-and-true “How are you doing today?” You might get an answer you didn’t expect, you might get an “I’m fine, how are you?” but you won’t be putting your foot in your mouth (see? I’m being helpful, not critical)! And, people always appreciate being checked in on. A genuine “How do you do?” is rarely a bad thing.
If you’re in a room of people who are wondering aloud why someone isn’t pregnant or when she may become pregnant, speak up. We’ve all been there, we all know it happens. Once you know, you have a responsibility to educate others. You can say, “Maybe she’s struggling with fertility or loss,” “maybe she doesn’t want children now,” “maybe she’s grieving silently,” or my personal favorite: “I know our curiosity means well, but that’s really not our business and we shouldn’t be asking.” Again, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but we can all stand to do better by our sisters.
We gotta stick together. Moms who have been there, moms who are going through it now, and future moms who I hope never go through it, but might: we need encouragement from one another.
Since I never like to be the one to point out a problem without offering some solutions, I’m linking some helpful resources from folks who have articulated this far better than I ever could:
- Mind Your Own Womb
- The Ugly Side of Struggling to Say Congratulations
- Option B
- I Had a Miscarriage
- Postpartum and the Dark Side of the Rainbow
Have you ever asked someone “are you pregnant?” I have, too, believe me, but I’ve learned and now I’ve been on the receiving end. If you feel bad, like I do, let it be an opportunity for improvement. I want to do better, and you can too. What else would you add?