Here I am, writing a post about pregnancy. I want you to know that this is not an announcement. It’s just that my sister-in-law and a very dear friend and half my Instagram feed are having babies in May, and God’s honest truth is that if one (me) is a married woman of child-bearing age, everyone else has lots of opinions about pregnancy, so one may as well develop some of one’s own. Therefore I read a bunch of books about pregnancy and parenting that I will now use to make my argument. I am a graduate student; this sequence of events will surprise no one who knows me.

So in no particular order, here are some of my opinions:

Number one, and this is a take to which I can attach personal experience: do not ask people when they are planning to have children. Just—don’t do this. Why would you do this? Okay, sure, you might have what seems like a good reason—perhaps you are very dear friends, and/or the other person has brought up this topic of discussion. Perhaps this person has even opened the conversation by asking you about your reproductive choices. Still! Tread lightly. Why? Because it is absolutely none of your freaking business. I don’t even want to explain to you why it is not your business. But here are a number of reasons why it is, at a minimum, a rude thing to ask about. 

Firstly: You do not know the medical situation of the potentially-baby-making parties. They might be struggling with infertility already or have indicators that having a biological child will be difficult. They may have medical conditions that are causing them to weigh carefully whether they can safely raise a family. This person or their partner may have already had a miscarriage, or several, that was also not your business but means that this is a painful subject for you to casually probe at a church potluck or family reunion or Starbucks. Even if you are indeed very close, they still may not want to talk to you about their medical history. You also do not know their financial situation! Kids are extremely expensive, from what I can tell, and people have varying levels of access to things like family support and affordable childcare (the latter being a policy decision made by our government, so if you’re really interested in other people having babies, you could channel your energies into advocating for that cause). People also have student debt (also a policy decision!) and other financial responsibilities, or they’ve determined it’s not feasible or wise right now, and maybe that’s hard and disappointing, or maybe they just don’t want to explain their monthly budget to you. They might be perfectly healthy and perfectly financially stable and just don’t want a kid right now, or ever, both of which are absolutely reasonable deal breakers. It is not a sin to choose not to have a child. And it’s not your business. There is no interest in a person’s reproductive choices that you could possibly have (“but it would be fun for us to have kids the same age!” “But your parents want a grandbaby!”) that would outweigh the factors that they are already considering.

(Plus climate change is bad and scary and not irrelevant to reproductive decisions. Another site to exercise your new-found love of policy advocacy in support of pregnant people!)

Number two, do not spout off opinions about what pregnant women should or should not be doing. Women who have recently become pregnant almost certainly have more current information about the risks and relative safety of these activities than you do. We know things now that we did not know twenty years ago. We know things now that we did not know three years ago. Such is the way of medical research. For example: Emily Oster, economist and author of Expecting Better (this is obviously one of the books I read, I recommend it), describes politely waiting in line for the coffee cart at the University of Chicago only to be harangued by colleagues asking if she should be drinking a latte in her condition. She notes that they were often sorry they asked since she replied with a thorough (and presumably pointed) review of the medical literature on caffeine during pregnancy, none of which offers conclusive evidence that coffee causes problems for mom or baby. “All evidence,” she writes, “supports having up to 2 cups [per day]. Much of the evidence supports having 3 to 4 cups.” (Much of the literature she reviews on alcohol consumption is similar.) It is essential to remember that one or two anecdotal cases (“my cousin drank Starbucks every day and her kid has ADHD now!”) are not evidence for a causal link between any one woman’s choices and her or her child’s medical outcomes, and just because two things have been shown to be statistically correlated does not mean they are causally related. I learned this in my tenth-grade statistics class, but it seems to bear repeating. And again: it is not your business. Pregnant women are moral agents. They care more about their babies than you do. They also deserve to care about themselves. Keep your trap shut. 

Also, do not touch someone’s belly unless you are invited to do so. If you wouldn’t do it to her when she’s not pregnant, you sure as hell should not do it now.

Number three (or four, depending on if you count the belly thing as a separate mandate): this one I will phrase in the positive. Allow people to have a full range of feelings about their pregnancy. Yes! Babies! They are cute and squishy and one imagines that the parents are excited about this prospect! But pregnancy is not a spectacular joyride for most people. For all people, it is a significant medical event that comes with not-insubstantial risk and definitely lots of side effects, medical, financial, emotional, and otherwise. I imagine most parents will tell you that these are worth it. (The opinions of men matter much less in this case; they are not doing any of the work of gestating a whole human being in a body that has to modify itself significantly to accommodate that project.) But it’s still a massive life transition, and it does not serve anyone to act like someone is a bad parent just because they have acknowledged that being pregnant, or having a baby, is a mitigated joy or occasionally unpleasant. Regular hard feelings are very common, and postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis are more common than we care to admit. 

Relatedly, and here I do not speak from personal experience but some rather potent hearsay: do not tell other pregnant people about your own magical, bohemian pregnancy experiences unless you are 110% sure this will be a helpful contribution. Or tell your horror stories! Do not make this poor woman worry about something entirely out of her control for no reason at all. Let her hope her experience will be better than yours.

So, a summative conclusion to my list of opinions: pregnant women are people, they know more about their pregnancy than you do, and the best way to support them is to stop projecting your own anxieties and experiences on to theirs. Bring them snacks and buy them baby gear and take a walk with them and make space for their feelings instead. This is in fact a pretty good way to navigate all human relationships, in my more general experience: be very aware of what is, and is not, your business. And bring snacks.

12 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    Yes, yes, YES. I feel pretty fortunate to have an aunt and an older female cousin who are unmarried and childfree; they’ve paved the way for me to be turning 30 and happily unattached without constant pressure from relatives about when I’m going to get hitched and start having kids.

    I also propose to ban the phrase “starting a family” as a euphamism for getting pregnant. Families don’t begin when babies enter the equation! And seriously — don’t touch a belly (/body) you haven’t been expressly invited to touch. It’s not that hard to resist.

    Reply
    • Katie Van Zanen

      I feel a follow-up guest post coming on, Geneva. (And I heartily second your proposal.)

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Love it. Thank you for c u annealing your research into something so potent and helpful.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Oh my goodness THANK YOOOUUUU.

      Can’t have kids, but my mom was a doula while I was growing up and I REALLY wish folks would leave pregnant people alone. It’s a big enough event and process without everyone and their third cousin, twice removed, butting in.

      Reply
  3. Kate Parsons

    Inviting nosy people intent on others’ potential fertility to channel that energy into climate advocacy is the absolute best take.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    Thanks for writing this! If you care to share, I would love to know what (preferably non-religious) books you read, as I am still on the fence about ever having kids, especially with climate change/other environmental reasons in mind.

    Reply
    • Katie Van Zanen

      Thanks for reading, Katelyn! A great question. I have not ready any “Christian parenting” books, and I didn’t read any full books re: climate change, but I’ll recommend Emily Oster’s two books, Expecting Better and Cribsheet, which are pretty nuts-and-bolts what’s-the-data, and Bringing Up Bebé, by an American journalist raising kids in Paris (talks cultural differences in child-rearing, which are very much tied to policy! though she doesn’t develop that entirely). Lyz Lenz has a book out called Belabored, which is on my list but I haven’t yet tracked it down! She’s a firecracker; I’ll link a relevant substack piece here– https://lyz.substack.com/p/the-pandemic-is-breaking-women-and

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    Thank you!

    If I had a dollar for every bleepity-bleeping time somebody asked about my reproductive plans, made inferences or comments about my reproductive plans or otherwise got in my personal business, I would have a whole lot more dollars than I have now.

    “Well, isn’t that the purpose of life?”

    No. It is not. And telling somebody whose situation you can’t entirely know that it is is hella traumatizing. And it diminishes my (and many many many other people’s) contribution to this world down to their reproduction or lacktherof. And that is really messed up, especially with folks who are struggling with infertility.

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    I’ve always thought that there are some people who have the joy of bringing children into this world, and there are others who have the joy of making a world worth bringing children into. Thank you for this.

    Reply
    • Katie Van Zanen

      What a pithy rejoinder to everyone nosy. Thanks for sharing it.

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    11/10 huge fan of this piece, all of your recommendations, and the gracious (but firm) way you expressed yourself.

    Reply
  8. Kyric Koning

    Always a fierce voice in the dark. Glad you wrote this article, and sad you had to, too. People certainly could use more lessons in empathy.

    Reply

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