Never (Ever) Ask a Woman This Question
Are you pregnant?
It has been 16 years since my last abdominal surgery and 36 years since my first. Both surgeries saved my life, and the scars in the shape of a giant cross on my belly are a daily reminder that I am lucky to be alive. But the surgeries also left me with a permanently distended belly on an otherwise petite frame (I am 5’4” and 110 pounds). In other words, I look three months pregnant.
As a result, I have trouble finding properly-fitting clothing. I also spend the majority of my days living with some form of gastrointestinal discomfort, further limiting my choice because I need pants that don't constrict around the belly. I have made my peace with inconveniences and managed to sidestep potential body image issues.
However, I refuse to accept that people believe it is appropriate to ask a woman if she is pregnant.
How These Intrusive Questions Affect Me
I have received this question countless times. At first, it felt like I had been punched in the gut. It would ruin my day, if not days. I would reevaluate my exercise routine and my diet (both of which are healthy) and question my wardrobe choices. If I wear form-fitting clothes, my swollen belly is obvious, but if I wear flowy, shapeless tops, people think I am hiding something. As time went on, and with the maturity that comes with age, I don’t let it bother me so much. The question still takes the wind out of my sails, but I move on fairly quickly.
I’ve considered ridiculous responses to answer the question; I like to think of ways to shock people when they ask. But every time the question comes, I am caught off guard and reply matter of factly.
- “Are you pregnant?“ “No.”
- “When are you due?” “I’m not pregnant.”
- “I didn’t know you were expecting.” “That is because I am not.”
The most awkward is “Congratulations” with a sideways glance, or nod towards my belly. Then I either have to force them to say it aloud so I can correct them, at which point they usually start to realize their error but it's too late to backpedal.
Too Close to Home: Navigating Rude Comments
However, now things have shifted. Previously, only strangers asked the question. I could grunt my reply and move on with my life and never have to face the questioner again. Lately, though, colleagues have been asking. These are people who I like and who I will continue to interact with long before the awkwardness passes. I assume this shift is because I am older and married now and people are primed to erroneously assume that motherhood must be an ambition of mine.
I also think the fact that my stomach is large relative to the rest of my body also provides people with a false sense of security. I often wonder if I were a slightly larger woman, people might pause, unsure if they are misclassifying tummy rolls. But because I am small and fit, the fact that people could be wrong and might offend me doesn’t cross their minds. They assume the only possibility for my misproportioned belly is a pregnancy.
With colleagues, I can’t be gruff and just walk away. I must maintain professional decorum. These are well-intentioned people who care that they have hurt me. They are mortified and feel horrible about the mistake they made and ironically, I end up comforting them.
The fact that these encounters make me feel self-conscious momentarily or badly about my body at work is not ideal, but it has not done any long-term psychological damage. The impetus to write this letter — this plea to the public to never ask or assume a woman is pregnant — is my consideration for how women in different situations might be deeply affected by this personal question.
Why Pregnancy is None of Your %^@* Business
What if I were desperately trying to conceive and couldn’t? What if I had recently miscarried or terminated a pregnancy? Or what if I was pregnant and not yet ready to share it publicly? You would have put me in a position to have to either disclose it before I was ready or lie to your face. How would women in those situations feel? I have never been in that position, but I imagine it is awful. And I imagine it makes for an even more uncomfortable work environment.
Pregnancy is a medical condition and it is private until a woman determines otherwise. You wouldn't ask colleagues about their cancer or diabetes if they hadn't disclosed these conditions to you. So why do people consider it appropriate to ask about pregnancy?
The next time you find yourself wondering if a woman is pregnant, remember to never ask unless you see the baby crowning. I know babies are exciting, and you may not be able to contain your enthusiasm, but please stay quiet. Consider the benefit-risk tradeoff of being wrong. If she is pregnant, you will eventually learn of her status and there will be nothing lost. If she is not pregnant, you will have avoided an awkward encounter that is painful to all those involved. In that, there is a tremendous amount to be gained.