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Let them pat your belly! When did we moms get so touchy about pregnancy?

When did we moms get so touchy about pregnancy?

By JJ Keith |

After a prenatal yoga class, still barefoot and recovering from tree pose, I found myself on the receiving end of a lecture from a fellow yogi. “It’s none of your business if twins run in my family! As if the contents of my reproductive system are any of your business! They don’t call them private parts for nothing!”

I’d meant the question innocently. When she told me she was having twins, I was excited. Two children + one tummy = mind-blowing! I was desperate to engage her and find out more about her supersized pregnancy. But I see now that she thought I was trying to find out if she’d used reproductive technology to get pregnant, something I hear moms of twins are rudely asked about all the time and grow bristly about.

I should have known better since I was having my own struggles with the curiosity of strangers. I found out I was pregnant again just after my firstborn turned one, or as one elderly gentleman on the street informed me, “too soon.” I’d become so accustomed to the question of “When are you due?” being followed with “How old is your first?” that I simply answered, “They’ll be twenty months apart.”

Though I’d never been the source of an angry pregnant woman’s rant before, I was familiar with the rhetoric. I’d heard from mothers with one child tired of being asked when they’re having another, bottle-feeding parents being lectured by strangers about how “breast is best,” and pregnant women so worn down by their bellies being fondled by strangers that they print up t-shirts with the message, “You can touch my belly if I can punch your face.”

When did it become a federal offense to be in awe of one human swimming inside another? Not everyone has a nefarious motive, not everyone is judging. I certainly wasn’t trying to. Parents today are raising our children in relative isolation, no longer bolstered by large extended families and neighbors bearing casseroles to mark life’s big events. The titular community of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, has been gutted, and sometimes it seems that all that remains are strangers making silent judgments about birth spacing or trying to sort the “natural” twins from those who came about after reproductive assistance. Parents are so accustomed to fending off the unsolicited judgment of strangers that we don’t know how to recognize when someone is just trying to make conversation.

I didn’t know how to respond to the pregnant woman’s lecture, just as I didn’t know what to say when a friend, a mother of an adopted son of a different race than her own, complained to me about people asking where he came from. She begrudged the nosiness of strangers and, like the mother-of-twins-to-be, the way their questions were implicitly prying into things she thought were between her and her OB/GYN. When strangers asked if her son was adopted, she, still raw from years of invasive treatments and heartbreak, felt that what they were really saying was, “So, you couldn’t make your own baby?”

Those people probably suspected that there was an interesting story behind my friend and her son. Indeed, there was a story, one of a college freshman who hid her pregnancy until the very end, of surgeries on polycystic ovaries, of desperation and love. That’s what people wanted to hear, though my friend couldn’t be reasonably expected to recount four years of obstacles and miracles for every stranger in the park. She’s not obligated to explain herself to everyone, but some of us are just trying to kill a little time at the playground and maybe learn a little from the people around us.

Pregnant women and babies are captivating because they tell a part of a story, or different parts of different stories: the end of struggle with infertility, the beginning of a new biography, the middle of a transition from woman to mother. Privacy and community are fundamentally at odds, and it’s understandable that many mothers, including the pregnant mom of twins I’d offended at yoga, would rather stick with the people they know. Instead of arguing with her or trying to explain that I was just curious about twins, I apologized, slipped on my flip-flops, and left, reminding myself to be more patient the next time someone made a remark about my soon-to-be “two under two.”

The baby flipping around in my tummy during yoga class is now a terror on two feet, ripping his way through toddlerhood and his big sister, a chatty, goofy preschooler. While the three of us were out shopping for a new lipstick for mommy, my daughter stamped up to an obviously pregnant woman and began a monologue about her friends at school, as if it were totally normal to engage a stranger in conversation.

“Do you know if you’re having a girl or a boy?” I asked. The woman looked startled, as if I was the first person to call her out for carrying around a tiny human beneath her enviably chic sundress.

She shook her head as my son reached out of his stroller and swept several bottles of nail polish off of a shelf. She leaned in to help me pick up the polish, she seemed nervous, perhaps frightened by the cloud of chaos that surrounds my children and me as we move about the town. I suspected that what she needed from the me was a reminder that mothers can still squirrel away a few minutes to try new lip colors every now and then (even if only distractedly) and that not every moment of parenthood is screaming mania (even if most of them are). So I told her, without even a hint of sarcasm, “You’ve got a lot to look forward to. Being a mom is fantastic, even when they’re trashing a store.”

Then I kind of wanted to reach out and touch her tummy, but I knew better.

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About JJ Keith

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JJ Keith

JJ Keith and her two toddlers trash stores around Los Angeles. She writes all over the web, including on her blog, JJust Kidding. She's working on a manuscript called Behind the Green Apron: A Hollywood Barista Confesses to Many Things (But Not to Spitting in Your Drink).

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38 thoughts on “Let them pat your belly! When did we moms get so touchy about pregnancy?

  1. Uli says:

    great article!!!! i agree

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree! I didn’t mind other women touching my belly. I think its a time to share stories and connect which is what most of us want to do a

  3. Meagan says:

    The thing about manners is you can be rude even if you have the best intentions. It doesn’t matter that you were just curious about twins, it’s still a rude, invasive, overly personal question. it doesn’t matter if you dont mind people rubbing your belly, touching anyone wiout their permission is EXTREMELY rude. This has nothing to do with people “getting touchy” about pregnancy. This is about people ignoring reasonable social norms because they think someone’s pregnancy gives them the right. It’s a pretty strange assumption when you think about it.

    I think it’s great that people are excited for other people’s pregnancies, and personally? I agree with you, I didn’t mind people touching my belly. But that doesn’t make it an “ok” thing to do, or mean that the people who DO mind are the ones who’ve got it wrong.

  4. Jacquie says:

    I have learned to let a lot of things go. Most people don’t mean any harm and are either curious or just trying to make conversation. I am sure I have said plenty of dumb things, so I shouldn’t throw stones. However, I still don’t want strangers touching my belly!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s good to exercise restraint in dealing with people’s natural curiosity. Most people don’t mean to pry or be rude, and yes, we all know intent isn’t everything and sometimes they ARE rude whether they mean to be or not. We could still all do well to be gentle with people. That woman who looks down her nose at you while shaming your choice to wear/carry/push in a stroller, bf/bottle feed/give mcnuggets to, blah blah blah, yah… rip her a fucking new one. She can shut up. When the little old lady pats your tummy or asks when you’re due, don’t be an ass. I think your point was concise and well-put, JJ.

  6. Shannon says:

    More please JJ. This is a great piece. Privacy and personal parts aside, it is so sad to me that we have become such a sensitive society. If I barked at someone every time they asked me and highlighted blonde hair “Who has red hair in your family?” referring to my gorgeous, gingered 2 yr old, I would be too hoarse, tired and pissed off to properly care for him. And is it also “none of my business” if a stanger’s toddler is running into the street and I happen to see him and guide him to safety? Is my touching his tiny arm an invasion of his privacy or is it just my very human quality called benevolence or my active interest in others? Frankly I think we moms could use a little more loving kindness whether we are pre, post or in pregnancy. 2 years post partum and I really wish someone would just come up to me and rub my belly. I think it would make me giggle.

  7. Beth says:

    Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more. As a mother of twins I get asked quite often if twins run in my family or if I had fertility treatment and, honestly, it never bothers me. I don’t consider these questions rude. If someone asks, I’m an open book. It’s been a relief to talk about my struggles with infertility and I’ve been able to pass on valuable information to women in similar situations. And in terms of touching the belly, what’s the big deal? Again, I don’t think it’s rude. For me, the look of awe (or terror) on the toucher’s face only added to my pregnancy glow. Can’t wait to read your book, JJ.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I just think this is the most well written article I’ve read in a long time. Funny, real, honest -great. Please keep writing for Babble!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree, especially with the fact that children are raised too much in isolation and taught too often that privacy is “sacred.” Of course there are boundaries, but people seriously need to stop being overly polite and instead engage in some real human interaction. Awesome piece, JJ!

  10. bridgegallagher says:

    With my second pregnancy, I learned that people just think pregnancy is something to be excited about and thus, something to talk about when they notice you are pregnant. I also learned that no one wants to be known as the miserable, “she’s going to pop” pregnant woman, so sometimes some exaggerated “I feel great!” responses were more for others’ benefit than my own.

    I also find that when I am not pregnant, there is nothing that makes me happier than a round, firm, belly full of baby. At work, I tell my pregnant colleagues, “just so you know, I am not going to be able to resist touching your belly, I hope you don’t mind.”

    Since I think I have had my second and last child (21 months apart:), I am now nostalgic for the 20 months of pregnancy that I was something to marvel at (and gaining 55-65 lbs with each child, my, was I!). Just like infancy, pregnancy goes by so fast and becomes a b;urry memory so quickly. So, you should really appreciate people’s warm responses to your belly, your waddle and “having your hands full” because eventually, you will be that person who is aching to make those same comments and relive it yourself.

  11. NZErin says:

    It takes a village, etc. And one of the much forgotten features of a village is that everyone knows everything and very few questions have to be asked. Your twins were conceived by IVF? That’s ok, your Aunty has already told everyone. And all about your PCOS. Your kid has random bright red hair? Naturally the neighbours remember how your husband’s great-uncle was known as Rusty. Your kid isn’t actually your husband’s? Most people won’t be rude and ask you about it, but rest assured that new resident will be told as soon as they’re considered one of the village.

    A few enthusiastic questions ain’t so bad.

  12. heatherm says:

    The problem is that a pregnant woman is not giving tacit approval to have her privacy invaded just because she happens to be pregnant. My rule was, unless you put the baby in there or plan on helping to get it out, hands off my stomach. And while the point about community is well taken, I’d be far more welcoming of people’s prying questions and “helpful” advice if I thought for even a minute they were interested in helping me raise my kids. Want to question whether or not I should have this Starbucks cup? Great – after the baby is born, when can I expect you to come help babysit? Then there is the complete infantilization of pregnant women in our society that starts with “well meaning” questions and belly rubs (don’t people even ask permission before petting a stranger’s dog?) but seems to find its logical end in the sort of legislation that reveals that a growing number of politicians and voters believe a woman with a baby in her belly has little more intelligence than the fetus she’s carrying. There are appropriate ways to chat up a pregnant stranger, unfortunately, most people don’t seem to make the extra effort to avoid being rude.

  13. Jerri says:

    While I’m not big on the belly touching by strangers (i’m not a very “touchy” person anyway) I did find during my two pregnancies that people in public are generally thrilled about seeing a pregnant belly and have the best of intentions, even if they bumble around and say or do things that are hilariously inappropriate.

  14. bwsf says:

    I think this is just a snapshot of society at large. Everyone is walking around in a very jaded fog, expecting judgment and rudeness from everyone else. It’s just a (very depressing) sign of our times. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and now I live in San Francisco, and truly they could be different planets. And this subject is just one example. People in Wisconsin will still have a conversation with you about baby spacing, twins, motherhood in general. I feel ok answering their questions. Not that they don’t judge, they do (“You’re STILL breastfeeding your [3 month old] baby?!). There’s judgmental people everywhere. But I do see a lot more of this defensiveness in San Francisco, where every single parenting decision you make is put up for scrutiny and judgment. People are afraid to say anything, because they’re going to be judged either way by different people, and they don’t know which person you are, so they play it safe. It’s sad, but it’s our world. The polite people are paying for the actions of the a-holes.

  15. Amber V says:

    I find people are generally just excited. I’m excited! Why wouldn’t I want to share that with others?

  16. Sophie says:

    I have to agree with Stefanie. Great topic, and such a fun read!!!

  17. agnieszka says:

    I sometimes get the idea that in presence of some pregnant women the best thing is to pretend we don’t see the pregnancy. They seem to shout “i’m a woman not only an incubator, talk to me as to a human”. ok, but these few months when it’s visible and one can say something about it, why not? does it really hurt when you say it’s a boy or girl or the name you’ve chosen?
    agree with the author, and I’m happy she writes the other way around: there’s too much “don’t touch my belly” articles on babble already.

  18. Kate says:

    By all means *talk* to me about my baby…but do NOT invade my personal space by touching me. They are two completely different things.

  19. lea says:

    Most prengnant women today have become so uptight and just plain rude. Will it really hurt to amswer a strangers questions regarding your pregnancy? Women need to get over themselves and realize that their pregnancy is not that special and just lighten up.

  20. Cassie says:

    I agree that people can get too touchy, but I think it is insane to say that just because I’m pregnant, I should have to put up with strangers touching my belly. Don’t touch me. I don’t like it.

    I am short, and I get huge when I’m pregnant, so I got a lot of those “I don’t think you’ll make it to your due date! Are you SURE you aren’t having twins?!?!” kind of comments, and, while they hurt my feelings, I understood they were just excited and wanted to say something. That’s fine. But people asking me if this baby was intentional, or how long we were trying for? That’s inappropriate.

    So, I don’t mind questions. People are not thinking about your feelings when you’re pregnant, they are just excited about the pregnancy. I put those comments aside, even when they were rude, and I stayed polite. I was really annoyed, but still polite, when people tried to police my food intake.

    But you can’t touch me without my permission. That’s beyond rude.

  21. Debbi says:

    Thank you for this refreshing article! I totally agree, I think most people are genuinely excited, happy and curious about pregnancies and the questions they ask are born from that. I truly never minded a single question I got, and didn’t even mind if people touched my belly. (Actually, only a couple people ever did- it’s not as rampant as people like to think it is.)

  22. Tamara says:

    If you wouldn’t do/say it to someone who isn’t expecting, then don’t do/say it to someone who is. Sorry, it is rude even if you are excited, even if you’re desperate to connect. In a world where we share everything online, is it a shock that people are clinging to any privacy they can elsewhere in life? At least on line, we control who sees what and who can talk to us. Privacy is important, and since you never know any of the circumstances behind the pregnancy anything beyond congratulations is uncalled for–unless it IS asked for. You wouldn’t ask a non-pregnant woman if you could touch her abs (or lack of), and you wouldn’t ask when she would lose all her weight. You just wouldn’t. Would it be ok to grab the boobs of a woman who obviously has implants…My body, my business. My baby, my business. Society and strangers (heck, not even my parents or siblings) have a say in how I prepare or raise a child, let alone how I feel about it when they think its their right to have a say. Be excited, congratulate, but be respectful. It’s not asking much.

  23. Darlene says:

    For the record I have had all of the following: A)People ask to touch my abs….when they could be seen, B) A woman touch my boobs to see if they were actually real…which they are, and C) Many hands rub my now very ripe belly that is about to burst with the most exciting little person in my life to date. My grandmother once said to me that “There’s an ass for every seat in this world” and I’m glad I’m the approachable, fun, open type that people like! I happen to love the look on anyone’s face when they feel my little miracle wiggle around in my body, stranger or not, and feel sorry for the ones that are too afraid to ask questions. It is, afterall, in our nature to be curious and we as a society need to sit back and relax and enjoy the little things! I bet a lot of these soon to be moms would hate not having a door held for them while waddling around with a shopping cart instead of appreciating someone respecting their privacy and ignoring the fact that they’re pregnant!!! AWESOME ARTICLE!! You girls that want to be judgemental and super private, more power to you! For the rest of you, I’ll be the one who grabs your hand and puts them on my belly the next time my angel does a flip = )

  24. Kristine D says:

    I am a doctor and was seeing an older woman pregnant with twins in an outpatient clinic for a pregnancy complication and she still bit my head off for asking if she had gotten pregnant through IVF. Excuse me, but it was a medically relevant question. Fertility and sexuality are simply all about shame for some people, and those people are never going to want to be open about something like pregnancy. I feel like telling these women, do your kids a favor and get some therapy NOW!

  25. goddess says:

    I never minded chatting with someone during/about my pregnancy, but keep your freaking paws off of my body unless you are my inner family. And only the kids and hubby got to belly=-rub/. I DID grab more than a few wrists in my time and firmly returned the hands to the owner.

  26. k says:

    YES! Thankyou for this article! I’ve had two children and both times I did have random strangers engage me in conversation about my belly. They were just excited for me! Go ahead and touch my belly, feel happy for me and the life growing inside me. Soooo tired of cranky pregnant people who are offended by ANYTHING that is said to them.

  27. Hipparchia says:

    Ask, but don’t touch. Touch easily caused contractions for me. Not endangering, not pleasant either.

  28. anon says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. You NEVER know what is going on with other people and pregnancy is complicated. I learned that the son I was carrying had a condition that was not compatible with life when I was 30 weeks. It was horrible being pregnant and having strangers trying to engage me on the rare occasion that I left my home to get something done. Honestly, people acted entiltled to engage me about my pregnancy, I just wanted to scream and sob.

  29. Ale74 says:

    I like your article, and I enjoyed the attention my belly got when I was pregnant. It was such a happy time for me that I enjoyed talking to even strangers.

  30. Anonymous78 says:

    Americans, especially women are so uptight about this and almost everything, just relax, 99% of the people just want to be nice, babies are usually a source of joy… and the “personal space” I don’t think that expression even has translation in many other languages.

  31. Tara says:

    “look with your eyes, not your hands”, that’s what my mother taught me. just because i am pregnant does not mean i should just let other people grope me. that’s ridiculous. asking if it’s a boy or girl is ok, things like that seem harmless. asking if i’ll breastfeed, how i conceived, etc, that’s just rude.

  32. wendy says:

    really great article and something I’ve been thinking about. I am also a twins (plus one) parent and I couldn’t care less about what people ask or say to me– unless they call me out on weight gain. UGH.
    We are all so sensitive when most people really don’t mean any harm with that they say, as silly as their questions or comments may be!

  33. sara says:

    It’s a human thing; I think we’re just drawn to the baby. We’re social creatures and communicate through touch. We can’t see the fetus so patting the belly seems to be the thing to do to acknowledge it. I’m incredibly introverted and aloof and rarely touch others yet when I encounter a pregnant friend (not a stranger) my hand automatically reaches out for a quick a pat before I can stop it. And yes I’ve been pregnant and no I didn’t mind when when people touched my belly.

  34. Leslie says:

    I’m not at all offended if people ask me questions about my pregnancy or when I’m due, what I’m having, etc. I’m also not at all uptight and generally very outgoing and friendly. I think that the people who have a problem with their personal space tend not to be as friendly or outgoing, they’re not the type of people to chat in a line, let alone smile back when you walk by. I’m proud of my pregnancy, and if it makes someone’s day better, or gives hope to someone trying, then touch my belly, ask me questions, I’d rather they find me then find the ladies who’d bite their heads off.

  35. sivan says:

    Thank you for this article!!! Its like you reached into my mind and wrote my thoughts- hahaha! I love that I am part of a community that asks personal questions. We all have the right to not answer but I hate that people think they have the right to answer rudely.

  36. CeCe says:

    I never could get pregnant, and if it miraculously happened now, I wouldn’t get upset with anyone for asking me about it. Some of us have longed to have a pregnant belly to touch for years. Being deprived of such a joyful experience can certainly change your perspective.

  37. Bob says:

    Regardless of all of the opinions about this subject it’s still up to the person carrying the child and what they are comfortable with. I wouldn’t be caught touching someone I don’t know without permission. If they take it wrong you could get in trouble for battery. At the same time if you’re pregnant and don’t want people bothering you, don’t engage them.

  38. Christina says:

    I understand what you’re getting at, but getting touched by random people is creepy..pregnant or not.

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