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.