Let’s address “when’s it due?”. It’s a tricky question if you know for sure that your interlocutor is pregnant. If you don’t, it’s potentially disastrous.
The first time someone asked me a similar question, I was a 19-year-old student. I was standing in the queue at McDonald’s. In front of me was a woman with her child. The little boy, who must have been about five, was bored and restless. He jumped from foot to foot. He swung from his mother’s arm. He twirled around and caught my eye. Then he hopped forward, patted me on the stomach and asked: “When are you having yours?”
Aged 19, I was built like Olive Oyl. Sideways on I looked like a golf club. So I laughed. The boy laughed. Yet his mother, who was heavily pregnant herself, apologised so profusely I worried she might go into labour. Because she knew (as I too know now that I’m twice the woman I used to be) that asking “when’s it due” if nothing’s actually cooking will more than likely be heard as “hey, fatso”.
The next time I was asked – 15 years later, while wearing a dress that was a little too tight around the midriff – that’s exactly how I heard it. I threw the dress away as soon as I got home and spent the next three days eating nothing but carrots.
So just don’t ask, right? If there’s any room for doubt or you don’t even know the woman standing in front of you, it isn’t worth the risk. In the tradition of no good deed going unpunished, even offering someone a seat on the tube because you think they might be “with child” can be fraught. A friend asking a woman if she wanted to sit down was rewarded with angry tears. “Do I really look pregnant to you?”
Yet there are some instances where it’s just as risky not to mention the elephant in the room.
Let’s say you’re talking to someone you do know in passing. Maybe you work together. Maybe you go to the same gym. You’ve previously shared conversations about traffic, the weather and the royal wedding. You know they’re pregnant. At least, someone you trust told you they’re pregnant. They look a bit pregnant. What now? Do you wait until they bring it up? They’re resting their teacup on the bump and looking beatific. Not asking how their pregnancy is going might make it seem as though you don’t care, as though you’re just not interested in what’s possibly the biggest thing that’s happened in their life so far. But...
There’s still so much potential for getting it wrong.
Nigel, a sensitive and thoughtful man with whom I used to volunteer, described the problem.
“I had a friend called Sheila. I wasn’t supposed to know she was pregnant but her mother-in-law let slip. Sheila was very conscious of her weight so I decided the only thing to do was avoid her.”
“If I’d asked ‘when’s it due?’ she’d have asked if I was saying she looked fat. On the other hand, if I said nothing, she might have responded, ‘Well, aren’t you going to ask about the baby? Or do you think I always look this big’?” I stayed out of her way for six months. Talking about pregnancy is a nightmare.”
Another friend walked straight into the nightmare with predictably awful results. “I knew through the grapevine that a colleague I saw only occasionally was having a baby, so when I found myself standing next to her in the coffee queue at the ATM and we’d exhausted all the usual talk about holidays, I risked it. ‘When’s the baby due?’ I asked. She told me she’d had it a month before.”
My friend did the only thing he could. He left the company and moved to the Philippines.
In his mitigation, I’d like to blame the forces that have the poor Duchess of Cambridge jumping out of bed moments after labour, for making it seem as though a woman should stop looking pregnant (and have immaculate hair) seconds after the baby is out. Baby weight? What baby weight? And then again there are some women who never actually look pregnant at all. The phenomenon known as cryptic pregnancy, in which the expectant mother doesn’t have a clue she’s up the duff, is thought to affect as many as one in 2500. No wonder we’re confused.
Bumps make for a minefield.
But let’s say you are pregnant and it’s not a food baby. Congratulations. You’re breeding. You’re now officially exempt from people making those assumptions about your sexuality, personality and general lack of humanity that go with being conspicuously child-free. But don’t get too comfortable. Apparently, it’s about to get worse.
The number one most hated question reported by the pregnant women of my acquaintance is: can I touch your bump?
Apparently it’s not just relatives and friends who want to feel the baby kick. An alarming number of expectant mothers have experienced the bizarre phenomenon of complete strangers reaching out to touch their stomachs in the street, at the bus stop or even in the boardroom.
Personally, I’ve never felt the urge to pat a pregnant stomach, but then I have an irrational fear of balloons. But there are people who feel no such qualm. Perhaps they think that rubbing a bump is lucky? Like rubbing the rounded belly of a statue of Ganesh? I have an idea how frustrating that might be. I once placed a bet on thirteen at a roulette table and my number came up twice in a row. Suddenly, I was flanked by two random punters, eager to rub up against me. So may I suggest that a good answer to “Can I pat your bump?” might be: “Only if you’re offering an all-expenses paid trip to Vegas?” Incidentally, despite all that frottage, my number didn’t come up again.
But to recap, it seems you should never ask a woman when her baby is due unless you’re her gynaecologist or you’re pretty sure you’re the baby in question’s father. (Of course if you’re not sure you’re the father, you’ll need a really accurate date.)
Next, never offer a seat to any woman on the tube unless she’s obviously over 80 or she’s actually wearing one of those “I’m pregnant. Get the hell out of my way” badges. Useful things, those.
Finally, never, ever, ever ask if you can pat a stranger’s bump.
My cousin Nicole told me: “I hated non-family members touching my baby bump. How dare they! I felt like doing it to them but that would have been even more weird.”
To which my Facebook friend Lana responded: “I actually did this once when a strange man touched my belly in the shopping centre. I was so angry I reached out and grabbed his beer gut. He jumped about a mile.”
I wish she’d also asked him, “And when’s yours due?”
Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies