“So I heard you had the baby,” a friend said to me less than a month after Dominic was born.
I looked at him, hoping my wince was imperceptible. “Yes.”
“Congratulations,” he said with sincerity.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, turning away to hide my flushed face.
What was he congratulating me for, I wondered. Clearly I do not have the baby; is the fact that I gave birth — like so many millions upon millions of women before me — a cause for congratulations?
As a reflected on this and similar interchanges, I began tacking on a phrase at the end to try to figure out what “congratulations” is supposed to mean when spoken to a pregnant woman:
- “Congratulations, you’re able to get pregnant!”
- “Congratulations, your life is about to change forever!”
- “Congratulations, your body is going through changes so fast it makes puberty look like a walk in the park!”
- “Congratulations, you’re having another kid you can’t afford!”
- “Congratulations, you’re populating the earth!”
Of course, these sound ridiculous and even snide. But really, why are pregnant women congratulated?
Historically, women who could conceive were honored above those who could not. A prime example comes from the Bible, in I Samuel. A man had two wives, one of whom bore him children, and the other, Hannah, who was barren. The wife who could conceive would taunt Hannah and shame her for being unable to get pregnant. Even though the husband loved Hannah regardless, Hannah longed to bear a child.
To me, congratulating a pregnant woman implies that the ability to conceive is something which is achieved, like an “A” on a test or a gold medal in the Olympics. A new life is certainly worthy of celebration, but there’s a fine line between celebrating the child and idolizing the mother who bore him or her.
I do not think the creation of children is something which should be seen as an achievement. Women who bear children should not be honored above women who cannot. Motherhood is so closely tied to a woman’s identity in our culture that women who cannot conceive often feel shame, isolation and incompetence. Congratulating pregnant women, I think, exacerbates this view.
The word “congratulations” implies the need for recognition. But just because a woman is pregnant, does not mean it’s OK for any and everyone to comment.
Janice Kaplan, an accomplished writer and editor, explained in a 1989 publication of SELF magazine:
A woman who is pregnant immediately knows that her body is no longer her own…Sharing one’s body with a small being is so thoroughly wondrous, though, that one can generally overlook the disadvantages. The real problem is sharing one’s pregnant body with the rest of the world.”
As Kaplan observed, my pregnancy somehow gave others the right to start a conversation with me on the topic. People who would otherwise never talk to me suddenly took license to do so. One man even shouted across a busy street at me.
In our culture, congratulating a pregnant woman is akin to remarking on the weather to a stranger, but it shouldn’t be such a meaningless turn phrase. Offering congratulations assumes that the woman is pleased with her pregnancy and wants recognition. In my case, I was not happy to be pregnant and just wanted to crawl under a (very large) rock.
Instead of resorting to a poorly thought-out phrase when interacting with a pregnant woman about her baby, I try to do these things:
- Avoid baby shower cards that use “congratulations.”
- Say, “best wishes on your pregnancy.”
- Ask how she is feeling and extend empathy.
- Let her direct the conversation and do most of the talking.
- Only share my pregnancy stories if I have something actually useful to relate.
I don’t congratulate pregnant women because I think it is sometimes offensive and always presumptuous. I often felt offended and resented being congratulated. I realize that most people who offer congratulations are well-meaning, which is why I always tried to respond with grace. But because of my pregnancy experience, I’ve challenged myself to find more meaningful words to offer a woman whose pregnancy becomes the subject of conversation, and not to broach the topic with a complete stranger — ever!