“You’re having a baby? Fantastic.” It seems like a good sentiment to someone who’s pregnant, often it is, but nothing is simple when there’s a due date involved. Like with a soon-to-be dad, it’s easy to say the wrong thing to a woman who’s pregnant because her life and emotions are not static. “She has an experience that’s changing moment to moment, day by day,” says Dr. Kira Bartlett, clinical psychologist in New York City.
The easy guess is that she’s happy; maybe so, but not all the time, says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Dallas area. For one, this pregnancy might not be completely wanted, or at least needs some getting used to. After that, she could be wrestling with not being in control of her body, what kind of mom will she be, how her identity will change, the affect a baby will have on her other kids, all of which might be exacerbated if she’s already struggling with depression or anxiety. Currently, the coronavirus pandemic adds yet another layer about being in a hospital, not being able to have your partner in the delivery room, and worries that the baby will be infected. As Bartlett says, “It vacillates between excitement and terror.”
At a certain point, the pregnancy is public information, and you, the relative, friend, boss, co-worker, need to say something because, you can’t not say something. But it can’t be too personal, overbearing or unsolicited. The best move is to be like a good guest, invited in, and then maybe – maybe – she’ll want you to say more. Until then, here’s your first tip. Don’t.
The Sentiment: “I’m supportive, but this is your experience, not mine.”
What to Say to Someone Who’s Pregnant
Follow, “Congratulations” with an open-ended question, none better than, “How are you doing?”, with the focus on the you. Your job is to listen and respond accordingly. If she’s happy, give her, “That’s fantastic.” If you’re close, you can add, “You’re going to be a great mom, because you’re so …,” with specifics, or, “You look really great.” She might blow it off, but it might prep her for what’s to come or remind her of her strengths. “Kind words are kind words, if it’s her first pregnancy or her fifth,” McBain says.
Just rein in your impulse to go on and on. “The assumption is people care what you went through and that they’re interested,” says Dr. Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist in New York City and co-host of the 2 Moms on the Couch podcast. She may not be. Let her steer the conversation. “That’s what women want. They want to be heard, pregnant or not,” Bartlett says. “They want to have space held for them. They don’t want their problems solved.”
Dorfman adds that you can acknowledge this explicitly with, “I know this is a touchy subject but my intentions are to be supportive. I have my own experiences and some funny stories. Let me know if you want me to share.” If she seems open, you can even offer up you or your partner for herself or her partner. She might not take any of it, but you’re conveying two things: It’s an individual experience, and that she’s not alone.
What NOT to Say to a Pregnant Woman
“You must be so excited.”
“You look tired.”
“Are you having twins?”
“You’re never going to be able to … again.”
“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”
“I bet you’re looking to the time off after the baby is born.”
“Are you going to go back to work?”
Pregnancy is a physical state, but it doesn’t give license to make observation on her appearance, which she’s sensitive about, Dorfman says. Guess what? “Yes, we are tired,” McBain says. Questions about desired gender play into stereotypes, but overall, the above comments disregard difficulties with getting pregnant and being pregnant. Fundamentally, she just wants a healthy baby, Bartlett says. And parents know that eating out and vacations will soon be a memory, but you don’t have to suggest future losses. “Imposing negative predictions about their parenting experience or conveying negative vibes is rarely appreciated,” Dorfman says.
As for her post-delivery plans, again, keep quiet. There’s nothing spa-like about caring for a baby, and, as for her work, she might not want to go back; she might want to return, and either creates pressure about what it says about her priorities. Plus, from a political perspective, she wants to control the messaging, not compromise her job or antagonize her colleagues, Dorfman says. Here are some things to avoid:
After the Initial News: The Follow-Up
It’s good to check in every so often, and since the pregnancy isn’t a straight line, ask, “How are you doing today?” You can tag that with, “Is there any way I can help you out?” She might decline, but once the baby arrives, your approach changes from less asking to more doing. New parents won’t readily ask for help, even though they need it and don’t realize how much they do.
If you’re particularly close, you don’t really have to get permission – you announce your intention and impose your goodwill. Bartlett calls being “bossy and friendly.” You could restock their refrigerator, clean their house, bring over dinner – food can never be underestimated. You make it clear that you’re not making a visit; you don’t even want to see the parents. You will hold, watch, walk the baby, whatever, so they can nap, shower, eat, for a couple of hours. Your job is to make it happen and “leave very little room for someone to say, ‘No, no no, we’re fine,’” Bartlett says.