The morning I found out I was pregnant, I met a friend for a freak-out breakfast. I walked out of my apartment to find her crossing the street toward me. She had her arms stretched open for a hug, shouting, “CONGRATULATIONS!!!” as she darted through traffic.
A look of horror spread across my face. As she hugged me, I whispered something like, “Ahhhhh, oh god.”
“Congratulations” was for getting a new job or winning the lottery. “Congratulations” was for people who got pregnant on purpose — people with things like two-car garages and golden retrievers and, I don’t know, sinks in their bathrooms. I’m sure my friend meant it, even if she said it because she didn’t know what else to say. She was following a script: If your friend is home to an egg that gets a sperm in it and implants in her uterine wall, you tell that friend, “Congratulations.” You ask her if she wants a boy or girl; you offer to throw her a baby shower.
Meanwhile, 51 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. Women are increasingly honest about the realities of motherhood, and we know better what is at stake when we enter their ranks. Ambivalence over whether we want kids at all is increasingly normal. When I found out I was pregnant and started second-guessing, women assured me that even their planned pregnancies made them feel ambivalent. There plays in your mind, as the writer Emily Gould recently put it, “a long, slow, perpetual refrain of ‘Whaaaaat theeeee fuuuuuuuuuuck?’”
If your friend finds out she’s pregnant, odds are “congratulations” doesn’t quite capture what she’s feeling. But what does? How do you talk to someone you love about her pregnancy if she might be conflicted about keeping it, afraid of what will happen to her life, or both?
Elisa Albert is a doula, mother, and writer whose forthcoming book After Birth deals with two women who have just had babies and are forging a friendship. I asked her what she thought might be an ideal reaction. “I found the customary Jewish response — b’sha-ah tovah (in good time!) — perfectly apt,” she told me. It’s “a congratulatory statement that acknowledges pregnancy as a process, a journey, not a destination to be taken for granted.” That beats what I was imagining, which was something closer to “Wow, you’re about to go through some shit.”
Christina, a friend who’s a publicist for an indie record label and a mom of two boys under 5, told me the reaction she remembers most is when a drunk friend shouted “YOUR LIFE IS OVER” to her from across a very loud bar. “It didn’t faze me,” she said, “as that is why I wanted to have a baby. I wanted that part of my life to finally be over.”
Emily found out she was pregnant in early October and shared the news with the internet a few weeks ago. In a blog post, she wrote about what went through her head the day she took a pregnancy test. I asked her if she’d gotten any weird reactions to her de facto pregnancy announcement.
“I have actually been stunned by how non-weird people in general have been. (So far),” she wrote in an email. “The one huge mistake I think I’ve made is compulsively making sure people I tell know that I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. (Because that would make me seem like some kind of LOSER who WANTED to be pregnant?? Seriously, I’m not sure what this is about.) I think, worst-case scenario, it could come off as a fertility humble-brag, and I really hope I haven’t offended or caused pain to anyone who’s been secretly struggling to get pregnant for years.”
I realized I’d done the same thing without really thinking about it — I still humble-brag about getting knocked up, as if to disavow my role as a mother. This made me think of the women my age whom I did think of as moms: my friends from high school. Looking back, I regret not asking more questions, not trying harder to be there for them in a real way.
Hoping to make up for lost time, I sent them a group Facebook message to ask if anyone said things to offend them back when they were newly pregnant. “I once got an ‘Oh my god, I just cannot picture you as a mom!’” remembered one friend Sarah. “Oh hell no.”
“Actually, I might have been the one who said that to you,” I wrote back, laughing. She’d had her first kid at 26, back when motherhood was not anywhere on my radar.
Kelli, a nurse in Tallahassee, chimed in: “My husband’s dad laughed and said something about how ‘pull and pray’ didn’t work for us. I have decided that I only say, ‘Perfect. Just perfect. You will be the best mom!’ to everyone, no matter what.”
Enthusiasm is good, but so is curiosity. When in doubt, ask questions. Jess, a writer who lives in London and is pregnant with her second child, suggested the following: “Is pregnancy disgusting? Tell me everything.” Emily agreed, but added a caveat: “Don’t ask specific questions about prenatal care and birth unless you are prepared to be genuinely nonjudgmental about whatever the answer might be. Like, if you find yourself asking, ‘But isn’t that dangerous?’ or ‘Aren’t you worried about X?’ you may have veered down a bad path.”
Most women, for better or worse, have wondered what childbirth would be like. It’s fun to talk about, to joke about, to trade goofy blog posts and urban legends about how much a friend of a friend’s perineum tore. Keep in mind, though, that what was once a thought experiment is now, for your friend, an imminent reality. The thought experiment is now very high stakes and, like most things with no real “right answer,” really personal. Like with most delicate friend-subjects, talk about it, but let her lead the conversation.
It’s all a land mine, but that doesn’t mean we should give up, leaving our pregnant friends to wither in a cloud of their neuroses and hormones. “What is the best way to be supportive to a newly pregnant friend?” I asked my women.
“A simple ‘I love you’ works nicely,” Elisa reminded me.
“Be there for her and listen,” said Emily. “Don’t say ‘ew,’ and have ginger candies on your person, if possible.”
Anything with ginger in it for nausea. Books that aren’t about babies. Special lady teas, however ridiculous. Lavender lotion for when she’s sitting up in bed late at night, panicking, wanting a drink. Bookmarked episodes of Sex and the City, especially Miranda’s baby shower when she lets the baby fall off the couch. Distraction is welcome. Saying “Oh, listen to me go on about my stupid love life when you’re having a BABY” is not. Please go on about your love life and let us parse it with you.
Help us feel like ourselves. Don’t give up on us. Don’t worry about offending us too much — though, as someone who once avoided mentioning the death of her neighbor’s husband to her for fear of saying the wrong thing (even when, ahhh, she offered me fruit from one of her funeral gift baskets), I understand the impulse.
These are moments that scripts are made for: “I’m sorry for your loss.” “My condolences.” “Let me know if there’s anything you need.”
That last one works great for pregnancy, too. “My condolences” should be reserved for very close friends only.