The first time it happened was a rare evening in those long, sleep-deprived months following childbirth, when I was actually feeling rather confident about my looks. I had given birth to my second child a few months earlier, and I was thrilled to be out and about for a bit.
Sure, I was still carrying 15 extra pounds, and sure, the umbilical hernia I had sustained during pregnancy had changed the shape of my belly forever, but I was wearing a pretty tunic, slim black pants, and even high heels!
I was attending some kind of art event, and I had just grabbed a drink when I ran into an acquaintance. We chatted for a moment before she dropped the bomb.
"I didn't know you were pregnant again," she said with a smile.
"I'm not," I managed to say, stunned, immediately attempting to suck in my hernia-torn gut.
She looked appropriately mortified. I made some lame small talk and then left the party, completely deflated.
A target for unwanted shame, sadness and anger
I'm not sure what exactly I felt as I went home — shame, perhaps, that I was not one of those moms who seem to bounce back from childbirth skinny as ever, with a flat stomach? Sadness, over the fact that I was looking different now? And anger. I was definitely angry that this woman had felt that she had the right to bring up a very personal topic.
At home I told my husband, who reassured me that I didn't look pregnant. I didn't believe him of course. I mean, what else was he going to say?
The moment stuck with me for several days, replaying in my mind. I looked at myself in the mirror every chance I got. I sucked in my belly. I wore black. I bought a hernia belt to push in my protruding belly button, which left me breathless and highly uncomfortable. I did lose weight and started going to the gym again, but I had to accept that my physique was forever altered by two pregnancies.
With that, I learned, I had become a target for unwanted comments. Many people have made the same blunder since that evening — and it saddens me to say that every last one of them was a woman.
How I have reacted has depended on my state of mind on any given day.
Shouldn't a woman know better?
One time, a publicist who had worked really hard to get me to report on an event, greeted me with a cheerful "Oh, you are having another baby!"
"Oh, no. It's just a hernia," I answered equally cheerfully. And I must say that her face, contorted in embarrassment, was priceless. And guess what: There is no comeback from this faux pas.
Other times were not so gleeful. Last spring I stood in line at a conference to grab a cup of coffee, and another attendee turned to me and said: "So, what's the story — is there a baby in there, or what?"
Again, I said, "No, just a hernia," but I felt so stung that I almost started to cry.
I couldn't help but wonder why she thought it would be appropriate to ask a complete stranger this question. I later found out that she was a physician. What could have been the intended outcome?
I memorized her name tag and later wrote her an email (which I never sent, of course) asking her to think through the following scenarios:
What if I was indeed pregnant but hadn't told anybody yet? Did she want to "out" me in the coffee line?
What if I had just suffered a miscarriage?
What if I was desperately trying to have children but couldn't?
What if I just had some extra belly fat?
In each case, the only thing the question could possibly achieve is to make the other person feel uncomfortable, violated, ashamed of her body.
Is that what we as women want to do to each other?
Before you ask, check your motives
When I was six years old, I was pretty sure that my piano teacher was pregnant. I remember really, really wanting to ask her, but I knew that one shouldn't pose such questions. It turns out she was pregnant, but we didn't talk about it until it was time for her to plan her maternity leave. I don't know who taught me that it's not okay to ask. Likely it was my mom, and I thank her for that, because not everyone learns this.
Recently, a co-worker stopped me in the hallway and said at the top of her lungs, pointing at my belly, "I know you are not supposed to ask, but what is going on there?"
I told her it was a hernia, then added a fierce "— and no. You are not supposed to ask." With that, I walked away.
To ask, or not to ask
So, is it okay to ask, ever? I'd say no, not really, especially if you don't know the other woman very well. Before you ask, question your motives. Why do you need to know? Does your curiosity — and frankly, your nosiness — trump the other woman's right to privacy, to not feel fat and unattractive?
If you must ask, wait until there can absolutely be no doubt that the woman is indeed pregnant! Most women who are pregnant will eventually tell you themselves, so you could also just wait for that.
It is surprising to me that the only people who have asked me this dreaded question were women, who should really know better. Let's not do this to each other. Please remember this simple guideline:
When it comes to women's bellies, the rule is "Don't ask. DON'T ASK."