Care and Feeding

Hands Off

I don’t like anyone—family included—touching my pregnant belly. How do I get them to stop?

Photo illustration of a person almost touching a pregnant woman's belly over an array of colorful ripped paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Artem_Furman/iStock/Getty Images Plus and demaerre/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am 29 weeks pregnant with my first child. My husband and I are both excited about the baby, but I have not especially enjoyed being pregnant and am finding it difficult to accept my changing body. Meanwhile, everyone I know wants to touch my stomach. I’ve seen plenty of advice online about how to deal with strangers invading one’s personal space, but I mind when my family does it, too.

My parents live across the country. On a recent visit they were apoplectic when I asked them (nicely) not to touch my pregnant belly. I received multiple late-night text messages and several in-person lectures about how I’m “making everyone miserable” and not giving them “the pregnancy experience” they “deserve” because I did not want to lift up my shirt and show them my stomach, didn’t want them to take in-profile pictures of it, didn’t want anyone touching it, etc. I told them I found those requests highly inappropriate and was open to sharing more about the baby, but not about my pregnant body. This argument escalated until we reached the point where my parents and sister stopped speaking to me.

We’ve since slowly resumed talking, and I thought everything was going fine. I’ve gladly talked to them about baby clothes and updates about the baby from doctor’s visits while avoiding talking about the pregnancy itself. I even began to feel light and happy about pregnancy for the first time. Now, however, they are again asking me for photos of myself specifically so they can see what my body looks like (more) pregnant. I do not want to send these photos. I do not want to take these photos. I do not want to discuss and have that pregnant body objectified by my parents. And I do not understand why they are continuing to pursue this when I was so clear about how uncomfortable it made me. I understand that it can be difficult for new grandparents to live so far away, and I want them to be involved with the baby, but throughout my own childhood and adolescence my parents, especially my father, made me very self-conscious about my body, constantly letting me know whether it looked good or bad, and I can trace many of my own issues about my body back to this.

I’m writing to you because I do not know if I am overreacting. Is this the type of request that I have to be comfortable with and should comply with for the sake of their happiness—a reasonable request by grandparents-to-be on which I’m projecting a boundary that shouldn’t exist? I should note that, back before I met my husband, my therapist clearly drew a line from my difficult romantic relationships back to my inability to be assertive in my family when I was growing up, for fear of emotional backlash.

My parents are flying out for our baby shower in a few weeks and the thought of again dealing with this pressure in person is waking me up at night more frequently than even the third-trimester bathroom trips.

—My Pregnant Body Is Not Your Wonderland

Dear MPBINYW,

A pregnant woman’s body—like an unpregnant woman’s body—belongs to no one but herself. People who wouldn’t think of putting their hands on you uninvited under other circumstances should not feel perfectly within their rights to pat or stroke your belly, casually rest a hand on it while talking to you, or talk (to you and one another) about your body. In my mind, this behavior is at one end of the continuum that works its ugly way toward controlling a woman’s decision-making about her pregnancy, signaling that a pregnant woman is little more than an incubator for new life. Even people who would be horrified to think of themselves on this continuum—and even people who genuinely care for you—are at least fleetingly thinking of your body in this way if they put their hands on you without your invitation. So let’s cut to the chase.

You are free to tell anyone—strangers, co-workers, friends, and family—to keep their mitts off you and keep their comments and questions to themselves.

You ask: “Is this the type of request that I have to be comfortable with?” and the answer is that no request is inherently unreasonable, but all demands are. And these are not in fact requests your family has been making: They are making demands, and they are demands that make you deeply uncomfortable. Are there families who are more involved than you want yours to be in the day-to-day details of their daughters’/sisters’ pregnancies? Sure. What difference does that make? This is your pregnancy. You are the only one who gets to decide what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to your body, your life, and (for that matter) your baby. Marshal your strength and let your parents know, again—calmly, if you possibly can, but in no uncertain terms—that what they’re “asking” of you is not acceptable.

This is easier said than done, I know. Standing up for oneself, especially to one’s family, is rarely easy. They will probably be angry. I understand that this will be painful for you, and therapy can help you manage this. But I assure you that, no matter what they say, you are not “overreacting”: You are reacting. No one gets to tell you that the way you feel is too much, inappropriate, or insignificant.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m pregnant with my first child. My partner’s mother kindly offered to throw us a baby shower, and I’ve created a registry with a number of the normal baby necessities. It includes almost no clothing because buying baby clothes is one of my favorite pastimes (and apparently both my mother and my partner’s mother feel the same way: This baby already has quite a wardrobe). I anticipate getting things, primarily clothes, that are not on the registry. I have even been specifically told by one person they’d get me something off the registry, “but it’s something cute (clothing).”

I find this very frustrating. I put at the top of my registry that if someone does not want to buy something off the registry, we welcome gift cards from various stores. I mentioned that the baby’s two grandmothers have already well-stocked the baby’s closet. What I didn’t say, but I’ll say now, is that we are financially capable of buying whatever it is we need and don’t get.

I have worked hard to be financially independent and self-sufficient. I am the youngest of five, and I am fully aware that growing up I was spoiled. I look back at my behavior when I was younger and see that it was bratty, and I’m afraid those behaviors/feelings are coming up again now. It’s infuriating to me that people are disregarding the list I took the time to make to convey specifically that these things are what our growing family needs (and some are things we just want) and buying whatever satisfies their own shopping pleasure.

So I have two questions: Is there a different/better way I can address this ahead of time, and can you help me shift my perspective to being grateful? It will be a hassle to return items we didn’t ask for, though I may end up donating some of it because we can. It’s also a hard feeling to shake, frankly: that someone chose their own pleasure over buying something I have made clear I need for my kid.

—Baby Shower Dread

Dear BSD,

Your body is flooded with hormones right now, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here and be gentle: It’s true that during times of stress and change, it can be easy to focus so much on oneself that other people become collateral damage. Try not to do that. People are coming to your baby shower to celebrate the wonderful news that you are having a baby. They come bearing gifts out of the kindness of their hearts. The pleasure some of them take in picking something out themselves does not in any way make their gifts less generous. Indeed, many people show their love in just this way.

Since you are in a financial position to buy what you need for yourself, why not shift your attention away from the future hassle of returning gifts you didn’t specifically demand (and who knows, maybe one of your friends or family members will actually surprise and charm you with a gift that wasn’t on your registry?) and remind yourself how lucky you are: to be pregnant, to be happy about it, to be financially secure in a world where so many aren’t, and to have people in your life who love you (or even just like you) enough to want to bestow gifts and their presence on you?

And do consider donating the gifts you receive that you don’t want or need. That would be a way of spreading the love you have been shown and the good wishes others have offered you to those who have much less than you do. You might be surprised by how good that feels—how satisfying it is to be generous. Just know that whatever satisfaction you take from it doesn’t make your generosity less valuable.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Life has seemed to develop a bad habit of having something really terrible happen to me, followed by a corresponding really great thing happening to “Ann,” my best friend since college. For example, during our senior year, I was sexually assaulted while on a first date. My mental health plummeted in the aftermath. Three weeks after my assault, Ann had her bachelorette party, which I could not bring myself to attend. Ann said she understood but was clearly disappointed (I don’t think she understood how profoundly my assault affected me, but she has been supportive since). A year later, I became unexpectedly pregnant despite using birth control. While I chose to proceed with the pregnancy, this was not happy news. Three weeks after I learned that I was pregnant, Ann discovered that she was, too. She and her husband “Dave” were thrilled, as they should be—they will be great parents. Our due dates are three weeks apart.

I’ve chosen to place my child for adoption with a wonderful family in another state who can’t have biological children, and I am for the most part at peace about the decision, while still heartbroken. It’s just not the way I expected my life to go. I am in therapy with professionals experienced in adoption and grief to help me sort out my complicated emotions around this, and I have a supportive family and friends.

Ann’s baby shower is coming up in a few weeks and I want to be supportive of her. At the same time, I am jealous and sad. I am not totally sure I could be emotionally present or hold things together at the baby shower, but I also want to celebrate with her—she’s going to be a mom! She’s so looking forward to it! What should I do? Ann and Dave live some distance away, but it’s an extremely doable trip. Should I just tell her I shouldn’t be too far from the hospital that close to my due date and order something for her off of her registry? Do I be honest about how I’m really feeling and hope she understands? Or should I just do my best to suck it up and attend?

—Sad but Supportive

Dear SbS,

You can be supportive and celebratory without attending a baby shower that is going to make you even sadder. Please take care of yourself. If Ann is a good friend, she will understand (and I would absolutely be honest with her). Send a gift. Write a letter telling her how much you love her and how happy you are for her. Tell her you wish you could be there, which is clearly true. (One final note: Do not rehash the past. No mention of the bachelorette party is necessary. And if she mentions it, she is not your best friend—or any sort of friend—after all.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am pregnant after two traumatic pregnancy losses. My husband and I are excited to welcome our baby to the world. The issue is with my mother-in-law. In each of my previous pregnancies, she insisted that I announce it widely among her family. This meant that later—twice—we had to tell many people we would otherwise not have told that we had suffered a devastating loss. This compounded the loss for us, and it also forced me into conversations about my medical life with people I’m not close to (my MIL’s siblings, for example).

Now we are pregnant again, much further along, with a better care team, and both my husband and I have very supportive bosses and co-workers—all the building blocks for a successful pregnancy. As soon as we told his parents that we were expecting, my MIL asked how we could be sure this time would be “different from last time.” I was taken aback, but I told myself that, after all, if your child and his spouse had had two traumatic losses, you would be worried about their chances of being hurt again, too. But a minute later she asked when we were going to tell my sister-in law. She didn’t want her to be “left out,” she said. I was annoyed (left out of what?) but assured her that we would share the news with my husband’s sister right away. Then she wanted to know when we would be telling the rest of his side of the family because she would be seeing them all very soon and wanted to be able to talk about it!

We managed to sidestep this question, but we are trying to figure out how we can explain to her that she is making this experience about her without causing a big thing. Recently, something happened that made my husband livid. We had a doctor’s appointment and recorded the baby’s heartbeat, then shared the recording with my MIL (which I thought would be a lovely thing to do). But then she shared it with my husband’s sister without our permission! Worrying about this is keeping me up at night and just generally stressing me out, which I know isn’t good for my baby. I want to ignore her behavior but fear it will get progressively worse as time goes on. Is there anything I can do to make her stop?

—It’s Our Pregnancy, Not Yours

Dear IOPNY,

I think the distinction between asking and demanding is worth making yet again today. I can only guess that during your first two pregnancies you went along with your mother-in-law’s demand that you spread the word because you didn’t want to “cause a big thing” then—that you did this against your better judgment. Thus my first words of advice: Do not go against your better judgment.

By now you know that your mother-in-law doesn’t like to keep things to herself. It seems that she is very excited about having a grandchild (I don’t fault her for this—I would be, too). For her this pregnancy is, at least in part, about her. You’re trying to thread a needle between your desire to share news (and heartbeats) with her and your expectation that she will keep these precious offerings to herself, even though you have already discovered that she is incapable of doing that.

It’s too late for the script that says: We wanted to share with you the sound of your grandchild’s heartbeat because we know how much it will mean to you—but this is something private, just for us and you. It’s even too-later to say, We wanted to share the good news with you that we’re pregnant again and feeling very hopeful! But we are not telling anyone else about this pregnancy. It’s not too late, however, for a version of this script in your future interactions with your mother-in-law. Be sure to add: We know you’ll understand and respect that decision. (As I have said before, telling people you know they’ll understand will often help them step up to the plate and try to do that. Or at least pretend to.)

You have only one other option, and that is to tell her nothing, ever, from now on. Which you are also entitled to do. But continuing to behave toward her exactly as you have been and expecting her to change is unrealistic. (I would go so far as to say that it is always unrealistic to count on other people changing their behavior. Instead, focus on what is in your power to change: your own.)

Start making yourself very clear. And if it does become a big thing—if it makes her angry, if she tries to argue with you—then so be it. (It occurs to me that I could get a rubber stamp made with the words It’s OK if people get angry with you! and use it to answer a lot of questions.)

With all my best wishes for the remainder of your pregnancy. May it be healthy and happy. May your baby arrive safely.

—Michelle

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