Listen to a mom-to-be: Hush, strangers

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Despite how defensive I’ve become, despite how hormonal I surely am, I am clearheaded enough to know that the acquaintance who is standing here, reeling off the high mortality rates of pregnant women around the world, is well-meaning. Surely he does not intend to scare me when he confides that despite his wife’s easy pregnancies and natural deliveries, he was acutely aware that he could lose them anytime. He wishes to reassure me when he speaks of the miracles of technology that allow women like me to give birth.

I still wish he’d shut up.

I’m in my ninth month of pregnancy with my second child, and since this pregnancy became obvious to the world three months ago, I have been confronted at every turn with inappropriate comments about my size, the projected sex of my baby and my appearance as well as sundry remarks regarding gestation in general that have clearly been on the speaker’s mind, just waiting for an expectant woman to whom they can air this thought. And because of recent concerns with this pregnancy, each warning or less-than-complimentary comment pierced a little more sharply.

(Incidentally, if anyone tells you it “looks like” you’re having a girl, you’re being insulted; all the old wives’ tales regarding girl babies include such phrases as “carrying wide” and “stealing your beauty.” During my first pregnancy, a CVS clerk told me he could tell I was having a girl because, as he said, “you’d be much prettier if you were having a boy.” Before the insulted part of me was activated — these phrases are like grenades that go off a minute or two after they’re lobbed — the journalist in me was sparked: “How do you know I’m not always this ugly?” I asked. I ended up having a boy.)

One guy won’t let me sit down and eat because he’s too busy asking me how I feel.

The cashier at Starbucks suggests I go with decaf next time. In what realm of society is it acceptable to comment negatively on a person’s appearance, let alone a stranger’s? In the five-plus years that I’ve lived in L.A., I can’t tell you how many times I’ve managed to control myself enough to not comment on a botched nose job I’ve encountered, obvious breast augmentation, ridiculous hair color or velour warm-up suit.

Then again, I can’t ignore the evolutionary advantage to my appearance. As I waddle through this last month, I appreciate every stranger who picks up something I’ve dropped and every door held open for me. Can I have it both ways, the kindness without the comments?

But I know deep down that the comments are part of the kindness. In some way, pregnant women belong to the world; everyone is responsible for their care. Thus do women tolerate the opinions and the — shudder — belly pats that come along with them.

At play here might also be an issue of my own ego. I have always been considered on the tough, intimidating side. Growing up in a rough part of Brooklyn, I learned early to harden my face, to have a quicker — and meaner — comment at the ready for anyone who might have something unsavory to say to me. How did I become a target?

“Don’t worry,” a friend reassures me. “You’ll get your scary back.” I could use that “scary” right now. We soften when we become pregnant, the hormone in our joints that opens up our bodies for delivery also muting the instinct for self-preservation. No matter what rejoinder I could make, its effectiveness will be quashed by the fact that I’d probably be crying when I made it. And crying, as we know, is the great de-equalizer.

These issues came to a head for me a few weeks ago when the obstetrician delivered some disturbing news. I have an excess of amniotic fluid, which makes me appear larger (and therefore further along) than I actually am. The doctor informed me that I might have to deliver before my baby was at term, and possibly before the baby had developed the necessary lung maturity. The scare is past, but for the few weeks of waiting, there was a special twinge of resentment each time I heard the old cliche: “You’re huge! Bet you wish you could deliver right now.”

So, strangers, mind your manners. Hold the door open and hold your peace about my health, girth and all the rest. And if you know me, don’t ask me how I am unless you really want to hear it. There’s an answer to that question, and it isn’t a cheerful “great,” like we both would like it to be. Even easy pregnancies are complicated. I’m still here, still me, under all this.

Brodesser-Akner has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Self, Salon, the Daily Beast and other publications.