On Saturday night, my partner and I were walking out of a local grocer when he decided to buy one of the newspapers being sold by the homeless couple on the corner. I was holding our grocery bag as Andreas paid for the paper, and as the woman handed it to him, she asked him something, then reached over and patted my stomach before he steered me away. I chuckled as we turned towards home. "Why did she poke me? That was funny," I said, because I hadn't caught what they said and didn't understand what I did hear. He looked at me, stricken, and began to shake his head. Then it hit me. She wanted to know when I'm due.
By now, most people reading this know that pregnancy is impossible for me. I'm intentionally sterile after having my tubes tied last year. I don't want to have kids; never have and (it should go without saying) don't believe I ever will. It should also be noted that, by any reasonable standard, I'm not fat. I do, however, have a very specific body type. I have ginormous boobs, skinny arms and legs, and when I gain weight, it goes straight to my belly. In the winter—which is very much what it is now in Denmark—I wear several layers under a puffy coat and can look a bit tent-like if I'm not careful. I shouldn't have to explain away why I'm a bit puffed up this time of year—if for no other reason than I'm just buying into society's fat hatred by apologizing for my body, my existence in public—but apparently, I do if I want to avoid the most awkward exchanges imaginable.
I'm not the only person who has recently written about being mistaken for pregnant in public. The difference is that for me, being questioned about my maternal status, possible pregnancy, or even having to defend against assumptions about my relationship and family goes to something much deeper. It's one more intrusive comment in a lifetime of insensitive remarks from strangers. Most of us know all too well how this applies to so many of the most simple, basic things that we do, including something as obvious as leaving the house.
Horrified for a variety of reasons by the exchange outside of the market—and really quite devastated, truth be told—I asked several friends what to make of this sort of tactless exchange. At brunch on Sunday, two gay male friends confided that they're often mistaken for father and son rather than spouses. One is also regularly referred to as "ma'am" in public, which he finds laughable on the days it doesn't hurt his feelings. Another friend, a lesbian woman in her early thirties, told me via email yesterday that because of her short hair and gender-neutral apparel, she is regularly mistaken for a teenage boy. "The same thing is happening to you, in a sense," she said. "The newspaper woman saw a young straight couple in love and immediately assumed you were trying to have kids. This stuff is about other people's assumptions, their need to see the world from their own skewed vantage point. It simply isn't about you."
Unfortunately, it can feel that way when strangers question your most basic life choices, and we all know that this doesn't happen just to people who have chosen to be childfree who are trying to avoid prying questions. Infertile women face these sorts of thoughtless remarks all the time. All sorts of adoptive families have to answer prying questions from strangers about everything from race and ethnicity to biological relationship—as if your family should be subjected to the judgments of how others assume you must be related, based on skin color, sibling resemblance, or age. Even women who have children can be subjected to the same line of questioning as infertile or childfree women: When is number two on the way? This not only assumes that everyone wants more than one child, that one is not enough; it assumes that the first child arrived without complication, that a second is possible. That's not always true.
I'm not sure why all of this isn't painfully obvious by now: Strangers need to stop making assumptions about other peoples' lives based on their myopic ideas about the world. Very few of us actually conform to stereotypes.
Also? It's pretty much never a good idea to speculate about whether or not a woman is pregnant, especially to her face. No matter what she looks like.