Move Over: Pregnant Woman Coming Through

(Not yet proofread; please bear with me.)

For me, one of the most striking things about pregnancy has been how pregnancy affects embodiment. In particular, I’m referring to how societal interactions and structures make affect social psychology and social interaction. One of the things I’ve noticed in the last few months of my pregnancy is the tendency for people to move over when I walk by them.

I first noticed this among men, especially younger men. It was almost like they would jump out of my way when they saw me coming. Some were clearly being gracious and definitely trying to be polite and considerate, and others looked almost scared, as if I was going to go into labor on the spot. What was fairly consistent was a lack of verbal interaction or sustained eye contact. Older men (those who seem to be over 50), have had very different reactions. They tend to hold doors, make more eye contact, and even strike up conversations. I’ve notice a little bit of difference in relation to ethnicity. Since I live in a neighborhood with many immigrants and different racial groups, I have day to day interactions with many men from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In my own experience, both Latino and West African men (not African American, but West Africans) are much more likely to have to smiling, friendly, excited reaction. It seems that American born men (or those who are heavily assimilated), regardless, of race are more likely to jump out of the way and avoid eye contact. It is possible that many Latin American and West African cultures are very pronatalist that men view pregnant women in different ways than American men.1

As for women, it took much longer for women to do the move over thing. I’ve only noticed women moving over in the past few weeks when my stomach has been huge2 My experience has been that women are less likely than men to give this pregnant woman extra physical space. When women do move out of the way, it feels different. It rarely feels like their scared, but I do get a sense of pity from some of the women who move over. For most of the women who have a noticeable reaction to my pregnant body, their physical reaction is not really one of distancing themselves. They tend to try to do helpful things like hold the elevator, and then ask the programmed questions like: “When are you due?” “What are you having, boy or girl3?” Women, especially older women, may offer their own personal stories. Although I’ve also had some elderly and young women, act in a way that I interpreted as rude. For example, I’ve had a few cases of elderly women rushing to get ahead of me in line, which I would generally ignore if I wasn’t pregnant. I think there is an interesting conflict between women who are slowed because they are pregnant and women who are slowed because they are older. In terms, of ethnicity I haven’t noticed many differences. The Latinas in my neighborhood tend to have the most favorable reactions, but I felt that I had more pleasant interactions with Latinas before I was pregnant, so it is hard to know how much pregnancy has changed my interactions. I know I’ve had several cases of women speaking to me in Spanish about the babies, and I speak enough Spanish to communicate a little. I’m not comfortable generalizing about racial or ethnic differences in women in relation to moving over, but I think there are other race/class/gender differences in how women react to pregnant bodies or the idea of pregnancy.

The other factor that seems to influence how men and women react to my pregnant body in public interactions is the whether or not I’m alone, with a woman, or with a man. When I’m with my husband, I don’t get as many move over reactions from anybody, male or female. Moving over seems to happen more when I’m with women or, especially, when I’m by myself. I think when I’m with a man, who appears to be my partner, people think I have someone to “take care of me,” so they don’t feel compelled to respond.

From a social psychological perspective, this has made me very aware of my pregnant body. I rarely forget about being pregnant when I’m out in public. Of course, the smiles and other reactions make a big difference in how I interact, but the one that I really notice most is the move over reaction. That reaction has made me a little more sensitive to people with visible, physical disabilities. I don’t see pregnancy as a disability, but I think there are similarities in how people reaction to disabled bodies and pregnant bodies. Moving over is definitely one thing both groups have in common. I can see how people in each group can have their sense of self altered by these repeated move over interactions.

  1. I know in my partner’s culture–Nigerian, Igbo–there is a special word that means “mother of twins.” I’ve been called that by almost everybody in the family, male or female, and the connotation is very positive. []
  2. Remember I’m carrying twins, and right now my belly is bigger than almost any woman I know who has had a baby, so I have wondered if the reactions of other women would be different if my stomach was a more typical size. []
  3. The question about gender take on another dimension when the person asking finds out that you are having twins. People get really excited, and the most common question I’ve gotten is, “Do twins run in your family?” []
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11 Responses to Move Over: Pregnant Woman Coming Through

  1. 1
    NancyP says:

    In some African cultures, twins were considered unlucky.

  2. 2
    Rachel S. says:

    Yeah, that’s true, and his culture was one of those, but it appears that since colonialism the view has changed, which is really interesting.

  3. 3
    Jen says:

    I’m near the end of my third pregnancy right now, and I’ve generally found people to have a polite or positive reaction to my pregnant body. People do tend to move over or open doors for you, but I’ve always interpreted that as an attempt to be gracious.

    One of the most striking differences I noticed during my first pregnancy. Where my office building was located, I frequently had to cross a busy street with no nearby crosswalks. It normally took a long time to find a break in traffic or for motorists to stop and give you a minute to cross. Once my pregnant belly started showing, drivers stopped to let the pregnant lady cross the street much more quickly than they did the non-pregnant me.

    And now that I’m a 9-months-pregnant lady holding the hands of two little girls while waiting to cross the street? People just can’t stop fast enough to let us through!

  4. 4
    Deborah says:

    I carried twins to term, and by the end I looked huge. I had complete strangers eyeing me up and saying, “There must be two in there.” I definitely noticed people moving aside for me, opening doors, holding lifts (elevagtors) for me so that I could get there, slowly, and especially so when my elder daughter was with me. I interpreted it as simple courtesy, overloaded with an appreciation that getting around was getting a little difficult by then.

  5. 5
    Lyonside says:

    Hah! I was waiting for a post like this :)

    Not sure about the ethnicity differences, as I never really noticed it in my area while pregnant. The gender difference, I remember distinctly. My theory is that some women don’t WANT to treat a pregnant woman differently, unless she’s obviously having trouble, out of a sense of equality or maybe recognizing that pregnant women are not UNable to do things just because they’re pregnant.

  6. 6
    Madeline says:

    I’ve always thought that men treated pregnant women with special concern out of a subconscious gratefulness that they never have to go through THAT.

    Deborah, my mom had people saying the same sort of thing to her (“You must be carrying twins!”) when she was pregnant with me, and … she wasn’t.

  7. 7
    mary says:

    It definitely makes a dfference when you are having twins, since you start looking nine months pregnant about five months in. I remember noticing the same move aside reaction among men, like they were gonna get pregnancy cooties or something. And everyone baiucally looked at me like I shoulg go to the birthing place of my choice before I was forced to squat RIGHT HERE and birth a baby in front of them. But I did get to cut in grocery lines because people were very kind.

    I HATED being asked about their conception. Total strangers asked if I was having them “naturally”, or alternately where I went to conceive them. I started making up mildly shocking replies, like “on the kitchen table” or “in the bushes.” But seriously, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until they are born – then the ignorant questions come along.

    “Are they identical?” Um, girl and boy…that would be no!*
    “Did you have a c-section?” None of your beeswax.
    “Oh twins! My hairdresser’s sister in law had a cousin who had twins!”
    “You sure have your hands full!” better than having my arms empty!
    I just barely resisted “Oh, a singleton! You must have all the time in the world!”
    “They can’t be real twins because they’re a girl and boy.” (Not made up!)

    Multiple of all denominations charm and fascinate people, you turn into a spectacle every time you’re in public with them. I got tired of this when I was trying to shop for groceries, but overall it was pleasant. Because people LOVED my babies, and every expidition put a little joy into people’s hearts.

    *Ed did upon several occasions answer with a straight face that they were identical, but one had a vagina and the other a penis.

  8. 8
    neutron says:

    It’s hard for me to comment on women’s reactions but as for men, it’s mostly reverence.

    @Mary, people didn’t really ask if the conception was natural did they?? That’s just … well … weird.

  9. 9
    Bjartmarr says:

    Know what I think is weird? Hearing pregnant women rant about how strangers will not be permitted to touch their bellies. Until I heard that, it would never have occurred to me that a total stranger would walk up and start pawing uninvited at a pregnant woman’s belly. Does this actually happen a lot, or was it just so shocking the once or twice that it happened that it became preemptively rant-worthy?

    And what’s the demographic of belly-gropers, anyway? Is it just old grannies and ill-behaved children, or is it spread across the population?

  10. 10
    Jane Doh says:

    The thing that really struck me when I was pregnant was in how people of different economic status treated me. To get to work, I travel through Anacostia in Washington, DC. People on the Green Line and on buses to/from Anacostia station were almost always polite and helpful. I can’t even think of a time when someone didn’t give me a seat on the train or bus if necessary. Often multiple people would offer to move at the same time.

    In contrast, when I traveled through Bethesda or anywhere in NW DC, especially on the Red Line, I often had to stand because almost no one would offer a seat to a pregnant woman (or anyone else for that matter).

    I was shocked–even before I was pregnant, I always offered my seat to anyone who looked like they could use it (people with mobility issues, elderly people, pregnant people, anyone traveling with young kids, or even people who looked really tired and might be having a bad day…). After all, you never know if you might need some consideration some day.

    I guess it is a stereotype that yuppies are very self-absorbed, but that was definitely what I saw when pregnant.

  11. 11
    BrattyLori says:

    I found your website by Googling, “pregnant with twins, no problems at all”. Very nice to read about a twin pregnancy that went well. Congratulations on your twins and thank you for your blog.

    I’m ready to give birth to twins any day (please God!) and I have also noticed that people of different ethnicities react to my giant pregnant body differently.

    Young white men seem mortified! It seems like they are thinking, “What poor sap is responsible for THAT?” or “WOW she’s huge!”

    Older white men are sweet and considerate, as if they have been through pregnancy with wives and know how hard it can be.

    Young white women ignore me or they try to say something about how most of my body is skinny except my belly. (Yikes – even while pregnant, white girls focus on being skinny!) I should clarify that NO part of me is skinny!

    Old white women make rude comments about how big I am. “Boy – they sure let you get big now-a-days, don’t they?” “Don’t you think you’re big enough?” “You better get to the hospital – you’re going to pop any second!”

    Non-white men treat me like I’m doing something completely magical; like I’ve been chosen as a vessel for carrying God’s new people. They smile broadly, open doors, carry groceries, stop their cars to let me walk across the street, etc. Very nice.

    Non-white women stop me and engage me like I’m a good friend. They ask concerned questions, empathize, tell me that they’re really happy for me and offer best wishes. Sweet as can be.

    True story: About 3 weeks ago, I had contractors come and bid on doing a job at our house. The first 2 guys who came were young, white men. They each gave me ridiculously high estimates for my project. The 3rd guy was latino. He asked me a ton of questions about my giant belly and was so happy for me when I told him I’m expecting twins. “That’s AWESOME!” he said. “I bet your husband is proud!” He estimated the job at about a quarter of the price that the others did.