Sunday, February 26, 2012

Q&A with Students

I've been making my non-maternity wardrobe work as long as possible to cover the Deuce.

When I was pregnant with Eliza, I couldn't wait to bust out the maternity clothes.  When I first was pregnant with Eliza, I wanted to look as pregnant as I felt, and I was impatient for my belly to become an attention-getter.  My excitement was so big, I wanted it to be visible!  I wanted it to be the subject of conversations!  I wanted cut-in-line bathroom privileges and hold-the-door open politeness from strangers.

Now...  I mostly want to be left alone.  Let's all politely ignore the belly in the room, unless I mention it first.

At the last grief support group I attended, I talked about how one of the (countless) smaller griefs that come from the loss of a child is carrying the burden of having to repeat your story, over and over again, to other people whom you do not know well, but who knew you were expecting a baby.  It's a sad story, it's one that makes you emotional, it's one that makes other people feel awkward, and yet it's the truth and there's usually no avoiding it because pregnancy and babies are perhaps the only two subjects in the world that makes acquaintances and strangers feel justified in asking direct personal questions.  So not only do you have to intensely grieve your child in the early weeks and months, you have to announce and explain that loss over and over again, often feeling apologetic about it.

Maybe there's something healthy about having to name your pain, about letting other people see you're hurting, but mostly I felt like my skin was getting peeled away and I was raw and cold and exposed every time someone asked me about my baby and I had to say, "She died."

A new pregnancy brings up that burden again, in a different way, with a new set of curious and chatty acquaintances, and we all know (or can imagine) the awkward navigation of simple questions like, "Is this your first?" and the follow-up inquiries that ensue.  In an effort to avoid these conversations, I've been stubbornly wearing non-maternity clothes that are loose-fitting, topped with long cardigan sweaters and big scarves, and I convince myself every morning before I leave the house that I don't look pregnant.

No one who doesn't know I'm pregnant has mentioned my pregnancy to me (except for one lady in my yoga class who asked how far along I was, but obviously yoga clothes are a little different), so I really thought I was successfully hiding this pregnancy.

On Friday, I was distributing a quiz on Oedipus the King and Lysistrata to my World Literature class when a giggly girl student said, "Dr. Taylor?  Are you going to have a baby?"

She kind of whispered it, but not really.  It was a stage whisper, loud enough for the class to hear, especially since everyone was quietly working on or waiting for their quiz.

It totally caught me off guard.

Was my belly really not invisible?  OMG.  Do I look pregnant?

I stared at her, wide-eyed for a moment.  I kept distributing quizzes.  And then I smiled and said quietly, in what I hoped was a pleasant, neutral tone, "Don't you know you're not supposed to ask anyone that question?"

She turned red, and then her friend started giggling and said, "I know, I told her I wasn't going to ask because what if you weren't!"

I just smiled, walked away, and continued passing out the quizzes on the other side of the room.  But I heard the girl who asked me the question hiss at her friend, "Well, everyone is saying it."

I guess they're just not all rude enough to say it to my face.

There's something really awkward about the way pregnancy is on display and therefore a suitable subject for conversation.  And there are lots of feminist discussions about the way the female body is always on display, and pregnancy just heightens society's fetishism of fertility and family-making at the same time it erodes boundaries of casual conversation and personal space.  We know that women often greet each other by complimenting appearances, while you'll seldom hear one man say to another, "You look really cute today!" or "I love your outfit!"

I know that I follow these same social conventions when I'm with my friends, and I love to be complimented on what I'm wearing.  I like clothes, and I like choosing an outfit that reflects my mood or my plans for the day, and makes me feel reasonably cute and confident.  But pregnancy removes some of (a lot of) the control we have over the way we look and the way we present ourselves.  And this lack of control makes me nervous--not only do I have no control over how big my belly gets, I also can't always control the tears that accompany discussion of my pregnancy.  I resent the portrayal of pregnant women as weak and emotional, and yet I feel weak and emotional--not because I'm pregnant, but because I'm pregnant and I'm not convinced I can keep my baby safe.

So when I'm at work?  I don't talk about it, and I think as little about it as possible.  I smile when I feel the Deuce moving, and then I check my e-mail, read an essay, grade a paper.  Think about something else.  Given that people in academia probably have less interest in babies than most people do (I have no idea if that's actually true...  but in my experience, most academics would rather make small talk about their research or their students than their personal lives), I have pretty well succeeded in avoiding the subject all together.  Certainly none of my colleagues have mentioned it, and I've only discussed my pregnancy with my department chair and my dean, both of whom will help to arrange my maternity leave (hopefully).

Obviously I can't single-handedly reverse gender constructions in our society, but I guess I expected to be able to avoid addressing such inquiries about my personal appearance and whether or not it reflects my reproductive status while in the classroom setting.

It's not that I don't want to talk about the Deuce or Eliza.  It's that I feel really uncomfortable talking about this pregnancy in situations where I do not want to get emotional and/or I don't want to confide in the person I'm talking to. Talking about the Deuce means thinking about Eliza, and if I choose not to talk about her, I feel weird and sad about it, even though I know not every situation requires my life story.  I don't want to hide what happened, but I also feel that same burden of having to tell a very sad story to someone who is not expecting it.  Honestly, I think my reluctance to show off this belly at work is the fear of being so publicly vulnerable in a situation where I really want to appear competent and in control (ie. a classroom).

But some of my annoyance at this comment had nothing to do with my loss, and was plain old irritation at a student being inappropriate.  I mean, that is a nosy personal question!  I would never have asked a professor if she were pregnant, just as I wouldn't ask my boss, my doctor, my co-worker, my Edward Jones advisor, or anyone else with whom I'm not in a chummy personal relationship.  As far as I'm concerned, students have no business commenting on my appearance at all (well, realistically speaking, they at least should not do it to my face).  My personal appearance and the functions of my reproductive system are not relevant to class discussion, and they are certainly not subjects that I choose to talk about with my students.  Especially during class time.

David thinks I was rude to the girl who was just trying to be cute and friendly, but I think she was out of line.  It's true that I might have answered her differently if Eliza hadn't died and I didn't have so many mixed emotions about this pregnancy, but it's also true that YOU JUST DON'T ASK that question.

So maybe now my students think I'm just getting fat and oddly shaped.  Maybe they think I have a tumor.  Hopefully they figure that whatever is going on with my abdomen, I don't want to talk about it with the class.  After all, we have other things to discuss.  Like, you know, world literature.


  1. It's hard to navigate this post-loss world. I think I just sent out a general "fuck you" vibe when pregnant w/George b/c nobody ever touched my belly and I didn't get a ton of questions but some were inevitable. Mostly, I lied and still do. Another tactic of mine is to directly answer the question without much enthusiasm and quickly change the subject. Usually works pretty well.

  2. Ugh. You're lucky you have been able to hide it as long as you have. Honestly I have hard time hiding My pregnancIes after 10 weeks! It might not be your students place to ask or comment but students also feel connected to their professors in a personal way that is hard to explain. Although asking in front of class is clearly not the best of ideas she probably was just excited for you. I think you handled it well.... You probably shouldn't ask unless they are clearly about to deliver their baby. Your two babies are so intertwined. I know you can't think of the deuce without thinking of Eliza. It is so unfair that you don't get to enjoy this pregnancy the way you you did with your last. Best bust out those maternity clothes. I guess your not fooling anyone so you might as well be comfortable.

  3. I think regarding David's take on it, this might be the difference between elementary school and college kids. If an 8 year old asks if your pregnant, you probably would/should respond at a relatively nice 8 year old level. An 18 year old? They should know better and you are right, totally not appropriate! But I think it sounds like you handled it well. And I think you should give her an F. ;)

    We had similar due dates with our girls and when I was pregnant with Olivia and starting the school year off in Hell City I was already 16ish weeks pregnant. I just pretty much announced it at open house and the beginning of the year because I figured the last thing I needed was middle schoolers wondering if I was pregnant or not. That was with much younger kids though and before I knew that babies die.

    I am with Monique and think I must have given off a nice "leave me alone" vibe for most of my pregnancy with Luke (it also helps that I wasn't working), because I don't think anyone even attempted to touch my belly or very rarely asked questions or mentioned it. Except at the hospital, which you would think is the worst place for people to ask about pregnancy, but that's where I got the most questions/comments.

  4. I had a flash the other day, a picture in my head of my wardrobe should we continue on this journey again. I was thinking I'd get iron on elephants for all my shirts. As a code; Don't want to talk about it. Probably it would do the exact opposite, and people would bring it up. Oh well.
    I don't remember ever asking anyone this question, even before the losses. I guess my code is different than some.

  5. You are totally right. Our job is to teach students to behave professionally. That includes holding them accountable to doing their best work, neatly, completely, and on time, and also includes professionalism in interpersonal interactions. You didn't stand for that student who was disrespectful about your peer-review assignment last year and this is no different. It is disrespectful and inappropriate. Especially given the way she continued to talk about it with her friend while they were supposed to be taking a quiz! I think you handled it perfectly, actually!

    And one thing I never liked about pregnancy was the public-ness of it. It was always the first thing people wanted to talk about and the last thing I wanted to talk about. It is so intensely personal, even under the best of circumstances, and not something I wanted to discuss with the next person in line at the grocery store. It would have been so much harder after a loss. You've articulated it so well. Hang in there.

  6. I actually don't think your response was rude at all. I think it was a great response to a not so great question.

  7. You are right - you just don't ask that question. Period.

    I have very similar feelings as you on this issue. Except I got to a point where I couldn't hide it - in fact, the Army made this lovely (sarcasm) outfit that I had to wear when my belly got to big that just broadcasted to the world that I was pregnant. Oh, that damn maternity uniform was hideous and it just made everyone assume since the KNEW I was pregnant, it was safe to ask a million questions. Which was really hard after I had JUST worn the damn thing only a few months prior. Ugh.

    There were times (not often) that I was asked "is this your first" and I was glad that I was given a chance to tell someone else about Cale. Granted lots of times I was just emotional and didn't want anyone to ask any questions, but I'd rather they asked then assume it was my first - that was always worse.

    I hope the rest of the school year is gentle for you as your belly makes things more challenging. But I'm glad that you are faced with this problem :)

  8. 1) that question WAS completely inappropriate. I can't imagine ever asking one of my professors that. I'm glad you put her in her place (in a nice way). Maybe next time she will think before opening her mouth

    2) I understand completely how you feel. Though as you know I didn't lose Julius during preg. I also didn't want to talk about my preg bc I felt that eventually that would lead to the "is this your 1st" question. And I didn't want to get into it. So like you I wore lots of baggy outfits until I couldn't anymore. And I tried to hide the mound as best as I could. Problem was i was only really fooling myself. I had many instances where someone would say something & I would think "do I really look pg?" even my therapist commented abt this several times.

    I just seriously didn't want to discuss it because well I didn't want to be the bearer of bad news again if something were to happen. But unfortunately in this society people just can't help but comment on preg & babies in general (as I'm finding out now). Sending you strength as you deal with this...

  9. I guess I can see David's point, and it's not that girl's fault that we live in a society where "rate my professor" includes chili pepper rating options and pregnant women are considered to be communal property by media and random belly-rubbers and advice-givers. But my main reaction to this is still, REALLY?!?

    I guess that a lot of students have more informal relationships with their profs than I did with mine, but still, that's just not appropriate or courteous. And, like you, I would *never* have asked a teacher this question. Maybe you could get a few t-shirts with "Don't Ask!" written in bold font over your belly to fend off any future queries from the whippersnappers.

  10. Sent out the same vibe as Monique. Some days it worked, some days it didn't. Like the woman who kept asking if it was my first, and if we knew gender. I said yes, it was a boy and no he wasn't my first. She kept saying over and over "are you sure, you look like you're carrying a girl". I never managed to convince her it was a boy, and that we were sure. She was about 3 seconds away from getting a very sad story dumped on her ass. I should have just come out with it, as no doubt that would have shut her up.
    People are jerks.
    Thinking of you so much.

  11. Oh yes. It definitely brings that whole conversation up again and it's piercing.

    I had my first, "Is this your first?" question come to me even though I obviously only had one kid in tow. It was uncomfortable, but I looked them in the eye and told them our story. Andrew deserves that and we love him. Eliza deserves that, despite how difficult it still is to admit that our babies aren't physically with us. It's a sharp pain that doesn't appear to dull. :/

    I pulled the same answers, but with little ones. They are much more attentive to asking inappropriate questions and I often would answer sarcastically that I had a large lunch. Haha. Of course that would tide them over until the next day.

  12. It IS a nosy personal question, totally aside from all the pregnancy after a loss baggage. (What if you HADN'T been pregnant??) And as Angie said, while you might be more indulgent of an 8-year-old asking the question, an 18-year-old really should know beter. I thought you handled it fabulously well.

  13. As a teacher I always struggle with this kind of thing and how much to share with students. There are the students who know I lost my son, while others have no idea. I avoid having photos of my daughter on my desk for fear that questions will start that will lead me in the way of talking about my son, and I just don't know how to handle that while maintaining professionalism and authority. I am already dreading all the questions I will get if and when I do get pregnant again...It's just unavoidable. Anyway I think you handled the situation with grace, for sure. ~Lindsay