On a recent visit to New York City, my fiancée Kara and I met an older couple for dinner. Steve and Yuko are poets who knew my father (also a poet) when he was alive, and they live in Lower Manhattan. I had not seen them in several months, so I was anxious to meet up with them. They are both in their 60s and both are exceedingly gracious and friendly. I expected that Kara would thoroughly enjoy their company.
When I introduced her to them, Yuko saw that Kara is pregnant. She bent over, reached out her hand, and began to gently rub Kara’s belly.
I blanched, knowing that Kara hates when anyone except me touches her belly.
‘Yuko,’ I said, ‘I’m usually the only one Kara allows to touch her belly…’
‘Oh! Sorry, sorry…’ Yuko cried.
‘So she just granted you a great privilege,’ I finished, trying to relieve the tension.
Yuko, continuing to apologize profusely, bowed in thanks.
Meanwhile, Kara blushed and smiled, but seemed to appreciate that I had stepped in to make her voice heard. Later in the evening, after we had returned to our hotel, Kara told me she had determined earlier in the day that she was going to slap the hand of the next person who touched her stomach without an invitation. She did not follow through with that promise because Yuko was an elder lady who obviously meant no harm, and was a longtime friend of mine to whom she was just now being introduced. Kara wanted to avoid an awkward dinner date that would likely have ensued had it begun with her slapping the hand of an elder woman with whom she was about to break bread.
But that does not mean Kara had a sudden change of heart.
Ever since a bump appeared on Kara’s stomach announcing her pregnancy, many people seem to assume they have an open invitation to put their hands on her paunch without asking. Both men and women do it, and Kara doesn’t like it, whether it is our families, our friends, or a complete stranger.
One might ask: what’s the big deal? Some people are merely demonstrating a kind of votive reverence for the sacred life inside the womb, as if touching the bump were a form of worship or a spiritual experience. Others merely want to share in the glory of a little miracle, as if touching the belly were like collecting a souvenir to commemorate proximity to a landmark while on vacation. Or some are merely engaging in a gesture of good will in the same way that baseball players pat each other on the butt or friends pat each other on the back. But whatever the reason, people always palm the belly tenderly, making sure to be as gentle as possible. No one wants to do harm (at least we haven’t encountered anyone who does).
Yet it seems lost on people that an act with the best of intentions can still be unwelcome. It is still an invasion of personal space, and puts a woman in the awkward position of choosing between guarding the privacy of her body and not wanting to be rude. Imagine going up to a woman who is not pregnant and laying your palm on her abdomen. Creepy, right? Well, it can still feel creepy to a woman when she is pregnant. It’s not as if a pregnant woman has relinquished her bodily autonomy or right to personal space just because she is now carrying a baby inside her.
It is true that some pregnant women are not bothered when people touch their belly without asking. Maybe they relish the attention shown to them as prospective mothers. That’s fine. That is her prerogative. To each her own. But that does not mean every woman has the same attitude. Not every woman is as comfortable with advances into her personal space or the placement of foreign hands on the skin wrapped around her womb. Such advances would not be considered normal if she were not pregnant, and she may have the same attitude now that she is pregnant, maybe more so now that a baby resides inside her. And on that latter point, she might be inclined to point out that you are not touching the baby, but rather the skin that wraps around the several organs that surround the placenta which encases the fetus. Granting that point, what if a person wants to feel the baby kicking? Well, that’s on the baby’s time, and sometimes you have to wait a while before the baby decides to make its presence known like a little alien being exorcised from the womb. You should not presume that every pregnant woman wants to stand there and wait until you are satisfied that there is, in fact, a baby inside. Further, you should not presume that your desire to feel the baby kicking takes priority over the mother-to-be’s wish to not be touched without invitation.
So not every pregnant woman is okay with you putting your hand on her paunch without asking. Think about it this way: it’s her stomach that you’ve given yourself permission to touch. Shouldn’t permission to touch a pregnant woman’s stomach come from the pregnant woman herself? While Kara does speak up on her own behalf, there are occasions where she is caught off guard, or finds herself confined in a social situation where it is more appropriate for me to speak up on her behalf. Those are major reasons to ask first. It’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Kara has previously expressed her displeasure with me on more than once occasion for not helping her to intervene when someone who touched her belly without an invitation (or correct them after it was already too late). When I countered that many people reach for the womb instinctively, and have only good intentions, Kara agreed, but informed me that a person’s good intentions are irrelevant. It’s not about them. It’s about her. She is not necessarily questioning motives or to making a moral judgment about people. She simply wants to express her own preference for maintaining the personal space that she expects when she is not pregnant, especially now that she is, in fact, pregnant.
It took me some time to appreciate Kara’s aversion to people rubbing her belly. Then the incident with Yuko happened and I watched Kara smile and blush in discomfort as a woman she just met rubbed her belly, even though it was a kind lady I had known for several years. I could see how much Kara did not enjoy having a stranger touch her belly, and also how much she did not enjoy being forced to allow it to happen because she did not want to offend an otherwise nice lady. It’s a tricky situation. She felt a kind of violation she could nothing to prevent without causing further harm. Social etiquette was forcing her into silence. It was up to me to step in and point out that one should not feel entitled to access to her own body, especially the womb (which is not too far away from more private parts of her body that, if touched, would constitute outright harassment), simply because she is pregnant.
It also took a while for me to appreciate that it was my responsibility to intervene on some occasions. As noted above, Kara is undoubtedly capable of standing up for herself and letting her opinion be heard. Believe me, I know (pardon me if I just sounded like a historically unpopular presidential candidate!). If she didn’t like it, she could tell people herself. But sometimes a situation is too delicate for a direct avowal of one’s opinion and requires a more diplomatic approach. In the situation with Yuko, it was for me to step in because I already knew Yuko. It was not Kara’s place, but mine, to air out the matter. Yet even so, I was hesitant. I had to choose my words carefully and avoid a belligerent tone. Even among friends, the point could be lost if it were conveyed insensitively. Friends may give you the benefit of the doubt, but they might also feel a tinge of resentment, and because you are friends, they may let it linger inside rather than airing it out with you.
This all reminds me of the times I’ve rubbed the head of a male friend who is bald without asking. How many bald men out there like it when people come up to them and rub their head, either for good luck or because it looks smooth and shiny, or because they assume it is an expression of affection between friends? As a man with a full head of hair, I know I would not be cool with people coming up and running their hand through my hair as if I were a dog to be petted. If I shaved my head, I don’t think my opinion about random people putting their hand on my head would change.
As with pregnant women, it seems safe to assume that different men have different opinions on the matter. Some men are okay with it. Others are not. The point, though, is one should not assume, as I did with my friend who shaves his head, that I have the freedom to rub his head without an invitation. He may not like it, which makes it worse when I do it because he knows I mean no harm and thus remains silent in order to preclude the emergence of tension between friends over an ‘invasion’ that he believes many would deem harmless. As with Kara, social etiquette forces him into silence.
But just as a woman who is pregnant does not have a wish-granting genie in her womb, a man with a bald head is not a good luck charm. Nor is gripping your friend’s bald head some kind of salutation, like shaking hands. One does not go up to someone and grab his hand to shake it. He holds out his hand and waits for the other person to reciprocate. Maybe this is not a perfect example, since one almost always expects reciprocation in a handshake, and refusing reciprocation can be construed as rude or off-putting, in the same way that Kara might have been dubbed rude if she slapped the hand of Yuko. The handshake is so culturally ingrained that holding out a hand is like a trigger for the other person to reciprocate. Nonetheless, one still waits for the other person to respond. One does not grab hold of the hand without asking, but instead shows respect by allowing a person the choice of reciprocating, even if it is only a formality.
When I put my hand on my friend’s shaved head, I didn’t think twice. I assumed he would not mind, and that he would interpret it as a sign of affection between friends, similar to the handshake with which we greet each other. I felt entitled to engage in a playful gesture between friends and did not bother to ask him if he liked feeling my hand on his head. I had no reason to think otherwise since he laughed, but now I wonder if maybe he did not appreciate the liberty I took with his head. Like Kara, maybe he felt powerless to stop it and resented the liberty with which people, even close friends, grab hold of his head.
The belly of a pregnant woman and the head of a bald man are not good luck charms. No genie is going to pop out and grant your wish. I am, of course, being facetious. I understand there are many reasons people unthinkingly, but with good intentions, feel like it is okay to touch a pregnant woman’s belly or a bald man’s head, and that they are not mocking a pregnant belly or a bald head by treating it, respectively, like a crystal ball or a good luck charm. I understand that some women and some men will not be bothered by it. But the fraction of men and women who do not mind it does not thereby constitute an invitation to do it to those who are bothered by it.
All of which seems reason enough to simply ask the next time you want to touch the belly of a pregnant woman. If she’s ok with it, you show that you respect her enough to ask. If she is not ok with it, you are glad you did not unwittingly invade her privacy. She will appreciate it. It’s a win-win.
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