Managing the Meddlers

Now that you're pregnant, everyone's got a helpful hint -- or two or three. Here's how to figure out when to listen and when to trust your own instincts.

"You need to eat spinach." It was a bleary winter day, the start of my third month of pregnancy and the third straight week of morning-to-midnight nausea. Anything could send me into a gagging fit -- including, I discovered, the word spinach.

Lifting my head from the top of my desk, I faced my unwitting torturer, a coworker I'd never spoken with before. "Spinach," he reiterated. "My wife ate it all nine months." I nodded and watched him walk away -- then beat a blue streak to the ladies' room.

Whoever told you that pregnancy brings a new person into your life lied. It brings dozens of them -- all armed with unsolicited advice. I got tips coming ("Don't carry a shoulder bag!") and going ("Loosen your skirt so the fetus can breathe!"). I couldn't eat ("Pizza causes heartburn!"), drink ("Isn't soda dangerous?"), or, heaven forbid, make merry ("Loud music will scare the baby!") without someone suggesting a better way.

If you feel overburdened by friends, family, and even strangers butting into your business, here's still more advice -- this time from experts who will help you gracefully handle the deluge.

Acknowledge Good Intentions

Remember, most meddlers mean well. "You're growing a life," says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of What to Expect When You're Expecting (Workman Publishing). "People instinctively want to help." If the advice is offered politely, smile in response, Murkoff suggests. A quick nod or a few words will convey the message -- rightly or wrongly -- that the suggestion is sinking in and reduce the person's temptation to hammer home the point.

Look for Validation

Asking, "Did that work with your kids?" can be a polite way of figuring out where a nonprofessional got his information, says Chitra Moses, a childbirth educator and labor nurse at New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital. You may discover that the advice giver isn't actually a parent or has no regular contact with babies or children. Thank him for his wisdom and ignore it -- or run it by someone with real expertise.

If, on the other hand, you learn that the person is an experienced father of five, you may be more inclined to heed his counsel. Even so, maintain a healthy skepticism. "Every pregnancy and expectant mom is different," Moses says. "What works for one may not work for another."

Steer Clear of Horror Stories

Smiling through well-meaning tips won't hurt you, but lending an ear to tales couched in terror can. "Before my daughter's birth, I was given so many hair-raising descriptions of engorgement, sore nipples, and inability to breast-feed," says Angela Bendor Jamison, of Raleigh, North Carolina. "Rather than feeling prepared, I got really stressed-out about nursing." Needlessly, as it turned out: After delivery, her baby latched on easily and Jamison encountered no problems.

The moral? Dodge those discouraging words. "Just say, 'If it's anything negative, could you please not tell me?' " Moses suggests. "If you ask nicely, the person won't be offended."

Listen to Your Body

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who pooh-pooh odd or painful symptoms. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by friends or relatives who respond to a complaint, such as cramping, with reassurances like "Don't worry -- my pregnancy cramps were worse and I was fine." Assuming that all symptoms mean the same thing to all women is dangerous, as is telling yourself that things could always be worse, warns Marcos Pupkin, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Medical Center, in Baltimore. "If you're feeling discomfort, talk to your doctor," he says. "Cramping could be serious, a sign of premature labor or an indication that the placenta is separating from the uterine wall."

Go Buy (and By) the Book

To investigate some of the more dubious pregnancy dogma you'll hear (I was told, "Raising your hands over your head will cause the umbilical cord to strangle your baby" and "Carrying a girl robs you of your looks"), get the facts from authoritative magazines and pregnancy guides. Having a book to point to will also make it easier to debunk a pregnancy myth the next time somebody asserts one. "Just don't go overboard," Dr. Pupkin cautions. "Reading too many books can get confusing, especially if they offer conflicting information." Ask your health-care provider for a recommendation.

Ask Your Doctor

If any advice worries you or if you want to discuss something further, talk to your doctor. "Write down your questions in a notebook, and save them for your next visit," Moses advises. "But if something is keeping you awake at night, pick up the phone and call." Don't shy away for fear of being a pest: The average woman calls her obstetrician's office eight times during her pregnancy, says Thomas Stovall, M.D., a professor and vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis.

You'll survive nine months of meddlers if you use your humor, compassion, and willingness to research, learn, and grow. You might as well polish those skills anyway, because you're going to need them for the task that lies ahead: motherhood!

Copyright © 2000 Deborah Skolnik. Reprinted with permission from the December 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

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