The current incarnation of “pregnant coworker” is a bubbly, unmarried 21-year-old who didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was five months along and started showing. Which, by all accounts, means I should hate her, only I don’t. I’ve told her all along that pregnant women make me uncomfortable, but that she’s an unlikely exception, the details of which I plan to go into some other time. The point is that she can exist in her giddy, giggly, pregnant state, and I am okay with that existence, as long as she’s not talking about it.
Today, however, was her last or second-to-last day at work before maternity leave, which means that she was talking about it a lot, because everyone was asking her about it a lot. Which, by all accounts, means today was a shitty day* for me, and also provides a nice segue into the second part of my thoughts on talking about one’s personal life in front of the customers.
That lecture I was given by my manager a few years ago dealt wholly and specifically with the dark parts of a personal life. In other words, don’t talk about death or divorce or any kind of loss, because those topics don’t make people feel good, and people want to feel good all the time (except, apparently while watching the news). “Don’t talk about your personal problems,” he’d said (emphasis added).
But it got me thinking – what about the other side? What about the happy events that we talk about all the time without facing stigma: weddings and babies and puppies? Does it follow that, because those things are positive, they must make people feel good?
No, it doesn’t. When we know nothing about someone else’s personal life, which is often the case with the customers, how can we safely assume that they are going to be happy for us when we tell our happy stories? I worked with one girl who talked about herself constantly: her customers got the daily play-by-play on her cats’ antics, her relationship with her mother, and her second job. She was also the kind of person who would tell them things they really didn’t need to know, like that she was sick, or that she’d hated her previous employer; so I also believe that she meant well, and really just had no filter.
Around the time that I was trying to train myself not to ever talk about myself in public, this girl got married. And you can bet that every single customer fortunate enough to stand in her line heard about her wedding for at least two weeks after the date. And while I don’t begrudge her her happiness, it made me start to think about the unfairness of what had been said in my employee review. Because what if the person checking out through her line had just been widowed? What if they were going through a horrible divorce? Hell, what if their cat had just been put to sleep, and here she was prattling on about all of hers? It’s amazing how quickly those socially accepted, feel-good topics can turn on us.
On April 19th, 2009 – that’s two days after my due date, for those who are following my timeline – Doug and I went to the optometry center at JC Penney to refill my contact lens prescription. As the young girl behind the counter entered my address into the system, she suddenly said, “I used to live in that neighborhood! Yep. Then I got pregnant and had to move in with the boyfriend.”
(Now, if I write “what the fuck” with periods in between all the words, will you read that as my feeling like I’d just been punched in the stomach?)
What. The. Fuck.
I looked down. She didn’t look pregnant. She looked slightly puffy, like maybe she’d just eaten a big meal or was unfortunately apple-shaped. I never would have known she was pregnant if she had kept her big mouth shut about it. And then, stupidly, I did the socially obligatory thing, and asked how far along she was.
“Almost five months. I get to go in next week and find out if it’s a boy or a girl. My boyfriend wants it to be a boy, but I hope it’s a girl!”
I almost screamed, “Why don’t you just hope it’s healthy, you idiot?!” But I didn’t. Nor did I say, “Oh, that’s special. I had a miscarriage last fall – in fact, my due date would’ve been two days ago. So thanks for sharing; now can I have my contacts so I can get away from you?” No, in keeping with my resolution not to talk about my personal problems, I continued to carry myself appropriately in the public sphere for about another 15 minutes. Then I went home and cried, and sent an angry email to the JC Penney manager. Of course, I never heard back, but the gist of it was, “tell your dumbshit employee not to talk about her personal life with the customers.”
Likelihood is, everyone around us is carrying some sort of grief, anxiety, or aversion. And if you don’t know what it is, how can you determine what is and isn’t okay to say to somebody? Most of the pregnant women I have a reaction to can’t help it – they can’t hide their pregnancies when their bellies stick out – but in my ideal world, they would be considerate and not fucking talk about it all the time.
The rest of us, though, can help it. If we’re adopting a policy of not talking about our personal lives with strangers, it should work both ways. To say that weddings and babies and puppies are okay, while death and divorce and loss are not, is a ridiculous double-standard. Either we remove our personal lives completely from our register conversations (“Talk about the weather, or the food…”), or we put them out there completely, and recognize the beautiful possibility of connecting with another human soul.
*Please excuse the gratuitous use of profanity in this post. See, “it was a shitty day,” above.