Op-Ed: You’re Pregnant? What a Shame! – The Feminist Wire

Op-Ed: You’re Pregnant? What a Shame!

By Laura Phelps

If you’re an English language teacher, like me, you’ll be familiar with the concept of adjacency pairs. These are call-and-response phrases that occur in conversation, like

“How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”

which are more or less fixed. It’s not really an option to bring up the tenner you think you might have lost on the bus and the gerbil’s worsening conjunctivitis; you are always “fine.”’ Another example of an adjacency pair we teach students is

“I’m engaged / pregnant!”


and again, there’s little room for deviation from the model. The following exchanges would be socially inappropriate:

“I’m engaged!”

“You say that now, but you’ll change your mind.”


“I’m pregnant!”

“Oh, what a shame.”


“I’m engaged AND pregnant!”

“It’s not for me to judge, I suppose, but that seems a bit selfish.”

Why are they inappropriate? Because if someone wants to tell you about an important life decision they’ve made, one that makes them happy and causes no harm to anyone else, it would be pretty rude – and quite outside your jurisdiction – to question or damn it. Right?

Well, try telling someone you are not engaged, not pregnant, and not intending to be either in the future, and see if the same logic and empathy apply. Or don’t, because they don’t, and if I had a buttered boar for every time I’ve been subjected to one of the idiocies above, I would also have gout.

You know what? I won’t change my mind. I’m thirty-four years old and I’ve thought about this a lot, every time I’ve watched teary-eyed friends exchange vows, every time I’ve held their bald and woolly babies, every Christmas, every birthday. In the same way that I decided to make my living from teaching and writing and haven’t actually changed my mind and retrained as a blacksmith, I’ve decided that I want a particular kind of personal life. I’m a grown, educated person who can weigh up potential courses of action in exactly the same way that parents can.

It is not “a shame” to choose an unmarried, child-free life. Will I miss out on certain beautiful experiences because of my choice? Undoubtedly. Do parents miss out on other beautiful mid-life experiences because they are, quite rightly, focused on the wellbeing of their offspring? Of course. You can’t have everything, so you decide what you want the most and sacrifice the things which are less important to you. What some people want most is the warmth of a traditional nuclear family. What I want most is independence.

And it is absolutely, categorically not selfish to live this way. I’m always a bit baffled by this argument when it’s thrown at me, but I think the reasoning is something like this: competent parenting requires selflessness (correct), so if you choose not to parent you must be selfish (faulty logic). Let’s be honest here – weddings and procreation are the ultimate acts of me-me-me. I’m glad that other people do them, because I get to go to parties and do stupid voices with other humans’ small and pre-rational humans, but then I also get to go home to drink beer and write uninterrupted and book flights to Africa. There is nothing selfish about that, because I am not putting my own pleasure before someone else’s: I deliberately didn’t give birth to someone else. Do you see what I’m saying?

So the next time you, man in pub, friend of friend, or self-righteous colleague, are tempted to tell me how sad it is that adults want different things, please learn by rote the following adjacency pair:

“The marriage and kids thing is not really for me.”

“Fair enough.”


A feminist op-ed on pregnancy, shame, and appropriate responses to life choices; child-free and unmarried by choice; pregnant.Laura Phelps is a writer, teacher, and digital nomad from London. She has worked in six countries, visited many more, and would only consider settling somewhere with perfect roadside wonton soup. She has published a coursebook, Power On, for learners of English.


  1. Ladkyis

    September 8, 2013 at 5:03 am

    I have been trying for equality in all things since I became aware of the inequalities way back in 1960 when I was 14. Until no one makes a “thing” about single or married or living together. Until it is the most normal thing in the world for a man or a woman to say no when asked if they are married and for it to be accepted then equality for all has not been achieved. It’s no one’s business who I live with or sleep with or have children with as long as I am not hurting them or anyone. If you tell me you have made a choice my answer should and would be “Excellent! I am glad you are happy.”

    • Laura Phelps

      September 9, 2013 at 2:35 am

      You’re right. That would be a much better adjacency pair!

  2. Charmaine

    September 8, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Upon telling one if my ESL students that I’ve been divorced for 8 years and I don’t plan to marry again, she replied, “but don’t you think you can have a second chance in life?” (A second chance at what? How has happiness become linked to marriage? I know happily married people, but I was not happy when I was married. And yet I’m thrilled with being unmarked and free to do whatever I want whenever I want.

    • Laura Phelps

      September 9, 2013 at 2:36 am

      ‘Unmarked’ – love it (and love that feeling too).

  3. Cara

    September 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

    You defend your decision as not selfish, yet you write that choices by others to marry or have children are “ultimate acts of me-me-me”? Aren’t all lifestyle choices–whether or not to marry, have children, etc–selfish? In making these choices, we put out own wants before anyone else’s. Identifying what makes us happy and living true to oneself is selfish in the most glorious way, whether that means you’re shuttling children to soccer games or flying off to another country on a whim. And there’s nothing dishonorable about either choice.

    • Laura Phelps

      September 9, 2013 at 2:33 am

      Yes, I absolutely agree. The article, and the line you quote, are only intended as humorous defences 🙂

  4. Karen

    September 8, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    Grammar correction: “When you are an English teacher like me”.
    Correction: “When you are an English teacher like I.”
    Karen Koenig

    • Laura Phelps

      September 11, 2013 at 1:57 am

      LOLZ. (You *are* kidding, right?) 🙂

      • Steve S.

        September 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

        No, she isn’t kidding. The difference is whether you think “like” functions as a preposition or as a conjunction.

        “When you are an English teacher like I [am].” vs. “When you are an English teacher like me.”

        There is a difference, and you ought to know it.

        Try it with “I am better than he/him,” “She is better than she/her.” It’s a lot of fun to see where your natural grammar takes you with the examples.

        It’s a pretty big debate alongside the prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar wars.

        • Laura Phelps

          September 15, 2013 at 4:45 am

          Thank you, Steve, for your concern about what I ‘ought’ to know! I understand perfectly well the grammatical point you are making, and I am familiar with the debate. The reason I thought Karen might be kidding is that rather than engaging with the content of the article, she (and now you) chose to ‘correct’ my grammar – but the internet is the internet, I suppose. Genuinely, I appreciate your reading my piece, but please don’t reply again if only to condescend on an irrelevant issue.

  5. Jill

    September 14, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Is this a positive or negative reaction?

    Guess what!

    Oh, you’re not pregnant are you!

    • Laura Phelps

      September 15, 2013 at 4:50 am

      Interesting question. Without context I’d assume it was just a surprise to the listener that the speaker was pregnant, but I guess it could also sound disparaging. Did someone say this to you?