The Problem with Congratulating Pregnant Clients
Several years ago, I was working with a group of youth who were aging-out of foster care. These are your 16-21 year old folks. Every single one has a varying degree of abuse history and trauma. I had a few interesting moments that made me question the typical response to client pregnancy announcements in the professional setting. Society tells us we should be happy and excited but in reality, even in the best circumstances, pregnancy has layers of emotions.
Without meaning harm, we can be projecting judgement, our own emotions, and shutting down important chances address client needs with a blanket “congratulations”. While it is for many, pregnancy is not always a time for celebration for everyone, especially those struggling with abuse history, socioeconomic issues, and mental health concerns. As professionals, we need to stop congratulating our pregnant clients because it may be shutting down valuable communication.
Client Congratulations Gone Wrong
My first client was a 17 year old, she was still in high school and was set to age out of the foster care system in a couple months. She struggled with mental health issues and was constantly bouncing around from one placement to another. Despite everything, my client was over the moon about her pregnancy. We met up for our usual meeting and you could tell she had something big to say. My client blurted out that she was pregnant and waited for my response. Looking back, my tone was off and what came out was a forced, unsure “congratulations?”. The moment it came out, I had instant regret. My thoughts about her pregnancy made their way across the table. Her excitement visibly gone, I clearly hurt her feelings.
Then a couple weeks later, I met with another client who was 18. Without time to even settle into the meeting, she started out by telling me she was pregnant. I gave the typical response, “Congratulations”. She said thanks and from that moment on, the conversation seemed very superficial. It felt more like she was feeding me the types of responses of how she is supposed to feel about being pregnant. She said, “I’m excited, its a blessing”, while her body language and tone told a different story. I wondered if changing my response might have led to a more authentic interaction.
Changing my Response
I decided that I needed to start approaching client pregnancy in a different way, this wasn’t working. Another client I had a couple months later, had a completely different feel. She was 20, in college, and in a stable relationships with her boyfriend. She had stable housing through a housing voucher program. This youth was motivated and going places. During one of our monthly meetings, she told me she was pregnant. I let it sit for a second and switched up my response. Instead, I responded with “Wow, that’s big news. How do you feel about it?” You could see a weight lift off her and she got very real about how she felt.
She spoke about her fears. She said that she was afraid she would grow up to be like her parents and her child would be in the system like her. My client didn’t know if she wanted to have kids. Without perceived judgement, she discussed more about how her mother had a bad pregnancy with her sister and ended up in the hospital for months. She spoke about how a baby was not in the plan and she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to finish College. This conversation was real and deep. It created opportunity to address her fears and get her the resources she needed to figure out a plan that was right for her. My response created an environment of openness, she wasn’t talking to someone who already had thoughts or expectations about her pregnancy.
Missed a Chance for Authenticity
Ultimately, when we say “congrats” or “I’m so happy for you”, we are missing a chance for authentic interactions with those we work with (not to mention our friends and family). Instead, we should work to find language that isn’t peppered with our own feelings and expectations. Not everyone is excited to be pregnant and those who may not be in a “good position”, should be able to feel excited without judgments if they are. Even folks who are “trying” to get pregnant may have intense emotions after becoming pregnant. Professionally, social workers should shift to less weighted language and let our clients take the lead so we are able to make the most impact. We must stop congratulating pregnant clients.