Am I my roommate’s fetus’s keeper?

I really disagree with Dear Prudence’s advice in today’s column (first letter), in which she advises a woman who is rooming with a pregnant smoker to confront the woman about her habit. But what do you think? Am I being too libertarian and hands-off? Personally, I think it’s none of the roommate’s business and she ought to butt out. How would you answer this question?

I share an apartment with four other women. We found one another on Craigslist and maintain a cordial environment within our common spaces but don’t interact socially. One of my roommates is four and half months pregnant but still smokes about half a pack of cigarettes a day. This girl isn’t even 20 years old and has no college education. I don’t believe the pregnancy was planned or is particularly wanted. One of the factors that’s made living with so many other women in a small apartment successful is respecting one another’s privacy. But do I have an obligation to say something to her? Is it possible she’s not aware that her behavior is harmful to her baby? Could I anonymously slip some information under her door? I hesitate to get into someone else’s business, but I worry for her unborn child. Should I leave this one alone?

I’m particularly amazed that Prudence says, not merely that the roommate can say something, but that she “must speak up.” (Italics mine.) What do you all think? I believe in the whole “it takes a village” concept, yet at the same time, I think a pregnant woman’s autonomy ought to be respected by strangers, even the woman does have the temerity to be young and uneducated. Where do we draw the line?

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21 Responses to Am I my roommate’s fetus’s keeper?

  1. lauren says:

    I agree wholeheartedly – I saw that earlier today and that response made me angry. Does she really think that the roommate doesn’t already KNOW that smoking is bad for the baby? I mean, really.
    Also, Prudy acts like the woman’s body is public property because she is pregnant, an attitude that strikes me as anti-feminist, to say the least.

    I think that the LW could initiate a general conversation about seeing if there is any support that the roommate needs, or if the roommate is aware of XYZ services, or if there is anything the LW could do to help. But I think Prudy’s advice is dead wrong.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’m with you, Robin. The woman’s pregnancy is not public property. And the bit about drawing her out on whether she is planning to place the baby for adoption is appalling. None of your business, lady!

  3. phira says:

    On the one hand, it does bother me a lot that this very young woman with no higher education is pregnant and smoking. But not because of the whole, “OMG don’t smoke, you’re so stupid!” idea, but because it’s really upsetting to me that as a society, we can let so many people, like this woman, end up in situations like this one.

    On the other hand, as a very pro-choice woman and a sexual violence prevention advocate, I have a HUGE problem with Prudence telling the letter-writer to tell her roommate what to do about her body. This young woman? It’s her body. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fetus in it. Still her body.

    I’m also wondering whether or not this pregnant woman can access abortion and chooses not to go that route, or can’t easily access abortion but would if she could.

  4. Jerry says:

    I was a minimum-wage cashier and got to make this decision several times. I kept my mouth shut and sold the obviously-pregnant women their smokes/liquor. I did consider saying something, and I wasn’t particularly afraid of losing my job. But I didn’t know them socially, and even the ones with (gasp!) no college education were capable of reading the large warning labels.

    The LW comes off as a bit elitist and Prudence falls into her trap. They assume that this young woman doesn’t have friends or family (maybe they don’t count if they don’t have their B.A.’s?) and that LW should therefore stage what amounts to an “intervention” and become her support system.

    Prudence also takes up the “innocent child who is being damaged in utero” line, which surprised me as I thought she was more or less pro-choice.

  5. Amy says:

    Elizabeth – I guess I read the part about adoption as reasonable curiosity about whether there was going to be a baby in the apartment in another four or five months – I think it is very much the LW’s business whether she’ll be gaining a fifth roommate with somewhat irregular and anti-social habits! I agree it would be more tactful to ask generally what the roommate’s plans are, though (without making it sound like she’s pressuring her to move out).

  6. geekgirl99 says:

    Why on earth is it relevant that the young woman has no college education? The advice ought to be the same if she has a PhD.

  7. akmom says:

    I agree with a number of points that have been made, but do take exception to Jerry’s snotty comments about pregnant women buying alcohol.

    First of all, an occasional drink is fine when pregnant. Secondly, pregnant women do not live in bubbles by themselves, and attend or host occasions where they might be serving alcohol to others. When I was pregnant with my son, I looked like I was about 15 (I was 28). On numerous occasions, I bought alcohol for occasions we were hosting, or as gifts for the hosts of parties we were attending. I’m sure there were plenty of holier-than-thou folks who thought I was an uneducated teenage piece of sh*t, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.

    I think that if I had a friend who smoked who got pregnant, I would say that if they ever want my help in any way with quitting smoking, they should ask. And then drop the subject. However, from the letter, these women aren’t friends, so I’d say the LW should keep it to herself (and be more concerned about the roomie having a baby living in the apartment).

  8. MelissaJane says:

    Oh, I read that too, and I have so many reactions I hardly know where to start.

    One is that the hysteria over the half-pack-a-day smoker is ridiculous. Yes, it’s best not to smoke when pregnant; yes, there are risks. But smoking is a very mild teratogen. For a couple of generations, women habitually smoked while pregnant, and outcomes were generally fine. Prudence reacted as though this woman was snorting cocaine. Light smoking is not the same thing.

    (I have a friend-of-a-friend who smoked during her pregnancies. I don’t like this person much, and I think she’s a narcissist on her best days, and I didn’t like watching her smoke while pregnant. But her doctor had told her that the stress of trying to quit would be worse for her and the fetus than her similar habit of light smoking. I don’t know if he was right or wrong; I mention that story just as an interesting anecdote.)

    And really, she ought to step and mother the poor, uneducated, clueless girl? First, that is incredibly patronizing, and it evidences a fairly elitist point of view. I know young mothers, even – gasp! – young mothers without college educations – mothers too young to have been to college yet, even! – who manage to take excellent care of their children, with or without the help of the children’s fathers. Both LW and Prudence seem to have made a boatload of assumptions on very little evidence (LW appears to barely know the roommate), all of them based on highly predictable class prejudices.

    And second – well, maybe instead of coming on like a live-in Planned Parenthood counselor, LW ought to begin, if she wants to help, by getting to know her room mate. First step would be to stop casting her in the role of irresponsible, knocked-up dope, and actually find out what kind of person she is, and what her plans-hopes-dreams are, and if maybe she could use the advice of someone with a little more life experience to realize those goals.

    If LW simply wants to be a roommate, that’s absolutely fine. Pregnant girl is an autonomous adult capable of making her own decisions (and supporting herself, apparently), and LW has no obligation – and very plausibly, no reason – to play savior.

    I am really disgusted with the outpouring of vitriol over the smoking thing (not only Prudie’s reaction, but in the comments), particularly the strongly interventionist rhetoric. Do we all believe – and I am guessing that yes, the majority of both Slate and Miss C readers do believe – in a woman’s right to determine what goes on in her body? Hah! Gets complicated, when we don’t respect the woman and think she’s an uneducated dope who doesn’t known any better AND she’s engaging in that icky, low-class habit, doesn’t it?

  9. Robin says:

    Good comments, all, and I’m glad to have my sense of this validated — although, as always, I’m also happy to hear civil dissent!

    Jerry, Emily Yoffe is pro-choice, although she’s never appeared to be pro-pregnant-women’s privacy. She once actually told a pregnant woman that she should put up with people petting her belly because they couldn’t resist the miracle of life, etc. She’s also urged women who prefer not to have children, and are being nagged to have them, to reconsider their decision.

    akmom, we’re a small community here; let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. Jerry’s comments may have come off “snotty” to you, but internet-facilitated communication often sounds more hostile or sarcastic than intended. The point is, he DIDN’T say anything, despite what we all see is a strong social pressure to SAY SOMETHING BECOS OMG THE BABY, and he trusts women to be able to read.

    Jerry, I have another question for you, though, regarding your liquor-store clerk days: did you ever card someone just to flatter them? I got carded buying prosecco and whiskey on Christmas eve, and was the best Christmas present this middle-aged Jewish girl could want!

  10. Amy R. says:

    I’m with Amy, and not just name-wise. I thought the bigger issue is whether or not the baby will live in the apartment (since that affects everyone and is a less personal choice), which already sounds crowded. Also, do the other roommates smoke in the apartment? Do they have any kind of policy about that? If everyone else is smoking around a pregnant woman, that’s not helping her either.

    Honestly, and I really don’t mean this snarkily, part of me genuinely wondered if the roommate in question was even pregnant, or if she had gained a little weight in the abdominal region.

  11. BlondMaggie says:

    Robin, I’m so glad you brought this up. I was wrestling with whether I should send you the link and ask your opinion, because both the question and Prudie’s response bothered me so deeply. Full disclosure – I have a 10-year old son, so I’ve been pregnant, and on the receiving end of the “good-intentioned” advice.

    It really really bugs me that so many people are horrified by the idea of a Nanny state… this was one of the arguments I heard during the health care reform debates – “Obamacare is a Nanny state! Socialized medicine! AAAAH!” And yet, people have absolutely no problem acting in a nanny state fashion to a pregnant woman. “Oh my GOD – she’s smoking and she’s pregnant! Call the police before she does something worse, like eating processed sandwich meat or changing a cat’s litter box!”

    When a woman, pregnant or not, is doing things that are PERFECTLY LEGAL, it is none of our business. Period. Smoking? Legal. Drinking? Legal. Deal with it. Call the police when she robs a bank, please.

    If the LW was really so concerned about the welfare of unborn children, she would be better off putting her efforts into places that provide prenatal health care to disadvantaged women.

  12. JP says:

    I’m so glad you brought this up. I was fuming. I considered writing in to Prudie, but she regularly promotes the idea that preganant women should be infantalized, and if single she pulls out the shot gun. I don’t see a frustrated email changing her mind. I’m sure she has access to the information supporting women being treated like people, not chattle, and has chosen to ignore it.
    I assuje the pregnant roommate likewise has access to information, and is deciding to go another way.
    I was also interested in Jerry’s comment. Jerry, I’m glad you did opt not to comment to those women; it was the right thing to do. I am very pregnant, and bought a few bottles of wine for a party last week. I felt really awkward at the checkout counter, but I would have been furious if some stranger decided to tell me how to run my life.

  13. akmom says:

    Robin (and Jerry), I apologize for flying off the handle a bit. I guess it’s a roundabout way of saying that I feel strongly about judging others based on a momentary glimpse of their life, and about people butting in to things that just aren’t their business. While I do appreciate that Jerry didn’t actually comment to the women, the implication in the post was certainly that he was judging them based on their purchases.

    I love the suggestion MelissaJane made to get to know the roommate better. Anyone becoming a parent can use more support.

  14. MelissaJane says:

    Jerry’s experience reminds me of one a pregnant friend had at Starbucks some years ago. She ordered her usual italo-starbuckspeak-whatever, and then thought about how late in the afternoon it was, and said, “oh, decaf, please.” The young person behind the counter started gushing, “Oh, I am SO glad you said that! I didn’t know what to do! I could see that you’re pregnant and I just didn’t know how to handle this! I am so glad you said decaf! etc etc.” My friend was dumbfounded. How do you handle a pregnant woman ordering coffee?! You MAKE HER COFFEE.

  15. BlondMaggie says:

    My favorite experience while pregnant was traveling to Ireland in my sixth month. When trying to get a beer for my mom in the Newark airport, the cashier frowned at me and told me she couldn’t sell it to me because I was pregnant. I frowned at her and pointed to my elderly mom, saying “it’s for her.”

    But upon landing in Ireland, the tables were turned. Mom and sis would order a Guinness in a pub, but when the waitress turned to me, I would order milk. “But,” she would inevitably sputter, “Guinness is GOOD for the baby!”

    Everyone’s got an opinion. Most would be better held the the silence of one’s own thoughts.

  16. Jerry says:

    akmom, I was 23 and still figuring a lot of stuff out. I did judge customers based on very little information because that’s what cashiers do when they’re bored, which is most of the time. But I applied the Golden Rule and it worked out OK.

    Robin, I was really very shy but a couple of times I did card someone for flirting purposes. This was back before “must card everyone” policies became common, and we were actually allowed to use our judgment. (I found that the best way was to look at the customer’s hands.) It was also before I realized that asking women for their ID solely because I found them attractive was actually pretty creepy.

  17. johanna says:

    I’m with everyone here. I also am not a fan of Prudie’s advice when it involves giving scripts to people to deliver as if just the right words are going to make someone change their behavior. 1) The best advice is about what the advice asker can do with their own behavior, not changing someone else’s.
    2) I just can never imagine the people hearing these speeches reacting positively to them.

  18. Robin says:

    “I also am not a fan of Prudie‚Äôs advice when it involves giving scripts to people to deliver as if just the right words are going to make someone change their behavior.” Oh, but so often we advice columnists are asked for just that!

  19. Michelle says:

    I’m going to agree with Prudie here. This is not a random strager giving unsolicited advice. It’s a roommate. The people closest to this woman should be the ones who say something. It sounds like there is no husband or boyfriend in the picture, so the roommate should take a shot at helping.

  20. Robin says:

    But the roommates aren’t close; the letter makes that quite clear.

  21. delia says:

    sorry, but I just can’t get over this bit: “This girl isn’t even 20 years old and has no college education. I don’t believe the pregnancy was planned or is particularly wanted.”

    Based on what? I agree with the comment that this advice should be the same for a teenager who didn’t go to college as it is for a phd in her forties. Why is it up for the socially distant LW to determine whether the pregnancy was intentional?

    What good is really going to come from intervening? I highly doubt the pregnant woman is suddenly going to change her mind–it will probably only create tension. Pregnancy does not convert a person to public property.

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