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How To: Shop for maternity clothes when you aren’t actually pregnant

By Heather Oman

The first time it happened, I wondered if it was maybe a fluke. Maybe I was standing in a certain way, maybe it was because I had just eaten, maybe my sweater put me in an odd frame. The second time, I wondered again if I had been sitting just so, or if the light caught my body and reflected something weird. The third time somebody asked me if I was to be congratulated, I thought, “It’s official. I look pregnant.”

9 years ago I was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), which is a progressive disease that causes cysts to grow in my kidneys and replace the actual kidney matter. As the cysts grow, so do my kidneys, to compensate for the loss of function that occurs as the cysts take over. The result is that my kidneys, which are supposed to be the size of a fist, are the size of footballs. Normal kidneys are tucked under the bottom of the ribcage in the back, and can not be palpated. MY kidneys can be felt from the back, the side, AND the front, and were mistaken for abdominal tumors by my gynecologist, who, after I explained what on earth he was palpating, said that I better keep my uterus healthy, because cutting through kidneys to give me a hysterectomy would be one hell of a mess.

9 years ago, my kidney function was relatively normal and I had a waist. 9 years later, I’m at about 50% function, and 3 people in the last few months have asked me if I’m pregnant.

They all have said, “But you are so thin everywhere else!” Which I guess is a plus. I don’t look fat, I guess, I just look a little deformed.

The third person sidled up to me quietly and said, “Are you due for a congratulations? Are you hiding something under that T-shirt?”

I smiled and rubbed my stomach and said, “Are you talking about my pregnant belly?”

She laughed with me and said, “Yes! I knew it!”

I shook my head and said, “It’s not a pregnancy belly, it’s a PKD belly.”

She is a nurse practitioner, so I didn’t have to explain anything else, and she started asking me medical questions about my kidneys. She did say, though, that maybe I should consider maternity clothes, because as my disease progresses, it might make me a little more comfortable to wear clothes designed for an expanding belly.

She actually does have a point. My jeans tend to fit everywhere else except around my girth, because my butt and thighs have stayed relatively the same size for years. I have a few skirts I can’t button around my waist, and I have long since given up panty hose and tights because the way the top elastic cut across my middle is way too uncomfortable. Maternity clothes, at least maternity jeans, might feel great.

But how would one shop for pregnancy clothes if one isn’t actually pregnant?

Do I make up a story about when I’m due? Do I play along with a charade? Or do I put a damper on everybody’s excitement and explain that I’m not actually expecting a baby, that I have, instead, an incurable progressive life threatening disease?

Because seriously, there are very few conversation killers like “incurable progressive life threatening disease.” And I’m pretty sure that they didn’t cover an appropriate response for that in the training for the customer service reps at Pea in a Pod.

These are the things you contemplate when you are 39 and have PKD and look like you might be 5-6 months pregnant, give or take a few weeks.

Being sick is weird.

I miss my waist.

Although to be honest, the most annoying part of being asked if I am pregnant is my boobs are most definitely not pregnancy boobs. The one bodily perk of pregnancy, and I miss out on that completely.

The world is truly unfair.

How do you deal with body changes that you can’t control? Any tips to come to grips with things I can’t change?

And seriously, if you went shopping for maternity clothes when you weren’t actually pregnant, would you tell the truth about why you were there, or make up a cute little baby girl named Genevieve who is due at the end of the summer?

About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

15 thoughts on “How To: Shop for maternity clothes when you aren’t actually pregnant”

  1. This post reminds me of going shopping for a nursing bra when the perky salesgirl asked me about my new baby and I told her he was in the NICU. Poor thing. Good times.

    I don't know, Heather. I think I would wear dark sunglasses and avoid salespeople and answer questions as little as possible. I hate dumping all my life on them when they didn't realize that the answer to a polite question would be more complicated and personal than they expected. But maybe openness is better?

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  2. Hey, I made a cute little baby girl named Genevieve, who was born in summer 30 years ago. It's a nice story, in real life or fantasyland — I might go with that.

    Bodies morphing is a nuisance, at best. Sick bodies are just plain unfair. I'm so sorry. Have you tried mumus? They're not all horribly unattractive and great on a hot summer day.

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  3. Amazon Prime, baby. Or the thrift store.

    I wouldn't worry about what people think too much- I know you already manage that well. I'd hope most folks today know to never ask about a woman's maternity status, but I guess some people missed that memo. You could have fun making up some ridiculous story, or you could print little cards with science on them and just plop one down when people say painful things (I did this with Autism when Bean was little). It allowed me to say my piece while still holding myself together and saying nothing.

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  4. I'm sorry. There are so many legitimate reasons why better judgement t says never ask if a woman is expecting. I've been asked too when I was postpartum. Awkward for the asker when I answered no.

    I'd go on a case by case basis of if I felt Iiseed explaining or just smiling and ducking away because I didn't want to. And ditto Tracy, thrift stores and target online- totally returnable to the store and no one bothers you there.

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  5. As someone with a different, life threatening, swelling inducing illness….yes. I learned to sew partially because of my swollen stomach and legs. I formally announced to everyone nearby how I refuse to be pregnant ever again.. and being large in more than one spot, I don't get those questions much as I reach more towards crone than mom….but, oh, how I miss my tiny waist and scrawny legs. So.Much.

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  6. I do not have PKD (though almost everyone in my husband's family does) but I do look pregnant. Curve of my spine, where my love of cookies sits – many reasons I'm sure.

    I find the situation universally cruel considering I can't bear children. Luckily(?!), the questions about it have tapered since I crossed the threshold of 40. Something for you to look forward to perhaps?

    P.S. Clothes that feel comfortable make you appear even more pregnant. Sorry sister. Maybe we could start a club? And call it Pregnant Women Who Aren't.

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  7. I'm truly sorry for your difficult situation. I can only imagine what you're going through on a continual basis.

    My family has the opposite problem; we deal with conditions not visible to others. Two of my three children have celiac disease, and I have hypothyroidism. I wrote a blog post about dealing with my children's CD diagnosis "Celiac Disease: Diagnosis…Accepting What Is." I don't know if you'll find my post helpful, or not, but it's how we've dealt with our new(ish) reality.
    ( http://www.enthusiasticfantastic.com/2014/07/celiac-disease-diagnosisaccepting-what.html )

    Writing about my family's health situations (and many other topics) on my blog has really helped me stay positive—which then allows me to help my family cope. 🙂

    In terms of everyone else and their questions about your tummy, I would just be honest with them. As hard as it is to tell someone that there isn't a happy baby blessing your world soon, the truth is always better.

    We're all dealing with something unpleasant in our lives. Thus, I think it's good to share our struggles with others when they ask because it allows us to ponder on the good things in life—despite our challenges. Plus, by sharing your story, you just never know where you'll find support! 🙂

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  8. Pregnancy sections of department stores don't have hovering attendants to ask you questions.
    A dedicated pregnancy story might have someone working there who might make assumptions while trying to strike up a conversation or be helpful.
    Remember, many pregnant/postpartum women are not necessarily in a good mood while shopping. Sales clerks might be in tune to body language and might ask fewer questions in order to not say the wrong thing. They don't actually know if you are pregnant and might never ask.
    Body language – Don't make eye contact. Don't smile and don't start conversations.
    If someone does ask, realize they are asking to figure out how to help you find the right products. Just say no and keep it simple.
    I like the idea of a card to hand people if you are disinclined to tell people in a conversational way. Especially at a pregnancy store. It is good for people to learn.

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  9. I'm so sorry. I wrestle mightily coming to grips with all that mortality brings, in my own life and in the lives of others. It's something I take to God often, almost daily. It's HARD.

    For me, the only thing that has helped me in tangible ways to process the uncontrollable is 12 steps. In fact, the steps are all about recognizing the uncontrollable and shifting the weight of that sometimes-crushing burden to God. For my brain, nothing else could help me tangibly understand how to do that. And even then, if I don't keep those principles present every day, I can easily slip into a sort of hopeless space.

    I have found that I go through the grief cycle repeatedly at different times and in different ways. Sometimes I just want to quit; sometimes I'm hopping mad (at life, God, others, the plan, everything and anything); sometimes I feel enabled to lean into and be grateful for my health issues; sometimes I want to pretend they aren't there; and sometimes I am just sort of numb/in survival. Just be with yourself where you are and whatever does or doesn't come out of your mouth, or whatever you do or don't decide to do, will be right because it will be true to where you are.

    My experience in recovery circles has simply been that honesty about the unmanageabililty of life invites power. So thank you for sharing here. (Kinda makes me think of Brené Brown's work on vulnerability.)

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  10. If you want help from a salesperson, I would approach them asking, "I'm not pregnant, but because of serious health problems that have affected my body, I am looking for pants that have more space or give in the waist."

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  11. These shopping ideas were my suggestions, too.

    I am fat, and have been mistaken for pregnant too many times to count. If people tell me congratulations, I just smile. If they ask when I'm due… well, no one has yet, but my prepared answer is "about 9 months after I get pregnant." Awkward.

    The other suggestion would be, if you go to a maternity store where someone will actually be waiting on you, just tell them right up front: "I'm not pregnant, but I have a kidney disease that is making my tummy expand, and I thought that maternity jeans might be the easiest solution."

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  12. Another thought, the more people that know that you're not pregnant, but have a kidney disease that is affecting you, the less awkward situations will come up. Once the word gets out in your regular circles, the assumptions will stop there. Kind of like when a woman miscarries, if you tell a few women, it's kind of like they are expected to discreetly get the word out so no one asks you how the pregnancy is going.

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  13. Heather: I love your sense of humor, your insights, your apt use of irony, and the way you can turn a phrase. Thank you for sharing these (and many other) gifts with friends and family members.

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