my coworker is having a phantom pregnancy

This was posted on Friday’s open thread, and the letter-writer later emailed it to me as well. She writes:

I have a coworker who is having a hysterical pregnancy. She’s near 60, and even though her doctor told her she’s in menopause, she’s convinced he’s wrong and that she’s pregnant.

She’s very happy, this is not affecting her job yet, and she’s performing if anything better than usual. She just announced, so no one has really responded by anything more than a non-committal “huh” — but come Monday, what’s the most compassionate way to respond? Humor the delusion? Assume she’s one of the .00whatever % who can conceive naturally and accidentally in her late 50s, and respond accordingly until proven otherwise?

She’s always been emotionally very sensitive and I get the sense she’s fragile, but has never presented anything like this before.

She’s openly telling people, and Monday the talk will be flying freely. Besides stopping any active mocking, I don’t know what else to do. 

I’m not HR and she doesn’t report to me – I have no idea how they should handle something like this. Any advice?

This question made me think of Lars and the Real Girl. If you haven’t seen it, you should — Ryan Gosling plays a sweet but painfully shy guy who develops a romantic relationship with a … well, a very life-like sex doll named Bianca. He relates to her as though she’s real (and is very gentlemanly!), and his small town responds by welcoming Bianca into their community because of their support for him.

I think that’s the approach you need to take here — in other words, respond as if she’s right until/unless she announces otherwise. After all, while there’s only an infinitesimal possibility that she’s right, there’s still that chance … and it would be pretty awful to respond as if she’s delusional if in fact she’s not. Plus, if at some point she realizes that there never was any pregnancy, it’s probably going to feel worse to her to realize that everyone knew all along. And it doesn’t sound like you’re close enough with her to have the type of heart-to-heart that you might have with a close friend or relative.

You can certainly encourage her to talk with her doctor if you get the sense that she hasn’t, as any pregnant woman should, but beyond that, I think your role is just to be compassionate. (And you’re absolutely right to stop any mocking, of course.)

I’d give the same advice to HR or her manager, since it’s not something that’s interfering with her work; it’s something that she’s going to need to work out in her own time, outside the workplace.

The best role you can play is just to be a kind spot in her life.

{ 145 comments… read them below }

    1. Adam

      Agreed. This is one of those things were pretty much any proactive action has a chance to bite you in the posterior. I think it’s really best to just smile and nod and let it sort itself out.

      If I were this woman’s manager I would encourage her to see her doctor regularly. After that it’s only my business if it starts affecting her work performance.

  1. Jazzy Red

    I applaud you for caring enough about this woman’s emotional state to write in.

    Kindness isn’t everyone’s default decision to a statement as unusual and unexpected as this, but it’s never wrong. I’m around the same age as this woman, and the world is often a harsh place for us. (I take it as a given that I’m going to be laughed at, mocked, or treated with condescension daily.)

    Alison’s advice is right on, and will help your co-worker save face when/if she finds out she’s not pregnant after all.

    You can’t tell other people how to react about this, but you might influence some people by your behavior (a lesson my mom taught me oh-so-many years ago). The world needs more kindness.

    1. A Cita

      (I take it as a given that I’m going to be laughed at, mocked, or treated with condescension daily.)

      What?? Why? This sounds terrible.

      1. Tris Prior

        I get what she’s saying – my mother is a senior citizen and when I’ve been out with her I notice people talking down to her like she is an idiot and treating her as though she doesn’t have all of her mental faculties. She said it got especially bad once she stopped coloring her gray. :/

        1. A Cita

          Yikes. I’ve not seen that, but I live in the academic world where being older = being respected. For the late 40’s to late 50’s group, I have loads of friends in that category who don’t experience it, but again, it’s a bubble because their pretty much alternative, artists, musicians, designers, etc. (and the females in the group date a bevvy of nubile 20 something men and women).

          I think if I get treated like that when I’m older, I’m going to see what I can win: “My hip might be broken: be a dear and open that bottle of champagne and bring me a class up to my sewing room, yes?”

          1. fposte

            I was just thinking how happy I am to be in academics, where grey hair means you’re suspected of running stuff.

              1. Sara M

                Also true in the profession of fiction writing. As long as the gray hair is paired with a known name.

        2. AnotherAlison

          Unfortunately, I think it is people like my mom that lead to the disrespect for the older female generation.

          My mother fits the stereotype – bad driver, bad with technology, loudly opinionated in a non-PC way on things like immigration and gay marriage. She has a rose-colored view of our family (which is whack-a-doo) & talks smack on anyone else.

          I love her, and 99.9% of the time am respectful and not condescending, but I can see how the rest of the world may be challenged interacting with her.

        3. Editor

          Tris — Sorry your mother gets treated poorly. I am in my early 60s, and I don’t feel mocked often, but I do get a lot of people, particularly men, who call me miss now, and some call me young lady.

          I used to work with someone who used young lady, and I tried to explain to him why it was offensive. He assumed it was flattering, and no amount of explaining that using miss or young lady with an older woman was a sign that — hey! she’s old. He didn’t think it was age discrimination to say something that called attention to a person’s age if the reference was to a young age. Being called young lady tells me you’ve noticed I am of a certain age and you have assumed I am not comfortable with my age and that I want you to pretend I am someone I am not, or you have shown me that you are not comfortable with someone who is aging even though everyone gets older every day.

          I find the people most guilty of this are people who were raised to believe in honorifics but don’t want to use Ma’am with older women. Fine. If customers in their 20s and 30s come in and the staff member says, “Hello, how can I help you?” then they don’t need to say “Hello, what can I do for you, miss?” when I come into the same business.

          Drop the honorifics for all strangers, unless your community routinely uses sir and ma’am and there are no complaints about the use of ma’am from some older women who think it is an age slur.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If you’re willing to share, I’m interested in knowing about how you experienced that on this site, so that we can be more aware of it and keep an eye out for it in the future.

          1. webDev

            I’d rather not get specific, but thanks. I pretty consistently got the “you are old therefore you must not understand those computer thingies” on this site…until I changed my screen name. I wasn’t “born on the web”, but I helped *create* it. The last straw was a comment that more or less said retire so someone young can get a job. Made me stop reading for about a year. I’m back on a trial basis. Who needs negativity, says the aging hippy chick! ;)

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              I think I remember that comment! But if I’m recalling correctly, it was from one or two outliers and they were called out for it by others? Either way, it’s absurd, and I’ll be more aggressive about speaking up if I see it in the future.

              1. webDev

                I actually don’t know what the result was, if they were called out I didn’t see it as I didn’t come back to this site until last month! I remember there was some comment and a bunch of “heck yeahs” from others. No worries.
                —she who misses rec.arts and gopher and ooh when the enter Internet was indexed on Yahoo

                1. cbackson

                  If it’s any consolation, I try to tell people about the days when all.the.internets were indexed on yahoo, and everyone looks at me like I’m nuts. And I’m in my early 30s.

                  (my particular haven was alt.books.anne-rice. ah, to be a goth tween in the early days of the internet…)

            2. Steve G

              Interesting perspective……..I have the opposite experience, I am 32 and don’t get alot of technology things because people forget how new they are. I am just old enough to not have grown up on the web, it was a class in high school, we got internet at home my 1st year of college and it was dial-up and slow.

              Anyway, I work in an industry (energy market administration) which is maybe 75% men 45+, and my coworkers think I pretend not to know certain things about computers and the net to appear older i.e. more experienced than I am. That ticks me off. No, I did not grow up tweeting or on facebook or netflix and I am not making that up to look more mature. They are all new for Christ’s sake!

              1. cbackson

                It’s funny – I’m a year older than you, but I often joke that I was raised by the internet. I came from a crazy early-adopter family.

                1. Jesusita

                  And I just turned a year older than you a couple of weeks ago, and I love being the connecting generation. I love that I didn’t necessarily create the system, but I love the heck out of the back end of them and pick up whatever I can wherever I can to learn more. We got our first computer when I was in 8th grade (here’s a kicker for you: my parents live in the area where I grew up and dial-up is STILL the norm, because DSL only became available two years ago and many can’t afford to change it over), but the guy who came over to set up it up told me something that made me the geek I am today: don’t be afraid of your computer. Do whatever you want to it. The worst you can do is break it, and that’s how you learn to fix things. I took him at his word, believe me, and I’ve learned a ton.

                  Also, I work in a HS and most of the “digital natives” can’t do more than send email, tweet, text, and look at Facebook on their phones. Most of them (juniors and seniors in HS) don’t even know what their spam folder is. (I just discovered that sad fact last week.) They have a hard time using Google to find simple things (or perhaps they just don’t think to do this simple task for themselves. The number of emails I get asking for links to things that are easily findable is amusing until it’s flabbergasting.) I work at a college prep school, but many aren’t truly curious for knowledge and most lack good critical thinking skills. They get good grades and most are in 3-7 AP or college-level courses, so they are used to hard work, but something is just … missing.

                2. Steve G

                  I’m jealous. I remember in late 1999 trying to use the internet for a college project and it was so darn slow I said to myself “f this!” and use those catologs-of-articles on the computer that were kind of like the internet but weren’t instead.

                3. Steve G

                  JEsuita – wow I didn’t know there were places where dial up is still popular! I grew up in the hamptons so its pretty close to NYC so it wasn’t behind the times….but in 1999 when I waited 20 seconds for a page to load and there wasn’t that much to look at to begin with, I just logged back off. Its crazy how that was so recent but the internet changed so much

                4. Rana

                  Jesuita, that’s very true, what you say about many high school students. People like to talk about “digital natives” but my experience has been that such “natives” are like most of us when it comes to electricity – we know how to flip switches and plug things in, but doing something like wiring a lamp is beyond the average person. So too when it comes to navigating the ‘net or using programs; there’s a lot of room between knowing how to post stuff on Twitter and being able to code your own app, for example.

                5. Jesusita

                  Steve G, it isn’t that dial-up is popular, it’s that it literally was the only thing available until a couple of years ago. There is a big divide in the availability of broadband service in many areas, particularly the rural areas of the United States. My parents have had internet since the mid-90s, but they’ve always only been able to access dial-up. (They are just now able to get DSL in their section of their small, rural town, so they are trying to get updated lines run.) This is one of the “digital divides” that’s close to my heart, because of my parents. Take how you felt, waiting for a page to load in 1999, and imagine waiting for a page to load today with the same speed of internet service! It’s immensely frustrating for them, as you can imagine, because web pages these days are not built with dial-up in mind. But when it’s all that’s available, it’s what you use. I live several states away and would love to do video calls with my parents (I only am able to get home every two years, unfortunately), but they can’t yet until they can get the DSL set up.

                  The US Government does regular studies on the disparity between urban and rural access to broadband and the most recent study (White House Broadband Report from June 2013: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/broadband_report_final.pdf ) says the following:

                  Today, while almost 100 percent of urban residents have access to download speeds of at least 6 Mbps, only about 82 percent of residents in rural communities can access those speeds (p.12).

                  The state of rural [lack of] broadband is pretty sad still. :(

                6. Jesusita

                  Rana, I love that analogy! Do you mind if I steal it? When I try to explain what it’s like to people, they really do not understand the disparity of what people think these kids know versus what they actually do know. I last likened it to one’s car: you get in it and drive it around, but so many people have no clue what’s going on under the hood or how it works. They put gas in it and have ridiculous sound systems installed, but they can’t change the oil themselves. I think the electricity one is a bit more accessible, though, because it does so many things…but very few people get how it actually works or how the things they are using with it work.

            3. Anonymous

              “I helped create it”… thanks for that. My mother is fresh in her sixties, and the other day we were watching a documentary together about some initiative in our country to make “old citizens attractive for brands and products” to market towards. In that documentary people of 55+ were described as what you refer to as “you’re old and therefore you don’t understand computer thingeys”.
              How far off can an image be! I know my mom (and her dad too, for that matter) as one of those internet pioneers, and with her the majority of her network. I think that her generation -and thus yours too- should be looked up to, and cherished for the knowledge and skil they have built during their professional lives. I’m 25, and I can only *wish* I become so successful and independent when I’m in my sixties. Sixty might have been analogous to *old* a few decades ago, but in this day and age that doesn’t even come close to doing justice.
              Excuse me for the rant, I generally dislike it when people talk down to my mother just because her hair is grey, and by extension I took offence about this as well (:

              1. ArtsNerd

                Any time I can, I like to tell people about my dad’s gaming habits and how he’s got hipper taste in music than I do (shoegaze! really!) He’s very tech savvy and I’d never consider acting like he doesn’t know something about computers just because he’s older. If anything, it would be because he’s a slightly different type of geeky than I am, but that’s true of my peers too.

                At the same time, I used to have a coworker several years younger than my dad who dragged his feet on learning basic computer software like Excel, and used his age as an excuse as to why it was hard for him. Drove me nuts!

      2. StellaMaris

        Because that’s the way this youth-worshiping culture works. It happens to me most often on public transportation.

    2. Jean

      What horrible news, that the world is treating you so badly! I admire your ability to keep on keeping on with dignity and self-respect. Being an older woman is nothing of which to be ashamed, despite the delusions of our youth-mad culture. Chronological age is not enough reason to be seen as unenaged or disinterested in contemporary society.

      As a gray-haired lady in my early/mid 50s I’m just beginning to get a taste of this nonsense. (Example: While stopped at a traffic light I express support to the young man in the adjacent car which has a progressive political bumper sticker. He’s glad to hear it, but also says “that’s not exactly what I expected to hear…”). The benefit, sigh, is the opportunity to educate people that Being Older does not automatically equal Being Asleep. We also get to quietly remind ourselves of One of the Big Secrets of Older People: That we are not always sorry to be finished with some of the harder parts of being young (e.g. insecure self-image, uncertain opinions).

      1. mm

        I’m 58 years old and I am convinced that once I hit 50 I became invisible. I really think I could walk out of a store with a 60″ TV on my back and no one would see me. My kids and grandkids think I am an aging hippie and smile condescendingly when I support liberal ideas, as if they think I don’t know any better because of my age. It also shows up at work in many ways.

    3. Mena

      I don’t understand the expectation for mocking. I am soon to be 50, a professional woman and successful with my career and emotional relationships. Expecting bad treatment related to age could be you projecting your insecurities about aging and your place in today’s world. I think it may be unfair to interpret those around you as being somehow against you because of your age.

      And the world IS a harsh place, for many people and at different times in life. It is unlikely that it is any more harsh to you just because of your age. This just sounds too self-pitying.

      1. Steve G

        I agree. What I see, now that I actually stayed at one job long enough to see turnover and lots of interviews, is that it is so important how “older” people are good at relationships. As we just had in the office today, too many early 20 somethings want a “quick fix” to career advancement, such as a simple “process improvement.” I think that they think those are the simple things older, more senior staff work on, when that is totally not true. I think older people make great employees because:
        1) They’ve lived through stuff, so don’t get freaked out at problems
        2) They’ve dealt with difficult people so much that another difficult one won’t phase them, and
        3) their expectations are in line. No, you can’t do a 2-hour “process improvement project” and then run to your boss and ask for a raise for example. You don’t go running to your boss asking for a raise unless you just made the company a bunch of money!
        4) industry experience: if you work in a quickly changing industry it really helps to befriend or hire older people who have the best “tribal knowledge.”

      2. Anonymous

        Mena, I am about 10 years ahead of you, and I would have said the same thing at your age. I hope your experience is better…and it may be so now that the path has been paved. All the best.

  2. Sunflower

    I would definitely tread lightly. I’ve seen some stuff about women conceiving very late in their lives so I would just say congratulations and leave it at that if possible. I assume since you know her doctor has told her she is in menopause that she must discuss her personal life with you/the office quite a bit. If she is the type to discuss this a lot, maybe ask if her doctor has revealed the gender or how many weeks along the doctor thinks she is? That may prompt her to reveal whether she has or hasn’t seen a doctor and if she hasn’t, maybe just say she should see one to make sure everything is okay.

    Not sure if you have kids but it may help to get someone who is a relatively new parent involved. It would seem very normal for someone who just had a child to ask questions and be interested in a newly pregnant person about their doctors visits and what they are doing to prepare.

  3. Victoria Nonprofit

    Don’t suggest she visit her doctor! She knows that she should be doing prenatal visits and it’s insulting to assume otherwise. If she’s talking openly about avoiding her doctor (because she disagrees with his diagnosis of her menopause) you could refer her to your doctor (or a friend’s), but that’s as far as I’d go.

  4. Del

    This is really wonderful advice.

    The best thing you can do for her is to be as kind as possible. After all, you don’t know if there’s a deeper issue going on, and that’s the kind of thing that random coworkers shouldn’t be trying to dig into. Just take her gracefully at face value, and when she finds out she isn’t pregnant after all, be as genuinely sorrowful for her (if she expresses that disappointment/sadness at the office) as you would be for a woman who had actually lost a pregnancy.

    After all, in her mind, she has. So she’ll be experiencing the same kind of guilt and mourning, as well as the shame of having been so wrong about something and made it so public.

    Be gentle with her. There’s really no reason not to, and your kindness will probably mean a great deal to her in the next few months.

    1. Sophia

      Very true. Keep in mind, though, some people aren’t sorrowful or supportive of women who miscarry because they don’t think the loss is “real” As a woman who has had an abortion and miscarried (I want to clarify that unwanted pregnancies are VERY different than wanted pregnancies), it was devastating when a friend of mine responded “at least you weren’t in your second trimester” and then the next time she joked about having another baby so she could get more funding. The loss is felt (for wanted pregnancies) often as soon as you find out you are pregnant, because you start imagining this child in your life and plans you have.

      So my advice would be: be kind, be compassionate, and take her for her word until she tells you otherwise. Also, I agree with above poster who said to recommend your or another doctor since she doesn’t like hers.

      1. WM

        I’m so sorry. The only appropriate response for a lost baby, regardless of when, how, why, or any other factor is “I’m sorry for your loss.” And maybe a casserole if you’re in the midwest.

      2. Karyn

        I am so sorry your “friend” reacted that way. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and say that they just don’t know what to say, but sometimes people are just cruel. *hugs*

        Actually, it sounds like your “friend” is related to my ex, whose baby I miscarried in the second month. His response when I told him I was miscarrying: “Are we going to be late for dinner?” A few months later, when I still wasn’t “over it,” he asked me why I was so upset by losing the pregnancy when I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I miscarried. I have no words for that one. Needless to say, he’s no longer my boyfriend.

        1. Sophia

          Thanks – and I’m so sorry for your experience, especially when it was your boyfriend at the time. (glad he’s an ex!)

      3. PurpleChucks

        Sophia, many women DO experience loss, grief, and sadness over ending unwanted pregnancies too. Not wanting to be pregnant doesn’t always make it hurt less!

        1. Jessa

          Absolutely true. When a pregnancy is ended for any reason prior to birth of a live child, the mother and father (if involved) have lost something. How they deal with it varies by person, and they should be supported through it, even if the reaction comes months after.

          And it totally stinks hugely that people treat women who have abortions (for whatever reason) as abrogating their rights to grieve their child. DAMMIT.

          The fact that people do not understand miscarriage as a loss just means they’re stupid and need to be explained to by someone close to the parent(s) in question.

      4. Anon

        Agreed. I had a very similar experience as Sophia. In my case, I had complications from a D&C due to a missed miscarriage, and my coworkers dismissed me as if I were lazy (and had wanted a paid vacation) when I returned. My management was much kinder, and while they didn’t really know how to tread the balance of getting back to normal and expressing their sympathy, their patience with my grief (they put up with my damp eyes when the topic came up) really made a difference in my outlook of going to work each morning.

    2. COT

      This is wonderful advice. If this woman has convinced herself that she’s pregnant against all odds and medical advice, she probably wants to have a baby very badly. This has probably caused her much pain already and will only be more difficult if she finds she’s not actually pregnant. She needs all of the kindness she can get.

      1. Grace

        @COT,
        I find it creepy that the older woman co-worker, in menopause, in her 50s is claiming to be pregnant, against the counsel of her
        own physician. Perhaps she needs to see a psychiatrist. What if she ends up kidnapping somebody else’s baby or harming a pregnant woman to get her baby – and ends up on the evening news like the other gals who also claimed to be pregnant?

        1. Rayner

          That’s alarmist and hyperbolic.

          Phantom pregnancies or similar are not a sure sign that the sufferer will harm children, or doing anything to hurt other people. Saying that they will is profoundly insulting and offensive, and shows a lack of knowledge about how the mind works.

          Yes, some people are mentally unwell enough to take or attempt to take children or harm others, but those are very few and far between, and usually have other co-dependent or co-morbid issues as well.

  5. Jake

    My mother in law tried this in her very late 40s. She missed for the first time in 30 years and assumed pregnancy despite her doctor saying it was early menopause symptoms.

    The delusion lasted a month until she had a period. She was in such denial that this happened 3 or 4 more times.

    There is nothing a coworker can do other than acknowledge and avoid. Friends and family are different, but it seems the op is not a friend.

  6. ChristineSW

    Ditto what everyone else says. Though very rare, I too have heard of women having successful pregnancies late in life.

    One possibility to keep in the back of your mind: I read recently about an extremely rare condition in which a woman genuinely thinks she’s pregnant–even presenting with actual pregnancy symptoms–when in fact, she is not (this is different from a psychological delusion). The specific story was about a woman who went in for an emergency c-section, but there was no baby. I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw that story or what the condition was called (I looked it up after reading the story). Please do not even suggest this to your coworker–I’m just putting it out there as a (remotely) possible explanation.

    1. ChristineSW

      Just to clarify: Regardless of the reasons/basis behind this, I echo the advice to be kind and supportive, don’t try to tell her she’s not pregnant, and let her make her own decisions about her care unless she specifically seeks advice.

        1. ChristineSW

          Thanks Lou – I didn’t realize the link was to an article; I assumed it was to the post in Friday’s Open Thread. Oops.

    2. fposte

      Do you mean pseudocyesis? I think the “psychological delusion” term gets confusing, because that’s been long considered to be a psychological delusion and it’s only recently being considered that it might not be (it’s noted that dogs have a higher rate of it than humans do, and they’re a lot less vulnerable to societal expectations). But that is the same thing that used to be called “hysterical pregnancy” (sort of amusing, because etymologically all viable pregnancies are hysterical).

      So I guess where we’re differentiating is when the woman is presenting with signs that point to menopause rather than pregnancy, the doctor says it’s menopause, and she nonetheless believes she’s pregnant, which is what we’ve got here.

    3. GL

      Pseudocyesis.

      It’s kind of a hard line to straddle, OP, but if you think she’s truly not pregnant, the best thing you can do is support her by acknowledging her feelings but not her pregnancy–don’t contradict her about it, but when you interact with her focus on her and not the baby. For example, if she says something like she couldn’t sleep because the baby was kicking all night, reply with something like, “I’m sorry you didn’t sleep well.”

      In the meantime, if you can gather the contact information of some local therapists who specialize in false pregnancies so you have them on hand when the time is right that will probably be helpful.

      1. Queen Victoria

        “Support her by acknowledging her feelings but not her pregnancy”

        YES, this is great advice!

        1. Grace

          I wouldn’t support her feelings. I would tell her to see a psychiatrist. (What’s going to happen after 9 months when the non-pregnant co-worker doesn’t have a baby? Will she kidnap another family’s baby? Hurt a pregnant mom? You know the stories we see on the evening news of women who also claimed to be pregnant.) No, don’t go along with any of it. Direct her to seek professional help, like any other person with problems (you’d tell an alcoholic to get help, right?).

          1. MousyNon

            Ugh, this is concern-trolling at its very, very worst.

            a) This woman is a COLLEAGUE, and therefore it is not anybody in the office’s job or place to tell her to “get help”

            b) You’re being needlessly alarmist, hyperbolic, and frankly offensive to the millions of people out there with mental health issues (i.e. the vast majority) that do NOT harm others and (surprise!) don’t make the evening news.

            c) Because it bears repeating more directly: Unless you are a family member or the medical practitioner treating them, IT IS NOT AND NEVER WILL BE YOUR JOB TO TELL PEOPLE THEY NEED HELP.

            (or in layman’s terms: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS)

            1. Lindsay J

              I would honestly have to disagree with C.

              In this case it might not be appropriate since I don’t see any evidence in the OP that they are more than coworkers. However, if you are close friends, or good friends, or even just work friends, I absolutely don’t see the problem with gently raising the possibility with somebody that they might want or need to seek help.

              Part of having a mental illness is not always recognizing that your thought patterns or behaviors are out of the ordinary.

              I would rather have a discussion with somebody who looks like they might be struggling and let them know that counseling or medication might help them (and moreso just that I care about them and that I’ve noticed something seems to be wrong) than to leave them to suffer in silence because “hey, it’s none of my business”. Same thing with somebody who seems like they might be in an abusive relationship.

              Harping on it every day or even more than once if they go “No, I’m fine, thank you,” is obviously not advisable. However, I don’t think it is out of line to do it once, and I would hope that somebody would do the same for me.

          2. aebhel

            Unless the alcoholic in question was (a) a close friend or family member and/or (b) actually showing up drunk for work, no, I wouldn’t. It’s none of my damn business.

            I don’t know what planet you live on that ‘wishful-thinking that she’s pregnant when she’s probably not’ translates so neatly into ‘will probably commit a violent felony’, but I don’t ever want to go there.

        2. Grace

          By the way, the term for going along with it is called “enabling”. No, no, no. Don’t enable the co-worker.
          She needs psychiatric help – pronto.

          1. Rayner

            It is not the co-worker’s job to interfere with this lady – note that ‘co-worker‘ – and telling them flat out to go and see a psychiatrist when there is no other symptom of mental illness is unfair, and mean.

            It’s already very possible that their doctor has already advised them to contact a mental health practitioner, or to help her through a process which is obviously very difficult to navigate, emotionally and mentally.

            It is not the co-worker’s job to interfere with this woman in any way shape or form by offering or telling her that kind of advice. It is not her right. She does not manage this woman, she is not related to her, she is not in charge of her medically.

            All she can do is offer to support her in the best possible way, which means acknowledging her feelings, and not the pregnancy.

            Also, I find your hyperbole about what this woman will do – e.g. go and kidnap another person/take a pregnant woman’s child – offensive, and demeaning. Yes, this woman is going through a period of mental ill-health, and there’s no two ways about that.

            But so far, she’s happy, performing well, has no other signs (that the OP reports) that she’s mentally unfit to be in public.

            You are being alarmist and ableist, assuming the worst possible conclusion for a scenario that is not uncommon, and is usually resolved peacefully and well.

            I suggest you do some reading, and stop relying on the hyperbolic news which only reports the worst stories about this kind of thing.

            1. Grace

              @Rayner:
              I see the world differently than you do because I work in law, including criminal defense. I’ve seen lots of bad stuff that lots of seemingly ‘sane’ people commit.

              1. KellyK

                But that experience doesn’t make it appropriate for random coworkers to be doling out highly personal advice. “Go see a psychiatrist” is overstepping, unless you’re talking to a close friend or family member.

    4. Arbynka

      If I remember correctly the oldest mother that conceived naturally was 58. So while not very common, it does happen.

      1. LMW

        While it’s not quite the same, both my grandmothers had babies in their late 40s. One was convinced it was cancer and put off going to the doctor for a long time because she didn’t want to be told she was dying (and leaving 5 children behind). Instead – Surprise! – we got my youngest aunt.

    5. ChristineSW

      Thanks everyone for the clarification on the term (pseudocyesis). As I said in reply to LouG, I assumed the link in the letter was to the post in last Friday’s Open Thread; I didn’t realize it was to an outside article.

      I hope there will be an update for this one.

    6. Oh baby!

      Then there’s the opposite situation. My aunt, overweight and in her late 40s, went to the doctor complaining of stomach pains.

      The doctor’s diagnosis was that she was nine months pregnant. Two weeks later the baby was born.

  7. Jess

    Once she accepts that there is no pregnancy, wouldn’t she have to realize that everyone else understood that to be the case all along? (This is of course assuming that the doctor’s opinion is correct.) But yes, definitely kindness. And as another commenter said above, I would tread very, very lightly in any conversations with her about it. I think I’d have an easier time saving face after it was all over if I hadn’t engaged in lots of long conversations with all my co-workers answering questions about the details, the planning, my excitement, etc.

    But if she’s really as fragile as the OP thinks, it doesn’t seem like this can end well. There’s the embarrassment, but also the genuine loss she’ll probably feel, especially if she’s happy about the pregnancy. I’m not sure what her colleagues can do to really make it better or to avoid the eventual crash other than to show her kindness now and in the future as events develop.

    1. fposte

      I don’t know that she will believe she was wrong all along–if she’s this convinced, she may well treat the failure to deliver as a miscarriage and have all the attendant grief. At which point I’d give the same advice as for the pregnancy–take it at face value and offer the appropriate response.

      1. Not So NewReader

        I was just thinking the same thing. If she miscarries then just keep going along with the kindness and caring.

    2. Yup

      I agree about treading gently. I’d probably stick to generically supportive reactions like “congratulations, I certainly wish you and Spouse all the best.” I know I’d feel rapidly out of my depth if the conversation suddenly turned to specifics so I’d personally stay away from direct inquiries and mentally prepare a few kindly neutral responses like “really? I didn’t know that” or “what did the doctor say?” or “wow, that sounds really difficult” if it’s brought up. Me asking questions about gender or tests or due dates feels like opening a can of worms that could go badly awry and cause more harm than comfort in the short-term.

    3. Jean

      It can’t hurt to continue interpersonal kindness even after the current pregnancy matter (is it or isn’t it and what does this mean) winds down. No matter what sort of fragility or instability we project, we all enjoy other people showing respect and appreciation for us as individuals. The OP said that the coworker was doing better work than usual…this could give OP and colleagues something else to focus on when being supportive to the coworker. (I hope that the coworker’s fragility doesn’t involve any unhappy suspicions that she’s valued only for her contributions at work and not in private life, say, as a parent…) No smart-aleckiness intended here. It’s hard to be human in general; also hard if one is an older woman and perhaps not entirely at peace with one’s reproductive history to date, whatever that may be. As Jazzy Red said above, you can’t go wrong by being kind.

    4. Grace

      What’s to stop the delusional co-worker from kidnapping another family’s baby or hurting a pregnant mom (you know
      those other scary news stories we see of women who claimed
      they were pregnant, weren’t, and at 9-months had to produce
      a baby for everybody to see)? This woman doesn’t need to be “enabled” in her delusional behavior, she needs to be told that she “deserves the help” of a psychiatrist – pronto.

      1. fposte

        What’s to stop anybody’s co-workers from doing that? What would allow anybody unschooled, let alone anybody unschooled and hearing about somebody over the internet, to accurately predict that this person is a threat, rather than being one of many people who gets an wrong idea in her head and never hurts a fly?

        And if she really were as incorrigible as you suggest, what makes you think that a random co-worker’s exhortation to see a psychiatrist is going to be a breakthrough solution?

        1. Rayner

          I have no idea what Grace is on about, but I find her remarks to be hyperbolic and demeaning to people who do suffer from mental health conditions.

          Assuming the worst immediately of someone who has a condition without reason, logic, or evidence, is unfair and ableist.

          1. Poe

            Agreed. I wonder what she would assume if she found out she had a co-worker with a mental illness–insist they be sent to a doctor before they are permitted to work? It is due to attitudes like this that mental illness is stigmatized.

            1. Jessica (tc)

              I agree. Mental illness and/or fragility do not always (and does not “nearly always”) equal violence, and it’s troubling that someone immediately assumes the worst for this woman (or anyone, especially given the small amount of information we actually know about her).

            1. Rayner

              You may have seen it but you’re apparently rather insensitive and hyperbolic about it. You work in a place where you see a disproportionate amount of being at the ‘worst’ end of the mental health spectrum. Most people are NOT like that and assuming that this person, absent any other information, is in that ‘worst’ position is cruel and unfair.

      2. Saturn9

        Do you have a point? And why does your username always link to the comments section of a completely unrelated AAM post?

        Wait.

        Are you The DaVinci Code? o_o

      3. Mander

        Seriously, what is your problem? It is definitely not a co-worker’s place to diagnose serious mental illness, and there is no reason to think that even if it is a false pregnancy that the woman in question will flip out and kidnap someone else’s baby or hurt a random pregnant woman.

  8. Lucy

    There’s a Golden Girls episode where Blanche thinks she’s pregnant, and she even tries to figure out who the father would be and the girls start talking about how they’d raise the baby, but she’s just menopausal.

    Just remember how vulnerable this woman is to the world right now. Don’t participate in whispering about her, just put it out of your mind. Encourage others to do the same. If she isn’t pregnant, there will come a time that she will have to realize that and I couldn’t imagine going to work the next day and having to admit it, after people had been talking about it.

    1. Clever Name

      Golden Girls had a life lesson for everything. That show was truly ahead of its time, and it was also funny as hell. Still is. :)

      1. Lucy

        So true! That same episode Dorothy and Rose were raising minks to breed… but they were too old and weren’t interested. And at the same time, Blanche was questioning whether she was worth anything anymore… so once she realized that, she realized the minks were worth life too!

  9. Interviewer

    I agree with Alison – be proactively kind to her about this, and it will go easier on everyone in the office.

    Also, I have to say thank you for the Lars & the Real Girl reference. Saw that movie last year on cable and it really struck me how kind that entire town was to Lars. One of those movies that makes you think for several days after you’ve seen it.

    1. Callie

      I love, love, love how kind everyone was to him and how they went along with it because it was what he needed and eventually came out of his shell. Every time I watch it, I start bawling when Lars goes out onto the porch and sees all the flowers and cards and pictures everyone has left for Bianca. WAH.

  10. Finbar

    OP. Thanks for caring. We’d all be much better off if we each had just one person in our lives who is as thoughtful and compassionate as you. If you are a person who already has this kind of caring support in your life, count each and every one of your blessings.

    Allsion. What a compassionate, deeply human response. Thank you for using your post as a way to actively encourage us to be kind to one another. Sometimes we overlook that basic truth in our daily business lives.

  11. Min

    As a teenager I had a friend who was an “oops, I thought I was menopausal!” baby. Her siblings were 20+ years older than her and as far as her mother was aware, she had been in menopause for quite some time.

    1. sunny-dee

      Not a menopause baby, but my dad is 10-14 years younger than his siblings because my grandmother had a tubal ligation after my uncle. She used to say if my dad hadn’t been her favorite child, she would sue the doctor for malpractice. :)

  12. Emily, admin extraordinaire

    It’s not probable, but it is possible. My aunt was told by her doctor that she was menopausal, so she and her spouse stopped bothering with any type of birth control. A couple of months later, she was pregnant. They called it having an “Abraham and Sarah experience.” Of course, she was in her late 40s rather than late 50s (and her husband was in his mid-50s), but it happened. Their son is now 7 years old. :)

    In any case, nothing good can come of expressing your disbelief. If there’s no pregnancy, she will have to come to terms with it eventually. If there is, well, she’ll have to come to terms with that, too. Imagine being in your 70s at your kid’s high school graduation!

    1. fposte

      I think what makes it more dubious here is the doctor’s judgment that she’s not pregnant. Still not impossible, since doctors can be surprised too, but it sounds like there’s been a medical opinion here.

  13. OP

    You all are so compassionate, thanks.

    One clarification, when she announced it was after a doctor’s visit where she said the test was negative and he said it was menopause and she didn’t believe him. So the possibility was even more infinitesimal since she’d seen a doctor and he ruled out it, but doctors can certainly be wrong.

    We’re not particularly close, but we’re certainly friendly. She’s very open about her personal life which is why she announced. She’s a nice person, but she has more than her share of drama in her personal life which we all know too much about. The kind of drama that leaves you just sad for her as you just wish her life was easier and less emotionally chaotic.

    The update is she announced this morning that she’s no longer pregnant. She thinks maybe the doctor was right about menopause and that’s what caused the loss of the baby. There is no need to debate whether or not there was a baby, that would only serve to embarrass her. She was excited, now she’s sad and that’s all that matters.

    FWIW no one said anything negative to or about her, which makes me think my co-workers are pretty decent people.

    We just expressed sympathy when told, because we are sorry she’s sad. I was just really taken aback by the lack of logic in her jumping to that conclusion despite her doctor saying she wasn’t and the statistical improbability. The certainty and unequivocal excitement with no expressed concern whatsoever worries me. I think it indicates something amiss – but it’s certainly not my place to talk to her about her mental health as long as she’s functioning properly.

    She will soon be experiencing her youngest leaving home, a coworker recently had an adorable new baby, and it’s likely those things coupled with whatever symptoms she had tipped the scales where wishful thinking became a little too real. Which I would never say to her, because what do I know.

    1. fposte

      It sounds like it all went as well as one could hope, and good for you and your co-workers for focusing on the important thing here. You guys sound like lovely and compassionate people.

    2. Jake

      Bingo for the last paragraph.

      My mother in law did this three times.

      My mother in law’s episodes coincided with my wife graduating college, her youngest daughter graduating high school and my wife and I’s wedding.

      It was her way of dealing with the “my kids don’t need me” feeling. She is also the type of person that emotional chaos seems to follow, much like your coworker.

    3. Ash #1

      I would give her a few weeks and then maybe suggest some volunteer opportunities to her that would get her involved with children to fill whatever need she might have. She could volunteer with her local children’s hospital (with an organization like the Ronald McDonald House or Ele’s Place), or volunteer with a local youth literacy program, or even volunteer to hold babies in the NICU at a nearby hospital.

    4. ChristineSW

      Your assessment of how you and your coworkers should handle this new development is to be commended. I know it should go without saying, but you just never know. My best wishes to you and your coworkers…you are good, good people.

    5. Anonymous

      Bless that lady’s heart. I think it is harder than some people realize seeing your children become adults. I have three young 20 something year olds and one of them is engaged. It is hard to realize that chapter of my life is completed. For women growing older is not always easy. You can still look good but in the real world we are competing with 20 and 30 year olds. I happen to have a wonderful family, marriage and good health but moving on to the next chapter still is hard. Hope things get easier for her.

      1. Liane

        Yes, I’ve got a son who turns 18 in a couple weeks & a 16 year old daughter. Been having these “Yikes!! My baby boy is grown up!!!” moments off & on since the beginning of his Senior Year. It’s sad but also great to see how both of them have grown & am looking forward to seeing what comes next.
        I am so glad OP’s coworker got over the pregnancy thing relatively easily & hope things get better for her.
        And more kudos to OP & colleagues for being so kind to her it doesn’t take much & it keeps on helping. When I had the first of my Yikes moments, a good pal told me about how his mom was at his high school graduation & had me laughing by the time he was done. So now when I get like that, I remember what he & others have said & get over it.

    6. ella

      There is no need to debate whether or not there was a baby, that would only serve to embarrass her. She was excited, now she’s sad and that’s all that matters.

      The humanity and compassion in this statement makes my heart go all fuzzy.

    7. Not So NewReader

      I am so impressed by the kindness of you and your coworkers.
      And I am impressed by this woman pulling herself together this quickly. That was a BIG step for her. I think she was able to do that because her “work family” was so caring.

      She must be a nice woman to inspire all of you to be so kind. I hope she finds something that starts to fill the hole she feels in her heart.

  14. Elizabeth West

    Whoo, this post was a tough one to read. It kind of triggered me a little bit. (Okay, a lot. Could still happen, but time is short.) It also reminded me of a skit on the Catherine Tate show where she played a character who was laboring (sorry) under a similar delusion. But the skit wasn’t funny; instead, it was really sad.

    Everybody here had good advice for the OP and her workplace sounds very supportive and kind. I’m super glad this woman works there and not someplace where people might have talked behind her back or engaged her for their own amusement.

    1. Jean

      +1 for the kudos you gave the OP and her colleagues
      Also, cyber-hugs & wishes for a productive & happy 2014.

  15. Penny

    I LOVE Lars and the Real Girl! I’ve never met anyone else who has even heard of it, yay for the mention!

    1. Windchime

      It keeps coming up as a suggestion on my Netflix, but I thought the idea of a guy having a relationship with a sex doll sounded creepy and I’ve never watched. Maybe I’ll give it a try next time I’m looking for a movie.

      1. Callie

        I avoided it for a while too, but it’s much less about his relationship with the doll (which I don’t think is ever sexual) and more about his family and his community coming together to help him work through his emotional problems. The love and care the community (and especially his sister in law, played by Emily Mortimer) shows for him is just beautiful.

    2. Elizabeth West

      It’s such a good movie. I recommend it all the time, but people kind of recoil when I mention the doll. Then I have to say “No no! It’s not like that! Watch it!”

    3. Penny

      Yeah it’s not creepy at all, please don’t let the doll thing scare you away. You’ll get it as soon as you start watching. It’s a really sweet, funny, heart warming movie and great even on repeat viewings.

    4. Hooptie

      I love it too – beautiful story and acting. I cried so hard, and I don’t usually cry at movies!

  16. Curious Bystander

    I’m curious how HR or a direct manager would be advised to handle this situation? Especially if the woman were attempting to setup items such as health benefits, maternity leave, etc.

    I don’t mean to imply it would get that far, but am curious how managers handle what their employee says verses what a doctor does. Especially in a situation when the company is expected to accommodate, if it were a pregnancy.

    1. Lily

      I would take what she said at face value and request the same medical documentation we require for anyone going out on a maternity leave.

    2. Anonymous

      Managers don’t get to check up with doctors directly about conditions or verify details. They get a note (or call) from a doctor that confirms (or denies) that the employee needs medical leave. Usually the doctor will provide some guidance on how long the medical leave will be necessary. It’s also prudent to ask (usually you ask the employee directly) about the accommodations needed, but the burden is on the employee to bring it up. Confirm the need for especially difficult or expensive accommodations with the doctor and a lawyer, if it comes to that.

      It is bad management practice to wade into specific health problems or try to do a true/lie analysis of leave time. If you have an employee out too often, manage that, not the reason for the absence. If you have an employee who lies to you about important things, manage that, don’t try to catch them goofing off on a sick day. Focus on the business problem, not on underlying medical conditions.

  17. JenTheNiceHRGirl

    I had a co-worker who had phantom pregnancies.t was really sad. In her case, she was doing it on purpose though, which doesn’t sound like the case here. My co-worker was telling people joyfully that she was pregnant and then a few weeks later, crying that she had miscarried. For years we thought it was legit. After all, who would lie about such a horrible thing? Everyone felt bad for her. We ended up finding out that it was all a hoax (to get sympathy, attention, avoid being let go due to performance? Who knows). How we started to get suspicious is when we saw her photoshopping a pic of a pregnancy test… and then the next day she e-mailed the photo out to our group announcing her news (and there were a bunch of other things too). Eventually she admitted to a small group of us that she would think she was pregnant, find out she wasn’t, and was so disappointed that she felt that stating she miscarried rather than telling the truth, would be less embarrassing. Anyway, just like in this case though, trying to have a talk with her really wouldn’t have accomplished anything… she would have denied it, gotten upset, who knows… it was such a touchy (and not any of my business) situation so even though we knew it was a hoax, we all continued to offer her congrats and condolences on a regular basis.

  18. It could've been both...

    Not that it’s necessarily the case here, based upon the doctor’s diagnosis, but “it could’ve been both”.

    Having recently been diagnosed as perimenopausal myself, I’ve learned a lot about the process. You’re not actually considered menopausal by the medical community until you’ve gone 12 months without a period. However – people use the term “menopause” to refer to the entire process (similar to a Kleenex is a facial tissue, but not all facial tissues are Kleenexes). While a woman is still in perimenopause (which can last for a year or two, or go on for several years), pregnancy is still definitely a possibility.

  19. Jean

    One more reason to give a shout-out in support of universal kindness (or as universal as possible) : teenage girls and perimenopausal women are not just highly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy but highly vulnerable, period (no pun intended). I say this based on memories of my own puberty plus my current experiences with menopause and mothering a teenager (boy not girl, but hormonal upheaval is hormonal upheaval). Although it could be worse, some days are just plain challenging.

    Heck, I’ll go one step further and make this a shout-out of support for all kinds of kindness to all kinds of people, no questions asked! It’s hard to be human. It’s hard to navigate this world. We’re all imperfectly skilled, imperfectly able to divine the complete truth about any situation, and surrounded by similarly flawed others.

  20. Mena

    This isn’t any of your business, at all. Stay out of it. Be vaguely surprised at the news – ‘oh wow – that is great’ and leave it alone.

  21. Well

    I would just like to mention that this happened to my mother when she was pregnant with me when she was 48 years old (I’m 57). The doctor told her she couldn’t be, she hadn’t had a period in several years. I would go along with it, at least for a few months.

  22. J.2014

    I would wait a bit, just to be absolutely sure that she is not pregnant.
    But if that’s clear and she’s still pretending to be I would act on it.

    Showing this kind of bafflement can also be first sign of serious insanity.
    And in that case it might help her to act earlier than later.

  23. Ambi

    I personally know a woman who at 56 thought she was in menopause and found out she was pregnant! It is rare but it can happen.

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