update: my coworker is having a phantom pregnancy

Remember the letter from the reader whose coworker was having a phantom pregnancy? Here an update.

When we returned to work, she did say that it was menopause. As she had only told a couple of us that she had thought she was pregnant, it didn’t go any further and there was no gossip. From the brief discussion, it was kind of disconcerting how little she knew about that and what to expect, but she seems okay with it and that’s what matters.

She’s had a lot of personal problems since then with ending an abusive relationship and having a relative move in with her who is in the throes of heroin addition. She’s very upbeat about that, which surprised me; in a strange way, I almost wonder if that’s filling her need to nurture, although that’s none of my business.

This whole thing has made me realize how fragile she can be and how difficult her life is. I do feel bad for her and am more understanding of her moodiness. However, after a conversation where she was sharing a lot about personal problems in an area where there was a large group of people (legal problems with the ex, and now dating a coworker, the home situation), I suggested that she might want to be careful about being quite so open with everyone in the office. I didn’t speak to her about this at the time, but later that day when we were alone. She was somewhat offended and told me she can share what she likes about her life – so I’m out of it. My intentions were good, and I don’t think this kind of information indiscriminately shared is helpful, but she’s right. It’s her life and I made a mental note to keep all unsolicited advice to myself except as it pertains to work.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. LBK*

    Wow, I can’t believe she got offended when you suggested maybe she shouldn’t spread around her personal business so much. You seem to know a whole lot about this woman’s personal life for not being friends with her. I mean, she’s right, it’s her prerogative if she wants to air her dirty laundry, but is she really conscious of how it could impact her job?

    1. fposte*

      And I don’t think she realizes that she was extremely fortunate in having co-workers be so kind about her pregnancy conviction.

      But you know, she’s learning some things that are more important than that if she’s finally managed to leave an abusive spouse. Co-worker scrutiny is going to fall pretty low on the concern radar after that.

      1. Chinook*

        I think that she replied to the OPP because she has recently seen the power of standing up for herself (I.e. Leaving an abusive spouse) and is having trouble knowing how to use the power or its affects on others. She is right – she can tell anyone anything she wants but she has probably been so used to keeping secrets that she doesn’t realize that there are good reasons to keep something quiet.

        As for the pregnancy really being menopause, her confusion makes sense if she started earlier than most or if she grew up not talking about “female problems.” I remember watching Little House on the Prairie and Mrs. Ingalls thought she was going through menopause but was actually pregnant. (it is TV, true, but still sounds logical).

        1. LBK*

          Well, there’s also a difference between keeping secrets and using discretion. It doesn’t sound like anyone is asking this woman to spill the beans and she’s giving in, more like she’s choosing to dump this info on her coworkers whether they want to hear it or not.

          Honestly, at that point it may not even be about how comfortable you are with your personal business being public. It’s downright rude to your coworkers to be freely giving away that much info because they may not want to hear it.

          1. LAI*

            Well, there’s also a difference between keeping secrets and using discretion.

            Exactly. Whenever people ask how my weekend was, I just say it was good or relaxing or I had fun and leave it at that. No one needs to know that I went on a date, or was out late drinking with my friends, or didn’t get out of bed until 1pm and then watched Law & Order SVU reruns in my pajamas all day.

          2. Catherine in Canada*

            I just love (not) how that one only goes one way too.
            As in, “I am free to say whatever I want, whatever I think, BUT (when someone expresses discomfort or an opinion) you’re not.”
            I find THAT rude.

        2. Lindsay the Temp*

          …and then also thought she was pregnant along with Laura and was actually going through menopause. IT’S BASED ON TRUTH PEOPLE!!!

            1. Anonymouse*

              Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the story being referenced in the post this was a reply to.

    2. Adam*

      Taking the woman at her word, having all those numerous struggles in her life might be something she sort of thrives on personally. Shades of a martyr complex and all that. If the roommate with the drug problem is a prime example of how her personal relationships are she may wish to garner all the attention she can get, regardless of where it comes from or what prompts it. I’m sure most here would agree this isn’t the healthiest of mindsets, but it’s a probably a firmly entrenched psychological pattern at this point.

      1. Adam*

        Note: I’m no expert on this sort of thing. The woman has obviously gone through some very tough days. Thank goodness she worked up the resolve to leave an abusive relationship.

        1. salad fingers*

          Well, she said the person with the heroin addiction is a relative. I have a brother addicted to heroin who I’ve helped out despite my better interests — doesn’t mean I have a martyr complex or a love of drama and attention. It means my brothers sick.

          Just sayin.

          1. Adam*

            I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all people who help loved ones who have substance abuse issues have issues themselves, and I apologize if it came across that way. If your loved ones are important to you and it’s within your means to help them I certainly don’t begrudge you that choice.

            But not everyone is necessarily that well adjusted, and for this poor woman who’s primary relationships seem to have included recently a romantic partner who was abusive in some way along with the relative with the drug issue combined with her odd behavior at the office indicates she’s may not be as healthy as one would hope. That’s all.

            1. Office Mercenary*

              Yikes. I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that having an abusive partner indicates a “martyr complex.” The relative’s addiction and the partner’s abuse are not her actions or her responsibility. This woman’s lack of discretion in the office and phantom pregnancy are her own actions and a separate issue. Let’s focus on her odd behavior, and not the criminal behavior of people around her.

              1. Green*

                No, but it could show co-dependence or enabling behavior, in which case drama in her life may also map into her self worth.

                (FWIW, being with an abusive partner can be described by some women as an addiction; the highs are better because the lows are so low, etc. Abuse can be both an addiction for the abuser and the up-and-down cycles can be similar to an addiction for the abused. And many relationships are mutually abusive because both people are addicted to the abuse and up-and-down cycle.)

                1. Office Mercenary*

                  And FWIW, there are a lot of victim-blaming myths that aren’t supported by research or data.

                2. Contessa*

                  Office Mercenary, Green’s comments (whether intentionally or not, I don’t know) are very similar to a wonderful book about co-dependence (Co-Dependent No More, by Melody Beattie). It’s not victim-blaming; psychologists have been saying similar things for years, based on their experiences with actual patients. Pointing out the psychology isn’t “blaming” the victim, it simply explains what may look to people on the outside as strange decisions. Writing all of the work on co-dependence off as “victim-blaming” can inadvertently prevent people from getting help and breaking out of the cycle.

                  (I say this as someone who has struggled with co-dependency)

          2. some1*

            Presumably you don’t go on about your brothers issues with coworkers you aren’t even friends with, though.

            Helping out a relative with a drug addiction doesn’t suggest a martyr complex. Feeling the need to tell everyone might, though, like you want random people to think highly of you for your good deed.

            1. salad fingers*

              It might also suggest that you’re really struggling and not particularly great at boundaries. I just think it’s pretty presumptuous to say that someone thrives on having a relative with a heroin addiction based on such limited information.

    3. Sharm*

      No kidding. How many perception is reality discussions have we had here? I don’t love being criticized, but I know I’d appreciate a one-on-one heads-up on how I’m coming off and adjust accordingly.

  2. Anonsie*

    Alison’s initial post reminds me of the scene in Stilyagi where the main character’s girlfriend has a baby that’s a different race than him, and when they take it out to his rejoicing family outside the hospital someone asks “whose is that?” They say “ours!” and everyone thinks about it for a minute before shouting “he’s ours!!” and goes right back to celebrating.

  3. AMG*

    Seems to have issues understanding boundaries (hers and others) but nobody is perfect, and some things have to be learned the hard way. Sounds like she’s of the ‘educational variety’ and that’s ok.

  4. Celeste*

    I’m flashing on Scout Finch saying that walking up to Boo Radley’s front step is as close as she needs to go.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      “Just think, Scout,” Jem said, “if you’da turned around, you’da seen him.” :)

      One of my favorite books EVER. Now I want to read it again.

      1. Celeste*

        I’m due for a re-reading. I’m getting a Kindle soon, and TKAM needs to be one of my first purchases.

        1. KJR*

          Just read it again when my son was reading it for Freshman English. He’s not a reader, but he LOVED it. It’s just so good.

    2. Portia De Belmont*

      TKAM is my pick for the Great American Novel. My mother grew up in that era in a small Alabama town, and Harper Lee captured it perfectly.

  5. Rev.*

    There’s always somebody in any gathering of people whose life/lives are filled with what we Cajun/Creoles call “thrah-cah,” (equal stress on the syllables, short a sound), which loosely interpreted means “a crappy mess.” They’re fascinating from a distance, but the closer you get, the more likely you’ll get crap on your shoes.

    My question is: how does her supervisor feel about how her personal life becomes the office talk du jour?

    1. Jess*

      Haha! I’ll have to remember that term the next time some drama llama has me rolling my eyes.

    2. Jen RO*

      Ok, now I’m curious, is “thrah-cah” an actual French word that I’m not getting? “Fracas” maybe?

      1. FRanomynous*

        Good question! “Tracas” (pronounced tra-ca) is actually a French word.
        Today it is mostly used combined (“petit tracas”, meaning a small annoyance), but its broad meaning is “something that causes you to worry”.

        1. Rev.*

          Cajun/Creole French has a tendency to alter the original meaning of Provencial French. It’s a SWLA cultural thang.

          We also drawl out the pronunciations a bit.

  6. AB*

    How do you deal with over-sharers like this? There is a guy that sits in the cube across from mine that seems to enjoy sharing the minutiae of his daughter’s reproductive problems and his sons money troubles. I usually just make non-committal, generic responses, but honestly I find the conversation very uncomfortable. I have tried to extricate myself when he gets going, but even less than subtle approaches doesn’t seem to stem the tide.

    1. fposte*

      You don’t have to respond at all, since you’re supposed to be focused on your work. If you’re allowed earphones, they’ll complete the approach.

    2. Celeste*

      I’ve had that. I make a wry smile and say “oh well!” and stand up and start walking…to the bathroom, to get water, to take a lap around the floor, anything.

      1. KJR*

        I do the “standing up and walking away like I need to go somewhere” thing too…It seems to work pretty well when you’re trapped by a talker.

    3. Del*

      If you’re in a position to be a little confrontational about it, you might try saying something like “Are you sure they want you sharing this information?” or “I really don’t need to know this.”

      1. Sunflower*

        I think it’s important to do this and do it with a smile. Sometimes you have to be flat out with people in order for them to get the hint. However, most of these over-sharers do this because I don’t think they have anyone else to talk to so it’s important to let them know that you’re open to talking to them about hobbies or life but this is crossing the line

      2. Laura*

        Something along these lines might stop the oversharer better than ignorning it – if these people had much self-awareness, they would likely notice your discomfort without you having to say anything. Better yet, they wouldn’t share this sensitive information with strangers in the first place…

        I once said so a brand new colleague, when he began telling me in explicit detail about his dating horror stories: “Why are you telling me all this?” with a genuine tone of concern. He didn’t seem to have an answer, so I continued, “you seem like a sensitive guy, and I wouldn’t want you to give this information to someone who could hurt you with it.” He stopped oversharing.

    4. Rayner*

      I agree with some1.

      “James, that makes me uncomfortable to hear you talking about things that should be private between you and your family. I know that I wouldn’t want my family discussing [insert problem/complication] in there with people I didn’t know.”

      And if he continues, “James, I don’t think I should be hearing this kind of thing. Please don’t mention it to me again.”

      Treat it as you would any other topic that you were uncomfortable hearing – say, politics – and just shut it down. Don’t be afraid to walk away.

      Also, that’s a phenomenally terrible person who discusses private issues like reproductive health and financial woes of his children in the workplace. How crass.

      1. LBK*

        “I know that I wouldn’t want my family discussing [insert problem/complication] in there with people I didn’t know.”

        I wouldn’t even include that part, because then he could just say “Oh, they’re fine with me talking about it” and carry on. I’d stick to “I know you or your family may be comfortable sharing this information, but I’d really prefer not to hear it” and leave it at that.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        phenomenally terrible? That seems like quite a stretch. There are plenty of people who become friendly enough with coworkers to discuss these sorts of things. If they are talking about it with every single person they meet, that’s one thing, but I can’t agree that everything has to be kept completely private. It’s the extremes that cause difficulties – in both directions. We’ve also seen posts where people have issues at work because they are private to an excess and feel like being asked about their weekend is a gross invasion of their personal space.

        1. Rayner*

          I feel that if it’s not your personal issue, and if it deals with exceptionally private concerns like money or health, it’s not appropriate to share that kind of information with others, even though you might be friendly with the coworkers you choose to share it with.

          To me, my own issues are mine to control. if I want to discuss them with Bob or Catty down the hall, then that’s my choice. But my family’s issues are different – they aren’t there to mitigate or to explain, and they aren’t there to tell me not to say something. So I am not allowing them their privacy if I discussed it with someone else. And that is a horrible thing to do.

          If it was just a single coworker, and oversharer was just asking for advice it would be one thing, but the op said it was routine and always just sharing information around.

    5. Malissa*

      Ignore! The unfortunate side effect of this is that when the person has something work related to say you may not catch it the first time.
      In my last job I was surrounded by people that liked to gossip about just about anybody in town. People I didn’t know or care about. They’d even gossip about coworkers that weren’t around.
      For a while I defended the helpless person. But after a while I just got busy with work.
      I learned to tune out the conversation so much that they had to actually mention my name or even tap on my desk to get my attention to answer their questions.

    6. Nelly*

      “Stop talking about your daughter’s vagina!” might stop him. Anything to do with reproductive stuff – just say the V word and most people will back off.

  7. Del*

    Wow, her life is really upside down right now, it sounds like.

    As far as the oversharing goes, with the mention of an abusive relationship ending, it’s possible that it’s just an absolute relief for her to feel able to say all this. Abuse often comes with a lot of silencing behavior, and there can be a real sense of freedom and openness to realize “Hey, I actually can talk about this, and people will believe me instead of treating me like a crazy person!” It’s very common for abusers to convince their victims that they will not be believed, that speaking up about anything going on at home will only get them in more trouble, that they’ll just sound crazy, and so forth. So I would speculate that that newfound sense of freedom may be a part of her oversharing, and a part of why she reacted so poorly to being told to keep quiet about it.

    That said, I don’t blame you at all for being really uncomfortable with it — I would be too! I think your solution is really the best way it could be handled — you made the attempt, she made her feelings clear, your responsibility to try and nudge her away from sharing all the details is at an end. If she tries to inflict them on you further, I would just bow out with “I’m sorry, I’m really not comfortable hearing all this. Can we talk about the shipment of chocolate teapots going out on Thursday?”

    1. some1*

      “Abuse often comes with a lot of silencing behavior, and there can be a real sense of freedom and openness to realize “Hey, I actually can talk about this, and people will believe me instead of treating me like a crazy person!””

      Most of the oversharers I’ve known appear to just not have close friends or family to talk to, so when they do talk to someone they end up sharing stuff most people wouldn’t.

      And a lot of abusers socially isolate their partners from friends or family, or the victim chooses to isolate herself (or combo of both), so this woman is could be used to only having her partner and random coworkers to talk to.

      1. Sunflower*

        That’s where my mind was going. Sounds like she could benefit from seeing a professional

      2. Del*

        All of the above are possibilities, and I agree with Sunflower that a therapist would be a good person for the coworker to talk to — not with any implication that she may be suffering from a mental illness, but just because that is an awful lot of stress and difficulty for someone to be going through. Having someone who is professionally trained in listening and helping unpick difficult and tangled emotions can make a huge difference.

      3. Blue Anne*

        “Most of the oversharers I’ve known appear to just not have close friends or family to talk to, so when they do talk to someone they end up sharing stuff most people wouldn’t.”

        This exactly. I have to consciously stop myself from being one of those people, sometimes. I don’t really have any family I’m comfortable talking to, and weirdly I often feel more comfortable talking to people I don’t know very well than my friends.

    2. EvilQueenRegina*

      That’s actually given me a bit of perspective on my ex-coworker who used to overshare about her ailments/exes/ailments of people I never met. She did say that her first husband was abusive and maybe there was some element of feeling relieved that she was able to talk about it – saying that though she’d been divorced from this guy about 20 years when I first met her and was still sharing a lot about him. This coworker did react badly when our manager asked her to keep quieter about it – she moaned about that for a bit and then went straight back to oversharing. Seeing what you said though does make me wonder if that was partly why she did it.

  8. Stu*

    It could be that this woman is a compulsive liar. I had a coworker who had all these really awful problems, all the time. Eventually we realzied she was making everythign up. The lies got really outlandish (like dating professional hockey players, being related to Anthony Hopkins), so it became obvious overtime. Could be the case here.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      Someone I was at uni with was the same – she ended up telling people she was dating Jack White from the White Stripes at one point, that was pretty obvious. I can’t tell from this post whether that’s the case with the coworker though.

    2. Anonsie*

      I’ve known some people like this, but this doesn’t really sound like that to me. Those lies tend to be a little bit stranger. These stories are pretty grounded for that.

  9. Heather*

    This whole thing seems a little bizarre. I remember from the original post OP said ‘it hasn’t caused any issues at work yet’ and she ‘just announced.’ and this post referencing Monday being the first day everyone would be around each other since the announcement (seems to be inflating the situation to imply this would be causing issues at work since the news was announced THAT DAY) that what really happened is this poor confused woman did not understand menopause, thought she was pregnant and mentioned as much to a few people and then very soon after realized this was not the case.

    This does not sound like a hysterical or phantom pregnancy. It sounds like a strange one-off comment by an over-sharer that was immediately brought to this website without being an actual problem.

    1. Elle D*

      I think the OP was trying to get ahead of the problem, and I find that commendable. Most people do not take announcing a pregnancy lightly, so the OP had no reason to assume that the OP would show up Monday and take the announcement back. The OP asked an expert for advice on how to handle a delicate workplace situation, and although the situation fizzled out I think it’s a good thing that the OP and co-workers were prepared to respond appropriately.

    2. fposte*

      Yes, we talked about the terminology in the comments on the original post. But I don’t think the problem was based on her having pseudocyesis anyway; it was based on the fact that she was going to publicly face the disappearance of a wished-for and shared outcome. That’s bad regardless of what medicine calls it.

    3. Office Mercenary*

      I think people were concerned by this line in the letter: “She’s always been emotionally very sensitive and I get the sense she’s fragile, but has never presented anything like this before.” A fragile person might be especially hurt by people mocking her after the pregnancy was determined to be menopause.

    4. Laura*

      The way I interpreted the original post, the oversharing WAS the problem. The OP’s main concern seemed to have been that she would face ridicule in the office – and in a lot of offices, she would have.

      Isn’t this why it’s not a great idea to announce a pregnancy before the 3-month mark? It saves you having to explain to people what went wrong, if anything does.

      1. Rayner*

        It’s often a good idea, but reality doesn’t work out that way sometimes. You might start to show early, morning sickness, someone overhears a phone call, family friends share the news…

        There’s no rule about sharing the time scale of your pregnancy, and for some people, I bet they’re so happy they announce as soon as they can.

    5. OP*

      I can see how it looks like an over reaction, and if it had been another person I wouldn’t have been as concerned. But she has a history of being emotionally very fragile, which is the best way I can describe it and she is near 60. She was so excited when she thought she was pregnant and going on about it, that it was cause for concern because she didn’t seem completely rational at that moment.

      I’m not being glib, and I don’t know how to describe it better, but something felt really off. And over the years she’s spoken about breakdowns in her past and I was afraid she wasn’t in a very stable place.

      And knowing my workplace I wanted to have some strategy in place in case she did come back Monday still convinced and telling everyone, because not everyone would have been kind.

      I’m glad it turned out to be a non-issue, but I know enough to know this could have gone the other way.

  10. Not So NewReader*

    Some people just have terrible things going on in their lives. Some people have difficulties most of their lives.
    But there seems to be people who live an open book life, everything just spills out. I have seen the opposite where some people face crushing personal tragedy and never utter a word about it. Differences in people.

    I feel, match the person who is talking. Match candor with candor. As other posters have said up stream- just tell Ms or Mr Candor, “I don’t know much about this stuff, I am not going to be much help to you.” I don’t think subtle approaches are going to work, especially since it is an on-going behavior not just a one time thing.

    OP, you gave it your best shot. Now, it is up to others to tell her NO. It will probably take several people saying the same thing before the message even begins to sink in.

    And, I think you are on to something OP. This woman could be trying to fix all the wounded people around her in the hopes that her own wounds will be fixed. Hmmm. Sometimes that works and sometimes not. Again, differences in people.

    1. Ruffingit*

      People who have lived in abusive relationships often become codependents, putting all their energy, time, money and lives into someone else’s problems. They have no understanding of how else to be. They have dedicated huge chunks of their life to making everyone else happy and they’ve lost themselves in the process. Codependent No More is one of my favorite go-to resources for this issue. Could be the co-worker’s problem. Regardless of the issue though, it’s totally fine for the OP to have said her peace about the over sharing and to move on. If other co-workers want to say the same thing to Ms. Over Share, they can do so. OP has done all she can.

  11. Emma*

    Every office has the over sharer, don’t they? At my office, it’s a coworker who when she started dating again after her divorce, shared intimate details of her first night with her new boyfriend, which NO ONE wanted to hear.

    1. Mallory*

      Gah! I had a co-worker once who used to try to tell me the intimate details of his weekend swinger parties. And he was kind of greasy and gross. I don’t really want to hear that stuff from anybody, but especially not if I’m skeeved out by the guy.

  12. Fish Microwaver*

    This is totally off topic but too good not to share. Someone here just heated up a very pungent curry.

  13. Mena*

    You did her a favor by pointing out that she is over-sharing – clearly clueless OR one of those that revels in the drama and attention. Back away at this point – you can’t help her.

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