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Guest Post: Dumping on your friends? Or Building a Village?

By Janine Kovac

“I want to keep the news of our pregnancy to ourselves for a while,” my husband Matt said. “This is a private matter and it’s a scary situation. I don’t want to just dump it on people.”

I strongly disagreed with him. Given what the doctors had predicted, we were headed for rocky times—a month in the hospital for me and at least that much time in the hospital for our twins once they were born. This was not the time to keep news to ourselves.

People often talk about abstract concepts—patience, control, power, news—in terms of an object metaphor. We say, “I lost my patience.” “They grabbed control.” “He throws his power around.” We keep secrets and give news, as if it’s something tangible such as a ball just hand over to someone. (“Here, take this news. I don’t want it anymore.”) And negative events are often framed as having weight, as in: unbearable news or the burden of bad news. Heavy sorrow.

“Doctors tell us there’s a 50/50 chance that the twins won’t make it,” Matt reminded me. “I don’t want everyone to know that we’re expecting and then have to give them bad news. They’d all feel terrible for us and then I’d feel responsible for unloading on them.”

“We can’t do this all by ourselves,” I countered. “And I don’t want to hide our troubles from our friends and family.”



Give bad news.

Hide your troubles

Metaphors are shorthand descriptions that guide how we reason. Metaphors such as “dumping” or “unloading bad news” imply that we are giving a burden to someone else. But sharing bad news is different from unloading a weight and unlike dumping a real load, giving someone bad news doesn’t mean you don’t have it anymore!

I wanted to physically prepare for the healthiest pregnancy possible for my situation, which meant lots of eating, lots of sleeping, lots of quality family time with my husband and two-year-old daughter.

The next step was to have a support system in place. How was my daughter going cope with me in the hospital for a month? Who was going to make sure that my husband didn’t burn the candle at both ends? We needed backup; we needed, as Christine outlines in chapter two of Raising Happiness, to “build a village.” To me this meant staying in touch with close friends and reaching out to the people we didn’t know very well, such as the parents at daycare or my husband’s colleagues at work.

My husband saw it differently. While I was imagining the help we’d need if the twins or I had complications, he was imagining how selfish it seemed to dump our troubles on others. This was not an area where we could come to an agreement through compromise.

Around this same time one of my aunts was diagnosed as having terminal cancer. A spot was found on her liver. There was another one on her kidney. Matt and I watched as my mother and her four sisters shared the grim news and connected in a way I hadn’t seen before—not just with my dying aunt but with each other, too. They made cross-country visits (and reportedly stayed up all night giggling). They checked in with each other weekly. One aunt quit her job so she could be near her sick sister during this time.

“Family is more important than anything else,” Aunt Lulu told me.

To my mother’s family sharing this sad news wasn’t “unloading”; it was a rallying call that used metaphors that evoked images of power, construction, and connection.

For example:

My aunt’s cancer pulled everyone together.

Her sisters strengthened their bonds.

They supported each other.

Their love had a strong foundation.

And of course they built a village.

This is why metaphors matter. If I thought of sharing our story in terms of weights and objects, I had to agree with Matt; I didn’t want to unload our burdens onto our friends, either. And when Matt talked about sharing news in terms of pulling together, forming attachments, and building our support system, the idea of telling friends didn’t seem so selfish. Looking at our different metaphors rather than focusing on our different opinions helped us understand each other. It also helped us create a game plan that we were both comfortable with. And my mother’s family’s model support system gave us an example to follow.

It was like flipping a switch. Changing our mindset, we took action. We started a private blog to update family and friends. I connected with other parents from daycare. Matt told his boss. Suddenly we had recommendations for prenatal yoga classes, hand-me-down baby clothes from co-workers, and encouraging emails from Aunt Lulu. Best of all, when Matt and I were discouraged our network of friends was optimistic and supportive. You might say (to steal a metaphor) that our village lifted our spirits.

(To read more about conceptual metaphor analysis, check out this book Metaphors We Live By written by George Lakoff, one of the fathers of conceptual metaphor).


Next up: When you get pregnant in July, you don’t usually give birth in December. But I did.

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  • RH Follower

    Your post makes me listen to how I speak.  Metaphors do matter.  You make it easy for us to change the way we think . . . and speak.  Thanks, Janine

  • Chemical Billy

    When friends call on me in times of need, it makes me feel like I’m part of something important. Some of my best memories are from times of crisis shared.

  • Teri Stevens

    I’ve seen and experienced growth through bad times and know that it often does take a village to support us through difficult situations in life.  And most people do like to help, and not be left in the dark.  I’m continually surprised that the negative outcomes we anticipate turn out much more positive than we could have hoped.  Thank you for sharing your your personal perspective on how you and your husband came together to inform friends and family about your pregnancy.  

  • Just this Monday my friend’s house burned down. They lost everything that was in the house. This friend is part of my “village” and our friendship started this way: saying hello when we dropped our kids off at daycare

    It’s so inspiring to see the families at daycare pulling together this week to help my friend during this time of need and drastic change. 

  • Therese

    This is enlightening. I really appreciate the attention to language, and the metaphors we use. I like how you and your husband were able to understand each other just by thinking about the language you chose. 

  • What a great way to reframe the conversation — not in terms of whose perspective is more reasonable, but what your respective metaphors are communicating to one another about your fears and expectations.  I’m sorry to hear about your aunt, but what a gift your family gave you to provide that example of how powerfully people can rally in times of trouble.

  • Mbmc

    this is really thought-provoking Janine & what an creative resolution to those couple’s communication challenges we all experience. Bravo.

  • Lorrie

    I love how deftly you illustrate the effect of language on our perceptions.

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