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.

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