My spouse and I are at an age when it’s not usually much of a surprise when one of our friends calls us to exclaim, “We’re having a baby!” We know exactly what to say. We offer enthusiastic congratulations, gab about baby names, and so on. Probably you’ve heard an exclamation like this too; probably you responded in roughly the same way.
As commonplace as this type of declaration is, there’s something interesting about it. On the face of it, having a baby is something that exactly one person—the person from whom the baby emerges—does. Yet much of the time “We’re having a baby!” and related statements are not taken to be infelicitous. So what gives?
I think ‘having a baby’ is ambiguous. Sometimes that expression refers to one type of event, a biological process, and other times to another, an intentional action. This ambiguity explains why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but other times sounds perfectly natural.
On the one hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes the biological process (or family of processes) of childbirth, whereby a baby leaves a person’s uterus and emerges alive into the world. It might be more accurate to say that childbirth is something that happens to a person rather than something that someone does. In any case, childbirth is a process of which exactly one person can be a subject. When ‘having a baby’ denotes childbirth, it doesn’t make sense to say “We’re having a baby!”.
On the other hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes something broader than childbirth. It denotes something like the process of responsibly bringing a baby into the world. As everyone knows, responsibly bringing a baby into the world requires a significant amount of work. The details of what this looks like vary across time and space. In our society, money must be saved; information must be gathered; time must be set aside; doctors must be seen and paid for. Childbirth is normally part of this process, but the process is not mainly a biological one. Rather, it is a complex and protracted intentional action, something people do rather than something that happens to them.
When ‘having a baby’ denotes an intentional action, it makes perfect sense to say, “We’re having a baby!”. After all, most actions can be performed jointly by several individuals, and participants in a joint action can perfectly well use the first-person plural pronoun in describing what they are doing (e.g. “We’re painting a house.”). The action of having a baby is no different. Two or more individuals who harmonize their plans and activities so that a baby can be responsibly brought into the world are jointly having a baby. And those individuals can legitimately say, “We’re having a baby!”.
So we now have an explanation as to why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but usually doesn’t: the expression is ambiguous, sometimes denoting a biological process of which exactly one person can be a subject and sometimes denoting an intentional action of which multiple people can be a subject. Occasionally people exploit this ambiguity in witty ways (“We’re having a baby? I don’t see you doing any pushing!”). But most of the time, we navigate the expression’s ambiguity so effortlessly that we hardly think about it.
A further upshot of this discussion is that we now have available a charitable interpretation of similar expressions that on the surface look rather patriarchal and problematic. Sometimes you hear the partners of people who are giving birth say things like “Our cervix is dilating!” and “Our contractions are five minutes apart.”. While these statements might be used by a speaker to assert ownership over another person’s body, in contexts involving joint action, possessive plural pronouns are frequently used in a way that does not imply ownership.
For instance, suppose that a group of students is putting on a school play. Someone asks the dramaturge how the first dress rehearsal went, and the dramaturge responds dejectedly by saying, “Well, our costumes were great, and our lead was inspired, but everything else was a mess.” Responding to this statement by pointing out that neither the speaker nor the group owns the costumes or the lead would be infelicitous, because the dramaturge’s uses of the possessive merely indicate that the target objects were being used by the group or occupied an integral role in the group’s activities.
Similarly, when the partner of a person giving birth says something like “Our cervix is dilating!”, the partner may be using the plural possessive simply to indicate that the cervix in question is playing an integral role in the joint action of having a baby in which the partner is participating. The cervix normally does play an integral part in the joint action of having a baby (childbirth is normally a part of having a baby, and the dilation of the cervix is normally a part of childbirth), so this use is perhaps only natural.
 To simplify things, I assume that the baby is not, at the time of birth, a person. It’s true that medical professionals often assist and monitor childbirth. But it doesn’t follow that those medical professionals are subjects of the childbirth or that the person pushing out the baby and the medical professionals are together birthing a child. Analogously, my spouse sometimes rubs our pet rabbit’s tummy in order to help the rabbit digest hay. But it doesn’t follow that the rabbit and my spouse are jointly digesting hay.
 Actually, there is a way of reading this according to which it could make sense for someone to say it. To see this, consider the statement “We lifted a table.”. On a collective reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' jointly lifted a table. But on a distributive reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' separately lifted a table (and perhaps they lifted different tables). Similarly, “We’re having a baby!” could mean that we are jointly having a baby, or it could mean that each of us is separately having a baby. My claim is that this statement is infelicitous when read in the collective way. All the statements I’m interested in here should be read in the collective way.
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University of California, Santa Barbara