I’m of an age where people are starting to ask if we do/are thinking about having kids. In truth, we’ve been trying, and failing. I’m not ready to give up at all, but every time someone asks me this, it’s a sucker punch. I usually spin it with something like “I have a dog and a cat, does that count?” in a lighthearted kind of way, but every once in a while, I hit them with “We’ve been trying for a while, and it just hasn’t happened.” That leaves the conversation awkward, and I hate it. How else could I handle this?
Dear Maybe Mom:
People are never going to stop asking this. We can rail against it, we can explain how it makes us feel [pressured][sad][put on the spot][annoyed][intruded upon][reminded of our biggest source of grief and anxiety][pregnant…with assumptions about gender and acceptable participation in society][paranoid about revealing reproductive health info in an age of surveillance and criminalization of reproductive choice][about to be illegally discriminated-against in a job interview], and people who love asking this question can always explain why it’s a “normal” routine question [just curious/making conversation][asking questions is a way of showing care][looking for common ground] that “shouldn’t” make anyone feel bad, but it’s not going away. Probably advice columnists in the year 3,000 are still going to be generating scripts about if there are any genetic additions stored in the suspended animation level of the EarthBarge3000 and if not, why not, when it’s so easy to incubate and harvest them nowadays and has Specialist Organa-Vorkosigan tried this ancient practice called ‘yoga’.
There are many possible ways to reply: Miss Manners’-style “Why do you ask?” or Carolyn Hax’s “Wow” or Captain Awkward’s “My what a personal question, I didn’t realize we were sharing personal medical histories today, let me tell you all about my giant uterine fibroid tumor, Guillame, the only son I will ever bear!” but the crux of it is, people are going to keep asking about this, even if we refuse to answer, redirect them, punish them, lecture them, laugh and dodge the question, tell them about all the miscarriages and abortions and tumors and hormone injections and exactly how much each round of in vitro cost (one of my grad school mentors saved all her needles and sculpted a life-sized child statue out of them) or how it was never in the cards for us simply because we wanted other things. I don’t see the question going away, even though I wish people would try out a “If you meet someone new who is a parent and they want to tell you about their kids, THEY WILL. IT. WILL. COME. UP. JUST WAIT. And if you want to know because you are a parent, mention YOUR kids and see if they respond,” practice for the next year and see how everyone feels. All the times we peed on sticks and hoped and dreaded and prayed, those stories are OURS to tell if we want to tell but they are not OWED. To anyone. Ever.
My general advice is: 1) Find the thing that you are comfortable saying about this and say that 2) Do not worry so much about how the other person feels (about the answer to a question they should never have asked you). If it gets awkward? So awkward that the person stops asking people that question from now on? Or akward because there’s a presumption that one can possibly give a “wrong” answer about one’s own procreative plans and impulses? Maybe the awkward silence needed to grow and grow and grow until it swallows the entire topic. Who made it awkward? Not you for existing.
To that end, “We’ve been trying for a while and it just hasn’t happened,” is a perfectly reasonable answer if it’s a true answer and you think the person cares about you and is coming from a mostly good place. You’re allowed to be honest and not sugarcoat things and to let people in on your real feelings about how it’s not going as easily as you hoped. You’re not doing anything wrong or weird! And the person doesn’t want to know the real answer, why the fuck are they asking?
Letter Writer, probably not everyone who asks you this question is trying to scrape your feelings raw but also not everybody has a right know about your plans, so answer with whatever you feel comfortable with given the context. You can tell people “Not so far!” or “No but if it changes you’ll be the first to know” or “What? Why? Let’s go back to talking about work!” or “Ha, people never stop asking that, do they!” or “Yikes, why would you ask people that? You don’t ask other people that, do you?” or “Well, we fuck day and night, just, nonstop carnal procreative boning, we copulate on every surface of our living space, we make tender sweet love in the car, we were definitely having divine intimate congress this morning right where you’re sitting, so, probably any day now!” or “Yes we have thousands. Oh, did you say children? I thought you said spiders.” Find what feels right for you, and please know that you don’t have to answer this question in a way that people are expecting or in a way that’s designed to reassure them that it was okay to ask.
In my day to day interactions I do not in fact try to land the wittiest comeback or sickest burn in response to routine social questions, and I bet most people reading this are the same way, so let’s talk about de-escalation. I feel better when I can control my responses somewhat and not be quite so reactive or defensive (esp. about things I don’t feel guilty about or have a reason to have to defend) and I also feel better and have more positive results when I don’t equate this specific person with the worst person who has ever asked these questions. Even if I do have a rough history or a lot of feelings about A Thing, maybe this person doesn’t know that (or need to know that) and isn’t probing my defenses with the same subtext that emotionally abusive people I’ve known are doing, so I don’t need to bite their head off in the name of justice. Does that make sense?
With that in mind, I think there are some useful life skills to practice with this and other “So, about those stages of life?” questions [what do you do for work][how are you spending the holidays][when are you going to finish your dissertation][when are you going to get married][when are you going to find someone][when are you going to graduate][don’t you want a drink, why not][when are you going to be a success in the way I understand it] that hit all our sensitive spots.
If one of these “where are you going in life” questions is smashing your sensitive places a whole bunch, I recommend the following process for coming up with a couple of measured responses. First, take a deep breath, be quiet, and think before you speak. Some things to think about and ask yourself:
- People are probably going to ask this kind of stuff forever.
- We don’t have to answer every question someone asks just because they want to know.
- We can’t stop/prevent/control questions like this, so can we maybe help ourselves not be surprised by them and prepare a few responses in advance?
- We do not owe people a happy history, a happy situation, or a performance of same. We also don’t owe them our whole life story in response to a drive-by inquiry.
- Most people aren’t asking stuff like this in order to freak us out, they are trying to take an interest in our lives, most of them don’t know they’ve potentially hit a sore spot.
- People who continue to poke & pry when it’s clear they’ve hit a sore spot and who try to use our sore spots against us are called jerks and we don’t have to defer to jerks at the expense of our well-being.
- The more evasive we are, the more curious it makes people, so if we actually want the conversation to stop/or change topic, SOME answer is better than NO answer. What if the person is just asking and not assuming anything about our answer? What completes the circuit quickly and gets us onto a more pleasant topic of conversation?
- If most people are asking in good faith and don’t mean to hurt us, what can we say that is both true and has a chance of de-escalating the situation?
The Letter Writer’s script “We’ve been trying for a while and it just hasn’t happened” is good. The right answer to that is some version of “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to pry, I hope it all works out!” and then a change in subject.
But for some people this might be too much information not because you’re oversharing (you can’t control what other people do and it’s not your fault if they behave like jerks) but because the other person sees an opportunity to get more details or offer unasked for fertility advice. If this is the case, it’s okay to interrupt them with a big “WOW, I was NOT asking for ADVICE so let’s STOP” reprimand and an enforced subject change or quick end to the conversation. If you’re running into this a lot, and/or when you sense that you’re dealing with this kind of person, try giving less information, maybe something like “Fingers crossed!” or “Here’s hoping!” or another platitude which might get across the part where you do want children but without inviting more commentary. I’ve had good luck with “You had no way of knowing but that’s a very sore topic, can we not?” when people are well-meaning and didn’t intend to pry. With the other kind of person, nothing will really deter them anyway, so I’m pretty comfortable ending conversations as gracefully as I can or as ungracefully as they force me to do it if it becomes necessary to (usually metaphorically) flip a table and bail.
I don’t tell everyone all about “Guillame” and the past year of invasive tests and surgeries (just you lucky, lucky people), but I’ve found myself being asked if I have kids or want kids a whole bunch lately by passing acquaintances (pre-menopause extinction burst?) and it sometimes brings up unexpected pockets of sadness. I’ve found myself saying “I wasn’t really planning on having kids, which is good because it turns out my body *really* wasn’t planning on it” and being surprised that came out of my mouth. So far people are receptive, most seem to get it and either back off or say, “The same thing happened to me” and then we share a little moment of relief and grief and connection and move on with our day.
Before this past year, when I found out not having children was both a medical impossibility AND a choice, I had some luck with laughing it off and asking “Did my family send you? How much did they bribe you with?” See also:
- “None for me, do you have kids?” + Get them talking about themselves! Neutral, non-combative, this works well when I sense the person means well and the question is value-neutral, they are literally just asking and are not invested in any particular answer or idea of me.
- “Oh no, I am much too selfish.” This worked well when people seemed to be setting themselves up for a big old “why don’t you have kids” discussion or judgment session, with the implication that women who don’t have children are selfish. I’d just keep laughing and saying, “Yes! I’m glad you pointed that out, you have idea how selfish I am, I love sleeping and being quiet and I hate spending money on anyone but me.”
Letter Writer, I hope your quest to become a parent is successful and smooth and awesome and that you find the right balance between “truthful and sincere” and “STFU about my body, you nosy asshole.” You are very not alone in all this “having a body and having people want to know the details of your plans for that body” stuff.
I’m allowing comments today with the following caveats:
- *”The story of the time I asked people if they were planning to have kids and it went fine and the person was very glad I did” is a tale you are free to tell anywhere but here, since the whole point is, this question is everywhere and some of us are drowning in it and the expectations and assumptions it carries even if sometimes it is well-meant. Thank you!
- “Uterus” does not equal “woman” and vice versa.
- If you (an obvious newcomer to these parts since no one who regularly hangs out here would ever do this) try to give the Letter Writer even one morsel of fertility or medical advice I will ban you so hard your grandparents will feel it and if you type the words “have you considered adoption” in a comment field and hit post I might singlehandedly crash Ancestry Dot Com as I delete your entire family tree back to the first asshole acorn of this asshole question. The Letter Writer doesn’t want advice or chitchat about this from people she knows in real life, she definitely doesn’t want it here, so let’s stick to the conversational stuff!
I think that should cover it, thanks!