I get this question a lot. It’s now become one of my phrases I wish people wouldn’t say, although it’s not the question itself I have a problem with, it’s what comes after.
It mostly comes up in conversation with people I haven’t met before/don’t see that often. Lots of women my age have children now. They obviously talk about their children and I’m happy to join in the conversation and ask questions. At some point, if they’re polite anyway, the other person realises they’ve spoken a lot about themselves and wants to ask questions about me. Because we’ve just been talking about it, it’s a natural segue for them to ask if I have any children. Every time, without fail, I always reply ‘no’ and leave it at that. This is because:
a) I don’t have children. Fact.
b) It’s not a GCSE languages exam, I don’t have to add in 3 tenses, an opinion and extend my sentence when I answer.
c) If I haven’t met you before, I shouldn’t have to go into detail about why I’m nearly 30 and don’t have children (the horror!).
Except quite often people want the detail and they push for more. Some people are normal human beings and leave it at that and ask me a different question. Others see it as a way to counsel me, give me ‘tips’ or ‘cure’ me. Here are some replies I hate:
‘Do you want children?’
Its like saying ‘did you vote for leave or stay in Brexit?’– if you don’t share the same opinion as them, you’re likely going to be judged. And as the person asking already has kids, you can safely assume the only correct answer to this question is ‘yes’. It’s a foreign concept to most, someone not wanting children, but in my case I can barely keep myself alive at the moment never mind a baby.
If I just answer ‘yes’ and try to leave it at that, I tend to get asked:
‘Are you trying?’
Wow what a question! Seriously? It makes me feel like I may as well get my 3 types of ID out and submit to a police check with the level of scrutiny going on. Or makes me want to say something equally as intrusive like ‘did you poo yourself in labour, I’ve heard that happens’. I don’t think that would go down well though…
So I tend to try to avoid this question by saying ‘I’m chronically ill’ or something. Which invariably leads to:
‘What’s wrong with you?’
Is the person concerned or are they just nosey? Even if I say, they won’t understand and I don’t feel like giving a lecture on endocrinology at casual social events. It then tends to lead down all of the phrases I wish people wouldn’t say route, – at least it’s not cancer, have you tried….? That’s life, or my personal favourite ‘yeah I get tired too but I still have kids, we all get tired!’
If I haven’t managed to run away by now, I tend to try a different tactic and say something blunt, usually involving the words ‘…I’ll die’ or ‘the baby would die’. The other person usually looks a bit taken aback and can be upset about the fact that I’ve made them feel awkward. Which I always find a bit backwards because their line of interrogation in the guise of polite conversation only just stops short of shining a light in my eyes and threatening to endanger my children if I don’t reveal my secrets. Oh wait… I don’t have children…
Which means it’s positive thinking or flippant comment/joke time from them to try and smooth over the situation.
‘It’ll happen when the time is right’
This is just a nod and smile moment. Will it happen? There are hundreds of thousands of women who miscarry or don’t get pregnant for a whole bunch of reasons yet still this is a ‘common’ phrase women with children churn out to childless women. A lot of women also conveniently forget any complications they may have had in having their own children, as well as how much they would have hated hearing that phrase. What if they don’t actually want children? What if they want a career or to travel? There isn’t actually an appropriate response to this statement.
‘You don’t want children anyway, they can be a nightmare sometimes’
This is said as a joke. But it’s not actually funny because the whole of the conversation so far has been about the mother expressing her adoration for her children, so clearly you’re supposed to want children. It can also come across as smug – like ‘I have my children so I can say things like that’, a bit like when people are boasting about how much they earn or their job title, and saying ‘you wouldn’t want my job, I hate having to go to meetings with the big bosses’. I haven’t yet worked out what on earth to say to this so keep quiet.
As a last attempt to salvage the situation, the mother remembers she has a baby and says:
‘Do you want to hold X?’
I like babies, unless they’re seriously hefty or fall into the ‘ugly baby’ category (some babies are ugly, but it appears only childless women notice this, mothers seem to think their babies are cute regardless). So usually I’m glad of the distraction and I like to cuddle babies. But it’s also a really weird scenario if you think about it. It’s a bit like them saying ‘sorry you’ve not got your own baby, do you want to borrow mine for a bit so you can feel better?’. I know some women would be heartbroken to be holding a baby immediately after being reminded quite crudely about the fact that they don’t have their own.
The question isn’t the problem. It’s a normal question. It’s the searching for answers to satisfy your curiosity or to try and ‘help’ me that I have the problem with. Please don’t tell me your inspirational story about how you ‘defied the odds’ or how amazing motherhood is, like you’re doing an acceptance speech for your mother of the year award. For a lot of people, having a baby is the longest period of contact with healthcare professionals or the closest thing to a medical emergency they’ll have. But if you walk a tight rope most days like I do and see some medical staff more often than you do your friends, ‘defying the odds’ takes on a different meaning. Talking about your babies and children is fine (within reason- I don’t care what they eat or how often they poo), gushing about how amazing it is beyond a normal amount, and how I can’t possibly understand because I’m not a mother isn’t.
Truth be told, the ability to have children isn’t an invitation to an exclusive club. We’re a species, and reproducing is necessary for our species to survive. It just also happens to be a big part of life. The Mum at the social event asking the questions isn’t being malicious and really just wants other people to experience the ‘joy of motherhood’ she feels, which is great. But it doesn’t work like that for everyone. Consider the level of friendship you have with the woman; is it your place to counsel her? Will you continue to offer support once the conversation is finished? If not, don’t ask the questions. Does the woman seem to want to talk about it? If not, don’t ask the questions. Are you likely to say anything she’s not heard lots before? If not, don’t. ask. the. questions. While it’s completely fine to ask if other women have kids, it can make for stressful socialising if a woman feels under interrogation by a virtual stranger at every event- it’s not the first time she’ll have experienced these questions, even if it’s the first time the Mum has asked them of her.
Some women will want to talk about it, others won’t. But it should feel like a choice and not a siege 🙂