I had a client yesterday who’s sick of being asked “When are you going to start your family??”
3 Main Issues
She had three main issues with this:
1: Being asked a question that is, as far as she’s concerned, no-one’s business but her’s and her partner’s.
2: The word “when”: “if one insists on asking,” she moaned, “could they not ask “if” instead?”
3: The word “your”: As the person in possession of a uterus, is it solely the woman’s decision/responsibility/ issue?
(As a retort she asked how the questioner’s sex life was coming along and that, as they say, was the end of that..)
Coincidentally, within an hour of seeing this client (I’m not making this up!) I then met someone socially who was similarly irritated that she had barely cut the umbilical chord when people started asking when (note, not even ‘if’) she was going to produce a sibling for the barely born baby.
Recently we saw the Facebook post doing the rounds of an ultrasound pic that then goes on to rant about how one’s reproductive life is no-one else’s business (have you seen it?)
The question is – Why do we seem to think that other peoples’ reproductive choices are any our business??
And honestly I think that most people don’t consider whether or not it’s ‘their business’, they simply assume that other people are perfectly OK with discussing what is, in fact, a very intimate and possibly complex part of their lives. Perhaps the fact that so many people ‘have’ children normalises the process to such a degree that it implies permission to discuss, to pry.
We humans tend to make assumptions about each other based on norms, personal experiences or opinions – this causes a lot of damage in relationships. It is a form of bias of which many of us are blissfully unaware.
A lot of us are guilty of this, looking at couples who have a child of a certain age and wondering when ‘number two’ is on the way. Or we might observe friends who have been married a while and don’t have kids “yet” …. and yet – does it personally irk when people do it to you?
When I was first married a childfree friend warned me that the questions would soon start, along with spatterings of uninvited advice (“Oooh don’t leave it too late”, “Oh you’re still young don’t worry”, “Oh you’ll feel more complete once the children come”, bla bla) – Boy, was she right?! My stomach area received a lot of surreptitious attention in the first two years after I got married..searching for bumps and tell-tale nausea cramps..
But why do we care if someone else is or isn’t having babies?
We are curious about each others’ lives and like to know that people around us are like us. This is normal, helpful even, and I’m not complaining. As a functioning society we rely greatly on belonging to groups of similar people to us – it leads to comfort, sometimes conflict. Parents gravitate towards other parents and are curious about how they parent and how they make choices.
There is a constant process of comparison monitoring for some. We check against each other for evidence that we are normal. The less self-assured we are, the more we do this. Non-parents also gravitate towards each other, it’s natural. It’s also natural that each group will be very curious about the other and perhaps not be able to relate to their choices. So within each group and between the groups, we make judgments, ask questions, some of which will be experienced as criticism or simply inappropriate. Just. Plain. Rude.
In my experience the happier more self confident we are as individuals, the less likely it is that we ask inappropriate questions or make judgements on other people. All judgement and questioning starts from within.
A journalist recently asked me if this is a subject that folk should just steer clear of if the woman or couple in question hasn’t brought it up?
And not to give too short an answer – but, yes.
As with anything, if there is an issue that someone is having difficulty talking about, then a gently asking if they want to talk about it is a good thing. This is appropriate with friends, not the neighbours you spotted in the mall who still haven’t had a baby despite being married a full year…
Here’s a list of tips for how to broach this (if you insist!):
I advise extreme caution with how questions are phrased and be mindful that you might be incorrectly assuming:
- That the woman or couple want children.
- That the two individuals in the couple have the same wants.
- That the two individuals in the couple are ABLE to conceive.
- That the couple hasn’t already had a string of painful miscarriages that they haven’t disclosed either at all, or simply to you. And so even talking about it is too hard.
- That one or both people have had terribly traumatic childhoods and are trying to cope with that before making any decision about parenting themselves.
- That the people you are talking to don’t have a degenerative or terminal illness that means they’ve decided not to have children.
- That the people you are talking to don’t have a child with a significant health issue and having another child might be incredibly dangerous for the mother or child, or both.
I’m sure there are others I haven’t thought of. From personal and professional experience these are things people seem not to consider. Check if your own need for information outweighs the other person’s need for empathy and consideration. And if you’re a human being – it often does! We do love our drama..
Is there ever an OK way to ask?
There is a chance of course, that someone you are close to is having trouble and wants to talk about it but couldn’t bring themselves to start the conversation.
If you know for certain that your friend or friend’s partner wants to conceive and is having difficulty then yes there is a helpful way.
1: Use words that are unambiguous and clear.
Like “I know you’re having trouble getting pregnant. If this is something you ever need to talk about please let me know. We can talk right now if you like. I want to be here for you”. Nice.
2: Avoid dramatic things like “ You must be going crazy with grief” or “This must be killing you” because, that may not be true. They might be conflicted: again, it’s back to assumptions – try to be aware of them and make as few as possible!
What about grandparents?
Ideally, if you are a grandparent or hopeful grandparent, again: don’t ask. Particularly if you are invested in having grandchildren. Your disappointment might feel like disapproval if seen. If however you are comfortable with the knowledge that it is their choice and not yours, and you are genuinely close to your grandchild and their partner, then something like “A lot of couples these days are choosing not to have kids – we’re wondering – what are your thoughts? And please feel free to tell us if this feels too private!” This way you are communicating an awareness that it is their choice, that you are not rushing them, that you have no expectation and that you’re OK with not getting an answer.
How do these questions affect women?
The reaction to baby plan questions varies massively. Some women don’t have an issue with discussing their family plans. Others find it rude, invasive and disrespectful.
If a couple has had difficulty conceiving though then that is particularly painful. Mostly, women (and men) I’ve spoken to about this feel unheard and unsupported if they have suffered miscarriages. Most of the women I know who have miscarried have been told “at least they can get pregnant”, “ at least you can try again” “plenty of time” etc. This might sounds like the right thing to say on your head, but in the head of a woman in pain, it might feel like a dismissal of one of the worst experiences, or worst, that she’s ever had. And let’s not forget men – while women are more often targeted by questioners – men get it too. And a couple miscarry, or are infertile, or whatever the issue may be. Not just the woman.
For women who don’t want kids they can be hurt that some people might see them as abnormal or not ‘real’ women if they don’t want children. Which of course is utter nonsense and terribly judgemental. But it’s a judgement that’s out there and we need to be sensitive to that.
Has social media increased our ‘OK-ness’ with intrusiveness?
I think the explosion of social media has led to an increase in oversharing, and over monitoring of each other. Our celebrity obsession is worsening, and more and more I find I’m helping teenagers, in particular, to identify who they are as individuals. Our sense of ‘self’ and individual value can be easily eroded: we are being trained to judge each other and ourselves more and more harshly. We overshare the dramatic and false and undershare what’s helpful and real. And this is leaking into real life too. But a little more mindful consideration on all our parts and this can really easily be fixed! I really do believe that.
Our societal privacy settings simply need adjusting.
So finally – how to deal with unwanted questions:
Here are some ‘go-to’ responses for uninvited and intrusive baby (or any!) questions:
1: If it’s from a liked or trusted person simply say
“I’d rather not talk about that, but thank you for your concern”.
2: Or for a liked person who may be tactless but well meaning
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to intrude but I found that question quite invasive.”
3: Or for a person with whom you’re not so close
“I’m not comfortable having that conversation with you.”
4: Or for the really invasive ones who won’t stop
“ I’ve already told you I don’t want to talk about this. If you continue to be rude I’ll get up and leave”.
Harsh? Maybe. Effective? Usually!
My final words on this are: Be careful that you don’t apologise (“Sorry…I don’t want to talk about it..” ) You’ve done nothing wrong by having and asking for respect for your privacy. And be willing to come good on your threat to leave – otherwise those questions will keep on comin’!
Thanks for reading!