Whether you’re childfree by choice, circumstance or infertility the questions “Do you have kids?” or “When are you having kids?” probably induce some type of negative emotion, ranging from annoyance to dread. My guess is that 95% of people asking you these questions are just trying to engage in small talk or idle chit-chat, and the other 5% are being tactless and nosy. Either way, they are expecting your response to be “yes” or “not yet”. Anything outside of this can put you both in awkward territory fast. If you plan to interact with other humans you probably can’t avoid these questions, but coming up with a few answers in advance can help you feel more in control of the situation.
Why is it such a big deal?
Maybe you are in the middle of infertility, just broke up with the partner you planned to have kids with, are single and at the end of your fertile years, are in a same-sex relationship and can’t afford expensive fertility treatments, your adoption just fell through, whatever the reason, you are trying to process the fact that no matter how much you desire it, a baby is not in the cards for you. You’re going through something personal and excruciating and strangers, colleagues, relatives, and friends are standing ready to unknowingly poke your open wound.
I have two personal examples that were particularly painful for me.
The first was a month before my scheduled hysterectomy. I was at an event, with endometriosis symptoms so bad it hurt to move. I was seated at a formal dinner, doing my best to make it through the event so I could get back to my bed and heating pad. I was chatting with people at the table when someone asked me “Do you have kids?” “No, I don’t,” I replied, feeling pretty good about my ability to respond without getting teary. It was the next question I was unprepared for, “Do you want them?” My stomach dropped and I felt my eyes filling with tears. I knew this wonderful woman sitting next to me was just trying to make small talk. She had no idea what this question would trigger.
How was I supposed to answer? Honestly? “Yes, we’ve been trying for over 3 years including a failed IVF cycle. I’m depressed, barely holding it together and am having a hysterectomy next month. I want a baby more than anything and my dream is turning black and disintegrating before my eyes.” Yeah, that wasn’t going to work. I looked around the table and thought of the humiliation that would come with a full on teary breakdown and took a deep breath. Before I could really think, I heard myself respond, “No, we’re not planning to have them.” It felt so inauthentic! To give this woman the impression that I didn’t want kids felt like a betrayal of everything my spouse and I had been through the last few years.
The second was on Mother’s Day, 5 months after my hysterectomy. My husband and I were eating lunch at a restaurant when the waitress unexpectedly asked:
“Are you a mom?”
“No,” I replied.
“Do you have pets?”
“Oh. I was going to tell you Happy Mother’s Day but, never-mind.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. As she walked away, tears started streaming down my face. I frantically said to my husband “Quick, tell me about the fun plans we have this year,” I needed an immediate distraction as I was on the verge of a full on public melt-down.
Planning your response in advance.
It would be naive to think we can control when and how emotions will hit us. To some degree, these situations may always be difficult, but I’m hoping with the passage of time and a little preparation we can feel more in control when they arise.
I think it helps to have a few prepared responses you can choose from depending on the situation. Here are some factors that may influence your response:
- Is it a stranger, a colleague, a close friend, an uncle you see once a year?
Where are you physically?
- Are you in public or at a work event where you don’t want to risk a strong emotional response?
- Are you three drinks in and can feel those emotions right at the surface?
- Are you at home, cozy and enjoying tea with a supportive bestie?
Where are you in your journey?
- Did you just find out your IVF cycle failed, you’re feeling hopeless and your body is still full of a billion hormones?
- Did you decide to move toward a childfree life 20 years ago and are now living a happy and fulfilled amazing life with no regrets?
What outcome are you hoping for?
- Do you want to raise awareness about infertility or why it’s rude to ask these questions?
- Are you hoping to dodge the question by changing the subject?
- Are you feeling salty and wanting to shut them down?
- Are you hoping to open up to someone who can provide support and comfort?
You can see how different situations may call for different responses and impact how authentic and vulnerable you choose to be. In any situation, try to remember that you don’t owe anyone an answer. What and how much you choose to disclose is entirely up to you.
Some examples to get you started.
Goal: Change the subject quickly without inviting follow up questions.
This is my go-to most of the time. It’s a great way to respond to strangers or in situations where you just don’t want to deal with it.
- “I don’t. Do you?”
- “No, but I have an adorable _______ (dog, cat, iguana, niece, nephew, spouse, partner) that I can’t get enough of.”
- Shrug and ask a totally off topic question. (How’s work going? What did I miss at book club last week? How’s your coffee?)
- “No, all my time and energy has been going to ________ (a home remodel, a hobby, an interesting work project, political activism, volunteer work, planning a trip) lately.”
Goal: Respond honestly.
I’m working to perfect this one but only attempt it when I’m feeling particularly strong and unemotional. I’ve realized if I respond confidently and without sadness in my voice it typically goes well. If I get emotional, the other person wants to comfort me, will respond with pity, will probably say something stupid or tactless, and make me more emotional. Also, honesty may invite follow up comments like, “You should adopt!” or “My friend…(ends with a miracle baby story)” or “You should try…” or a stream of platitudes. Proceed with caution!
- “No, I wasn’t able to so I’m moving forward and am focusing on the benefits of a childfree life.”
- “My uterus was defective so it wasn’t in the cards for us.”
- “You know, I never met the right person.”
- “I wanted to when I was younger but am really happy where I am.”
- “We gave up after spending $30k in infertility treatments.”
- “We tried for a long time but it didn’t work out.”
Goal: Shut it down!
This is gonna get awkward. Maybe don’t try this with someone you’re hoping to continue a relationship with. Also, I fantasize about these responses but would never have the guts to use them.
- “Wow, that’s a really personal question. I’d rather not talk about that.”
- “How’s your sex life? Oh, I’m sorry if that made you uncomfortable. Your question was so personal, I thought we had reached that level of intimate conversation.”
- “I want to but we can’t afford infertility treatments. Can I borrow $30k?”
- “The answer is somewhere in my medical records. Do you want me to send you a copy?”
- “You ask me this every time I see you! Why are you so obsessed with my uterus?”
For the research nerds.
Last year I found a research article called Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study of Women Living Without Children After Infertility by Marni Rosner. It’s fantastic and I’ll be talking more about it in future posts. In it, she mentions a concept by another researcher named Goffman called “face-work” that made me think differently about the factors at play when we engage in these conversations. I’m going to paraphrase but encourage you to check out the link to the research article above.
The basic idea is that we have a “face” or persona that we present when we engage with others. If our “face” is supported and validated during the interaction, we feel more confidence and acceptance. If it’s not, we feel shamed or threatened. We can protect our “face” or persona through social skills and diplomacy. On the other hand, we are also supposed to protect others’ “face” by avoiding insults or faux pas. Here’s how Marni Rosner relates this concept to infertility, although I think it could extend to women who are childless by circumstance as well:
The woman grieving the loss of her fertility often becomes careful regarding the face she presents in her social interactions. If she reveals her sorrow, she risks feeling unacknowledged and shamed if her grief is passed over; if she shows her displeasure with another’s response, she risks committing a social faux pas in not preserving another’s face. Most significantly, interactions that were previously easy and uncomplicated risk becoming complex and problematic. As a result, relationships may be interrupted, resulting in further limiting self-disclosure. Yet, self-disclosure is critical to integrating the loss into one’s identity and assisting with the sense making process.
Damn! So you can see how complex this dance is. Someone asks a question that is meant to be small talk or a way of creating an instant connection through a shared experience (having kids). But when the person being asked doesn’t have kids, they have to think about how to save their own “face” and the questioner’s “face” when formulating a response. If they respond honestly, they may not get the support and approval they are hoping for and that may lead to more shame and reinforce their desire to not respond honestly or disclose in the future. But that disclosure is instrumental to their healing and forming a childfree identity. Responding with honesty may also make the questioner feel uncomfortable and like you aren’t protecting their “face” by pointing out their faux pas in asking the question.
Let’s be honest, these situations are full of emotional landmines. But with some advanced planning and practice, hopefully they get easier over time. If you haven’t already planned a few responses, I hope this inspired you to start brainstorming so you feel more in control the next time someone asks if you have kids. And if you’re one of those people who uses “Do you have kids?” as an opener, maybe it’s time to get a new schtick.
How about you? What responses have you tried that work well? How do you navigate this situation?