Do you ever wonder why it is considered appropriate to ask a stranger if they have kids? Or, worse yet, why they don’t have kids? Imagine asking someone you have just met if she or he has caught their spouse cheating recently? You wouldn’t do it because that’s considered personal. I am here to tell you that so is asking a stranger if they are a mother.
Consider this: you ask someone who has lost a child, had a miscarriage or abortion, or someone who desperately wants to have children but can’t. I recognize that if we become too cautious about asking questions it might be hard to “make conversation,” since many topics can hit on sensitive or vulnerable spots … but can we all agree that small talk is the pits anyway?
I think: 1. we can get more creative if we want to strike up a conversation, and 2. If obliged to talk and you don’t know what to say, just stick with the trusty ole’ weather. Yeah, it’s a terrible topic but it beats being asked an intrusive question by someone you don’t know. Also, as Bex Main expresses in her article, “Please, please stop asking: “Do you have children?”, someone who has a child will generally bring that up early in the conversation anyway, so the question, in many cases, is unnecessary.
A young woman with a baby came into a shop I was working at. I typically enjoy chatting with people but the dynamic between us felt slightly off, for whatever reason … we didn’t hit it off. As I was ringing up her sale, she randomly asked, “Do you have kids?” I paused, thinking where did that come from? We weren’t talking about children or anything related to children, so the question wasn’t natural or at all necessary in terms of our interaction. It felt a little like a jab.
Instead of saying “No,” which often leads to an awkward moment of silence, I answered that I have a niece and nephews. When people ask me about my child-bearing status, I like to use it as an opportunity to whip out photos of my fur babies (sorry ya asked now, aren’t ya?) — in a few cases, the question asker looked at me like I had just shared a photo of my private parts (not an animal lover, I see). I digress.
The Millennial with her baby replied, in a high pitched voice, “That’s the best!” perhaps, recognizing that it wasn’t “the best” question to ask. My niece and nephews ARE the best (no prejudice here). They love me a lot and I them. That said, the “kids” question can be a sensitive one, and in that moment it was for me.
The thing is: I am not heartbroken over not having children … but I am not, let’s say, in the place I imagined I’d be at “this age.” I’m in my 40s (I think I might be in denial), unmarried, and in a career transition/crisis. Lately, I feel like the odd man out wherever I go, not quite fitting into any situation. I lost my work and community during Covid, as well as my mother to cancer. Some of friendships faded while other older friendships have grown stale. I feel isolated and unsure of my next steps, so I am in a somewhat vulnerable situation, emotionally speaking. And the thought has crossed my mind that if I had been able to get my life together, so to speak, maybe I would have loved being a mom, and that makes me a little sad … but, then, another part of me thinks, pretty resolutely, that motherhood is not my destiny in this lifetime and I even cringe a little at the idea of domestic life (my Astrology chart seems to agree), and believe I can enjoy and connect with little people, in a more fulfilling way (for me), by teaching them yoga and mindfulness.
This is all to say that the kids question usually rolls off me, especially if the person asks in a kind or interested way, which I’d say the majority of people do, but on this day it did not feel that way. The question felt intrusive and a little judgmental. To give the benefit of the doubt (which is always a nice thing to do) maybe she really was just trying to make conversation and it came across the wrong way; either way, the irritation I felt in that moment caused me to write a Facebook post that generated some heartfelt, insightful, and humorous responses, causing me to reflect on the bigger picture of women’s roles/identities and why we (and probably men too) are constantly and indiscriminately asked this question when we reach a “certain age,” as well as other inappropriate status questions.
A man I went to high school with, who recently got married, responded to my facebook post. He said, before he got engaged it was: “When are you getting married?” When he got married, in came: “What took you so long?” Now that he is married, he is interrogated by the baby police.
We all put the proverbial foot in the mouth at times, and, god knows, I am no exception to this rule. I tend to get nervous when I’m “on the spot” and sometimes blurt out strange or awkward things that don’t quite make sense, so I don’t mean to sound judgmental or criticize someone who is just trying to make an honest connection. Words are not always easy to string together and sometimes they don’t adequately reflect what we want or are trying to say. I get that. Here comes the big “that said” … That said, there are also simply nosey parker people asking nosey parker questions, and to these people I say, stop that! As I said to my mom once, who asked my friend who had recently gotten married when the babies were due to arrive, get a hobby! I understand that it can be “a generational thing;” my friend loved my mom, who did mean well (as we like to say), but I could tell she was also uncomfortable and didn’t know how to respond; her husband was tentative about having kids, so it was absolutely a personal subject that she probably did not even have the answer to. Let us leave behind these “conversation starters” and nosey questions with the yesteryear. After all, how would the same person feel if you asked him or her, “Are you divorced?”, “When are you getting divorced?” or “What took you so long?”
And if all else fails, when someone asks if you have kids or why you don’t have them, you can take a line from The Onion and answer, “It’s not child-bearing season.”