January 04, 2006

The Question

Are you Childfree?
Of course, that’s not what people really ask when they are trying to get to know you. They ask, “Do you have kids?” As a middle-aged, married woman I get it all the time. How you answer can either lead to immediate bonding over the trials of the “I’m a Parent Too” club or any number of awkward, borderline rude comments, including completely uninvited queries into your very personal affairs. How can people on both sides of this conversation help each other?

A friend of mine, herself a grandmother, confided that she always feels immediately awkward when someone of obvious child-bearing age answers that “no” they do not have kids.
Where to go with the conversation from here? I don’t know how she handles it when it happens, but I’d bet money that she’ll keep on asking The Question. Her chances of getting to do parent bonding are in her favor, and I know how much she values reaching out to other human beings. Most of us would like to know how to do it better, judging from the number of books that have been published on the subject.

Okay, I’ll admit that I just turned 40 this past year. I’ve been married seven years and I just moved to a new town and recently started a new job. All this to say that I have had this question posed to me a lot in recent months. Being in new social circles gives people plenty of reason to ask questions in an attempt to get to know you. It has not always gone well, despite my best efforts. Usually I feel like a doe caught in the headlights, and I end up I am making up excuses for not having kids, explaining too much. And yes, it is possible to give too much information! So, when my co-worker asked about offspring, I tried a new tack and was reasonably pleased with the results, if not the reply. I could tell from the unframed art affixed to her office wall that she had kids, so...
I knew the question was coming, and I replied with a smile and simply said “No and none are planned, unless you count my two cats.” She immediately launched into a conversation about her kids anyway,...
but did manage to mention that we have two cats also. Instead of closing the conversation like a circle with a finite “yes” or a “no”, I gave her something on the end to reach out to. She almost missed it.

Towards the end of summer, my husband and I were invited to a backyard barbeque gathering. We were so pleased to get out and meet some locals in our newly adopted town. The hostess was a friend of a friend who was visiting with us. Our hostess ran a daycare center out of her home, a lovely person indeed, but we were having a hard time finding what we had in common – other than both being women and living in the same proximal neighborhood. Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that much of the evening’s conversations revolved around other people’s children, the O.P.C. dilemma. At one point in the evening, another party guest, formerly employed by our hostess, asked me directly “Any children?” I replied with a “no.” Bad move. She chose to dismiss my closed remark with an arrogant “Oh, not yet!” I was floored by the complete misunderstanding that just occurred and the conversation, mostly one-sided, just rolled right along. I exchanged glances across the patio with my sister-in-law and I think she approved of my silence. It was the kinder, easier thing to do, and I realized I created this situation by leaving her no clue as to my status or interests. By replying with a closed “no” I gave her nothing to hang onto, conversationally.

I discussed the backyard BBQ incident with my husband later and asked if he overhead this briefest bit of conversation and indeed he had. He was incredulous at the comment since this woman had met him already and not noticed his advanced age, which in his opinion is too old to start a family. I guess at the same time I should be grateful for being such a well-preserved 40 and flattered that people would still think I am young enough too.
The miracles of science have extended the possibilities of fertility far beyond the reasonable, for those who can afford it.
As one friend pointed out, I have aged well because of the fact that I have not had kids. Soon the smile lines will deepen and people will just assume I have them, unless I help them to see otherwise.

In fairness, I have also been on the other side of the conversation. We all have. After asking “So, do you have kids?” I almost immediately regret it, as I am leading myself into the O.P.C. trap, a willing victim. It is deceptively easy as an ice-breaker. Too easy though, and as a childfree woman I vow in the future to break myself of this habit. Socializing is an art form and a real skill. Asking a good open-ended question that one can expand upon is lost on most of us from what little I do. If someone has kids, it will be easy to find out in the natural course of conversation, as parents find them impossible not to mention. They’ll tell a story and mention multiple names or use terms like “the family” or make a joke about being a “soccer mom” depending on the time of year. The question itself is really unnecessary. If you get a “no,” and then nothing to hand onto in conversation, I really feel for you. Ask yourself though, do you really want to inquire further and force someone to admit they’ve been trying to have a family for years, spending thousands of dollars and tears in an effort to conceive? Why risk it?

I apologize publicly to my cousin-in-laws who finally adopted a baby from China.
I have no idea what they went through before reaching that decision – and it is none of my business, but since I was also in a position to ponder our family options, I always asked about it whenever I saw them at family gatherings.Now, if I hear someone mention their kids in a conversation, I whole-heartedly embrace asking about them. People love talking about their kids. So, it’s kind to listen and draw them out a little. Just know that they will inquire likewise, and if you are childfree like me, be prepared with a better answer than just “no.” For example try, “No, Frank and I value our art / travels / silence / disposable income.” You may at least get a laugh and you may avoid the O.P.C. trap. Of course this advice is for folks who do not have kids, nor plan to. My most rewarding reply so far has been a response from a parent, exclaiming the virtures of the path not traveled.

My sister-in-law says she so appreciates the childfree adults in a room, because they are the only ones not stressed out from chasing kids around. According to my new doctor, the childfree are less of an aberration these days. It’s much more common that it used to be. Coming from a doctor, it must be true. When he asked me The Question on my first appointment, I thought perhaps it was professional in nature, then he shared that he and his wife are also childfree. He said we used to be “regarded as freaks.” I hope that has changed. We may not be able to control what people think about our choice, but we can help the conversation a little. I can daydream about strangers asking “Are you childfree” in place of “Do you have children,” but I won’t hold my breath. I know we’re outnumbered. Just once though, I would like someone to ask a good follow up question like “what are you doing instead?”


ChrisR said...

"I can daydream about strangers asking “Are you childfree” in place of “Do you have children,” but I won’t hold my breath"

It would be nice, wouldn't it?

And I think you've just answered my biggest child free question - when do people stop saying 'how old are you? ... oh you'll change your mind in a year or 2'. I'm not yet 30, do you mean I have to put up with this for another decade yet???? Aarrgghh.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, thanks for visiting our blog.

My personal story is different, because I always assumed I would have kids and found out I couldn't, but I can empathize with your sentiment. Sounds like you may be single too. That makes you even more suspect to change your mind -- or so others would assume. It's the "you have not met Mr. Right" syndrome.

Wouldn't it be great to reply (with a very sincere, concerned expression on your face) say "Do you even realize how condesending that sounds?" Your Mr. Right won't want kids either.

Imagine how much parents would they like it if childfree people went around saying "Boy, I bet you really regret that" when we learn that someone has kids!

Truly, how can anyone, especially strangers to each other, pretend to know a person's priorities, or what makes them happy/miserable? That goes way beyond assumptions, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading your article and I really enjoyed it! Your comments about creating conversational openings for people to hang on to is bang on!

I know I have to stop myself from reacting in horror, with a strident "No way!" when people ask if I have kids, although being single I don't get it as much.
Adding your comment about having two cats to give others something to talk about is really smart. You are so right that it's all about being able to communicate effectively, even about other people's kids.

NikkiJ said...

When strangers ask me the "children question" I happily reply that we don't have any because my husband and I decided we didn't want to. Often I find it rather interesting to watch them trying to be polite and just stopping themselves from asking "why not?" I usually then change the subject, because I don't see that I owe anyone an explanation. Sometines I ask about their kids, often I talk about something else. After all, when they say they have children, do I ask why? The patronizing ones are the ones that I have the most fun with...

Many of my friends have children. Some were my collegues who later became my friends, so when we get together it isn't long before we talk about their kids - usually, in fact nearly always, I ask the question. I think they are often amazed that I know all their kids names and ages by heart (and even what class they are in school!), even if I haven't seen or heard of them in a while (the kids that is). I know who has a child who is just turning the " terrible 2s" and I had fun teasing him because - guess what - he and his wife have another on the way!
My knowing such details about their kids always suprises my friends because they know and accept that I don't have and don't want them and for this reason I find they tend not to bring up the subject of their kids on their own. I ask about them because I am interested and I think because we have that friendhip level we don't have any awkwardness. Some of their "not so unguarded" comments when I told them way back when that my husband and I had decided not to have children follow:
"Very wise decision, it's really hard work.. with no guarantees"
" I love them to bits, but if I knew what I know now, I don't think I'd have had children..."

"They are great, but it is very hard work, I don't blame you..."
"They are with you for life, remember that..."
And even - "don't ever get a dog... it's like having another child.. but harder work"

They don't invite me to any baby showers,which is great - and they do love their children and - I assume their pets - to bits. And, to a person their children are fantastic kids.
I'm very happy I have these people in my life, not just because they are great people, I like them and enjoy their company but because we can talk for ages without even mentioning their kids.

ChrisR said...

Yes, Teri, sad to say but 'you haven't met the right bloke yet' is usually the 2nd statement in the litany.

As always, people feel free to make assumptions and demand justifications once they realise you don't have or want kids. And I do find that really annoying.

Anonymous said...

Whenever anyone asks me if I have children, I just say "Nope -- I leave that for the pros!". It always gets a chuckle, and it lets the other person know I'm happy with the fact I don't have kids. Then the conversation can just move forward from there (usually, I just ask a question about whatever, or talk about something of interest to me.)

SkitzoLeezra said...

My 20 year high school reunion questionnaire included a space for children in which I wrote "no thanks!" The folks with a sense of humor commented on it and the others wondered about me. The single girl, never married, no children, do you think she is a ? Um, no, she ISN'T! But why the leap?

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, right! I forgot about that leap of assumption.

If you are a single woman and don't want kids you must be a lesbian.

Which is interesting to me because, I think that in certain parts of the country all feminists are mistaken for lesbians too. Take the magazine Bust. I was interviewed for an article about childfree women in the January 2007 issue. I describe the magazine as an edgy, feminist magazine out of NY, NY.

My gay brother-in-law (well, okay they're not really married - we're not Canadians after all) took one look at the cover and declared it a lezbo rag! Not that there's anything wrong with that. I find it's women-centric slant a refreshing change. And the ads in the back are very cheeky.

Tanya said...

I got married 7 months ago at the tender age of 34 and am 35 now. My husband is 38.

His family has known all along he would not have kids. My mother is accepting it more since my sister is pregnant.

I have loads of friends with kids now. I get asked by people if I am having babies and I simply say "No, we don't want any, thanks."

If pushed, I fall back on the "I'm a teacher and I see 1100+ kids daily. I do not wish to come home to another one, thanks."

Also, the fact that my husband and I are currently living on different continents due to work would make conception a bit rough, I remind them.

Most people I have encountered don't push too much. I did have one woman push push push at one outting and I (after a couple too many cocktails) said "We're not done practicing yet and we want to make sure we can produce a perfect one. I'll let you know how it goes."

Stedders1975 said...

I am 31 years old, married for 9 years in August this year. You wouldn't believe the number of people that have asked me WHY we got married if we weren't planning to have any kids, much less straight away after the wedding.

I always say that we got married because it meant the RAF would have to provide us with a house (which is true) as my husband is a technician, and has been since 1994. The reaction to that sort of materialistic response is just outstanding, as people think that I really mean it!!!

And yet, someone can have a child without any of the forethought that the planning of our wedding ceremony took - or even the forethought of realising that married = house when your spouse is in the Forces!!!!

Anonymous said...

Ms. Stedders - Thanks for weighing in from England!

You probably have not hear of Initiative 957, a proposition for a law in Washinigton state that would require couples who wish to marry to prove they can have children! It is a farce of course, and more to do with outlawing gay marriages. I don't know if they got all the signatures they needed to get on the ballot. I shall report back on this. Check the front pages of this blog later this week! You can read my original post about 957 by clicking the label in the sidebar.

Very interesting, your two cents about being childfree and in the military. One Guest Poster, our dear AlphaGirl, wrote a piece about how she was denied any kind of assistance, except a meager unemployment check, due to her "family size". She is single. Homeless happens.

Anonymous said...

It is supposed to be the 21st century, but it appears we are still in the Middle Ages when it comes to society's expectations about certain things, such as the desire for br.. sorry, kids.

How nice it would be to just be able to be honest and say, I don't have any because I didn't want any, because I don't happen to like them or the idea of having them - partly due to the pressure the media puts on them to put on us to consume everything in sight, and turn them into brats.

Even if that doesn't happen, do we all have to want to do the same thing, endure diapers, wailing, temper tantrums (and that's just the husbands, lol!) as everyone else? Well, of course we do if we want contribute to the consumer society and perpetuate the military/business complex.

Basically, until this planet turns itself around and starts being a decent place to live for everyone, what an awful place to bring another person into. But try explaining that to parents who accuse you of being selfish, and you will see their eyes glass over with the propaganda they've been fed.

Anonymous said...

Just Me -- thank you for this Boxing Day gift!

Your words ring true for many. It is hard to look on the bright side, to see the best in people and situations. That is truly a gift. When you begin to examine closely our impact on the planet, in our communities, in other peoples lives, be they strangers or not, that is the measure of our existence, our society, our individual insignificant tiny lives.

Is it a book we write? Is it the kids we nurture as a school teacher? Is it the donation we made to Red Cross every year? Is it the time we donated to feed the homeless on a holiday? The answer is different for each of us.