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?”
January 04, 2006
Are you Childfree?