4.3
January 19, 2023

“Do you have kids?”—Why We Should Question the Questions We Ask.

 

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Last summer, a young woman with a baby came into a shop I was working at, and for whatever reason—the weather, the moon phase, our personal hang-ups—the dynamic between us felt slightly “off.”

After some trouble locating her store credit in our computer system and then helping her find a gift, I was ringing up her sale when she inquired: “Do you have kids?” I paused, wondering where that had come from. We weren’t talking about children or anything personal, so the question felt unnatural. It felt like a jab.

Instead of enduring the awkward moment of silence that ensues when you answer “no” (with the exception of the rare occasion when someone congratulates you—also awkward), I offered that I have a niece and nephews.

When people ask me about my childbearing status, I also like to use it as an opportunity to whip out photos of my kitty cats (sorry you 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 tone, “That’s the best!”…perhaps recognizing that it wasn’t “the best” question to ask a stranger. In any case, she was correct: my niece and nephews are indeed the best.

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 in this particular incident, the question felt intrusive and a tad judgmental. To give the benefit of the doubt, maybe the young woman was just trying to make conversation and it came across the wrong way. Either way, I felt in that moment deeply irritated.

Although I would have been open to having a child if I had met “the right person” at “the right time,” I am not heartbroken over my child-less status. I enjoy my independence. That said, I do, at times, lack a sense of belonging (a theme that has been with me since I was young) that can cause me to feel untethered and a bit lonely. But, on the other hand, I cringe a little at the idea of domestic life, especially after, say, observing a family in the grocery store.

It happened again recently at the school I work at. The conversation felt more like an unsolicited interview than a two-way interaction. The mother of one of my student’s looked like a deer in the headlights when I revealed that no, I do not have children at the school I teach at. It was as if I had just said something inappropriate or bizarre and all she could do was stare at me in disbelief. That’s when I try to lighten the mood. I blurted, “I have two fur babies.” She said, with a partial frown, “Oh, that’s okay” and our conversation abruptly ended. I wanted to say: Yes, I know, that is okay, and who made you the childbearing authority? Instead, I smiled politely.

As Bex Main states 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 most cases, is unnecessary. Yes, I understand that in many cases people are simply trying to make conversation. People also argue that any topic could hit a nerve and why should they have to walk on eggshells? Point taken. While nobody, including myself, wants to “walk on eggshells,” it is, I believe, a worthwhile practice to be aware of experiences outside of our own.

That said, I want to recognize that we all, indeed, put the proverbial foot in the mouth at times. I tend to get nervous when I’m “on the spot” and my conversational rhythm doesn’t always, let’s say, flow. Words are not always easy to string together (even for a writer) and sometimes they don’t adequately reflect what we want or are trying to say. I get that. With that in mind, there are also simply nosey parker people asking nosey parker questions.

Men and women of a “certain age” are often and indiscriminately asked the “kids” question, along with other personal status questions. It is as if we are deemed to have less value without children, or as single human beings without families—that is, if you are not a famous ball player, actor, or musician. In that case, you have built in status and can defy all the “norms” that people otherwise might judge you for breaking.

I don’t often post on social media these days, but after the incident in the store with the young woman and her baby, I was somewhat fired up and had the desire to express my feelings and collect people’s thoughts and feelings on the subject. In response to my post, a man I went to high school with, who recently got married in his 40s, commented that before he got engaged he was constantly asked: “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.

As I said to my own mother once, who asked my friend who had recently gotten married when the babies were due to arrive, Get a hobby! We all laughed.

Sure, you can say it’s “a generational thing” or the person “means well”—a favorite saying in my family. But where do we draw the line with “means well?” We can hold multiple truths as adults, and I think it is important to do so. My mom was a kind-hearted and good person who did in fact “mean well” most of the time, and I will also say she didn’t often reflect before she spoke and was not always in tune to, let’s say, the emotional tenor in the room. My friend loved my mom, either way, but I could tell the question made her uncomfortable; her new (at the time) husband was tentative about having kids, so it was absolutely a personal subject that she probably did not even have the answer to.

A woman I have not met to the best of my knowledge (we have some friends in common on Facebook) chimed in on the Facebook post comments that she is essentially “above it all” (my words/interpretation of her comment) and this type of thing does not faze her due to her spiritual practice; she sees everything as love (her words).

Although I see her point (I admit that I probably would not have been triggered if I was fully confident and content in my life situation), it is not necessarily “spiritual” to not feel and, furthermore, someone who is truly enlightened (and above it all, as it were) would not feel the need to make this comment, which is coming from ego.

No matter where we are in our spiritual journeys, there will be times when are our feelings get hurt or we feel triggered emotionally by a situation (for most of us, healing work is a work in progress), and sometimes communicating about that is actually more “spiritual” because it may allow others who are also feeling that way to feel understood or less alone.

At the risk of eggshell traversing, we can all probably be more considerate about the kinds of questions we ask and whether or not they are genuine or thoughtful questions that the receiver would like to answer. This takes practice. You may need to take a moment or a few long breaths (as I often do) if you feel on the spot or like you need to come up with something to say in a jiffy. Often, silence is okay in the moments we feel compelled to fill with small talk.

It’s the old “put yourself in another’s shoes” concept. Would you want to be asked the question if the situation were reversed? If the answer is no or you are unsure, consider (with all due respect) putting a sock in it.

Afterall, I wonder how a married person with kids might feel if the childless person asked in return:

“Are you divorced?”

“When are you getting divorced?”

“Oh, what took you so long?”

And if all else fails, when someone asks if you have kids or, even worse, why you don’t have them, you can take a line from The Onion and answer, “It’s not child-bearing season.”

~

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