When you get married, I’ve learned, you not only commit yourself to your spouse, but you also commit all details about the comings and goings of your uterus to everyone you know (and everyone you don’t) for the rest of your life.
Getting married means accepting the fact that everywhere you go, whether it’s your hairdresser, the bank teller, your mother-in-law, or a random person you met in the checkout line at Walmart, someone is going to ask you the question: “So, when are you having kids?”
This will continue until you have children, at which point this question will be replaced with “So, having any more kids?” or “So, how many kids you planning on having, anyway?” or (if you already have a few more than the asker thinks is acceptable) “You done having kids yet?”
This is a socially acceptable script to follow, and up until recently, I had no issue with it. To me, it seemed like normal, decent conversation to have with someone I knew well or someone I’d just met. Who doesn’t want to talk about their kids, right? So why should future children be any different?
My perspective on the “kid question” changed for me last year, when I experienced a miscarriage, and six months later was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS.
PCOS, in short, means your ovaries aren’t ovulating, which, if you hadn’t guessed by the similarity between “ovaries” and “ovulate,” is their ONE job. No ovulation, no egg, and we all know from 5th grade Health class that no egg = no baby.
Overnight, my life changed.
My husband and I were still struggling with grief from the loss of our first child. Friends who had experienced miscarriage told us that the grief from miscarriage would really only end with the hope and excitement of another pregnancy.
That’s why we’d agreed that we were going to try again as soon as we were able. We wanted to associate a positive pregnancy test with a future, with joy, with something other than two weeks of excitement followed by a traumatic 2AM ER visit and two more weeks of crying in our cars every day on the way to work.
But now, that all looked temporally distant at best, impossible at worst. “When” had been replaced with “if.”
I remember the first time after my diagnosis that I was asked the “kid question.” I was sitting in my hairstylist’s chair, making small talk while trying not to think about how much money I was spending on a stupid haircut because Denver everything is expensive.
We were talking about my job and my husband’s job, when she asked me, “So, when are you guys having kids?”
I felt sick to my stomach as I tried to choke back tears.
What I said was “Not sure. Hopefully in the next few years though!” in an upbeat tone. What I wanted to say was “Why don’t you ask my ovaries and let me know if you learn anything because I sure as heck have no idea?” or “Y’know, this question actually keeps me up at night while I cry myself to sleep, Susan, so when I figure it out, I’ll let ya know.”
I definitely cried in the car on the way home that day, too.
We have no idea what people around us are going through, unless we’re close to them. That’s why we have to be careful what we assume and what we ask.
My hairdresser had no idea I was struggling with infertility, with the loss of a child, and the loss of my dad that summer on top of it all. What she viewed as a simple small talk question, I viewed as a painful reminder of the grief, loss, and despondency I was feeling every single day.
It’s true that any question could be hurtful. Asking “So, what do you do for work?” could be deeply upsetting if the person recently got laid off, or “Doing anything for Christmas?” could dredge up some painful feelings if someone’s recently been estranged from their family and will be completely alone on Christmas.
But those situations are somewhat unlikely. The likelihood of asking someone a question about their job or about their weekend or a holiday or anything else of the sort is much more likely to elicit a positive response or at worst, a mildly negative grumble about spending Christmas with the in-laws or typical work annoyances, than to elicit feelings of despair.
Asking someone about having kids, which indirectly inquires about their health and their marriage or relationship with their partner, has a much larger potential downside than an upside. And that’s what we need to weigh.
The idea of weighing our curiosities against the negative impact we might have on a conversational partner isn’t new. There are some questions we’ve decided as a society just aren’t worth the risk, no matter how curious we are.
For example, “When’s the baby due?” has been deemed inappropriate to ask any seemingly pregnant person. While we all love a good gossip and love knowing about people’s goings on, including their children, we’ve all decided that the upside of satisfying our curiosity just isn’t worth the potential downside of hurting a very much not pregnant person’s feelings by suggesting that they look pregnant.
Questions like “What are you?” or “Where did you come from?” while unfortunately still asked, are also becoming less of a social norm as we realize that making assumptions about people’s race or country of origin is invasive and harmful, no matter how curious we are about someone’s ethnic makeup or background.
I think we need to put questions about having kids in this category.
Infertility is more common that most people realize, and more devastating than most of us who have not experienced it will understand. Those of us struggling with infertility cannot leave our houses or turn on the television or hop on Facebook without a reminder that someone else is pregnant, that we are not, and that we may never be. And that is exhausting, and devastating, and traumatic. It drives us to tears more often that we will admit, and tends to overshadow everything else in our lives, no matter how good everything else is.
The upside of asking about kids, for the asker, is learning a little more about the person we’re talking to, maybe keeping an awkward small-talk conversation going at a dinner party.
The potential downside for the person asked is much greater. It’s a sinking feeling in your stomach, the feeling of tears rushing to the corners of your eyes, the grasping for words as you try to keep it casual and respond to the question in a way that doesn’t make it clear that you’re dying inside, that you wish so desperately that you could answer that question but you can’t because your body or your partner’s body or both have failed to cooperate in this process that is simple for so many but so hard for you.
The downside, when this question is asked again and again by people you encounter throughout the day, is a collective trauma, the reliving of your pain again and again without end because everyone just wants to know when they can expect a pregnancy announcement on Facebook.
The “kid question” has incredible potential to cause hurt or at the least, to make the person asked feel violated by a question that’s much too much personal, when we really think about it, to ask someone we just met.
So, let’s find another small talk question to replace it. Ask about someone’s favorite music, about their summer plans, about their hobbies, about where they’ve traveled recently.
But please, for the love of all that is good, stop asking people when they’re having kids.