This May, I was traveling to Utah for a work training and retreat. It was 106 degrees, and I fanned myself with my ticket printout while I squeezed down the small aisle of the airplane. I found my seat, 7A, and sat down next to an older woman with long, gray hair and a welcoming smile. After shoving my backpack under the seat in front of me, I turned to her and said hello.
We had a nice, long conversation on that three-hour flight. I heard all about her recent trip to Scotland where she was tracing her family’s lineage, and about her travels throughout the world when she was younger. She told me about volunteering at animal shelters, owning three businesses, getting married to her high school sweetheart, working as an editor at a big magazine, and many other experiences. She’s had a full and happy life in her 67 years.
After I had finished telling her about my job as an Editorial Director and Professional Writer, she glanced at the ring on my finger.
“Married?” she asked. “Pretty ring.”
“Yes! I met my husband while I was taking a solo road trip from San Diego to San Francisco,” I said excitedly. “I had been living in California for the summer doing a National Writing Project.”
I told her about our long-distance dating to focus on our careers. I told her about our wedding.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “What a great story.”
She paused, almost like she was thinking about what to say next.
I waited for her to tack on “to tell your grandkids.”
“Any kids yet?” she asked, quietly, twirling her own wedding band around her finger.
“No,” I said. I stopped, too, feeling like I should explain why. The silence was heavy. I braced myself for follow-up questioning.
“That’s okay,” she said. “I don’t know your reasoning, but you’re still young if you do want them. And if you don’t, that’s okay. My husband and I chose not to have kids, but we’ve been really happy with our lives.”
I felt a rush of air exit my mouth that I didn’t even realize I was holding.
I was expecting the lecture. I was expecting the questioning, the eyes meticulously studying the wrinkles on my face to determine my age, deciding if it was necessary to warn me that I had better get started soon. Scanning to see what might be wrong with me.
But it didn’t come.
We dropped the subject and safely landed, saying goodbye to one another and wishing each other well on our life journeys.
• • •
I’m 30 years old and I’ve been married for two years. Our wedding was just weeks after I graduated with my Master’s degree. My husband was working his way toward becoming a PGA Professional, and I was searching for jobs as a writer or educator.
We were happily moving toward our career goals.
Soon after my husband and I returned from our (amazing) Alaskan honeymoon, the questions started rolling in.
“When are you planning on having kids?”
“Going to start a family soon?”
“When will I get great grandkids/nieces/nephews?”
Every single time, I pasted a smile on my face and played along.
“Hopefully soon! We’re going to settle in a bit first.”
But every single time, it felt like a knife to my heart.
I know these people meant well. They didn’t mean to cause me pain and anguish. They didn’t realize how sick I was, or that we were unable to even THINK about kids at this time.
They couldn’t know that my husband and I had tearfully had this conversation on countless occasions, and each time we’d approach the month we wanted to start trying, I’d land in the hospital or be bedridden from debilitating mysterious symptoms.
People’s comments are usually lighthearted and well-intentioned, but they ring through my thoughts endlessly, an irritating windchime reminding me that I’m too sick to do something really important to me–to become a mother. And they remind me that I’m running out of time.
• • •
I’ve spent many evenings liking and commenting on adorable photos from friends of newborn photo shoots, gender reveal parties, pregnancy announcements, and maternity pictures.
I’ve spent days visiting friends with newborns, excitedly picking out baby gifts. I’ve spent hours stuffing down my anxiety in the baby aisles, trying not to think about my own situation… how much I wish I was picking out dresses and bibs and diapers for my own child.
I’ve spent many evenings crying because that’s something I want so badly, but I’m just not healthy enough for it.
It doesn’t take away from the joy I feel for my friends.
It just makes it harder to deal with comments pointing out my childlessness.
You might be thinking I’m too sensitive or that the world is becoming too politically correct, and we can’t talk about anything anymore without offending someone.
I’m just trying to share the pain, embarrassment, stress, and depression I personally feel answering to these questions because I am too sick to have children at this time.
Those “when are you having kids” questions can cause the same pain for someone who is happy without kids, content being single, or unable to conceive due to fertility issues… Or for someone who is struggling financially or having issues in the relationship… Or someone who just plain isn’t ready. There are so many reasons why a couple might not be able to conceive at the time, or why they might choose not to have kids at all. Every reason valid. Every reason important and personal.
• • •
What NOT to Say to Someone Without Kids
1. Don’t wait too long!
Obviously most women are aware of the risks of becoming pregnant at an older age. And these days, women are safely having kids well into their 30’s and even 40’s. A comment like this will just cause unnecessary pressure and anguish, yet these type of comments happen often. It’s not anyone else’s job to create a woman’s reproductive timeline.
2. You’re not getting younger.
Same as above–pointing out the age of a woman to try to pressure her or guilt her into childbirth (SOON!) is very destructive. And pointing out anyone’s age like this is pretty impolite.
3. When are you going to find a partner?
For the single ladies, it’s not enough to be pressured about having a baby, but she might also hear pressure about finding a significant other and settling down. But maybe she doesn’t WANT to find a partner and she’s happy being single. (Why is this such a foreign concept these days?) Or maybe she desperately wants to meet someone, build a relationship, and eventually get married, and this question makes her feel self-conscious and upset. The co-question to this, to someone in a relationship, is when are you going to get married? Again, not anyone else’s business, not anyone else’s timeline.
4. No plans for kids yet? Why not?
This question implies that the woman SHOULD be planning for kids, that it’s the next logical step for her wherever she is in life. While I think it’s okay to carefully bring up the “kids” subject with close friends and family, it’s important to ask in a sensitive way and be open to the answer… or be open to the person not wanting to answer at all. This question also puts the woman on the spot, asking for a reason.
5. Aren’t you jealous of your friends’ families?
What if she is? What good is it to point this out and make her more aware of it? And if she’s not jealous of their families, this would make her feel guilty that she SHOULD be jealous, or that she can’t be a proper “woman” without having children. That’s so far from the truth. The question implies that her friends with children have a better life than she does.
6. Don’t you like babies?
Not having babies of her own doesn’t mean she dislikes babies. She can absolutely adore her nieces, nephews, and friends’ kids without having her own. Maybe she doesn’t feel ready or stable enough right now for her own kids. Or, as I keep mentioning, maybe she doesn’t want them at all. That doesn’t mean she can’t love on and spoil all the cute babies in her life!
7. Your biological clock is ticking.
This truthfully feels like a violation of privacy. Our bodies are sensitive subjects. It’s not okay for someone to make statements on the age of a woman’s eggs, which is what’s implied here. There is NO ONE else it would be okay to go up to in the street and tell him he’s getting old. But people do this all the time to younger women without children. (And by the way, ALL of our biological clocks are ticking. That’s called being alive and getting older with each day).
8. You know there are more complications once you’re in your 30s.
Yes, she’s aware, since you’re the third person to say this to her this month. And as someone with a chronic illness, this statement gives me a lot of anxiety and hopelessness that I won’t get better “in time” to have kids safely. I have a disease that can be passed on to my children if I don’t treat it properly, and it would be irresponsible for me to even think about getting pregnant before that’s taken care of. This concern about complications should be addressed alone between a woman and her doctor. She doesn’t need someone else weighing in on her health.
9. How will you have a fulfilling life without a family?
This is problematic if the woman is in a committed relationship because it implies that her spouse or partner is not family. It also implies that family requires children. The question assumes that everyone single is not a complete person on her own and cannot have a fulfilling life without having kids. This is simply not true, and many women find great fulfillment in their careers, volunteer work, friendships, and pets, even if they have elected not to have children.
10. It makes me sad that you don’t know the joy of having children.
Having children isn’t the only kind of joy there is. As mentioned above, someone who has chosen not to have kids can find joy in traveling around the world, climbing her career ladder, or taking care of beloved pets. I know parents say the kind of love you have with children is something you don’t understand until you have them, but to imply that life without kids is joyless is just simply not true.
11. You’re so lucky that you get to travel/get sleep/______. I wish I could do that.
The jealousy over a “single” or childless lifestyle can be hurtful, even though the person’s intentions (I’m sure) are not to harm. This person could have chosen this life, too… but he/she chose to have kids, instead. That’s fine! We all make our own personal decisions. I generally don’t go up to new moms and say “You’re so lucky you get to experience having and taking care of a child. I wish I wasn’t so sick every day and could do that.” That would put them in a very uncomfortable situation, as well as take away the joy from their new son or daughter. The original question is just as awkward. What do you say to either statement?
12. You’ll change your mind later.
This is clearly a judgmental statement, where this person is assuming he/she knows more about a woman’s life and her thoughts than she herself does. It has the feeling of “Oh, she’s too young to make up her mind correctly right now. She’ll think more clearly when she’s older.” And yes, she might change her mind. She’s allowed to. But don’t assume she will.
13. You think you’re tired? Try having kids.
This is especially aggravating to someone who cannot have children due to health issues, especially if she deals with debilitating fatigue on a daily basis. To say that someone can’t be tired because she doesn’t have kids is just ignorant. Many women have autoimmune conditions, imbalanced hormones, or other chronic health issues that greatly affect energy and sleep, and feel exhausted even when they get 8 hours of rest a night. You don’t have to have kids to feel tired. I’m not saying having kids ISN’T an extra level of tiring (hello, nightly feedings and crying!), but to imply that someone without them cannot be tired is just inaccurate and frankly, offensive.
Say This, Instead
1. What are your goals in the next few years?
This leaves the question open to topics like career, personal development, and more. If she wants to share about trying to start a family, she will. If not, be excited for the future she’s envisioning right now, kids or not.
2. What’s good in your life lately?
Again, this leaves the option open to anything. If the woman WANTS to tell you she’s excited that she’s trying to get pregnant, SHE WILL. In fact, if you’re close friends or family, there’s a chance she may tell you without your even asking, if she wants to talk about it. If not, don’t be offended, because it’s her business, and not yours.
3. How can I support and encourage you?
I love this question because it shows the woman that you’re there for her emotionally and doesn’t force her to open up about specific struggles, or even to open up about her struggles at all. It’s not a leading question. It does, however, leave the door open if she DOES choose to open up to you (about anything–not just fertility struggles or family planning). She can give you a concrete way to support her without having to explain herself, or she can talk through some hard times knowing you’re a listening ear.
Family-Size Judgment All Around
While I feel the judgment for NOT having kids, I know there’s judgment the other way, too. It seems a woman can’t have the “correct” number of children without having someone comment on it and try to tell her what to do.
If she has one child: “So you only have one kid? You want your kid to grow up being an only child? That’s not fair. They need a brother or sister to learn to socialize properly.”
If she has two kids: “Hopefully you’re stopping there–it’s the perfect number!” or “Don’t you want to add more to the family? Don’t you want a girl/boy?”
If she has three or more children: “Three kids? Isn’t that a little expensive? Can you afford that? Think about college! Do you need a better birth control recommendation?”
My point is simple: It’s not anyone’s job to comment on a woman’s choice of whether to have children or not, nor is it anyone’s job to judge or comment on family size.
We have no idea what other people are dealing with in their lives: debt, health, income, miscarriages, infertility, chronic illness, genetic factors, career. I’m sure a lot of thought and time has gone into planning the size of their families and the decision to have children or not (and how many), but the topic can bring as much pain and heartache as it can joy, if approached the wrong way.
I’m not even saying avoid the subject with people you dearly love so much that it becomes taboo, I’m just saying to think about the impact of your words on someone who has decided not to have kids, someone who is dealing with miscarriage and infertility, someone who is chronically ill and not strong enough to have children.
If you do still choose to bring up the subject, listen mindfully, respond without judgment, and offer any support and encouragement you can. Don’t press. Also, be looking for any sign of discomfort and drop the subject right away. Be willing to accept a “non-answer” as an answer. And no comments about biological clocks…ever. (:
Better yet, use the three questions above instead of asking specifically about children.
We can be there to encourage the women in our lives and ask about future goals or ask how we can be supportive… leaving questions open-ended and non-specific is a wonderful way to show compassion as an important friend or family member.
We know our friends and family making the “when are the kids coming” comments mean well and they’re just excited about another grandchild or niece or nephew, or they want us to experience the joy they feel with their own children. We really do appreciate the love and we’re happy for them.
And trust me… if and when a woman wants to tell you something big and important like a decision to get pregnant, she will.. if she wants to. She’s not obligated to talk to you about her pregnancy and child-birthing plans, though. And if she doesn’t want to have kids at all, she don’t owe you an explanation.
No one pressuring a woman about getting pregnant (and soon–she’s only getting older!) is going to change her mind.
Instead, let’s focus on love, support, and open-mindedness. Let’s be accepting of new views on family structure, later-life pregnancies, single (and happy!) career women, chronically ill women focusing on their health, women happily having small family or large families, women giving birth after years of struggle with infertility… Let’s just love them.
Let’s love the women in our lives as they are right now, and wait patiently to celebrate any important accomplishment or milestone to come for her–child or not.
Have you ever been judged for not having children, having the wrong amount of children, or anything else along these lines? Are you fine with people asking you when you’re going to have children, or does it upset you? If you’re willing to share your experience, comment below.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out Make a Space for Yourself, about putting too much pressure on busy schedules and self-imposed deadlines and remembering what makes you happy. Also, you’d love On Yoga, Duende, and the Art of Letting Go, or any of my Self-Care Sunday interviews!
I’ve also got a free self-care starter kit for you here.