Years ago, I hosted a travel show for the BBC that took people all over the world on vacation. On one of the episodes, we took a charming senior couple in their 70s to beautiful Vienna. On the first evening, I was making polite chit chat over dinner, as you do. I asked the husband if they had any children. He replied, “Not yet!” and we both laughed. It was only later in my room, did I think of how many times he must have cracked that same old joke and the obvious sadness that underpinned it.
These two deeply in love people who had been happily married for 40+ years must have had to answer the “kid” question all their lives. By their 50s and 60s, the joke could be rolled out, because of course few couples reproduce at that age; but what did they reply in their 20s and 30s? It was obvious that they adored kids and a slight sadness enveloped any conversation we had about families. Who knows what their story was in the days before IVF was available.
But was I wrong to ask such an innocent question? One that is as common place as asking, “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?”
Recently on Facebook, Emily Bingham, a freelance writer based in Michigan, posted an ultrasound image, along with the message:
“Now that I got your attention with this random ultrasound photo… this is just a friendly P.S.A. that people’s reproductive and procreative plans and decisions are none of your business. … You don’t know how your seemingly innocent question might cause someone grief, pain, stress or frustration.”
Of course people shouldn’t ask about others’ reproductive plans, but it is a sad fact of life that we do. Often it is an elderly relative at a family gathering or a colleague at the company holiday party. But the fact is: most people aren’t meaning to be offensive — they’re simply making polite chat. What are we supposed to say? Sometimes not asking a question is even more offensive than asking it.
Also, is it any more painful than a single girl being asked, “So have you got a nice man to date?”
As someone who spent six long years attending weddings as a single girl, how many times was I asked, “How come you’re not snapped up yet?”
I wanted to yell, “I have no idea, I just pick complete idiots who break my heart or sleep with me and then disappear and I lie awake at night and think I’m gonna die an old maid, but why don’t you tell me where I’m going wrong as you clearly KNOW IT ALL!”
But of course I never said this, because people weren’t purposely being offensive. In fact, they were just being caring.
Bingham suggests that people instead ask others what they’re “excited” about at the moment, or what the best part of their day was.
“Bottom line,” Emily wrote, “Whether you are a wanna-be grandparent or a well-intentioned friend or family member or a nosy neighbor, it’s absolutely none of your business.” She concluded: “If a person wants to let you in on something as personal as their plans to have or not have children, they will tell you. If you’re curious, just sit back and wait and let them do so by their own choosing, if and when they are ready.”
I understand it must be incredibly painful to have to answer innocent questions about something so personal – especially if you are trying for a baby, had a miscarriage, or are enduring IVF. But sometimes people truly don’t know what else to talk to you about. If someone asked me what I was “excited,” about I’d think they were one sandwich short of a picnic.
I’ve had so many inappropriate questions asked — on my single status, my job choices (“TV hosting? Well I’ve never seen you on TV so you can’t have been that successful …”), where I choose to live (“London? Isn’t it very dirty and expensive?”), my reproductive choices (“So when you gonna give him a sibling?”) and my mothering choices (“You didn’t breastfeed?”).
But I always gritted my teeth and answered politely, as 99% of the time people really weren’t aware just how judgmental or rude they were being.
Often people just don’t have much to say. They haven’t seen you in ages or they don’t know you too well, so they are just making conversation. You could take it personally and blow up at them. Or you could smile, grit your teeth, answer politely, and remember they likely have no idea what your issues are (and no doubt would mortified if they did).
In my opinion, a little politeness goes a long way. So until we can all practice telepathy, it’s the tactic I’ll be using.