You could write this post about any topic, I’m sure. But I’ve read a lot of posts and status updates lately by mothers who are sick and tired of hearing snarky-rude comments from strangers about their family size. And I get it. Honestly I have no idea what makes a total stranger feel it’s acceptable to sail up to somebody and make a joke about their family. That sort of blows my mind.
You can have opinions about family size—everyone does. There are even settings where it’s appropriate to discuss the pros and cons of different sizes—as long as the conversation is theoretical and non mud-slingy. And there are maybe a few, rare situations where you might be close enough to a person (say when you’re MARRIED to them) when it’s ok to express concern over their family size.
But it’s never ok to be snarky to strangers about their children. Ever.
So far so good, right?
Here’s the thing: people are rude.
And if you’re a mom of 3 or 6 then I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably started your family fairly young. People probably fussed and cooed over your first-born because you had him or her at exactly the right time. On schedule. When you were supposed to. So you might not have had a chance to notice the prevailing human principle that, when it comes to reproduction, people are rude.
I know this because I’m married, almost 29, and don’t have children.
And while I’m pretty sure that first fact isn’t going to change, the middle one seems to every year, and the last one hopefully will at some point, so I’m writing this now.
While the comments are still fresh.
So here it is:
5 General Principles for Talking to Young Women without Children.
1. It seems obvious, but a great question to avoid is “Are you pregnant??” There are a couple of possible outcomes, and none of them are especially pleasant for the woman under your microscope. For example, if she doesn’t want to be pregnant right now, you are reminding her that social pressure is always ready to question her decisions. On the other hand, she may be one of the many women who would LOVE to be pregnant but hasn’t been able to conceive yet—in which case, good work reminding her of all her worst insecurities. Then again, maybe she really is pregnant! Score, right? Wrong! If she IS pregnant and she wants you to know she would have told you already. If she hasn’t told you, then chances are good she’s not ready for you to know. Unless you know the woman really well, and you know she’s been trying to conceive ,and she comes up to you with a big grin and says “GUESS WHAT’S IN MY UTERUS?!?!” asking whether a woman is pregnant is almost always a bad idea. And I didn’t even mention the whole insecurities about being fat thing. Well, I guess I just did, but you know what I mean
2. Most women have made plans and are acting in accordance with them. This one seems especially difficult for folks to grasp, but whether you have 8 children or 2 children or no children chances are VERY good that you planned it that way. Even if you “left it in God’s hands,” you probably had a good guess that you were going to end up with a lot of kids. And you were probably really happy about that. Good for you! Chances are really good, though, that the family with 2 kids and the young couple with no kids also made plans. Chances are good they also looked at the same information, weighed the same pros and cons, and made some decisions about what they thought would be best for their situation. You may disagree with the decision, but please don’t assume they’re blindly marching in lock-step with whatever social evil you most despise. The truth is we all face conflicting social pressures. The mega family with 12 kids might be getting a lot of support from their church, but they probably hear a lot of snarkiness at the grocery store. The woman with 1 kid might not hear it at the grocery store, but she probably gets an earful from her mother who expected more grandchildren. Again, you may not agree with the woman’s conclusion, but I don’t know any women my age who haven’t given serious thought to issues of family size, when they would like to start having children, and how close or far apart they would like them to be. Women aren’t mindless automatons. Even women whose families don’t look like yours.
3. Even married women with no children get sick now and then. A couple of months ago, I sent Carl off to a family gathering without me. I wasn’t feeling well, but mostly because I was in an emotionally raw place, and I just didn’t feel like being around people and making light conversation. When he came home that night, I asked him how his evening had been. “People asked if you were pregnant,” he said, looking somewhat confused. Oh, yeah, I thought. I forgot to warn you about that. See, as a woman you can’t ever say you don’t feel well and expect to leave it at that. You have to give titles and symptoms. Never: I’m not feeling well. Always: I have the flu with a temp of 101 and a doctor’s slip to prove it. Otherwise rumors start. So be nice to women. If they give evasive reasons for missing an event, don’t assume they’re pregnant. Maybe they just had a rough day. Maybe they’re emotionally fragile right now. Maybe they can’t stand being around you right now. Just… cool it with the pregnancy rumors.
4. Most women are sentient beings, able to read, and moderately intelligent. It’s difficult to be a woman in this country and fail to be aware that the rate of birth defects starts climbing around age 35. Or that women in their mid to late 30s have more difficulty conceiving. Or that younger bodies recover more quickly from childbirth. Trust us, we’re aware that we’re not going to be young forever. We can read, and we have OB/GYNs. There’s no need to sidle up to us and remind us of these facts. I’ve been told that (at 28) I’m starting to be “old” for conceiving. I’ve been told that I need to “get cracking” before it’s too late. I’ve been told people in my generation seem to have an awful lot of miscarriages because we wait too long to get married. I’ve been told that my risks for breast cancer are much higher than normal because I haven’t given birth and used my breasts as God intended. For real. By actual people. If you want to stay off the voodoo hex list, practice the golden rule of information: try to imagine that other women are about as informed as you are… especially when it comes to their own bodies. (And if you really CANNOT imagine that other people know as much as you about reproductive health, try to imagine instead that if they really wanted your opinion, they would ask).
5. Not everyone gets to be fertile. Similarly, Every woman has the right to share or conceal her own heartbreaks. Don’t get me wrong, “so, do you have any kids?” is a totally appropriate getting-to-know-you question and isn’t likely to offend 99.9% of the inhabitants of planet Earth. I’m not talking about that. And some women are very open and matter-of-fact about their fertility issues. You’ll know this because when you meet them and the conversation gets around to children and whether or not they have any they will tell you they have fertility issues. I find that’s generally the best indicator whether or not they’re comfortable with people knowing. The rest of the time, it may be wise before blithely questioning a woman about her reproductive plans to mentally count to five and remind yourself that she may be unable to have children, she may have experienced a traumatic string of miscarriages, or she may have already spent $10,000 in failed fertility treatments. I will never forget an experience I had when I was in college, chatting with a friend and walking by a pair of pregnant women. Someday that will be us! I said. She smiled limply but didn’t really say anything. At the time, I hardly noticed. Later, I found out she couldn’t have children. Her body basically went through menopause while the rest of ours were hitting puberty. I’ve never forgotten that, or gotten over how painful my words must have been to her. Remember: It’s NEVER the duty of the hurting to educate others about their wounds. It’s our duty as human beings to educate ourselves about reality.
So there you have it. My crabby, curmudgeonly list.
Go forth, people.
And remember: whatever your situation is, you’re not the only one being picked on.
Congratulations! You’re a woman! Of childbearing years!