08 November, 2011

The answer to that question

THAT question.  Do you have kids?  There are quite a lot of posts around at the moment where the question of what to say to this question is being mentioned.  I know I’ve addressed this before.  But I keep seeing the issue come up - and the common thread is that no-one feels comfortable answering this question.

Some people feel it is rude not to answer.
Others feel they want to be "honest" and provide details.
Others feel they need to justify why they don’t have children.
Others don’t want to answer, but just don’t know what to say.

I remember seeing the film of a psychological experiment where someone, in a public place, simply started giving orders to passers-by.  The innocent passers-by were remarkably obedient, compliant, submissive even.  The conclusion was that obedience – especially to someone who projects authority and the expectation of obedience - is obviously an instinctive response.  I wonder if that explains why why we feel we have to answer a question, any question, when we’re asked?  Even when we don’t want to?  I think this instinct to be obedient, to conform, and not to be rude is especially strong in women.  So we’re really in trouble when we’re asked if we have kids, aren’t we?  It explains perhaps why we feel we’re being dishonest for not giving out full details of the reasons why we don’t have children.

But, you know, I don’t think that choosing to withhold information is in any way dishonest or rude.  Why should we feel that way, especially as sometimes the questions are rude / insensitive /invasive or personal?  I think we are simply exercising our right to privacy.  I don't choose to bring up that topic.  So why should I respond, in any detail or at all?  And a lack of response, or a simple answer, isn’t rudeness or dishonesty.  A rude response might be “mind your own @%$#*&^ business!”  A dishonest response might be a response that simply isn’t true.  But a decision not to answer or give details?  That’s not rude, or dishonest. It is simply the answer we want to give.

I chose to give a one word answer – No.  Depending on who is asking, I may or may not follow up with any details.  But usually, my view is that if they don't know me well enough to know I have children, then they don't know me well enough to know any details!  So I simply say "No."  And when I say it – with a strong tone, with a degree of finality, but always politely – I find I am not asked the inevitable follow-up question “why not?”  (And let’s face it, that’s the one we really don’t want to answer!)  By not offering more information, by strongly implying that that topic of conversation is a dead end, I find that those asking the question – perhaps responding to their own need to be obedient – move on to another topic too.

I feel strongly that as a community we need to claim our right to respond the way we want to.  We shouldn’t feel cowed, or victimised, by questions we don’t want to answer.  I hope that we all will one day  feel strong enough to choose to answer – or not – as we see fit, and without guilt, or fear, or shame.


  1. My response to this question has varied over the past 3.5 years. I started off saying "sadly, no" but somehow this didn't discourage further comment, rather the opposite. Once, only a few weeks after we lost our daughter, I replied with "none living". That certainly stopped the conversation, in fact it stopped all conversation as my questioner moved away from me awkwardly and avoided me for the rest of the evening.
    Now I just say "no" and start another line of conversation but I always wish that just once I would have the courage to say "why do you ask?"

  2. I agree with you wholly on this. I found once I got to the point when people asked if I was going to have kids and I could say "No", I felt so much stronger. I still feel I have to justify that answer, but I do not. All that is needed is "No". I appreciate your call for staying strong - without guilt and shame. We have nothing to feel bad about.

  3. I often answer "no," but the response I usually get is "Oh, but you're still young, you have plenty of time"--the implication that apparently I don't have children "yet," but I will someday. Is it strange to wish for more grey hair, so people will stop making that assumption about me? If the time and setting seems right, and I care about the person knowing the facts, I'll answer "we tried and we can't. It's sad but I live a pretty good life, so I get by." Often, though, I'm just not in a mood to educate. Like last week when I was talking to the home appraiser for our mortgage refinance. We have a lovely little house just for the two of us and our cat--the house was part of our therapy after the treatments failed. I mentioned to the appraiser that we'd probably stay here for a long time because we liked the house so much. His response: "oh, everyone says that. Then you have a coupla kids, the place gets too small, you move on." I chose not to enlighten him. I'm OK these days; I hope he doesn't pull that shtick with someone who's really grieving.

  4. I just say "no", too. I've also said "no" to the "Are you planning to have kids?" But to that one I've also said, "We'll see," or "I don't know" because I haven't completely ruled out adoption. I don't think I need to tell anyone anything further. If it is a close friend that I hadn't been in touch with in a while, I might say that we couldn't. And my really close friends now know that we can't. @Liz, I really hate the "you still can" comment. I got that once and it really made me mad because it implies that it is supposed to be a given in life and it hints at the notion that something is "lacking" if you don't get what everybody else gets. My panic about childlessness and it was panic had not hit me all that badly until I started getting comments like this. They focused my attention to what was missing and they were said with a tone of pity and judgement that I find very disturbing.

  5. I have said no a few times (which usually led to other questions or at least people saying "Why don't you quickly make kids?"), but sometimes those who know we have no kids would assume that we still want kids (same as Liz's situation 'coz I have no grey hair yet nor I'm nearing menopause yet).

    Two relatives even hugged me and then whispered in my ear, "I'll pray for you to have babies soon". One even added, "Because that's what couples want: kids."

    Errr...yeah, maybe we did want to have kids so badly back then, but not anymore. I said nothing to both of them, but it bothered me to a certain degree that due to our (youngish) ages (DH is 41 and I'm almost 33), their wish for us to have kids makes me feel almost like our family is imperfect. That two people can't be a complete family.

    Not that I blame them for not knowing our decision that we're not actively TTC anymore (because why would I let them know anyway 'coz it's a long story?), but the assumption that every couple wants kids is bothering me a little.

    But I try to let it slide without saying anything anymore to them. I just smiled and said thank you (while in my head I think: We're a complete family just the two of us, though).

  6. I'm still looking for the right answer...How about: "I keep trying, but they keep dying on me"? Actually scrap that. It's horrible.

    I like Illanare's "none living" answer very much. It certainly is a conversation killer, but I think I'll try it next time. I have two in heaven.

    And Liz, all realtors think alike. It helped that we did all the legwork to find our own house and only got a realtor when we were ready with an offer.

    And I'm with Iris regarding the "you still can" comment, and in general the expectation that one should just keep trying until you finally hemorrhage to death during yet another miscarriage.

  7. Isn't it terrible that someone should even have to think about this?
    I mean, why on earth would you ask someone if they have children, let alone why not (should that person answer be "no"). The never ceases to amaze me. I am quite sure that I have never ever in my entire life felt the need to ask anyone if they had children. This question seems so strange and out of place. It always made me angry and it still does.

  8. It is horrible to field that question, and the simplest, shortest way out is a short "no".
    I have actually collected a whole lot of humourous answers to that question - if you are interested - http://healwithheather.com/fertility.htm

  9. What a powerful post! I concur! WE didn’t bring up the topic, and WE don’t have to provide an explanation. For me, I especially think a simple, but adamant “No” is appropriate when I still know I am grieving and not prepared to handle the unthinking and often downright stupid responses I will often get from opening up the discussion by providing a detailed answer. Someday, however, I want to feel more comfortable about “coming out of the infertility closet,” and educating folks that there are plenty of folks who tried to have kids but quit, grieved and eventually healed, and went on to have fulfilled and meaningful lives. I found reading these helpful too:



  10. fab. My answer was actually very similar to Pearl's (depending on who was asking) but I agree, I do feel something of a need to somehow qualify/quantify the why's. I actually got ripped to shreds in a (non-infertility) forum for 'trying to make people feel awkward with my answer' (I answered 'three, but they're buried in the garden', or 'three miscarriages, and waiting for ivf' the latter as the polite answer and the former to noseyholes trying to be incendiary). No, trying to be honest AND halt further questions.

    I'm going to try 'no' in future. I think we go through levels of grief and self-protection that lead to a variety of answers, but 'no' sounds pretty direct AND honest

  11. In person, I smile and say "No" in a peaceful tone and then turn the conversation to the other person in a tone of genuine interest.

    "No - how about you?"
    "No I don't, how old are yours?
    "No I don't, how many do you have?"
    "No - what about you?"

    And then comment on the gap between kids - in a positive way to get them talking about themselves.

    e.g. if they say their kids are 2 years/only/3 years/four years apart.

    "my sister and I were 2 years apart..."
    "only children are more common these days I think"
    "three years can be a nice gap..."
    "four years can be a nice gap..."
    "18 months - that must have kept you busy when they were young"

    And I find that a dual purpose sentence works too:

    "my sister and I were 2 years and four months apart, and we fought a lot growing up, but other people with the same gap seem to get on fine. Of course we love each other now"

    Gives them an option to comment either way.