Kathleen on Life without Baby wrote about just saying “no” to the infamous “do you have children?” question. She, and a lot of women I have seen, feel the urge to qualify this statement, to justify why they don’t have children, but sometimes they don't quite know why they do this. Some of her blog readers commented that they felt they needed to let people know it wasn’t by choice, and in doing so, felt they honoured their own journey and the loss of their children. Some felt that in doing this, they also modified (in their favour) the responses of the person who asked.
To use Kathleen’s phrase, it got me thinking. I’ve always just said “no,” and I’ve written about this a couple of times (here, and here). But why?
I said no when I was in my 20s, and was putting off any decisions about having children. I said “no” with gusto, because I was indignant that people automatically assumed I might have children just because I was married, and female, because I had no intention of having children in my 20s, and because I didn't feel I needed to justify this to anyone!
I said “no” in my 30s, as I became comfortable in my career but still struggled against sexism, as my international business travel made opportunities to conceive harder to find, as we started to realise we might never conceive, and as I suffered and healed from my first ectopic pregnancy. I said “no” without explanation because it was no-one’s business but my own, and – once we started trying to conceive – we in fact told no-one about it.
I said “no” because I wanted to be treated equally at work to the men (who could, I admit, freely say “yes” without any negative reactions and “no” with fewer negative reactions than for me). I said “no” because I didn’t want to be judged, one way or the other, or to deal with their judgement.
In saying “no,” I found that it can leave an ambiguity in the questioner’s mind – maybe I didn’t want them, or maybe I couldn’t have them. Either way, most people didn’t tend to ask the follow-up, “why not?” So saying “no” was a form of protection of sorts.
I said “no” when I was 40, suffering and healing from my complicated second ectopic pregnancy, when visiting infertility clinics, scheduling and attempting IVF cycles, as I was on holiday after an unsuccessful IVF cycle and before my last attempt, and on a major wedding anniversary. I said “no” for all the same reasons I’d always said “no.” But I also said “no” hoping to avoid pity, condescencion and judgement, and any discussion on the matter, which raised an additional concern that I might break down in tears, and embarrass myself.
I said “no” when I was grieving losses, and grieving the first year or two of my childlessness, and No Kidding life, because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone, for all the above reasons, but with a new and unwanted factor at my lowest time – that of shame.
I still say “no” now for most of the reasons mentioned above. I still feel indignant that people automatically assume I might have children when 20% of women my age do not, and that my worth as a woman is often judged by whether or not I am a mother. I still believe it is no-one’s business but my own, and I still bristle when asked because it is not the first question asked of men.
I no longer say “no” because I am afraid I will break down in tears, or that people will feel pity, or because I feel any shame. I do not. Which is why I say “no” with no explanation, because I do not feel I owe the world an explanation. Any details are my choice, and my choice alone. I am not obligated to answer questions.
I like the power a simple, polite, definite "no" gives me. I get to decide whether anyone deserves to know any details about why I do not have children. My story is deeply personal, my journey is personal, and only deserving people get to know it, or those who may need to know it for their own comfort, so they don’t feel alone. I can decide on a whim, in a split-second. I have no need or obligation to be consistent. It can be simply in the way someone phrases a question, in whether I see if they are open or not, judgemental or not.
The exception to the only-if-you-deserve-to hear-my-story is when I think someone needs to be enlightened (i.e. educated) and I’ve decided that hopefully they are capable of learning. In learning my story (briefly or in full), maybe they will not be so quick with questions or rude follow-ups in the future, when they are dealing with someone more vulnerable than I am.
But you know what? I even bristle when I answer “no” because what I really want to say is, “why do you want to know?”