28 February, 2022

“Do you have children?” – how this question affects me

I have been thinking about “the question” again after some recent events. I’m going to write another post, a follow-up to this, as I’ve been forced to split a long post into two! And I’m starting with what I had thought would be the end of this post. I'm starting with my how it makes me feel, and the thought process I go through as I answer it. I’ll be interested to know if you feel the same way, and go through the same thoughts. Please share your experiences with me, so I know I’m not the only one.

The problem with the question “do you have children?” is that it, and the answer which I am then forced to give, singles me out as “other” in a way most other questions do not. Whenever I am asked this question, I tense, internally at least, but probably physically too. My mind races. In a split second, I have all these thoughts:

  • What do I say?
  • Do I make a joke? 
  • Do I answer rudely? 
  • Do I have to tell them? 
  • Why?
  • Do I go into any detail? 
  • If so, how much? 
  • Do I look sad, or happy? 
  • How are they going to react? 
  • Are they going to be like some people who have literally turned their backs on me when they hear my answer? 
  • Will they still want to talk to me?
  • Or are they going to show that they have no interest in taking a conversation or budding relationship any further? 
  • Are they judging me?
  • Are they going to say “as a mother” or “you wouldn’t understand” or “why didn’t you adopt?” or any of the other tiresome, inaccurate, and sometimes offensive clichés? 
  • Do I need to prepare myself for that? 
  • Do I have any smart answers for them? 
  • If not, why not?
  • And, isn’t it time I got some?! 
  • Am I going to find myself in a group of people who then go on to ignore me? 
  • Will I need to find a tactful way to remove myself from the conversation and find some other people to talk to? 
  • Will that even be possible? 
  • Do I look obviously surprised?
  • Am I doing an impersonation of a stunned mullet?
  • Have I been thinking these things for too long? 
  • What am I going to I say again?

But however I respond, I'm always truthful, and my answer almost always marks me as “other.” So I always, always brace myself when I’m asked this question (or when I am wished Happy Mother’s Day, etc).

I don’t think it is a case of me being oversensitive. 20 years on, the answer is no longer raw, and it is not going to spark tears, or ruin my day. I can brush off the question (although very obviously I analyse my reactions and the motivations behind the question itself later) and continue a pleasant conversation with otherwise interesting people. (If the question is followed up with “Why not?” then that complicates matters. There’s a whole different string of thoughts when I am asked that question.) But when I tense myself on hearing the question, and go through all those options for replying, what I am really doing is remembering previous, difficult moments, and hoping to avoid them this time. Inevitably, I also worry if I am being cowardly in my answers, if I’m going to say too much or too little, and wonder if I am adequately representing the valued No Kidding community. It's never a simple question, with a simple answer.

Unfortunately, we rarely get to explain this to interested friends or family. Sometimes, even the best struggle to understand. They don’t really want to listen to my discomfort over the question. They might become defensive about their own situation, or maybe they want to defend others who are also in the parent club. It becomes about their discomfort, thinking about how they have talked about their children. They forget that this started when we tried to explain how the question makes me or other No Kidding people feel, and make it about them. They make excuses, give reasons.* They try to convince us that it is our problem, without really listening. 

Sadly, the feelings and position of those of us without children (for whatever reason) are often made secondary. We're used to that, of course. The fact that the majority so easily ignores us seems to be accepted, or excused, by that same majority. Might is right. Or not, in this case.

* In my next post, I'll talk about the excuses and reasons given by parents for why "the question" is perfectly reasonable, and my thoughts about them.


  1. Dear Mali,
    I am very aware that my answer and optional answers are vastly different, and therefore feel totally different. But on occasion I reply with 'one living child'. Reactions have varied from "oh, I better not ask anything anymore, that would be uncomfortable" to a boss sharing about a stillborn child no one in the office seemed to know about.

    1. Yes! Each time we might answer differently, and we never know what reaction we are going to get.

  2. This whole post!!! "It's never a simple question, with a simple answer." I agree. And I run through the exact same mental list of questions before answering. Every single time. It's exhausting and leaves me feeling empty.

  3. LOVE this list Mali!!! I've been wanting to address this question for a long time, perhaps a collective effort is in order? It's funny, I recently found myself in a situation where I (quite strangely!) had sort of wished that I had been asked. Still pondering what to with that oddity, but I will be posting on it soon.

    1. Happy to talk about a collective effort to talk about this. I know what you mean - sometimes you go prepared for the question, and then feel disappointed that you didn't get to stand up for yourself!

  4. You analyze this so thoroughly!! -- it's all so true!! Well done!!

  5. I'm nodding my head off as I read your post, because these are some of the same thought processes I've had when asked questions about being an adoptive family. You have even given me a few new go-to options, such as being watchful about the dreaded stunned mullet. 😁

  6. Oh yes. I feel like my answer to the question varies widely. It is definitely an "other-ing" experience. Your mental rundown is so relatable and familiar!