Tuesday, 12 April 2011

What Not to Say to Childless Women

I do not claim to speak for all childless women, but I suspect I speak for all childless women over 33 when I say that there are three conversations we do not like to have: "When will you have children?", "Any minute now you will have children!" and "All MY Children."

1. When Will You Have Children?

Happily, no-one has been so insensitive since my wedding to ask when we will have children. That question belongs to my Single days, most memorably the night I celebrated having been accepted into a doctoral program. I had been offered a five-year fellowship, a biggish stipend, the works.

"How long will this take?" asked my sister, mother of one.

"Five years, maybe six," I said.

My sister's eyes bugged.

"But when will you have babies?" she demanded.

Suddenly all the fizzle went out of the celebration. I didn't even have a boyfriend, let alone a husband. Babies were the furthest issue from my mind. And this was not because I was a hard-nosed ambitious career woman vampire blah blah, but because I have a touching belief that one should attempt marriage before attempting conception.

Not everyone shares this belief, of course, and I remember talking with a single mother about my childlessness. She loved her children very much and felt sad that I didn't have any.

"Would you consider just...you know...going out to a bar and...?"

No, I said, I wouldn't. I explained that that would be unethical behaviour. And I was, after all, completing a Master of Divinity degree.

2. Any Minute Now You Will Have Children!

There's a parish priest out there in Canada who might have woken up in a sweat from time to time because he was allowing a Catholic with an annulment to marry a man she had met only seven months previous to the wedding. And I'm sorry if he did, but we thought we would simply DIE if we didn't marry ASAP, and besides I was 38 and realized that this was our only and last chance to have children.

Two years later, no children. We share this in common with at least two other women I know who married after 35. (Don't you dare mention naprotechnology in the combox; I know. I'm scheduled for a blood test, etc.)

Our friends generally avoid this topic. However, there is one friend, a happy-go-lucky rambunctious 20-something Continental who is apparently clueless about the ravages of age and rushes in where Angles fear to tread.

"Married two years," he shouted. "Where's the baby? Come on! Time to get cracking!"

More recently, his thoughts on the topic were that I should go out dancing because when the babies come I won't be able to anymore. Soon I will have four children, and how will I like that, hah?

The sunny side of hearing such remarks is that my advanced age must not be apparent, and slathering myself with sunblock and wearing hats and sleeves on the beach has been worth all the trouble.

3. All MY Children

Motherhood is the greatest profession on earth. You know it. I know it. So it is very sad for us who do not get chosen by God to be the mothers, especially if we tried to do His will and did not just go out to a bar, etc.

While waiting to become wives and mothers, or mothers, we get on with our lives and finish degrees, get jobs, travel if we manage to save enough, write books, carve out careers, and all those other things. But many of us are reminded that we have inexplicably lost out when we get emails of acquaintances' ultrasound scans.

Now I have no problem with women framing their ultrasound scans, especially if they hang them at work, forcing the public to acknowledge that a fetus, no matter how funny-looking, is a baby. I, however, know that a fetus is a baby, and so I don't need to see the ultrasounds and I don't want to see the ultrasounds. I'd hate to see my own ultrasound; thank heaven they didn't have them in 1970/1.

Mums get a bad rap, and I am very pro-mother, and I'm the eldest of five and the proud auntie of three, so I am going to tread carefully here. Not all mothers are like this--my sister-in-law certainly is not--but some mums talk, write and think about nothing except their children. Some send mass emails to their former colleagues to update us all on the humour and genius of their children and nothing else. They include server-crashing photo files. Now I automatically delete the emails of those mums.

Super-Mummy is impossible to talk to because whenever you say anything, she brings the conversation back to her children.

S-M.: What have you been up to?

You: Well, I went to Paris to give a paper. It was fantas---

S-M.: Oh, you're so lucky. What with two children under two and another on the way, I don't even get time to read, let alone write papers! What was it about?

You: It was on Muriel Spark's interpretation of La Tour's painting of Job, and--

S-M.: I haven't been able to get to an art gallery in years! Oh well, I guess that's the price tag of having two children. I mean, three children. Sorry, Bumpie! I always call them Bumpie before they are born.

If you are Single and under 25, this is just boring and rude. If you are married and over 35, this is tantamount to incitement to violence.

Personally, I don't have time to listen to women with children moan about their lost opportunities. I won't allow my own mother to do it, so I'm certainly not going to stand for it from anyone else. I've lost plenty of opportunities; obviously babies had nothing to do with it. And my sister-in-law has two children under three, a medical practise, umpteen papers in umpteen journals, and time to go skiing. My sister, who has a six year old son, wanders about Latin America with him teaching English. They make their opportunities.

Meanwhile, I myself love babies, and I am fascinated by my nephews and my niece. I am also good friends with The Youngest Parishioner, as I see him almost every week and am generally interested in all the young men of the parish anyway. I have tea with his mother, and we talk mostly about Catholic blogs, Catholic liturgy and the wickedness of academe. She is finishing her doctoral dissertation.

I am as interested in stranger babies as much as I am interested in stranger adults, which is not very much. I desire their good, of course, and have a vested interest in them becoming good, creative, helpful members of society. But, in general, they don't interest me all that much.

So there you go. I have spoken for the Childless Women of the world. We may not have children, but we certainly have feelings. Tread softly, for you tread on our dreams.


Maggie said...

Thank you, Auntie!!

Once I congratulated a friend's mother on her many beautiful children, all of whom have continued to embrace the Faith in their young adulthood. She said, "Thank you. Now go forth and do likewise."

I wanted to respond, "There's nothing I'd like more, but there's not a ring on this finger!"

Instead I looked at my shoes and mumbled something.

Andrea said...

I have cried when hearing about the pregnancies of those near and dear to me. And they were neither rude, smug or annoying... it simply is sad to me that God has not chosen me to be a mother, at this point, either. So there is a sense of grief there.

But this made me laugh:
"If you are Single and under 25, this is just boring and rude. If you are married and over 35, this is tantamount to incitement to violence."

The thing to do is accept that it is sad and hard but then laugh, because I believe that if I never have children God has a very good reason for this. God is 100 per cent right, 100 per cent of the time! I think I read that first here. I hope you believe that too, even in the sad moments, and that you think often on all the good things you are now doing, the encouragement you are giving so many through this site.

healthily sanguine said...

So true! For singles, all you have to do is replace "have children" with "get married" and we know EXACTLY how you feel. Well, not exactly, but at least we can muster some empathy. We dislike the three categories "When will you get married?", "Any minute now and you will get married!", and "MY husband (or wife) . . . " almost as much as you detest the ones you enumerated! :-)

PS My group of friends learned to be more sensitive about the topic of babies (even though some of them are popping them out quite regularly, with the prerequisite Facebook ultrasound & baby pics to boot) when one of our dearest friends lost her first child in childbirth. Thanks be to God, she is now pregnant again, but I still cannot imagine the feeling of loss that accompanied (and still accompanies) seeing her married friends with their happy, healthy babies . . .

SoaringSoprano said...

Here, here!

Oh, that this would get spread around to all those well-meaning, but clearly oblivious persons, who forget about the feelings of those of us who are childless... especially those of us married, under 35, and unable to have children of our own.

Thank you, Auntie!

sciencegirl said...

Moms and non-moms have it rough. If you don't have babies, people offer "helpful" suggestions about as dumb as "Have you two tried, you know...doing it? There are a lot of sex options available for married Catholics! It's not all forbidden! Let me give you these pamphlets!" If you do have one on the way, people ask all kinds of nonsense and boss you around if they see you with a coffee cup. And feel on your belly, even if they are strangers. Why are people so darn rude to women? Do men get asked all this private stuff?

Seraphic said...

No. People instinctively know men are much more likely to hit them.

Jen said...

Oh man. YES. Thank you. I'm in my 40's now, so thankfully past the 'when will you have children' question. But I endured it for enough years that I'm glad to see the end of it.

What I did - and to some degree still do - get, is 'Have you thought about adopting?' And of COURSE I've thought about adopting, but I'm a big fan of children having both a mother AND a father, and there's only just me. And even if I wasn't a big fan of traditional families, I'm very well aware of my own limitations, and I know that, barring a sudden salary increase that would allow me to hire a nanny and housekeeper, I'm not really cut out to do it on my own. Possibly the most out-there response to my childlessness: a woman I used to work with approached me and said she'd heard I couldn't have children, and that she thought I would make a splendid mother, and that if I was interested, she would get pregnant, give birth, and let me adopt the baby. I was kind of shocked. I mean, touched, of course, that she thought so highly of my suitability for motherthood, but nonethless really shocked speechless that she would be willing to get pregnant just to give the baby away to someone who wished she could have kids. Mind boggling, because she was actually serious.

The biggest problem, currently, are friends who are pregnant or who have babies or small children who need to tell me every detail 24/7. I've had friends who heaped the baby conversations on me non-stop until I gently pointed out that I cannot have babies, and talking of nothing else makes me sad, and could we move on to other topics after 30 minutes? Some of them have understoood, some have been really ticked off that I don't want to live vicariously through them.

Angie said...

I think references to fertility, either when, or if, someone will have a child are just plain out of line.

Here's my never, ever say list:

"When are you due?" to someone who you don't know for a fact is pregnant. She may not, in fact, be pregnant, she may have already had her baby, or, in my case, she may have just had a miscarriage.

In reference to some who had a miscarriage, "Well it was probably nature's way of taking care of it, there was probably something wrong with the baby, so it's better this way." Or, how about "God needed another angel in heaven." Or "You'll have an angel baby waiting for you when you get to heaven." These last two are bad theology, and even more horrific in terms of trying to offer consolation.

A sincere "I'm so sorry for your loss." is really all you need to say.

Angie said...

I forgot to add the obvious "Don't worry, you'll have another one." and "So when are you going to try again?" Yeah, someone actually asked that the same day I miscarried.

Christine said...

@healthy sanguine - I agree...I think this same concept is true for unmarried women with respect to marriage. This past Sunday, I happened to go to another parish, which coincidentally was "pre-cana-certificate-handout" Mass. It was another instance of the age-old debate between angel on one shoulder ("Oh how nice for these young couples getting married sacramentally in the Church!") and little devil on the other shoulder ("Grrr how unfair. They seem to not be regular Mass attendees at all, judging by their gum-chewing, short skirts, and lack of any reverance towards the taberacle/altar"). Alas. *rant over

Nekeisha said...

I have a friend who asked me once if I wanted kids and I should hurry up and do it (I am currently 31 and this was a couple years ago). She was 26 when she thought she was ready for kids so she had her daughter. She is not married and while I do not judge her I know that is not the route for me.

I know I really want kids, but I believe there is a right way plus having grown up without my father, I can't do that to my kids.

Lena said...

God Bless you for writing this. I'm going to print out this post and hang it on my wall at home.

I agree with everything Jen said.

Domestic Diva said...

Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you, for speaking for the Childless Women of the World. You have hit the nail right on the head. (As an added bonus, it's so good to know I'm not alone.)

Jaded said...

Thanks for that, Seraphic. I can truly relate to what you're saying, though my situation is quite different. I've been married for almost twelve years now and I'm 32. We have no children yet -- HOWEVER, we only started trying about two years ago. For nine years we both were nominal, business-obsessed protestants who didn't believe there was any need to rush into having babies, or anything wrong with contracepting until the time was exactly perfect for us.

Well, both my husband and I converted to Catholicism and realized we hadn't given God any say in our marriage, whatsoever. The irony is that now, upon comprehensive testing, we have no real reason as to why we can't conceive, and yet month after month we don't. Obviously I leave it up to God, yet I can't help but wince at the irony.

Oh yeah, and if I see one more sonogram, jubilantly declaring the pregnancy, sex of baby, and due date, well... blood just might shoot out of my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jen, I appreciate your comments so much. I was told at 33 that I was not able to have children. (I am older now by a few years.) I've had many of the same comments, but none so bold as to offer to bear me a child, wow. I also have friends who think I need to live vicariously through their families. I just smile and try to have compassion for them. They have a difficult job.

I thank God regularly for making me who I am. I am strong in my faith that even childless I can be a good Auntie to my six nieces and nephews and a good role model to the other young people I'm blessed with in my life. And I thank God that I've learned to not want more, since it is His plan. Bottom line is I'm very happy being older, single and childless.

Fritha said...

I'm single, 35 in a few weeks, and I can really relate to this. I am so very tired of people asking me when I'm going to get married and have children.

Seraphic said...

Angie, that's terrible. If I ever do get pregnant, I'm not going to tell anyone except B.A. for months and months. And I really am sorry for your loss.

kozz said...

I had to endure the whole tiresome "when you will be get married" bit from all and sundry, till I was about 29. I turned 32 a few days back, and now I never get asked this question. People have given up on me as a lost cause. Luckily where I come from, having children out of wedlock is not kindly looked upon, and that spares me from the "when are you having kids" barbs. Having kids and being married is purposely used as a kind of one-upmanship by mean cousins and relatives to imply that I'm a loser. Along with those comments like " As a single, you will probably have lots of free time in your hand".

Seraphic said...

That is really mean, and it is also mean to conclude that you have a lot of time on your hands. It doesn't sound like general family get-togethers are that fun for you! Any allies?

Christine Falk Dalessio said...

I agree with very much liking the quote Andrea chose to highlight.

And... Thank you. Included in this all is the "when you have your own children", emphasis on "when" while being looked upon with a sympathetic gaze by someone who is Truly Ignoring that 33 is a year long past...

And the challenges and joys of the shared motherhood of womanhood are not to be ignored.
Thanks for the heartfelt words, and for speaking for us many.

Lena said...

I really like this post and will share it with my friends. I agree with Jen on everything on April 12.

About those b/w ultrasounds pictures -- even though I know that blobby scribble is a real live baby, I can't SEE the baby. No, I don't think it's cute. I think they are just extra inkblot pictures the mental health doctors sold to ob/gyne's.

But when the baby comes out and is swaddled with a little hat on, then the baby is cute.

Should I ever, ever (and it's probably unlikely) get pregnant, then I don't want an ultrasound. I want to be surprised.

That's just me.

Anonymous said...


In one extended social group of mine it is customary to have a dance written for you on the occasion of your wedding. Two years ago a dear friend wrote me a dance to commemorate a journey I took (not, you note, one to an altar). It was ever so sweet of her, but also tinged with a tiny touch of dispairing of me. Tee hee.

And as to the rest/ the post - Quite!

Markyate Priory.

Sheila said...

So frustrating how everyone assumes these days that it's their business whether and how many kids you have! I think it comes with the assumption that we now have control over our reproduction, so whatever you are doing now must be what you wanted to do. However, even with the most creepy of modern technology, we still don't have complete control ... and many of us are choosing not to use it!

From Catholics, childless women get "When will you have kids?" (assuming that they would have had some if they wanted them). And from non-Catholics, mothers of many get, "Don't you know what causes that?"

I have a 12-month old child, so you would think this would spare me from the questions. It actually doesn't -- I work at a Catholic school and the nice older ladies are always asking me when I'll be having another and telling me not to wait too long! Um ... not that it's your business, but I would very much like another, and haven't been able to! I try to take it philosophically because I AM thankful for the one I have, and I know there's plenty of time, but still. It stings just a touch.

My new answer to "When will you have kids" is, "I don't know, ask God! I mean, literally, ask God for me, because I would very much like one." I don't want advice, but I do want prayers.

I think having kids is like getting married. If you will have kids, God knows their date of birth already. And if you won't, He knows how He will comfort you and use that cross to bring you to greater holiness. Hard to accept, but there's a peace there.

But no help at ALL when people keep bringing it up! Can we make it a universal rule that people's reproduction can't be mentioned unless they bring it up first?!

Rachel said...

I know the feeling. I married when I was 30 and now I am 34 and will be 35 this year. No children have come. My cousin, who was married the same day as me, had her kid last year and she constantly puts pics of the kid on facebook. In addition, I have another facebook friend who does the same thing with her kid :(. I don't care about every little thing the kid does. It hurts a lot because my husband and I want children but we haven't been able too right now and I know I am running out of time. Thank you for this post. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who goes through this. As for as adoption, it is sadly not an option due to our sad financial state :(.