The Social Unacceptability of…….

…..THE “WHY DON’T YOU HAVE KIDS?” QUESTION

I’m behind.

I’ve got a long list of posts to complete, some half written, and some that haven’t even made it to keyboard. I haven’t finished my post on that forsaken day back in May which I’m sure no one wants to hear about anyway, and I have yet to write about my personal National Infertility Awareness Week adventures from the end of April. I’ve realized my Why Don’t You Just Adopt Post, smartly called for from all of us by Klara, is not really a can of worms for me but rather a whole friggen boatload, so yeah, that could get messy. Sure, I can do messy, but I need TIME. In my dreams I wanted to make a condensed, easy to read list but we all know THAT rarely happens around here. So between that and the Obama interview given by John La Pook a few months ago that I absolutely have to mock, it’s no wonder I feel a bit inundated. And things were about to clear up so that I could get on this until…..until I went to the nail salon today.

Alas.

No need to hang onto your hats, it wasn’t the fiesta of absurdities I wrote about this past winter in my Nail Salons Proven To Be the Pit of Hell For Infertiles post. It was rather subtle, actually. But it turns out that today, which was to be, among other things, digit clean up time after weeks of gardening, is also the day for me to address the “Do You Have Kids?” question, along with its grotesque elaborations. Hey, who knew?

I tried a new nail place quite close to my house that was, at least when I was there, quite tranquil. And some people, regardless of circumstance, just have a sweet, focused and strong way about them. The woman working on me was one of those people, and by the time we got to waxing I found myself appreciating her professionalism and her presence.

“Close your eyes, it’s more peaceful” she prompted, as she carefully started to wax my legs. Post mani pedi, I found myself pretty chilled out. And after a rip here and a rip there, it came. Out of nowhere, as always, rearing its ugly head from the all too precious silence.

Salon Tech: (nonchalantly) Do you have kids?

Me: (firmly) No. We don’t.

Salon Tech: You married?

Me: MM-hmm. (shit – confirmation of marriage multiplies the expectation of children by about a billion fold)

Salon Tech: Oh, so not yet? (I’m 43 for crying out loud. I look decent enough for my age, but if someone knew it was over by looking at me I wouldn’t exactly be offended)

Me: (loud and definitively) WE CAN’T.

And then, a mini miracle.

Salon Tech: Oh, sorry.

Me: Thank you. I REALLY appreciate that.

I observe that rather than doing what I really would have wanted to be doing right now, affirming good behavior in a toddler or two, I instead end up coddling the few adults who say the appropriate thing to us infertiles whenever I’m able. Oh the tragic irony.

In a trauma workshop I attended this past winter I observed that any treatment and recovery the doctor was referring to took place away from the initial triggers. When one suffers early child losses however, one cannot, figuratively speaking, leave the battlefield. Daily life is a major component of this kind of trauma, as triggers and reminders of what will never be are everywhere. This turns the mission of healing into quite the conundrum.

Let’s not forget, it could have been so much worse. More often than not this situation is not acknowledged with an “I’m sorry”. Lacerations continue to be served up with pontifications on adoption, glowing miracle IVF success stories, not accepting the concept of “over” with insistences that our time will come and worst of all, assertions that we are actually lucky. These sting the most. Since when is losing children in ANY way, shape or form lucky? Has the world gone MAD????

But even without the aforementioned second helpings, damage was still done. Heat engorged my upper body as my closed eyes (closed because it makes things more peaceful, remember?) filled with tears. The ocean of sadness that on many days now lurks in my background instead of smothering me as it did just months ago instantaneously swept my body up like a helpless piece of driftwood. My feeling of comfort and safety – spontaneously aborted. Can’t an infertile ever get a break? Given today’s current social construct, the hard answer is still NO.

There was a time when this conversation would have sent me to pieces. My heart would have exploded out of my chest, going from zero to sixty in 3.5. I likely would have started uncontrollably shaking somewhere in my body as the reality that I will never ever be able to get away from this shit would again close in on me like a sniper’s bullet. And then there was the nausea….oh, the nausea that moved into my body, pitched a tent and stayed for years. It’s only recently I’m often able to leave my house without feeling like I want to puke. This has resulted in an increased appetite and some weight gain, which for me is a good and healthy thing. And, for most people undergoing treatments, which at any given time is about 12% of the child bearing aged population, such an unfortunate do you have kids exchange warrants a big cry in one’s car at the very least. One that likely is not the first of their day.

It seems some healing has taken place in me. These days the waning of my PTSD symptoms allows me to approach these situations with more bravado than before. When and if I feel like it. My “I’ve-survived-something-that-is-so painful-you-cannot-possibly-imagine” swagger is blooming slowly but surely. But it still hurts. A lot. Being asked if we had kids and then having to say we can’t made the bikini wax I was getting (no, not a full one, mind you, but still) and the electric pencil sharpener I randomly dropped on my big toe the night before both feel like rejuvenating full body massages. Comparatively speaking.

Now that I’m in “teensy weensy bit healed” mode, I can see there is some value in people knowing we can’t have children. There’s a microscopic chance they might think twice next time before pushing someone. And, if they are smart, they then will be able to figure out what we will NOT be chatting about. I really do want to connect with people and I don’t want to hold things against them. But I cannot talk about parenting, the prodding reminders I will never get to do it are still too harsh. And I can’t discuss children who are the ages mine should be, as this is still too raw. I leave it up to the other person to decide if they can roll with this, or not. I’m more able to discuss kids themselves a little bit, grade school and beyond, as I’ve always related quite well to children, especially adolescents. But the broader point is this: I should no more be expected to clarify my childlessness than someone should be expected to explain why they aren’t married, discuss their sexual preferences or reveal details about a chronic or life threatening disease.

Clarifying anything about my childlessness should be my choice, not society’s demand.

I am hardly unusual, just look at the numbers. Infertility is a disease that affects one in six people of childbearing age, one in eight seek medical treatment. Success resulting from the medical treatment of infertility is no guarantee. It’s been reported one third of patients come out of treatments without a biological child. In 2012, approximately 1.5 million fertility treatments were performed worldwide, approximately 1.15 million failed. In the US, close to twenty percent of women over the age of 45 do not parent. As far as I know there is no statistic available on what percentage of this childless population is child free not by choice, however it is noteworthy no one has yet grasped the significance to the human story in the garnering of such a statistic. Based on the other numbers, my guess is at least half, if not more, of our over forty five child free population is so NOT by choice.

It’s been suggested to me that I should go easy on people because they “don’t know”. But I can’t. Infertility is hardly new. It likely has existed since the beginning of the human race, as it is present in the animal kingdom as well. Miscarriages and stillbirths are not exactly inventions of the past decade, either. IVF has been around for 39 years, artificial insemination for much longer.

Unofficial history sites the first attempts at artificial insemination were done by Henry the 4th, King of Castile (1425-1474). He was nicknamed “Henry the Impotent”, he and his Queen Juana were married for six years before she gave birth to a daughter, which people alleged was not biologically Henry’s. I’d like to say I can’t imagine what these people went through, but since general attitudes towards infertility haven’t changed much since the 1400’s, sadly I probably can imagine at least a degree of their suffering.

The first documented attempt of artificial insemination was in London in the 1770’s. Suffice it to say, medical attempts to address infertility, however rugged, have been around for centuries. It seems the human race has had ample time to learn how to be nice and not torture those of us who can’t have children. It’s time society aligned itself with REALITY, as it’s apparently a bit behind in doing so.

I gave four years of my life to try and conceive due to endometriosis and the unfortunate combination of my husband’s and my HLA allele genes, not through any fault of my own. I endured the agony and disempowerment of one surgery and ten fertility treatments that yielded nothing, and fully experienced the trauma and loss that inevitably accompanies each one. I’ve dutifully committed myself to the process of grieving the loss of our twenty four embryos and our future that will never be, as well as to the process of fumbling my way through building a new one.

Asking me in any way shape or form why I don’t have kids is like asking someone to detail their rape.

I admit, albeit grudgingly, that the “Do you have kids” question in and of itself is sometimes necessary, although it collects no points for creative, stimulating conversation between strangers, let’s be honest. I also admit that suggesting removing the “Do you have kids?” question from the human conversation entirely might be just a tad bit drastic. And slightly unreasonable.

What I do suggest is this:

Most ask the do you have kids question with the nonchalance of asking someone when they will get to the store to buy some milk, when in fact the question entails the strong possibility of stumbling onto a potential minefield. A minefield of trauma, loss, dehumanization, heartache, splintered lives and unrequited dreams. Some are temporary, much is permanent. An acquired universal awareness of this truth would be much more realistic, not to mention potentially transformative.

That the do you have kids question is asked so often yet the human race is so ill-prepared to field the answer “no”, which given the statistics is not such an unlikely answer, is a constant source of puzzlement to me.

If someone answers no, move on. Talk about something else. If the person asked wants to talk, avoid dismissive platitudes. Show some empathy. Doing this takes little, yet the personal destruction that accumulates when this doesn’t occur can be vast. Research has unequivocally proven that receiving acknowledgement and/or compassion from others is an essential component to the grieving process.

It’s downright mind boggling to me that asking someone why they don’t have kids or when they will have them is still socially acceptable. Because it should be considered about as socially acceptable as it would be to hang someone accused of witchcraft in this day and age. The next time someone asks me why I don’t have kids I should offer them a moat, perhaps, or some powder for their wig. Although the world seems to have moved forward in most other ways, today’s average person has a scientific understanding of human reproduction which rivals that of pre-Newtonian religious leaders.

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Plus, if people have children, they typically will bring them up, as those of us who can’t have children are so excruciatingly aware. It never makes sense to me that the world has to ask so incessantly.

Enjoying the peripheral social connections brought about by marriage and children is nice. But leaving these things out of the conversational picture from time to time is not such a bad idea either. What more might we experience in each other if we venture elsewhere than the expected?

I have found myself doing little…..experiments, shall we say, with myself as I go about my day. Just one of the many ways infertility has changed me.

Sometimes, when meeting someone new, I challenge myself to not mention my husband, especially if they aren’t mentioning a significant other. This is not always easy – we’ve been married ten years and though we’re both highly independent souls, going through one of the harshest things a couple can go through has intertwined us in ways indescribable. But at times I like to stretch my brain and leave him out of the conversation. If I mention him and get no response, I try to make efforts to steer away from the topic. Plus, I can’t in a million years imagine asking someone why they aren’t married or when they are planning on it – that just seems so – RUDE. My husband and I as of today enjoy a great marriage mostly because of luck and really not because of any hard work or genius on our parts, and there’s no law that says people have to care.

Other times, I try to become conscious of what I assume about people I don’t really know, and then I challenge myself – what if that isn’t true? What if it’s really this, or this……what if????

On occasions when possible, I also sometimes challenge myself to converse based only on what the other person has brought up. I’ve grown to like not knowing every little thing about a person, and to be able to enjoy wading through their pool of mystery. Absorbing things as they are revealed instead of grasping at what hasn’t come up is a different experience, and a challenging and fulfilling one at that.

Why do I do this? Likely because I’m flawed, and at times I feel willing to play around with my own shortcomings. We are all flawed, ignorant and imperfect. But the good news is we can also change for the better. And eliminate obstacles from the path of healing for others while doing so.

A great piece on a similar topic – “The Question That Gives You a One in Eight Chance of Being an Insensitive Jerk” – check it out.

21 thoughts on “The Social Unacceptability of…….

  1. I always get so excited to see a post from you! I COMPLETELY agree with you about this question! We don’t need to (or shouldn’t feel like we have to) explain anything to anyone. If we’re ever in the same city at the same time we need to have lunch (so we’re clear, any lunch should involve alcohol, food optional) so we can compare stories and bitch. I was recently given the completely unsolicited advice that we “need to try IVF.” The bitchy side of my personality was on my A game that day so I responded with “you really should try Botox.” But I really wanted to go on a profanity laced tirade and rip her tits off.

    • First of all, perhaps we shouldn’t wait until we’re randomly in the same city….”You should really try Botox” – Heck, I’ll TRAVEL for that shit!!

      Was the unsolicited IVF “advice” from someone who had done it, or from someone who hadn’t? As someone who did 5, I can’t imagine suggesting to someone what to do, either way really. It so much depends on one’s medical case. Going through IVF #’s 4 and 5 (5 we had to do because we got frozen embryos from 3 & 4) knowing they likely wouldn’t work was hellacious. “Having done everything we could”, for us, came at quite a high price. Trying IVF – easier said than done.

      • She has as much experience with IVF as I have with Botox. Which is to say none. She does have like four kids though so she’s obviously an expert at reproduction (which apparently extends to IVF?). I wanted to point out that I might not have kids but at least my vag isn’t wrecked, but I thought that would be childish.

        In all seriousness, the emotional component of IVF was the deciding factor. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to go through all of that and have it fail, which I know in my heart it would have.

  2. This is such a wonderful post! I completely agree that we should not be expected to provide the details of why we don’t have kids, and we really don’t need to listen to others advice on how we should try to have kids, as if we haven’t thought to try everything under the sun.

    • Thank you. I know – it’s amazing what people think we haven’t thought of. Someone actually voluntarily gave, or I guess tried to give, my husband the number of an adoption attorney (she knew from a conversation months prior that adoption is not going to work for us) and explained to him what private adoption is (uh, we KNOW). It had worked for her friend so…… (Insert sigh and required eye roll here). Likely a reflection of HER discomfort with OUR situation.

      Overall point being that baby making and family building are not casual, therefore they shouldn’t be framed in conversation that way, like it’s all so simple, painless and predictable.

    • Hi Jody – I appreciate that you shared it. I’ll take that it resonated with GW as a compliment – they are a group of strong, substantive “no fooling” people, no doubt.

      Xtra love to you for the quote, that was sweet….thanks!
      Sarah

  3. I really identify with your post and wish that people would not ask that question. What really surprised me though was the picture of Caerlaverock Castle you have used to illustrate your blog. I suspect you are American and are therefore very far away. This castle is within walking distance of my house. I know it’s just a coincidence, but it feels like another connection to a stranger who shares my pain.

    • Oh Tracey, I’m so busted! I randomly chose the most archaic photo of a castle I could find, with an obvious moat of course, and I hope that doesn’t offend. I laughed hysterically when I first read your comment, since I live in New York and of course had no idea. Glad we can both find comfort in what is definitely a coincidence.

  4. Interestingly, I encounter the “do you” but rarely the “why.” The first question is simply a stranger trying to connect to another stranger and searching for common ground as a basis for small talk, which is normal and a futile thing to battle. I honestly don’t think that taller, thicker walls of propriety between individuals are what’s warranted in present-day society, even if an idle question of benign intent happens to make me uncomfortable. The latter, however, is rude and intrusive, and when I come across it, I usually just shrug my shoulders and mutter something casually noncommittal that sucks the momentum out of the line of questioning because I’m just not looking to invest my energy in the conflict inherent to advocacy at this juncture. A better ‘why’ question might be the reason ‘why’ some people find themselves fielding this question while others don’t. I wonder what we’re putting out there.

  5. Sarah, I always find myself saving your posts to come back to, again & again, before I remember I should leave a comment. 😉 There is always so much great stuff in them; they always make me think! & this one was no different. As A. points out, above, I still get asked IF I have kids, but not so much “why not” questions or comments about how I’d make a great parent, etc. One of the perqs of aging, I guess. :p I daresay your nail tech will think twice before she starts asking too many questions of her next client, and I am impressed that she did say “sorry.” People really should just MYOB sometimes.

    • Hi Loribeth – Thanks so much for the feedback. It makes me feel like less of an island:-)

      For me, many of the questions/comments that go beyond “Do you have kids?” fall loosely under the “why” category. They are all inappropriate. At my husband’s restaurant opening party, someone asked me if I have kids – out of the blue, not connected to anything in the conversation whatsoever. I said no. To which she replied, “Soon”? I then firmly let her have it by letting her know that Julio and I are infertility survivors so it won’t be happening at all. Hopefully the prompting will cease shortly – I don’t look THAT much younger than I really am – yes, a perk of aging I will welcome!! And better yet, one day when it’s known to be inappropriate to push people further on this subject, those who come after us will not have to wait for aging.

  6. I too read this before, and wanted to give it proper attention before I could comment. Finally got back to it. This is such a good post, and such an interesting analogy, referring to the trauma of being asked if you have kids and why. I did wonder if she said “I’m sorry” for asking, and then realised that would be too much to hope for! I haven’t been asked “why not?” very often. I don’t usually respond, simply change the subject, or put it back on them. When pressed once, I said , “if I wanted you to know I’d tell you!” I always have that response up my sleeve, and I almost regret that I haven’t been able to use it as often as I’d like!

    I really loved your historical perspective. I get so sick of people saying “but it’s understandable, because everyone has kids.” Except that they don’t, and infertility and childlessness has been around since time began, and it’s about time people accepted that! Thanks again for being such a thoughtful member of this community.

    • Hi Mali – The “I’m sorry” seemed like it was in response to her asking and to the fact that I couldn’t have children. Either way, it felt right, so I welcomed it. I totally love “If I wanted you to know I’d tell you!”, and I won’t be surprised if I end up using it at some point:-)

      I’m of the opinion that, given the numbers of EVERYTHING – miscarriages, infertility and childlessness, the greater human collective has a long way to go to align itself with reality. The historical perspective only backs that up, I think. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  7. i just found your blog and I am so thankful that I did. Thank you for saying so many words that I haven’t been able to.

    • I really appreciate that, Alice. I’m a little behind on commenting, however please know your words did not go unnoticed. It’s such a reach to try and voice this experience, isn’t it?

  8. Love your blog! I can relate to so much of what you write (RPL survivor). It can’t be easy for you to put all of this out there…but your attitude and writing are wonderful. Thank you for sharing this with the world!

    It was touching to read how you approach conversation topics that might trigger other forms of disenfranchised grief, such as involuntary singleness. While going through my own trials, treatments, and losses, I’m ashamed to admit I would sometimes vent to close friends of mine who were/are unpartnered, and therefore childless as well. It honestly didn’t occur to me (and they never mentioned) that they were likely dealing with their own grief surrounding childlessness…a grief that was even less acknowledged by society due to their being unmarried. Since my maternal instinct wasn’t awakened until I met my husband (my dream was to have *his* children), I never realized that for other women, this strong desire could be present even without a designated father in mind. Hysterical myopia, I guess. Eesh.

    After reading this article (and others like it):
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/savvy-auntie/201201/my-secret-grief-over-35-single-and-childless

    …my eyes were opened. And, like you, I am now always checking myself to avoid inadvertently setting off hidden land mines in others.

    • Hi Trish – Thanks for the link. It’s a great piece and I identified with much of her grief in spite of the difference in our relationship status. Since dealing with infertility, I too have spent some time reminiscing over things I’ve said to people in distress and wishing I could get a redo. Our culture needs a framework for how to respond appropriately to someone in crisis, it seems. I now take an interest in most “what not to say” lists that are out there. It’s a great way to learn, and although I know I’ll stumble and not get things “right” all of the time with other people’s traumas and losses, it gives me comfort to know I, like you, try to make the effort with others when I can that I so need for people to make with me.

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