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